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This Day in History: Douglas World Cruisers

On this day in 1924, U.S. Army Air Service pilots complete the first aerial circumnavigation of the globe. The journey took 175 days! American pilots had traveled more than 26,000 miles at an average speed of 72.5 miles per hour.


Eight men began the trip in Seattle on April 6. They flew four planes, each named for an American city: Seattle, Chicago, Boston, and New Orleans. One pilot and one mechanic manned each plane.

The "Seattle" at Vancouver Barracks

“The betting in Seattle is that not more than one plane will get around,” Lt. Leslie Arnold, Chicago’s mechanic, wrote. “Of course we don’t agree. Nevertheless, I wonder just how many of us will get all the way around.”


His concern was justified. The pilots immediately ran into trouble during the first leg of the trip to Canada. “Blinded by a snowstorm,” Arnold described, “Major Martin and Sergeant Harvey nearly ended their flight right then and there. The Seattle side-slipped, fell thirty feet, and dug the left pontoon into the sea. . . . The impact broke the outer struts on the left-hand side and snapped three vertical wires.”


Once back on solid ground, Seattle’s mechanic, Sgt. A.L. Harvey, threw his “lucky” rabbit’s foot into the sea, in disgust.


Repairs were made, and the four planes took off again on April 10. Snow, fog, winds, and storms were constant challenges as they flew first to Sitka, Alaska, then to Seward. “Piloting the open-cockpit Douglas World Cruisers through the northern squalls,” Rob Crotty writes for the National Archives, “required a tolerance for pain and a pilot’s intuition since charting by compass was nearly impossible in the frigid weather. . . . It was Alaska’s worst weather in a decade.”


The mission was soon dealt a serious blow: Seattle disappeared on the leg from Seward to Chignik.


“[W]e had been bucking a head wind most of the way and we had barely enough gas to carry us through,” Lt John Harding, New Orleans’s mechanic, wrote. “This meant that if we turned back to look for [Seattle], the whole expedition would run the risk of being wrecked.”


The three remaining planes landed at Chignik, and their pilots radioed for help.


They couldn’t then know it, but Seattle had been forced to land because of low oil pressure. Major Frederick Martin, Seattle’s pilot, found shelter in Cape Igvak until Seattle was found and towed to safety on its pontoons. Martin planned to make repairs before continuing to Dutch Harbor. The other three crews would wait for him there.


Repairs dragged on for days, but Seattle was finally ready to depart on April 30. Unfortunately, the departure from Chignik didn’t go well, either.


Seattle soon flew into a dense, thick fog. “I was now strongly inclined to turn back to Chignik,” Martin later said, “and start all over again by way of the original course.” But he thought he’d left the mountains behind, so he decided to climb above the fog. “We had been gaining altitude for several minutes when, suddenly, another mountain loomed up ahead,” Martin described. “I caught a glimpse of several dark patches, bare spots where the snow had blown away. A moment later we crashed.”


Amazingly, Martin and Harvey were uninjured, but they spent 10 days struggling in freezing temperatures to get themselves out of the wilderness. “[T]he tragedy to us,” Martin concluded, “was that, so far as we two were concerned, the World Flight was at an end!”


Martin had been the mission’s commander, and Seattle had been its flagship plane. Needless to say, the attempt at circumnavigating the globe was off to a bad start.


Would the other three planes all complete the journey? Naturally, you have to tune in tomorrow to find out.


Would the other three planes all complete the journey? Naturally, you have to tune in tomorrow to find out.

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