Skip to main content
No. 1715:
Flying Around the World

Today, we circle the earth. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Lindbergh made his famous flight across the Atlantic in 1927. So, when did we finally manage to fly all the way around the world? The answer is, three years before Lindbergh -- in 1924.

The Army Air Service took on the project, and the way they went at it almost makes us think of NASA's lunar program. Douglas Aircraft Company was commissioned to create four special biplanes: the Boston, the New Orleans, the Chicago, and the Seattle. They had a 450-horsepower Liberty engine, and these big airplanes could carry enough fuel for a twenty-two-hundred-mile flight. They could be fitted with either pontoons or wheels.

They used the flight from Santa Monica to Seattle as a shake-down trip while the Army equipped supply depots all around the world. The official flight began on April sixth. They headed up the Canadian coast toward Alaska, stopping at Prince Rupert, Sitka, Chignik, and Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands.

The Seattle suffered minor damage in its first landing. Then its engine had to be replaced. Finally it crashed in West Alaska. The pilot and copilot survived the first night by burning the wings as fuel and huddling in the baggage compartment. They eventually managed to walk to the Bering Sea, where a cargo ship rescued them.

From Attu, the remaining fliers meant to go to Kamchatka Peninsula. But the newly-formed Soviet Union wouldn't permit it; Russia itself was struggling to set flight distance records. So the three airplanes continued to Japan's Kurile Islands. They reached Tokyo on the forty-ninth day. But they had, technically, been the first people to fly the Pacific.

From there they went on to Saigon, Bangkok, Rangoon. At Calcutta they switched from pontoons back to wheels. They replaced all three engines in Karachi. Baghdad, Aleppo, Constantinople, Bucharest, Vienna, Paris, and, finally, London. Now they had to cross the Atlantic -- against the westerlies.

After a stop in the Orkney Islands, the Boston crash-landed near the Farole Islands and sank in the rescue attempt. The New Orleans and the Chicago continued to Iceland, then Greenland, where they again replaced their engines. They reached the mainland at Icy Tickle, Labrador, and then flew down eastern Canada to Boston.

The trip ended with a triumphal tour of America. They reached Seattle on September 28, 1924. It'd taken 175 days, but their time in the sky had totaled only fifteen days. Their average flying speed was seventy miles an hour. But their overall speed for the twenty-seven-thousand- mile odyssey had been only six miles an hour. They could've done it much faster in a sailing ship.

All eight pilots survived, and you can see the two surviving airplanes today in Dayton's Air Force Museum and in the National Air and Space Museum. I suppose it all goes to show just how hard it really is to be first at anything.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Holland, R. S., Historic Airships. Philadelphia: Macrae-Smith Company, 1928, Chapter XVI, "Around the World".

The Douglas DWC Chicago

The Douglas DWC Chicago (Image courtesy of the National Air And Space Museum)