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How the world's first aerial circumnavigation was completed... without radios

·6 min read
The Douglas World Cruiser
The New Orleans plane, a Douglas World Cruiser, one of two to complete the first round-the-world aerial trip. (Getty Images)

Those magnificent men… in their flying machines.

But when it came to carrying out the first aerial circumnavigation of the world, the machines weren’t carrying the most magnificent of technology.

When a team of pilots became the first to circle the globe by air in 1924, they did it without radios.

In fact, they had no kind of electronic systems – or avionics – whatsoever, instead relying on what’s known as “dead reckoning”, a rough way of calculating a moving object’s position over a period of time.

The Douglas World Cruiser No. 2
The Douglas World Cruiser named Chicago at a stop during its 1924 trip around the world. (Getty Images)

There were no such things as satellite navigation systems almost 100 years ago.

To be more precise, it was 97 years ago today, on 28 September, 1924, that the first global aerial circumnavigation was completed, after a mammoth 175 days including stops.

And if you thought the fictional race in Jules Verne’s novel Around The World In Eighty Days was exciting, the real-life aerial version was just as pulsating.

Read more: Teen aims to set solo round-the-world record in gap year challenge

While the space race later in the century had two adversaries – the USSR and the US – the battle to fly around the world was fought by six nations, for whom completing the feat became an obsession.

Aviation teams from the US, the UK, Portugal, France, Italy and Argentina all launched bids to be first around the world between April and July in 1924.

In the end, the race was won by the Americans, but not before some dramatic crashes and an incredible act of sportsmanship.

UNITED STATES - CIRCA 1924:  From The Left To The Right, The Guides Henry Ogden And Leigh Wade, The Lieutenants Erick Nelson, John Harding, P. Leslie Arnold And Lowell H. Smith Who Made The First World Tour By Plane Within 175 Days, Posing On Their Plane Douglas World Cruiser At The Boston Airport, At Their Arrival In 1924.  (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
The US airmen who were the first to circumnavigate the globe by air. (Getty Images)

The US team was comprised of four single-engined open-cockpit Douglas World Cruisers, configured as seaplanes.

The four planes were named after US cities: Seattle, Chicago, Boston and New Orleans, setting out from Seattle, Washington, on 6 April, 1924.

It would be the Chicago plane, with Lieutenant Lowell H Smith 1st Lieutenant Leslie P Arnold on board, and the New Orleans, piloted by Lt Erik H Nelson and Lt John Harding Jr, that would successfully complete the round-the-world trip of 26,345 miles.

But the journey would be far from straightforward.

The US team started 13 days after their British counterparts, who were led by aviator Archibald Stuart-MacLaren, and soon ran into trouble.

RAF Squadron Leader Archibald Stuart-MacLaren in the cockpit (top, left) of his Vickers Vulture amphibious biplane at Calshot aerodrome, Hampshire, 25th March 1924. Stuart-MacLaren, along with Flying Officer William Plenderleith and Sergeant W. H. Andrews are about to attempt a round-the-world flight. The airmen made it as far as the Bering Sea, where they were forced to ditch on 4th August 1924. (Photo by Brooke/Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
British aviator Archibald Stuart-MacLaren, in the cockpit (top, left), was forced to abandon his attempted circumnavigation of the world in 1924. (Getty Images)

Shortly after leaving Prince Rupert Island in British Columbia, Canada, on 15 April, the lead plane, Seattle, blew a three-inch hole in its engine, grounding it for 10 days. On 30 April, as its airmen attempted to catch up with the three other US aircraft, the Seattle crashed in fog into a mountainside in Alaska.

The plane was destroyed and the crew, flight commander Major Frederick L Martin and Staff Sergeant and mechanic Alva L Harvey, spent six days braving the elements before finding shelter.

The next mishap would befall the British team.

After the three remaining US planes travelled across the North Pacific and landed in the USSR (even though they didn’t have permission), they moved on to Japan.

On 25 May, while in Tokyo, they received a cable that reported: “MacLaren crashed at Akyab [Myanmar]. Plane completely wrecked. Continuance of flight doubtful.”

In a gesture of supreme sportsmanship, the Americans arranged a spare plane to be delivered to the British team so they could carry on their quest – it was transported using two US Navy vessels via Hong Kong. 

The two teams later had a inadvertent close encounter, when the Americans flew over the plane they had provided for the British in waters off Myanmar – Stuart-MacLaren was on the surface during a downpour when the US aircraft flew overhead.

Lt. Lowell H. Smith checks the engine of the Douglas World Cruiser Number 2
Lt Lowell H Smith checks the engine of the Chicago plane after it landed back in the US having gone around the globe. (Getty Images)

The next setback for the US wasn’t damage to one of their planes, but one of their airmen, when Smith slipped in the dark after dinner during a stop in Kolkata, India, and broke a rib. He insisted on carrying on with the race despite his injury.

The three US aircraft passed through the Middle East and on to Europe, arriving in Paris on 14 July in time for Bastille Day, before moving on to London.

But on 3 August, on the way to Iceland from the Orkney Islands in Scotland, the Boston plane was forced down into the sea almost halfway to the Faroe Islands. 

The 'Boston' plane capsized and sank between Scotland and the Faroe Islands during the US team's attempt to fly around the world in 1924. (Getty Images)
The Boston plane capsized and sank between Scotland and the Faroe Islands during the US team's attempt to fly around the world in 1924. (Getty Images)

The crew of Lt Leigh P. Wade and Staff Sergeant Henry H. Ogden were rescued by a US Navy light cruiser, but Boston capsized and sank just before reaching the Faroes.

Of the four planes that started out the mission, now there were just two.

A day later, the British challenge ended when their replacement plane was forced by heavy fog to land in the Bering Sea – the crew were rescued by the Royal Canadian Navy.

Meanwhile, in Reykjavik, the American airmen bumped into the Italian team on their own attempt, then headed to Greenland and on to Canada.

A hero’s welcome awaited the returning aircraft in Boston and Washington DC, before a multi-city tour across the US. A crowd of up to 250,000 greeted them in Santa Monica.

(Eingeschränkte Rechte für bestimmte redaktionelle Kunden in Deutschland. Limited rights for specific editorial clients in Germany.) USA California Los Angeles: Row of biplanes
A crowd of up to 250,000 people turned out at Clover Field, Santa Monica, California, to welcome back the successful US team. (Getty Images)

The final landing for the two planes, Chicago and New Orleans, that successfully circumnavigated the globe, was on 28 September, back where they began in Seattle.

The whole trip took 363 hours and seven minutes of flying time, beating British, Portuguese, Argentinian, Italian and French teams.

The key to the US success was having fuel and spare parts carefully positioned at various points along their arduous route – there were five engine changes for the aircraft and two sets of new wings – while they were often backed up by US Navy ships.

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It would take another 25 years for the first nonstop round-the-world flight, carried out by Captain James Gallagher and his Boeing B-50 named Lucky Lady II, which refuelled four times in the air, taking 94 hours to go from Texas and back in 1949.

In 1986, the Rutan Model 76 Voyager became the first aircraft to fly around the world without stopping or refuelling.

Piloted by Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, it took off from Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert on 14 December and returned nine days later.

Watch: 80-year-old sailor embarks on round-the-world trip on electric boat

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