The first aerial circumnavigation of the world was conducted in 1924 by a team of aviators of the United States Army Air Service, the precursor of the United States Air Force. The trip took 175 days, covering over 27,553 miles (44,342 km).
In 1929 Australian Charles Kingsford Smith completed the second circumnavigation of the world by flight, and the first within both hemispheres, including the first trans-Pacific flight to Australia in 1928.
Four aircraft, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, and New Orleans, left Santa Monica, California, on April 4, 1924, for Sand Point, Washington, near Seattle, Washington, the official start of the journey.
On April 6, 1924, they left Seattle for Alaska. After reaching Prince Rupert Island, the lead aircraft Seattle, flown by Maj. Frederick Martin with SSgt. Alva Harvey (the only fully qualified mechanic in the flight), needed repairs and remained behind. When it was repaired, the crew attempted to catch up with the other three aircraft, but on April 30, Seattle crashed in dense fog into a mountainside near Port Moller, Alaska on the Alaska Peninsula. The crew survived and were picked up on May 10, but the aircraft was destroyed.
The three remaining aircraft continued, with Chicago flown by Lt. Smith and 1st Lt. Arnold, assuming the lead. Taking off from the Aleutian Islands, the flight traveled across the North Pacific archipelago. Avoiding the Soviet Union, which had not given permission for the expedition to cross into their airspace, they crossed Japan, Korea, the coast of China, Hong Kong, French Indochina, Thailand, Burma, and India, and proceeded into the Middle East and then Europe.
During the mission, due to a broken connecting rod, the Chicago was forced to land in a lagoon off the Gulf of Tonkin in French Indochina (now Vietnam). The aircraft was considered a novelty in this region of the world, so missionary priests supplied the pilots with food and wine and locals climbed aboard the pontoons to see the biplane. The other flyers searching for the Chicago by boat found the crew sitting on the wing in the early morning hours. Three paddle powered sampans with local crews towed the aircraft for 10 hours, and 25 miles (40 km), to the city of Hue, where repairs were effected. “The fastest – and undoubtedly the first – engine change that had ever been made in Indochina.” Misfortune was again to strike the Chicago as later in the mission, while inspecting the aircraft in Calcutta, Smith slipped and broke a rib but insisted on completing the mission.
The flight arrived in Paris on Bastille Day, July 14. From Paris the aircraft flew to London and on to the north of England in order to prepare for the Atlantic Ocean crossing.
On August 3, 1924, while flying across the Atlantic, Boston was forced down. The Chicago was able to contact a navy destroyer and dropped a note about the troubled aircraft, tied to the Chicago’s only life preserver. While being towed by the U.S. Navy light cruiser USS Richmond that had picked up the crew, the Boston capsized and sank. The Chicago with Lt. Lowell Smith and 1st Lt. Leslie Arnold still in the lead, and the New Orleans, with Lt. Erik Nelson and Lt. Jack Harding, continued and crossed the Atlantic via Iceland and Greenland and reached Canada. The original prototype, now named Boston II, reunited with the Boston’s crew, Lt. Leigh Wade (pilot) and SSgt. Henry Ogden, met them in Pictou, Nova Scotia, and the three aircraft flew on to Washington DC. After a hero’s welcome in the capital, the three Douglas World Cruisers flew to the West Coast, on a multi-city tour, stopping briefly in Santa Monica and finally landing in Seattle on 28 September 1924.
The trip had taken 175 days, and covered 27,553 miles (44,342 km). The Douglas Aircraft Company adopted the motto, “First Around the World – First the World Around”.
The American team had greatly increased their chances of success by using several aircraft and pre-positioning large caches of fuel, spare parts, and other support equipment along the route. At prearranged way points, the World Flight’s aircraft had their engines changed five times and new wings fitted twice.