Friday, September 28, 2012

Army Beats Navy—“The First Around the World”

One of the U.S. Army Air Service Douglas World Cruiser's on the Around the World Flight.

On September 28, 1924 three U.S. Army Air Service crews flying Douglas World Cruisers landed in Seattle, Washington.  Two of the planes and crews completed the entire first round-the-world air flight.  It took them 175 days—95 days longer than the fictional Phineas Fogg took in Jules Verne’s 1875 novel and 92 days longer than the real reporter Nellie Bly had accomplished it by railroad and steamship in 1890.
In the early 1920’s the Army was in a not-so-friendly rivalry with the Navy for aviation laurels.  As stake were appropriations from Congress for their respective air arms just when Calvin Coolidge’s flinty eyed frugality and dreams of worldwide disarmament were making new money hard to come by.  The Navy had been dominating the headlines with several daring long distant flights and speed records.  Despite the success of its air service over France in 1917-18, Army brass worried that their air arm might whither to observational aircraft and the already obsolete—and banged-up—World War I era fighters.
Thinking big, the Army hit on a plan to send a squadron around the world by air.  It was a daunting project.  No aircraft had successfully flown non-stop across either great ocean and none in production could be expected to.  So the trip would have to be made aircraft that could be adapted to floats as well as wheels to allow for the frequent landings necessary to take on fuel.  The Army did not even have such an aircraft.  It made a special order of five planes adapted from the Navy’s DT-2 torpedo bombers.
The Douglas World Cruiser was single engine bi-plane with a crew of two.  Stripped of armaments, it had an enhanced fuel capacity for greater range and the separate cockpits for pilot and mechanic were moved closer to each other for better communication.  Floats and conventional wheels were easily interchangeable.
One of the planes was used in testing and training and would be used as an auxiliary for the mission.  The remaining four planes were named for American cities representing the four cardinal points of the compass—Boston, Chicago, New Orleans, and Seattle.
The expedition required significant logistical and organizational support.  An extra 30 Liberty V-12 engines and other critical parts and supplies were dispatched to points around the globe.  The British Royal Navy and even the rival U.S. Navy cooperated by stationing picket ships at intervals with fuel, oil, and supplies.  A total of 28 nations supplied fuel along the route, with touch downs scheduled in most of them.
The expedition took off flying west over the Pacific from Seattle on April 6, 1924.  Flight commander Maj. Frederick Martin and SSgt. Alva Harvey, a flight mechanic were in Boston. Chicago was crewed by pilot Lt. Lowell H. Smith and Lt. Leslie Arnold, auxiliary pilot; Boston, with pilot Lt. Leigh P. Wade and SSgt. Henry H. Ogden; and New Orleans, with pilot Lt. Erik Nelson (pilot) and Lt. Jack Harding, auxiliary pilot.
Despite the most modern navigational equipment, keeping bearings and keeping together in rough weather and fog was a problem.   On April 30, Seattle crashed in dense fog on a mountainside near Port Moller on the Alaska Peninsula. The two man crew survived, but had to hike out of the wilderness. The remaining crews continued, flying on to Japan, where the Imperial Navy took special note on the possible military significance of long reaching air power.  Then it was on to China, Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East (where the crews battled blinding sandstorms that damaged engines), Europe, England, Ireland and Nova Scotia.
Boston was forced down in bad weather on August 30 in the North Atlantic.  The crew was rescued but the aircraft was lost as the Navy light cruiser USS Richmond attempted to bring it on board. The test prototype was dispatched to Nova Scotia, where Lieutenant Wade and Sergeant Ogden renamed the aircraft Boston II and rejoined the flight.
On their way across the U.S., the crews made highly publicized stops in several cities before they were welcomed back to their home field on September 28.  They had covered 27,553 miles, with stops in 61 cities, with a total 371 hours, 11 minutes actually in the air.
The production of the aircraft marked the beginning of the Douglas Aircraft Company as a major defense contractor and aircraft manufacturer.  The company adopted a logo featuring three aircraft orbiting the globe and the motto, First Around the World.  The army would order armed versions of the World Cruisers for use as observation planes designated first the DOS and later O-5.
Chicago is now in the collection of National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. New Orleans is in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.  The wreckage of Seattle was recovered and is now on display in the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum.

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