In April 1924, eight men from the Army Air Service, in four open-cockpit biplanes, took off from Seattle, Washington, in the first successful around-the-world flight. The planes, Douglas World Cruisers, were built from an existing design but were specially modified for the trip, including extra fuel storage and interchangeable wheels and pontoons. Unlike other countries’ attempts to make the global flight, the American team decided to fly west rather than east in order to avoid bad weather in various countries.
Spare parts for the planes were sent on ahead to multiple stops in the planes’ flight path to facilitate repair, and U.S. Navy ships were prepped and relocated to provided assistance to the pilots as needed. Permission was cleared with the countries where the planes planned to stop, and foreign airstrips or landing fields were located. With all the preparation, it was one of the biggest peacetime military operations up to that point.
After a false start, the planes took off on 6 April, but by the end of the month, one of the planes had crashed in the Alaskan wilderness. While the two men piloting the plane sustained only minor injuries, the plane was destroyed and their role in the trip was over. The other three planes continued on, stopping in Alaska, Japan, China, and India, only experiencing relatively minor setbacks and injuries. They then flew to Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Romania, Hungary, and Austria, ending up in Paris just in time for Bastille Day celebrations.
After leaving London, the planes began what was considered the most dangerous part of the journey: Scotland to Boston. On the way to Iceland, one of the planes had trouble in a fog bank, and the other two, fearing the plane was lost, turned around. The lost plane had actually made it to Iceland, so the two soon left to join it. But on the way, one of the planes lost oil pressure and safely made an emergency water landing. As it was being towed, it was damaged, and soon after it was accidentally sunk.
The remaining two planes continued on to Greenland, then Canada. In Nova Scotia, the crew of the sunk plane rejoined the other two in a backup plane, and they all flew to Maine, Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., where they were personally met by President Coolidge. But their trip wasn’t over, since they had to make it back to their starting point of Seattle. They hit nine different states on their way, finally returning to Seattle on 28 September and landing wing-to-wing so no one could determine which plane landed first.
Their around-the-world flight took 175 days, with 371 hours of flight time. They covered 26,345 miles, landing in 28 different countries and making 72 stops.
For further information about this record-breaking flight, read in the National Archive’s Prologue or the Air Force magazine. Or watch silent footage of various parts of the journey and search through Fold3’s Coolidge photo collection for images of the president greeting the pilots.