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ONE OF the grandest adventures in aviation occurred in 1924 when a trio of U.S. Army Air Service Douglas World Cruisers became the first aeroplanes to circumnavigate the globe.
The Army Air Service directed Douglas Aircraft of Santa Monica, California, to convert several of its DT torpedo bombers for the task. The DWC was powered by a 420-hp V-12 Liberty engine and had a maximum weight of 7380 lb. when fitted with wheels, 8180 lb. with seaplane floats. By contrast, a Curtiss Jenny’s OX-5 V-8 produced 90 hp; the Jenny’s weight, no more than 2000 lb.
Four DWCs left Santa Monica on April 4, 1924, for their official starting point of Seattle, from which they departed April 6. The aircraft were named Seattle No. 1, Chicago No. 2, Boston No. 3 and New Orleans No. 4. By modern standards, their instrumentation was minimal: a compass, tachometer, a gauge for oil pressure, another for fuel level and one for electrics.
Each aircraft also had a clever means of assessing wind drift: The upper surfaces of horizontal stabilizer and elevators were given calibrated striping. The mechanic set off a smoke bomb and watched how its wake intersected these markings.
The route from Seattle included Seward and Attu, Alaska; Kagoshima, Japan; Shanghai, Hong Kong, Saigon, Rangoon, Calcutta, Karachi, Baghdad, Vienna, Paris, London, Reykjavik, Ivigtut, Greenland; Ice Tickle, Labrador; Pictou, Nova Scotia; Boston, New York, Washington, D.C.; Chicago, Santa Monica, San Francisco and back to Seattle.
The Army Air Service set up advance camps at many of these locations for necessary maintenance and repair.
The Seattle crashed early on, near Dutch Harbor, Alaska. The other three DWCs continued, albeit with plenty of engine changes, rebuilds, patches and other adventures.
When they got to Saigon, for instance, the three crews spruced up in borrowed U.S. Navy whites for a special dinner with the Governor General and other dignitaries. Rickshaws picked them up, presumably for a ride to the palace. Instead, said one of the rickshaw drivers, “American sailors—sporting house!” First things first, and the Governor General is said to have enjoyed the story.
In Calcutta, American journalist Linton O. Wells persuaded the crews to take him along for part of the trip. Some report he was a stowaway on the Boston, but the truth is rather more complex. The airmen cabled Washington, D.C., for permission, there was no immediate reply, so…. Wells shared the aft cockpit of the Boston from Calcutta to Allahabad, Ambala, Multan and finally Karachi. By then, a cable from Washington brass caught up with them. It denied permission for Wells to travel in an aircraft of the U.S. Army Air Service.
A Paris arrival was planned for Bastille Day, July 14, and the DWCs made it. The airmen had a whirlwind of celebrations ending with Montmartre’s Folies Bergère. The airmen promptly fell asleep.
In Great Britain, they met the Prince of Wales who was preparing to leave for the U.S. He wagered the airmen that he’d beat them there.
He won $5 from each airman. Mechanical woes and weather bedeviled the crews. The Boston ditched in the North Atlantic. Being towed to port, the aircraft capsized and sank. The remaining two, Chicago and New Orleans, completed the Atlantic crossing, and were met in Canada by the Boston II, a rechristened DWC prototype. The three arrived in Boston—to a twenty-one gun salute—on September 6.
Each stop across the country brought a rousing welcome. The three aircraft returned to Seattle on September 28, after 175 days of circumnavigation. They had flown 26,345 miles while logging 377 hours 11 minutes of air time (thus averaging 71 mph). The DWCs had visited 28 different countries in 72 stops.
Even back in the U.S., the DWC adventures weren’t over. In Santa Monica, pilot Leigh Wade sustained two broken ribs when bear-hugged in an overzealous welcome. It was First Lieutenant Wade’s only injury of the trip. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2012