Celebrating the Centennial of the First Around the World Flight

Fuselage Design Mockup
Fuselage Design Mockup U.S. Air Service Around the World Flight

Today’s post is by Rachael Salyer, Archivist in the Textual Reference Branch at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

April 6, 2024 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the first successful aerial circumnavigation of the globe. On this day in 1924, four pairs of U.S. Army Air Service pilots and mechanics departed from Seattle, Washington in separate planes to begin their 27,550-mile journey around the world. The flight officially concluded on September 28 ,1924, when two of the four original planes returned to Seattle. The success of the flight is due, in large part, to the extensive and detailed planning that went into every facet of the project.

Report on House Naval Affairs Committee Hearings on Flight of the U.S.S. Shenandoah to the North Pole, January 22, 1924 [page 1]
Memo re: round the world flight
Memorandum Regarding Conferences with Officers of the Coast Guard, November 16, 1923
AG 580.81 (6-1-23) Adjutant General Memorandum Regarding Authorization of a Pathfinding Expedition

The Air Service was supported in its endeavors by various offices within the War Department, and it also relied on the cooperation of other branches of the Armed Forces (including the Coast Guard and the Navy) and other Federal agencies, particularly the Department of State. Because the planning and execution of the Round-the-World Flight involved multiple organizations, records related to the flight can be found throughout the National Archives’ holdings. The primary Air Service records, however, are located in the series Records Relating to the Round-the-World-Flight, 1923–1924 (NAID 7582704, entry NM-53 140) in Record Group 18: Records of the Army Air Forces. These records are in the custody of the Textual Reference Branch at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland (Archives II). This series contains records related to all aspects of the project, including airplane design and development, pilot selection and training, route planning, diplomacy, supply distribution, publicity, and more.  The aircrew for the Round-the-World Flight were chosen, in part, from flying rosters that were created at each Air Service Station beginning in 1923. The rosters were used by the Field Commander and the Office of the Chief of Air Service to select “pilots for special projects requiring long distance cross-country flights.” Pilots were assessed on a number of factors, such as flying ability, temperament, judgment, and mechanical ability. In fact, the Chief of Air Service instructed the Commanding Officers making the ranked flying rosters not to “lose sight of the fact that the mere ability to fly does not always stamp the best fliers because in some instances men of exceptional ability, as pilots, do not exercise proper judgment.”

Memorandum Regarding Airplane Pilots for Overland Flights, January 15, 1923 [page 2].jpg
Memorandum Regarding Airplane Pilots for Overland Flights, January 15, 1923 [page 1].jpg
pilots and plane
Photograph of Pilots of Worlds Flight Training at Langley Field, VA.jpg

In addition, the planes were designed to be as light and versatile as possible. For example, there were no radios or parachutes, and the customary wheeled landing gear could be swapped out for pontoons. Replacement landing gear and pontoons, as well as wings, engines, and fuel, are some of the many supplies that were available at various stops along the route.

Blueprint Detail for Round the World Plane.jpg
Blueprint Detail of Landing Gear

The four planes, which were all named after American cities, included the Seattle (No. 1), Chicago (No. 2), Boston (No. 3), and New Orleans (No. 4). The aircrews included Maj. Frederick L. Martin (Pilot and Flight Commander) and Staff Sgt. Alva L. Harvey (Mechanic) for the Seattle; Lt. Lowell H. Smith (Pilot, subsequent Flight Commander) and 1st Lt. Leslie P. Arnold (Mechanic) for the Chicago; 1st Lt. Leigh P. Wade (Pilot) and Staff Sgt. Henry H. Ogden (Mechanic) for the Boston; and Lt. Erik H. Nelson (Pilot – Engineer) and Lt. John Harding Jr. (Chief Mechanic) for the New Orleans.

Planned Route Part 2.jpg
Planned Route Part 1.jpg
Planned Route Part 3.jpg

The flight path was divided into six divisions, and the route avoided long flights over water as much as possible. The planes traveled from East to West throughout the Northern Hemisphere, and the grueling flight included 74 stops in 22 different countries. The journey lasted 175 days, and ultimately, only the Chicago and the New Orleans were able to complete the entire journey. Although their crews survived, the Seattle was destroyed in a crash in Alaska on April 30, and the Boston capsized near the Faroes while being towed for repairs by the U.S.S. Richmond in early August.

round the world map
[Map] Route Round the World Flight U.S. Army Air Service, 1924.jpg
polar round the world map
Map of Route – Polar View.jpg

The aircrews received an enthusiastic welcome when they landed in Maine and made their way down the East Coast to Washington, D.C. From there, they made a multi-city journey across the United States on their way back to Seattle. Each stop was filled with celebrations and publicity opportunities, and the fliers were given numerous awards, including the Medal of Honor.

HJ Res 303
H.J. Res 303 Joint Resolution Authorizing the Award of a Medal of Honor and $10,000 to Each of the World Fliers.jpg
The Great Adventure [publicity booklet from Gargoyle Mobiloil].jpg

To learn more about the records that document this historic flight, please email the Textual Reference Branch at the National Archives in College Park, MD (Archives II) at archives2reference@nara.gov.

This is the first in a series of blogs celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Round-the-World Flight.

All images are from the series Records Relating to the Round-the-World-Flight, 1923–1924 (NAID 7582704, entry NM-53 140). War Department. Air Service. Training and War Plans Division. Record Group 18: Records of the Army Air Forces. National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD

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