Almost-forgotten pioneers

Pilots: In 1924 four U.S. Army biplanes tried to fly around the world

two of them made it.

April 05, 2004|By Myron Beckenstein | Myron Beckenstein,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Charles Lindbergh sometimes gets credit for being the first person to fly across the Atlantic, but he wasn't. That accomplishment was recorded in 1919. Lindbergh was the first to fly nonstop from New York to Paris, without landing in places like Newfoundland, Ireland or the Azores.

But a trip even more amazing and three years before Lindbergh's began 80 years ago. And it was barely 20 years after the Wright brothers flew 120 feet.

On April 6, 1924, four U.S. Army open-cockpit biplanes took off on an attempt to fly around the world. Two of them made it, one almost did and the crew of the fourth provided a thrilling tale of survival.

There was a touch of derring-do to it, but the planes were as modern as the time produced, and the risks were weighed rather than ignored.

The planes were specially made by the Douglas Aircraft Co. - later developers of the DC series of commercial airliners - and appropriately enough called World Cruisers.

One, the Chicago, sits on the second floor of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, maybe an appropriate 120 feet from the Wright brothers' flier. The New Orleans is at the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.

The 1924 trip was as epic as it was unbelievable. Planes were relatively primitive, and navigation equipment was minimal, as were maps. There were no radios, no weather reports or landing fields.

But using the most advanced technology of the day, careful planning and positioning of supplies, skill, luck and daring, the pilots hopped their way from Seattle, across the Pacific, through Asia, the Mideast and Europe, over the Atlantic and across the United States back to Seattle, covering 26,345 miles in 175 days. Their flying time was 15 days, three hours and seven minutes. Their average speed in the air was 72.5 mph.

Each Douglas Cruiser carried two people: a pilot and a mechanic. Both skills were sorely tested, the pilots in dealing with the gamut of landscapes, temperatures ranging from the frozen north to the tropics and just about every type of weather in between. The second-seater had work to do after each stop, some of it unplanned. Very little of the original planes made the whole trip. Every plane had its engine replaced multiple times.

Each of the four planes was named after a city, chosen to represent the four sections of the country. In the Seattle were Maj. Frederick Martin and Sgt. Alva Harvey. The other planes were crewed by lieutenants. In the Boston were Leigh Wade and Henry Ogden. The New Orleans had Erik Nelson and John Harding. The Chicago had Lowell Smith and Leslie Arnold.

Four hops and 24 days into the flight, the first disaster struck: Martin's plane crashed in the Aleutian Islands. After 10 days, he and Harvey trekked to safety at Dutch Harbor. Command of the flight passed to Lowell Smith.

Jumping across the Pacific from the Aleutian Islands to the Kuril Islands, which then belonged to Japan, was difficult, but the danger and hardships also affected those who supported the fliers. Two Navy destroyers were sent to Paramushir, Japan, to meet the planes.

The destroyers left Yokohama on April 17 for the northern rendezvous with enough supplies for a two-week stay. But the Douglas fliers were delayed, and the Navy men had to wait a month for them, enduring gales, a hurricane and frightful cold. It was so cold that at one point, the ship's smokestacks were covered with ice, even though they were in use.

Step by slow step, the planes made their way across Asia to Calcutta, India, where they changed their 1,400-pound floats for wheels, which were much lighter. Floats were reinstalled before the planes flew west over the Atlantic.

Associated Press reporter Linton Wells, who caught up with the fliers several times and traveled across India in the Boston, was overcome by his awe at their achievements.

"Besides flying ability, Lowell Smith has the instincts of a homing pigeon," he wrote years later. "Nelson is a mechanical genius and an able pilot. Wade is, in my opinion, one of the greatest pilots of all time. He's a natural. He has that delicate sense of touch and instinct which enables him to do things with an airplane which others less fortunately endowed cannot do. But it was nothing short of miraculous the way Smith led that flight from point to point, using only mediocre navigational instruments and charts little more detailed than maps from an atlas.

"And it was his homing-pigeon instinct which led him unerringly through that sandstorm across the desert to Multan [in India], in heat so intense that a thermometer in the cockpit of the Boston registered 156 degrees and a super-cooled tropical radiator attached to our Liberty engine boiled."

Weather and mechanical problems dogged the flight then as they did throughout the voyage.

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