Orkney’s place in aviation history should never be underestimated. Many firsts took place in the islands. Robert Foden in his illustrated talk and film of The First Flight Around The World as part of Orkney’s Aviation Festival reminded us of this.
There was a time when the USA had great ambitious – far greater than building a wall between its neighbour and selling chlorinated chicken to a Brexited Britain.
In 1903 the Wright brothers took their first successful short flight in Kitty Hawk. One of the outcomes of the First World War was the rapid development of aircraft and by 1919 Alcock and Brown flew non-stop across the Atlantic.
The challenge was now on to fly around the world and several teams were interested. In 1922 an unsuccessful attempt was made by the British which ended in a forced landing in the sea near Burma.
The USA, now a confident world power, was to conquer this challenge with a supreme example of pilot skill, engineering development, military organisation and the power of the dollar.
In 1924 the US Government backed mission to fly around the world took off using 4 aircraft designed and built by the Douglas company. The Douglas World Cruisers were adapted from the D2 torpedo bomber which included a redesigned fuel system. It had both wheels and floats which were changed depending on the terrain they were to be flying over. The 4 airplanes were named: Seattle, Chicago,Boston and New Orleans.
The organisation of the flight used the resources of the US military and civilian services. This ensured that at ever stop-over both machines and men were well taken care of especially when rescue operations were needed.
This was the largest peacetime operation of its day.
The crew, who were trained before the challenge on prototypes, were:
- Seattle (No. 1): Maj. Frederick L. Martin (1882–1956), pilot and flight commander, and SSgt. Alva L. Harvey (1900–1992), flight mechanic (failed to circumnavigate)
- Chicago (No. 2): Lt. Lowell H. Smith (1892–1945), pilot, subsequent flight commander, and 1st Lt. Leslie P. Arnold (1893–1961), co-pilot
- Boston (No. 3)/Boston II (prototype): 1st Lt. Leigh P. Wade (1897–1991), pilot, and SSgt. Henry H. Ogden (1900–1986), flight mechanic (failed to circumnavigate)
- New Orleans (No. 4): Lt. Erik H. Nelson (1888–1970), pilot, and Lt. John Harding Jr. (1896–1968), co-pilot
Robert Foden delivered the talk in his usual well informed but engaging way. He related the journey of all 4 planes and what led to 2 of them not making it. All of the men, however, survived this incredible feat of both courage and skill.
Media interest grew as the challenge progressed with welcoming receptions in Japan, Calcutta, Paris and London. A stop-off at Hull for the 3 remaining aircraft meant the machines could be overhauled ready for their flight to Orkney. They landed at Houton on 30th of July 1924.
Whilst in Orkney they had a boat trip round Scapa Flow where the German fleet scuttled only 5 years previously was still very much visible.
En route to the next stop in Iceland the 3 planes became separated in fog and fearing for the crew of the New Orleans the Boston and Chicago returned to Orkney where they dropped a canister with a message in it. That canister was recovered but its whereabouts today is unknown.
The New Orleans had, however, made it successfully to Iceland but the Boston did not having to ditch in the sea.
When the New Orleans and the Chicago reached the US they did so to a heroes welcome. The flight had taken 175 days and covered 26,345 miles. The average speed was 75mph.
This excellent talk was not finished there because Robert Foden had pieced together film footage of the first flight around the world which, of course, included the stop in Houton, Orkney.
For the Douglas company it too was an amazing achievement and demonstrated the constant development taking place in aviation in this period.
Reporter: Fiona Grahame
For more on the Douglas Aircraft company: ‘Vittles’ and ‘Plainfare’ – The Orkney Aviation Festival