The First Aerial Circumnavigation

100 years since the first successful trip around the world.

The World Flight Crew from Left to Right: Lt. Jack Harding, Lt. Erik Nelson, Lt. Leigh Wade, Maj. Frederick Martin, First Lt. Leslie Arnold, Lt. Lowell Smith, and Lt. Laclair Schulze. Courtesy of the San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives.

In 1924, a few decades before the Space Race of the Cold War, a lesser-known global aeronautical competition took place. After countless innovations in the field of aviation in the years following the Wright Brothers’ first flight, nations around the world had wholeheartedly embraced flying and were eager to become the first country to complete an aerial circumnavigation of the planet. The United States Air Service, the predecessor to our modern-day Air Force, took this race seriously. Army leaders, including Air Service Major General Mason Patrick, wanted to prove that American pilots and aircraft were up to the challenge. In just forty-five days, the Douglas World Cruiser, a DT-2 bomber modified specifically for the global trip, was created. Beating all odds, after 175 days, 74 stops, and 26,345 harrowing miles, Lieutenants Lowell Smith, Leslie Arnold, Erik Nelson, John Harding Jr., Leigh Wade, Laclair Schulze, and Major Frederick Martin successfully circumnavigated the globe. This year marks the 100th anniversary of that very first aerial circumnavigation. It should come as no surprise that the birthplace of aviation, Dayton, Ohio, played an important role in the preparations for this momentous achievement and the lively celebrations thereafter.

To ensure the Douglas World Cruiser was up to the task of making the historic journey around the world, extensive testing and inspections needed to be done by highly skilled aeronautical engineers and mechanics. There was no better place for this testing to be done than in Dayton, specifically at McCook Field. From 1917 to 1927, McCook Field served as an aviation research and development hub and airfield for the U.S. military. McCook’s personnel were well-known for their commitment to researching, designing, building, and testing new aircraft and developing improvements for existing aircraft. In fact, two of the World Flight pilots, Erik Nelson and John Harding Jr, worked at McCook Field as a test pilot and an aircraft engineer, respectively, for many years prior to the world flight. In the book written by the World Cruiser pilots, The First World Flight, the pre-mission stop in Dayton is described: “[the prototype Douglas World Cruiser] was flown across the continent to Dayton, Ohio where further tests were conducted to determine if it had the necessary qualifications for the World Flight. Several changes were made that later were incorporated in the final four airplanes.”

Lieutenants Harding and Erik Nelson in front of the Douglas World Cruiser, the New Orleans, at McCook Field. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Innovative McCook engineers, such as Lieutenant Ernest Dichman, who “was tireless in his work on the performance charts,” were key to the success of the aircraft used in the mission. It was at McCook Field that final approval was given to use the Douglas World Cruiser for the journey. General Patrick had travelled to Dayton to inspect and fly the aircraft, after which he “remarked that he only wished he was young enough to go on this great undertaking.” Dayton’s importance to the successful world flight cannot be understated- it was Dayton’s talented engineers and mechanics that ensured the planes were safe and effective enough to travel the-then unheard of 26,345 miles around the world, helping the pilots accomplish one of the most remarkable aviation feats of the early 1900s.

After the successful trip, the triumphant pilots returned to the United States to begin their victory tour, where they were met with great fanfare. To show thanks to the McCook Field personnel, who were instrumental to the mission’s success, and to acknowledge the importance of the city as the birthplace of aviation, the victory tour made a stop in Dayton. In The First World Flight, the world aviators described this stop as a massive celebration: “as we passed over Wilbur Wright airdrome, we saw “Welcome World Fliers” painted in huge letters on the ground, and between fifty thousand and a hundred thousand people cheered us a moment later as we came gliding down over McCook Field.” Only four years earlier, the population of Dayton and surrounding Montgomery County was 191,618- illustrating that a large percentage of the county’s population had come to McCook Field to celebrate the aerial voyage.

The pilots in front of the Douglas World Cruiser, The Chicago, at McCook Field. Courtesy of the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

According to the aviators, the first Daytonians to greet them on their landing “were the mechanics” who had worked tirelessly months before to make the Douglas World Cruisers air-worthy and were ecstatic at the voyage’s success. The mechanics were so excited that they picked up one of the aviators, John Harding Jr, and “… turned him upside down, shook all the tools out of his pockets, and kept them as trophies.” The thousands of Daytonians who showed up to McCook Field lavished the aviators in congratulations, cheers, applause and gifts, as described by Thomas Lowell: “our Dayton friends presented us with Liberty bonds, flowers, and traveling-bags.” The aviators were also “honored” by congratulations from none other than Orville Wright, whose first flight a mere 21 years earlier had made their feat possible. Daytonians, no strangers to celebrating the achievements of early aviators over the years, helped ensure the short stop in the victory tour was a memorable one to the world flight pilots.

However, in addition to celebrating, the engineers and mechanics at McCook Field were also eager to get to work and inspect the planes that had ferried the lieutenants over tens of thousands of miles. Lowell describes this in The First World Flight as “…the first time on our Flight we allowed someone else to check and service-up the planes. The boys at McCook Field worked on the ships in shifts, for two nights and a day, without stopping, going over every bolt and wire to find out exactly how the Cruisers had stood the strain of the Flight.” Just as the personnel at McCook Field were instrumental in getting the Douglas World Cruisers ready to travel around the world, they also ensured the planes could safely make it another three thousand miles to Seattle, Washington.

If you would like to learn more about the first aerial circumnavigation of the globe by the United States Army Air Service, a Seattle-based organization called Friends of Magnuson Park have created a First World Flight Centennial celebration with articles, historic photographs and videos, and events beginning in September of this year. You can learn more by visiting their website:



  • Population Numbers: TimeLineDayton TimeLine – The Planning of Dayton* A Component of CitiPlan Dayton: The 20/20 Vision
  • Thomas, Lowell (1925). The First World Flight. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • National Air and Space Museum: Pioneers of Flight First Flight Around the World.