Legendary aircraft manufacturer Donald Douglas had already designed a groundbreaking World War I bomber when he began manufacturing military planes in an abandoned movie studio in the fields of Santa Monica in 1922.
In 1923, the Army Air Service, (the Air Force had not yet been created) approached Douglas about designing and manufacturing a plane so tough and durable it could withstand the rigors of a never-before-attempted, around-the-world flight. Douglas was asked to first construct a successful prototype and then manufacture a squadron of four more for the history-making flight. Douglas, an aircraft visionary and born risk-taker, fully understood what this venture could mean to the future of his new company and quickly agreed to develop the prototype at no charge.
Once the prototype was approved, Douglas, with the help of fellow engineer Jon Northrup, who would later found Northrup Aircraft, designed and built the four aircraft. The “Douglas World Cruiser” was an open-air cockpit plane, constructed mostly of wood with taut English cotton stretched over its 50-foot wings. The cotton was lathered with “Dope,” a lacquer that once dried, increased the cotton’s stretchability and strength. To extend its flight range the plane’s gas tank was increased in size from 115 to 644 gallons, giving it the ability to fly an unheard of 2,200 miles on one tank.
Douglas successfully tested the aircraft at nearby Clover Field, named after World War I pilot Lt. Greayer “Grubby” Clover. Part of what was Clover Field is now Clover Park, home to baseball diamonds, soccer fields and a basketball court.
The proposed around-the-world flight was to take place in stages no longer than 830 miles, with the aircraft setting down at prearranged points around the globe. Since ocean landings were unavoidable, each plane was equipped with easily-converted water pontoon and standard landing gear. The success of this flight would be totally dependent on a carefully planned logistics system, where 15 extra engines and countless replacement parts were strategically stored at various landing sites along the planes’ route, including support ships at ocean-based sites.
The flight crew was a wily and rugged group of men, who were carefully chosen for their unique talents and experience. This elite crew would include a stunt flyer who also moonlighted as a summer stock actor, an expert in air-to-air refueling, seasoned long-range pilots, top trouble-shooting mechanics, and a pilot who once endured frostbite to set a flight altitude record.
On March 17, 1924, eight crewmen took off from Clover Field in their four, single-engine Douglas World Cruisers, which at the time were the most technically advanced planes in the world. They rumbled north in formation, toward Seattle, which was the official starting point for this trailblazing flight. In Seattle, the four planes were formally named the Boston, Seattle, Chicago and New Orleans, representing the East, West, North and South geographical areas of the United States. Amidst unprecedented press coverage and publicity, on April 6, they began the first leg of their long journey.
The Seattle crashed into the mountains in Alaska, after hitting heavy fog. Their two-man crew would ultimately survive, trekking 10 days through the dense wilderness to reach civilization. The three remaining planes pushed on, touching down in numerous distant cities that included Tokyo, Calcutta and Vienna. On Aug. 3, the Boston was forced to land and then sunk in the Atlantic, near Iceland, after completing nearly three quarters of the flight. The crewman survived, scooped up before the plane had totally submerged. On Sept. 28, 1924, the Chicago and New Orleans successfully touched down in Seattle, completing the first-ever flight around the world.
The two returning planes logged 27,553 miles and touched down in 28 countries during their odyssey. They traveled at an average speed of 103 mph, with an actual total flying time of 371 hours. It was hailed by national and international press as the greatest achievement in aviation history, and earned the Douglas Aircraft Co. its motto, “First Around the World.” And when the two planes finally returned to Clover Field, a raucous and appreciative crowd of more than 200,000 would be waiting for them. The Douglas World Cruiser was such an important part of our city’s history that it is featured in Santa Monica’s official city seal. And as Donald Douglas had hoped when he took on this project, the aircraft’s success was instrumental in making his company a major player in military aviation for years to come.
Tom is a longtime Santa Monica resident who enjoyed a fulfilling 10-year career with the Santa Monica Red Cross. Tom currently is a writer and disaster management and recovery expert. Tell him your Santa Monica stories. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org