Forgotten Aviation First: 100 Years ago this Month, Four Planes Took Off from Seattle to Circle the Globe


You’ve heard of the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, and of course the Red Baron. But Northwest history and aviation enthusiasts contend an almost forgotten aerial feat that started and finished in Seattle also belongs up there in the pantheon of early aviation milestones. 

In April, exactly 100 years ago, four pilots, four mechanics and four World Cruiser seaplanes skimmed across the slate gray waters of Lake Washington and headed north on a perilous and unprecedented journey to circle the planet by air. 

“Over my shoulder, I see the Great Mountain, Rainier,” wrote U.S. Army Air Service Lt. Leslie Arnold in his diary after taking off on April 6, 1924. “How magnificent it is. This morning, I wonder though, when — if ever — we’ll see it again?”

Three planes made it back to Seattle six months and 76 stops later. They received an ecstatic welcome home — and then the achievement gradually faded into the mists of time. Your tax dollars are paying for a big anniversary celebration to revive the memory this year. 

“It really is Seattle’s best kept secret in aviation that we played host to the first ever flight around the world,” said Elisa Law, executive director of Friends of Magnuson Park and centennial celebration coordinator.

“The people that we remember who do amazing things always seem to be singular individuals – Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh – when we think about early flight,” Law said. “Because it was a group, four planes and eight fliers, it’s too much to remember all of them. So, even their effort is lost.”

The site of Seattle’s first airfield was significantly altered over subsequent decades when the U.S. military built up Sand Point Naval Air Station and then more recently when NOAA redeveloped the north side of the since-decommissioned airfield to build a large regional office complex. All that remains today to remember the flight is a mural and a separate stone monument with a winged bronze cap. Passersby must dodge traffic at the main entrance to Magnuson Park at considerable personal risk to get close enough to read the inscription to learn who the century-old monument even honors.  

State Reps. J.T. Wilcox (R-Pierce County) and Tom Dent (R-Moses Lake) made the case for state funding to revive memory of the first trans-world flight history and boost Seattle’s place in aviation’s annals.

“This is something that we’re all going to be proud of,” Wilcox said during a House debate in February. “This idea of having a great celebration and really putting Seattle on the map for this piece of relatively unknown history.”

The centennial celebration committee secured $341,000 in state funding last year, which legislators increased by another $186,000 during the recently concluded 2024 session after the organizers said they needed to prepare for larger crowds than first anticipated. State lawmakers agreed to put in the additional money by unanimous voice vote on the House floor this past winter.

‘The Magellans of the air’

The late Pulitzer-winning historian David McCullough framed the zig-zag odyssey around the world as “The Great Air Race of 1924” because the Army Air Service crews faced formidable competition from France, Britain, Italy, Portugal and Argentina.

“It would be a race against fliers from other countries who sought the glory for themselves and a place in the history books. Success would make the winners the Magellans of the air,” McCullough intoned in a PBS documentary that plumbed the rich archive of photos and film footage of the first around-the-world flight.

The other teams chose to attempt the circumnavigation by flying in the eastbound direction, unlike the Americans who flew westbound. The foreign competitors hopscotched far, but all suffered trip-ending wrecks, which underscored the long odds.

U.S. Army Air Service fliers celebrate the first aerial circumnavigation of the globe at Sand Point Field in Seattle on Sept. 28, 1924. Credit: National Air and Space Museum, United States Army Around the World Collection, Leslie Arnold Scrapbook

The Americans piloted modified torpedo bombers – rechristened as Douglas World Cruisers – that had no radios and only the most rudimentary navigation equipment, basically map and compass. There were no cabin heaters because the planes had no cabin – the pilot and flight mechanic sat one behind the other in an open cockpit exposed to the Siberian cold and later to sweltering tropical heat. 

Long stretches of the round-the-world route lacked airports, it being the early days of aviation. So, the biplanes switched between wheeled landing gear when there were fields to land on and bolted on pontoons for water landings otherwise.

The world circumnavigation had several close calls with tragedy, one in the early going when the command plane got lost in a fogbank and crashed into a snowy Alaska Peninsula mountainside. The pilot and his flight mechanic were missing for more than a week until they made their way to a cannery and were rescued before returning home by boat.

Much later in the journey, one of the three remaining planes’ engines conked out over the North Atlantic. The crew ditched in the ocean and were lucky to be rescued by a nearby Navy ship before their seaplane sank in heavy seas. That pilot and flight mechanic picked up a reserve World Cruiser in Nova Scotia and continued on to the finish line in Seattle with the two remaining biplanes of the original quartet.

A throng of onlookers estimated at 40,000-50,000 strong, joined by a vast flotilla of boats, converged on Sand Point Field to welcome the “birdmen” and celebrate the successful conclusion of a 175-day journey. The landing made headlines worldwide and the fliers were feted for days. One of them, Lt. Erik Nelson, would return to Seattle in later years to take a job at the Boeing Airplane Company as a sales manager.

Centennial plans hatched, and one grounded

Dancers in vintage attire kicked-off a centennial launch party on April 6, 2024 – 100 years to the day of the historic take-off from the waters in the background at Sand Point. Credit: Tom Banse

Friends of Magnuson Park hosted a launch party for the centennial at Magnuson Cafe & Brewing on April 6, precisely 100 years to the day of the historic takeoff. Vintage aviator hats and flight goggles were temporarily in style at the brewpub, which overlooks the Sand Point shoreline where the Army fliers clambered on board their World Cruisers.

Centennial celebration co-chair Frank Goodell said the commemoration events will be focused on the 100th anniversary of the successful finish of the world flight in late September. Planned events include three days of lectures and vintage aircraft displays at the Museum of Flight on Boeing Field as well as an afternoon celebration at Magnuson Park on the precise touchdown anniversary: Saturday, September 28.

Goodell said a highlight of the September Saturday at the park will be an airshow of sorts. The tentative lineup calls for consecutive low-altitude flyovers by seven vintage aircraft, including a rare Boeing B-29 Superfortress, as well as flybys by adventurers in modern aircraft used to circle the globe in recent times.

Bob and Diane Dempster with the Seattle II, which they intend to donate to Seattle’s Museum of Flight in time for the main First World Flight Centennial celebration.  Credit: Sarah Waller

A desirable centerpiece of the centennial celebration is not worked out yet, which is to show off a full-scale replica of a Douglas World Cruiser. An airworthy reproduction exists locally in the possession of Bob and Diane Dempster, who are both private pilots and retired Boeing workers now living in Centralia. 

The Dempsters were inspired to build a flyable reproduction of the aircraft used in the first round-the-world flight after completing their own around-the-world flying adventure in the mid-1990s in a single-engine, two-seater Piper Super Cub.

Scores of volunteers – assisted at times by professional craftspeople – referenced the original blueprints to hand-build the replica out of wire, wood, fabric and tubing. It was christened the “Seattle II,” taking after the namesake lead plane of the 1924 mission.

“I didn’t take a vacation for twenty years,” Bob Dempster said in an interview. “It was an enormous investment.”

The replica Douglas World Cruiser landing on Lake Washington in 2019. Credit: Jim Larson, Seattle World Cruiser Project

Dempster said the World Cruiser project “didn’t start off with the idea of celebrating the hundredth anniversary.” But it took so long to finish that the Dempsters could plot to build excitement for this year’s centennial by flying the “Seattle II” around the world along the same path the Army Air Service took in 1924. But those plans were foiled first by the COVID-19 pandemic and then by airspace closures over Russia and the Middle East.

“We’d be on the fringe of a war zone,” Dempster figured. “In the Persian Gulf, if they’re shooting missiles at ships, they’d say ‘Oh boy, here comes a moving target. Let’s see what we can do with that.’ It’s painted like a military airplane.”

The Dempsters said they and the board of the nonprofit Seattle World Cruiser Project intended from the start to donate the replica biplane to Seattle’s Museum of Flight eventually. That time could be nigh. A curator and technical staff are planning to visit the Centralia hangar in mid-April to inspect the “Seattle II.”

The Museum of Flight has not committed to accepting the proffered donation as the centennial clock ticks down. A museum spokesperson last week politely declined to elaborate on what considerations are in play.

Photo: Tom Banse)

“The goal is to have it at the Museum of Flight for the [September] 28th celebration of the ending of the first world flight,” Dempster said hopefully. 

Dempster salvaged a throttle lever from the original World Cruiser “Seattle” during a 2006 pilgrimage to the crash site near Port Moller at the top of the Aleutian chain. The sub-Arctic environment is so harsh up there that the crash scene was still evident on the landscape more than eight decades later. Large Alaskan bears deterred curiosity seekers too.

Dempster separately received the steering wheel of the command plane from a previous salvor and installed the salvaged original parts in the “Seattle II.” The faithful reproduction has logged more than 100 hours of flight time since its inaugural takeoff in 2016. But Dempster nixed the idea of participating in the centennial flyover with the World Cruiser replica. That biplane will not fly again, he said.

“Jeopardizing the ability to celebrate the world flight now and in the future would just be a tremendous loss if something happened to the airplane. What if somebody got hurt in the air or on the ground?” the 78-year-old builder and pilot said. “That would really put a damper on the whole thing.”

Tom Banse
Tom Banse
Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business, and breaking news stories. 


  1. Love the story. I grew up not far from Sandpoint Naval Air Station and it’s where I took my Navy physical before heading for flight training in Pensacola. After seven years as a Marine fighter pilot I joined Pan Am and for several years flew co-pilot on Pan Am’s daily round the world flights with stops in London, Frankfurt, Beirut, Delhi, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Honolulu and home to SFO. It’s amazing how time collapses. My dad was born within two weeks of the Wright brothers first flight and I had a great career in aviation. Thanks for sharing this history. I’d never heard about it.

  2. Thanks be to Allah and G-d that neither Uncle Harry Stonecipher nor Big Jim McNerney nor Muilenburg nor Calhoun were involved in any way.



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