Skirting The Soviets: How 8 American Pilots First Circled The World

American aviator Lowell Smith faced a difficult choice as he led a squadron of four seaplanes over the Pacific Ocean in early 1924. To the south, a wall of "snow and squalls" rose between them and Japanese territory. To the north, clear skies stretched toward the remote Komandirskiye Islands of Soviet Russia.
Skirting The Soviets: American aviator Lowell Smith faced a difficult choice as he led a squadron of four seaplanes over the Pacific Ocean in early 1924.[RFE/RL]
Skirting The Soviets: American aviator Lowell Smith faced a difficult choice as he led a squadron of four seaplanes over the Pacific Ocean in early 1924.[RFE/RL]

Skirting The Soviets: American aviator Lowell Smith faced a difficult choice as he led a squadron of four seaplanes over the Pacific Ocean in early 1924.

To the south, a wall of "snow and squalls" rose between them and Japanese territory. To the north, clear skies stretched toward the remote Komandirskiye Islands of Soviet Russia.

Smith opted to "take our chances with the Bolsheviks rather than face the wrath of the storms," and banked his aircraft toward Soviet territory.

Smith was one of eight pilots attempting the first circumnavigation of the world by airplane. The world-girdling attempt was intended largely to rekindle public interest in flying at a time when the United States was lagging behind European development in the aviation industry.

The mission required a team of pathfinding military staff to set off ahead of the planes and compile intelligence reports that noted possible landing sites and local quirks of weather for far-flung refueling sites.

U.S. diplomats then reached out to the 22 countries the aviators would need to pass through, and a network of resupply vessels and stations was prepared. The project was predicted to cost some $100,000, the equivalent of around $1.7 million today.

On April 6, 1924, four Douglas World Cruiser biplanes specially adapted for the task set off from Seattle, Washington. The aircraft were named after the four American cities of Boston, Chicago, Seattle and New Orleans.

The mission quickly ran into serious trouble when the Seattle crashed into a mountainside in Alaska. The two pilots survived the crash and found their way to civilization after several harrowing days in the wilderness.

With the never-before-flown waters between Alaska and Japan becoming increasingly unsettled as the planes neared, Lowell Smith and the other Americans secretly discussed the option of meeting a refueling vessel off the Komandirskiye Islands in Soviet territory.

It was a shorter flight than the stretch to Japanese waters but Washington at the time had no diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union and the entire country had been carefully avoided during the planning stage of the expedition. Relations with Moscow were icy after the United States had landed thousands of troops inside Russia amid that country's civil war six years earlier.

The American planes flew for hours over the featureless Bering Sea, pointing their noses toward Soviet territory[RFE/RL]
The American planes flew for hours over the featureless Bering Sea, pointing their noses toward Soviet territory[RFE/RL]

The American planes flew for hours over the featureless Bering Sea, pointing their noses toward Soviet territory, "wondering all the time what the Russians would think when they saw three giant planes swoop down out of the sky in this remote region where ships only come about once a year," Smith recalled.

When one of the Soviet islands was finally spotted, Smith wrote, "that bleak bit of land out there in the Bering Sea sure looked good to us."

As soon as the planes landed, in sight of a settlement bristling with communications towers, a boat filled with "bearded men" set off from the island.

As the rowboat drew near, some of the American pilots remained inside the cockpits of their bobbing seaplanes ready to flee, but the interaction between the men of two hostile countries was cordial.

The Russians apologized for not inviting the Americans onto shore but explained they needed permission from Moscow before they could do so.

The following day, Soviet leadership refused the Americans clearance to step ashore, but the island's servicemen sent out a boat to deliver a jug of vodka as a gesture of goodwill before the refueled Americans departed for Japan.

From the Bering Sea, the flyers swung toward the steamy climes of southern Asia.

On one long flight, pilot Erik Nelson recalled his mind wandering into an imagined future in which the sky was filled with planes, "passing me in the sky with passengers making weekend trips between Shanghai and San Fransisco."

If such a future were to transpire, the aviator imagined, "the airplane was to be the agency that would bring the races of the world into such intimate contact with each other that they would no more feel inclined to wage wars..."

On approaching Multan in today's Pakistan, the heat was so severe the pilots quipped that the city might be renamed "Molten."

A British welcoming committee presented the sunburned Americans with ice-cold lemonade. One later recalled raising the frosty glass to his cracked lips: "I have had many delicious drinks in my life," the pilot wrote, "but none compare with that one in Multan."

From Asia the fleet headed over Persia and the Middle East and toward Europe, where they flew over the World War I battlefields of Romania, still pockmarked from explosions and littered with the wreckage of military equipment.

Bucharest was admired by the men as a "clean and snappy-looking place," with "numerous cafes and cabarets, and many well-dressed and attractive-looking girls."

The final geographical colossus the men faced was the open ocean of the North Atlantic. Several U.S. naval vessels positioned themselves along the flight path ready to assist if any of the planes got into trouble.

On August 3, the Boston was forced to land in choppy seas in the middle of the North Atlantic. The pilot and mechanic aboard were both rescued by a naval vessel but their plane collided with the rescue ship and eventually sank.

The unimaginable danger of the Atlantic crossing is captured in pilot Lowell Smith's description of one foggy patch of iceberg-littered ocean:

"We were traveling along at a speed of 90 miles an hour (150 kilometers per hour), and could see only between 100 and 150 feet (30-45 meters) ahead," he wrote.

When the planes finally arrived on American soil, they were greeted by frenzied crowds of well-wishers who had been following newspaper reports of their progress around the world. [RFE/RL]
When the planes finally arrived on American soil, they were greeted by frenzied crowds of well-wishers who had been following newspaper reports of their progress around the world. [RFE/RL]

"So use your own imagination as to how soon a plane traveling at that speed could use up the distance that we could see, and then try and figure out how little time was left us to sight a berg ahead, decide which way to turn, and then execute the maneuver."

When the planes finally arrived on American soil, they were greeted by frenzied crowds of well-wishers who had been following newspaper reports of their progress around the world. In Santa Monica, some 200,000 people turned out to greet the airmen.

"As we crawled out of our cockpits, the crowd went wild. With a roar, they knocked down the fence. They knocked down the police. They knocked down the soldiers," Smith wrote. "People were tearing bits off our clothes and snipping off buttons for souvenirs. One lady cut a chunk of my collar with a penknife. And another got hold of my ear -- I suppose by mistake."

The trip had taken 363 flying hours over 175 calendar days and covered 42,398 kilometers. The aviators involved were awarded the Distinguished Service Medal and inundated with gifts from well-wishers. But perhaps the most poignant item received by the Americans was from a recent immigrant who had apparently learned of the brief interaction with the Soviets of the Komandirskiye Islands.

The man wrote to ask the pilots if they could give him any information about his brother, who had last been seen in a Siberian labor camp. RFE/RL/SP

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