EarthRounders - The First Aerial Circumnavigation of the Globe
In April 1924, four Douglas World Cruiser (DWC) aircraft set out to make the first aerial circumnavigation of the globe. Each plane had a two-man crew of pilot and mechanic from the U.S. Army Air Service for the project optimistically called “World Flight.” The DWCs were open-cockpit, single-engine biplanes, powered by 420hp Liberty engines and were equipped with both standard landing gear and seaplane floats. One aircraft crashed en route (no fatalities), but the remaining three completed the journey after making 74 stops and traveling more than 27,000 miles. No flight around the world has since been achieved in an open-cockpit aircraft. The World Flight crews have subsequently been recognized as the first on the membership list of Earthrounders.
While attempting to pilot her Lockheed Electra 10A around the world, Amelia Earhart sent a prophetic message to her husband. “If I am successful, the merits and demerits can be threshed out then. If not, someone else will do what I have attempted and I’ll pass the problem on to him – or her,” said Earhart. She and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared on July 2, 1937. Thirty years later, her “problem” was taken on by 30-year-old Ann Holtgren Pellegreno of Michigan.
Like Earhart, Pellegreno flew an Electra 10A which was powered by twin 450hp P&W engines. Pellegreno chose co-pilot Colonel William Payne and her navigator was William Polhemus. Lee Koepke, the owner of the Electra, signed on as their mechanic. On June 9, 1967, Pellegreno and her crew set off on what she was later to describe as a “rendezvous with history.” The goal was to replicate Earhart’s flight as closely as possible, allowing for changes in political borders and refueling stops. Pellegreno called it the “Commemorative Flight” with the goal en route to drop a wreath in memory of Earhart and Noonan on Howland Island.
Hardships, and Joys
From Oakland, CA, Pellegreno headed for fuel stops in the U.S., South America, Africa, Europe, the Middle East through Karachi and south through Djkarta and Australia. From New Guinea and nearby Nauru Island, she continued to Hawaii and then back to Oakland.
The long hops required hours or days without sleep and with missed meals. Overnight accommodations in distant lands were sometimes rustic and local foods that resulted in bouts of dysentery. Pellegreno’s Electra endured the indignity of spray fumigation in Darwin, sending the crew coughing and gasping as they exited the aircraft. Night takeoffs without runway lights were guided by jeep headlights or smudge pots. Before wheels-up at Nauru, natives drove the length of the runway to clear it of pigs.
For Pellegreno, the adventure also included “magical moments” of gracious welcomes in exotic cultures. As planned, she dropped a commemorative wreath over Howland Island, the destination which was not reached by Earhart and Noonan. On July 7, 1967, Pellegreno and crew were back in Oakland. Remarkably, the vintage Electra flew 28,000 miles without a major problem. “I don’t mind telling you,” Pellegreno recently remarked, “I hugged that Electra every night.”
Over the Poles
The first to have flown over both poles, although at separate times, was Norwegian Bernt Balchen. In 1965, two TWA pilots in a Boeing 707-320 carrying crew and VIP passengers became the first to fly around the world and over both poles. Historian Carroll Glines wrote that, “It was only a matter of time before someone made the flight solo.”
In 1971, Elgen Long piloted his single-engine Piper Navajo over both poles. “As if that achievement weren’t enough,” says Glines, “Captain Long added four firsts: the first to fly around the world and land on all seven continents, the first to cross the equator at both the prime meridian and the 180th meridian, the first to fly across the Antarctic solo, and the first to solo from Antartica to Australia.”
At age 44, Long’s career already included service in the U.S. Navy as a radio operator and navigator, combat missions in the Pacific, and post-WWII rescue flights of refugees from Yemen. He was also an aircraft mechanic which made him a perfect fit for the seat-of-the-pants, no-rules, international cargo carrier FlyingTiger Line.
While still employed by FlyingTiger, Long took a leave of absence and invested his life savings in his polar flight. Flying Tiger contributed survival equipment and other corporate sponsors provided telecommunications, maintenance and navigational equipment. Long leased a Navajo with turbocharged Lycoming 310hp engines. It could carry 623 gallons of aviation fuel that took him 4,000 miles before a required landing. Long named the Navajo “Crossroads Endeavor.”
The Lonely Long Flight
Long took off on Nov. 5, 1971, from San Francisco, destined for Fairbanks, AK. “Over the Gulf of Alaska I was able to test the Navajo’s airfoil deicing systems, pitot and static systems,” says Long. “All worked well during an encounter with mixed clear and rime ice.”
In addition to fighting the extreme cold over the polar ice, Long’s radio went silent for nearly eight hours. He flew over the North Pole on Nov. 7, 1971. Flying over hundreds of miles of ice, Long faced the loneliness of isolation. “You are cut off from the rest of the world,” said Long. “After I passed over the Pole, I actually got the sensation I was going downhill.”
Long pushed “Crossroads Endeavor” to Tromso, Norway, took on fuel, and continued to Stockholm. He had been awake for 34 consecutive hours. During hours of solo flying, Long never had time to become sleepy. “From takeoff to landing, I was busy every minute keeping logs, taking photographs, checking fuel, setting engines, communicating and checking navigation,” he said.
After a day’s rest in Stockholm, Long continued on to London, then headed for Accra, Ghana. On Nov. 14, 1971, he navigated over the prime meridian at the equator. He continued on to Recife, Brazil; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the half-way point of his global flight. Ahead of him were 3,000 nautical miles across the continent of Antartica.
Over Antartica’s uncharted territory, with little or no weather information, the Navajo’s heater quit. Visibility was so poor that when Long crossed the South Pole at 0255Z, Nov. 22, 1971, he could not see the terrain below. He landed at McMurdo on a Navy-built ice runway used by military transport aircraft and local planes equipped with skis.
From McMurdo, Long made stops at Sidney, Australia; and Nandi, Fiji. On Nov. 27, 1971, he crossed the International Date Line at the equator, then landed at Wake Island. From Wake he stopped at Tokyo, Japan; and Honolulu. Long took a brief rest, then flew to San Francisco, landing on Dec. 3, 1971. He had traveled 36,000 nautical miles in 28 days.
Among many honors, Long received the Institute of Navigation Award and the Gold Air Medal from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), as the outstanding sports pilot in the world for 1971. Recently Long reflected on his flight. “The awards are prestigious, but for the most part, I admit I did it for my own self-satisfaction,” he said. “I hope that my accomplishment will encourage others to follow their own dreams — wherever that takes them.”
Few Earthrounders have attempted a circumnavigation in vintage aircraft. In 1997, Linda Finch completed a flight around the globe in her Lockheed Electra. Unlike Pellegreno’s flight in 1967, Finch’s crew were accompanied by a chase plane, and equipped with computerized navigation and communication systems.
Elgen Long’s polar flight has never been duplicated.
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Giacinta Bradley Koontz is an aviation historian, magazine columnist and author who has received the DAR History Medal and Honorable Mention from the New York Book Festival. She has appeared on the History Channel and PBS documentaries. For more information, visit www.GiaBKoontz.com.