Transglobal flight

Flight encircling the world.

The origin of transglobal flight lies in flight to link continents. Beginning in the 1910’s, European and American fliers traveled in both fixed-wing aircraft and airships from continent to continent. On December 18, 1912, French aviator Roland Garros became the first pilot to bridge two continents in a single flight when he flew his Blériot monoplane from Tunis, Tunisia, to Trapani, Sicily, located halfway across the Mediterranean Sea between North Africa and Europe. The distance of 177 miles covered water all of the way. One week after this feat, Garros flew from Sicily to Rome, a further 345 miles, half of which lay over water as well.

World War I disrupted intercontinental travel, for nations that had aeronautics industries devoted their time and energy to harnessing aviation for military purposes. With the end of that conflict in November, 1918, however, aviators again began to fly across ever greater distances. On December 13, 1918, the first direct flight between the United Kingdom and British India began when the third prototype Handley Page V/1500 departed from Suffolk. Major A. S. C. MacLaren served as pilot, Captain Robert Hally as copilot, and Sergeants Smith, Crockett, and Brown as crew members. The plane flew in multiple stages to Otranto, Italy, picking up nine passengers for Malta and then making the 1,050-mile nonstop flight to Mersa Matruh in Egypt. The plane then flew on to Baghdad, Iraq, and across the north coast of the Persian Gulf. After several stops it reached Karachi, British India (present-day Pakistan), on January 15, 1919, after a journey of more than 6,000 miles.

Later that same year, a seaplane became the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic Ocean. On May 8, three Curtiss flying boats, known collectively as Seaplane Division One of the U.S. Navy, departed from the Rockaway Naval Air Station, New York, for a 950-mile trip to Trepassey, Newfoundland, Canada. Eight days later, the three flying boats departed from Trepassey Bay for Horta, in the Azores. NC-1 had to land on the water 100 miles west of Flores; it was lightly damaged and ultimately sank when the lines tied to the ship towing it into harbor broke. NC-3 landed on the water 45 miles southwest of Faial and taxied 200 miles into the harbor of Horta. It proved unable to continue the transatlantic journey. On May 20, the sole remaining Curtiss boat, NC-4, commanded by Lieutenant Commander A. C. Read, flew the 160 miles from Horta to Ponta Delgada, still in the Azores. Inclement weather delayed Read, and on May 27, he departed for Lisbon, Portugal. He covered the 925 miles on the same day, completing a journey of some 3,425 miles and thereby becoming the first man to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.

Nonstop Intercontinental Flight

The next major stage in intercontinental air travel involved nonstop flights. On June 14, 1919, British aviators Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Commander Arthur Whitten Brown departed from Lester’s Field near St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, for the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. They crash-landed in a bog near Clifden in the west of Ireland, 1,890 miles and 16 hours and 28 minutes later. The two men flew a Vickers Vimy modified with a fuel capacity expanded from 619 gallons to 1,038 gallons, which increased the plane’s nominal range from 1,880 miles to 2,440 miles.

Airships began to play a role in intercontinental travel in the first year after World War I as well. On July 6, 1919, British flight lieutenant J. E. M. Pritchard became the first person to arrive in the United States by air from Europe when the airship R-34 entered American skies. That vessel had departed from Scotland on July 2 to cross the North Atlantic. To organize preparations for the capture and mooring of the large vessel, Pritchard actually parachuted onto Long Island, New York, and thereby became the first European to touch American soil without traveling by boat. On July 13, the R-34 completed the first two-way crossing of the Atlantic Ocean and established a new airship distance record of 6,330 miles when it returned to the United Kingdom. It had departed New York on July 10 and arrived in Norfolk, England, after little more than 75 hours of trouble-free flight.

The year 1919 also witnessed the first truly transglobal flight when Captains (and brothers) Ross and Keith Smith arrived in Port Darwin, Australia, on December 10. They had covered a distance of 11,340 miles from Hounslow, England, after flying 135 hours and 55 minutes at an average speed of 83 miles per hour. They won a prize of 10,000 Australian pounds for becoming the first Australians to fly directly between the United Kingdom and Australia. Their flight path took them via Lyons, Pisa, Cairo, Damascus, Ar Rāmadī, Basra, Karachi, Delhi, Allahabad, Akyab (present-day Sittwe), Rangoon (present-day Yangon), Bangkok, Singora, Singapore, Surabaya, and Bima.

During the 1920’s, pilots set various records for transoceanic and transglobal travel. On March 30, 1922, Commander Sacadura Cabral and Captain Gago Coutinho of Portugal departed Lisbon in a Fairey IIID for the first attempted flight between Portugal and Brazil. They reached Grand Canary Island later that same day. On April 5, they flew on to São Vicente, Cape Verde Islands, covering 849 miles in 10 hours and 43 minutes. Inclement weather delayed their departure, and on April 17, the two men flew 170 miles to São Tiago. On the following day they covered 908 miles in 11 hours and 21 minutes and touched down on the Rocks of St. Peter and St. Paul. They had less than one gallon of aviation fuel left and their Fairey IIID sank in heavy seas. Undaunted, Cabral and Coutinho continued in a replacement aircraft of the same type, arriving in Rio de Janeiro on June 17. In total, they had covered 5,025 miles in a flight time of 60 hours and 14 minutes.

Circumnavigating the Globe

The first circumnavigation of the globe was completed on September 28, 1924, when two Douglas World Cruisers (DWCs) operated by the U.S. Army returned to Seattle, Washington. In a flight time of 371 hours and 7 minutes, at an average speed of 78 miles per hour, these airplanes had covered a distance of 26,503 miles. Originally three DWCs had flown from Calcutta, India, via the Middle East to Paris, France, where their wheels were changed to floats for transoceanic flight. The third DWC ditched after departing the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland, but the crew was picked up and joined the others in Washington, D.C., for a hero’s welcome. The aircraft proceeded to cross the North American continent.

Light airplanes, those weighing less than 700 pounds, also played a role as aviation pioneers. The first light airplane flight from the United Kingdom to India began when T. Neville Sack and Bernard S. Lee departed Croydon, England, in two DH-60 Moths on November 15, 1926. Each of the two-seaters was modified into a single-seater, with extra fuel tanks in the space usually reserved for the front seat. The two men covered a distance of 5,540 miles in fifty-four days and landed in Karachi, British India, on January 8, 1927. Incidentally, these were the first Moths to reach India, and much joyriding took place in several Indian cities. The Moth rapidly became the most popular light plane of its day.

The first circumcontinental flight in the western hemisphere began on December 21, 1926, when five amphibious U.S. Army Air Corps Loening OA-1A biplanes departed from Kelly Field, Texas, for a goodwill tour of Central and South America. The crews flew through Mexico, Central America, and Colombia and along the west coast of Ecuador, Peru, and Chile. Subsequently they crossed over to Argentina and first flew north to Paraguay and then south to Uruguay. They then followed the coast through Brazil, French Guiana, Dutch Guiana (present-day Suriname), British Guiana (present-day Guiana), Venezuela, and up through the West Indies to Cuba and across to Florida. The flight ended at Bolling Field, Washington, D.C., on May 2, 1927.

Lindbergh and Others

The year 1927 occupies a special place in aviation history, with noteworthy flights across both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. On May 20, Charles A. Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field, New York, to become the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean and in so doing establish a new long-distance record. His 237-horsepower Ryan monoplane generated a top speed of 124 miles per hour. The aircraft was laden with 450 gallons of fuel and narrowly missed trees and power lines during takeoff. Struggling with violent winds, ice, poor visibility, and fatigue, Lindbergh landed at Le Bourget, Paris, France, 33 hours, 30 minutes, and 28 seconds after takeoff. He had crossed 3,590 miles at an average speed of 107 miles per hour. A mere two weeks after this historic flight, Americans Clarence C. Chamberlain and Charles A. Levin flew from Roosevelt Field to Eisleben, Germany. They covered a distance of 3,911 miles, and bad weather over the United Kingdom forced them to climb to an altitude of 20,000 feet without oxygen. Chamberlain and Levin broke the existing nonstop distance record with this flight.

The world’s first intercontinental charter flight began on June 15, 1927, when American millionaire W. Van Lear Black hired a Fokker F-VIIa from the Dutch national airline KLM. The plane was commanded by Captain G. J. Geysendorffer with J. B. Scholte and K. A. O. Weber as crew. In a period of thirteen days, the plane flew 9,120 miles in 86 hours and 27 minutes between Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and Jakarta, Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia). Less than two weeks later, on June 28, the first transpacific crossing between North America and the Hawaiian Islands began when Lieutenants Lester J. Maitland and Albert Hegenberger of the United States Army Air Corps departed from Oakland, California, for Honolulu. Their 220-horsepower Fokker C-2 airplane covered the distance of 2,407 miles in 25 hours and 50 minutes.

On October 15, five months after Lindbergh’s flight, Captain Dieudonne Costes and Lieutnant Commander Joseph Le Brix completed the first nonstop flight across the South Atlantic. They departed from St. Louis, Senegal, West Africa, and covered 2,215 miles in 19 hours and 50 minutes before landing at Natal, Brazil.

The following year, 1928, witnessed historic flights as well. On February 7, the first successful light-plane flight between the United Kingdom and Australia began when Bert Hinkler took off from Croydon near London in an Avro 581E Avian prototype. His route took him to Rome, Malta, Tobruk, Ramleh, Basra, Jāsk, Karāchi, Cawnpore, Calcutta, Rangoon, Victoria Point, Singapore, Bandung, and Bima. Hinkler landed in Darwin, Australia, on February 22, having covered 11,005 miles in a flying time of 128 hours over less than sixteen days. One month later, the British aviatrix Lady Mary Bailey would become the first woman to fly round-trip between London and Cape Town, South Africa. On March 9, she took off from Croydon and reached Cairo ten days later. Her flight path took her via Khartoum and Lake Victoria to Tabora, Tangayika (Tanzania), where she crashed. However, she continued with a replacement aircraft supplied by the South African Air Force. On April 30, she reached Cape Town.

At the end of May, Captain Charles Kingsford-Smith and his copilot Charles Ulm began the first transpacific flight linking the United States and Australia. On May 31, the two men departed from Oakland, California, in a Fokker F-VIIB-3m on the first leg of their trip. They arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii, on June 1, covering 2,400 miles in approximately 27 hours. Two days later they flew on to Suva, Fiji, landing there after covering a distance of 3,200 miles in less than 35 hours. On June 8, they began the final leg of their journey, arriving in Brisbane, Australia, on the next day. In all, Kingsford-Smith and Ulm flew a total of 83 hours and 38 minutes.

In 1929, both fixed-wing aircraft and an airship entered the annals of aviation history. Two British aviators, Flight Lieutenants A. G. Jones-Williams and N. H. Jenkins, attempted to set a new nonstop distance record by flying from the United Kingdom to South America. However, delays prevented them from being able to take advantage of proper weather conditions for that route, so the two men decided to make the attempt by heading to India. Their Fairey Long Range monoplane departed from Cranwell on April 24 and landed in Karachi 50 hours and 37 minutes later. They had covered a distance of 4,130 miles, insufficient to break the record of 4,466 miles, but nevertheless completing the first nonstop flight between the United Kingdom and British India.

Airship Circumnavigation

On August 1, the first airship flight to circumnavigate the globe began when the Graf Zeppelin departed Friedrichshafen, Germany. The airship was under the command of Dr. Hugo Eckener and first flew to Lakehurst, New Jersey, to pick up passengers. Back in Friedrichshafen, the world trip proper began on August 15 with a direct flight to Tokyo, Japan, where the airship landed four days later. Between August 23 and August 26, the airship traveled from Tokyo to Los Angeles. It subsequently traversed the North American continent and the Atlantic Ocean before returning to Friedrichshafen on September 4. It had logged 21,000 miles in 21 days and 20 minutes of flying time, and thereby set a speed record.

The setting of both temporal and spatial records in air travel established standards that others sought to exceed. On June 23, 1931, the American Wiley Post and his navigator Harold Gatty departed from Roosevelt Field in New York in a Lockheed Vega 5B to fly around the world. Post and Gatty flew via Newfoundland, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Soviet Union, Alaska, and Canada to arrive back in New York on July 1. They covered 15,474 miles in 15 hours and 51 minutes and thereby beat the 21-day record set by the Graf Zeppelin by a handsome margin.

Transglobal Passenger Service

Advances in aircraft design and performance gradually led to the introduction of passenger service across intercontinental and ultimately transglobal distances. On April 27, 1932, the British civil carrier Imperial Airways inaugurated the first regularly scheduled passenger service between the United Kingdom and South Africa, using DH-66 aircraft. The other great European imperial power, France, was not slow to follow suit. On December 22, 1933, an Air France D-332 three-engine transport aircraft left Paris for a flight to Saigon (present-day Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam) under the command of Maurice Nogues. The D-332 had a capacity of eight passengers and a range of 1,242 miles. The airplane arrived in Saigon on December 28, after a total flying time of 48 hours. This aircraft remained in service until the late 1940’s.

Like World War I, World War II diverted the attention of those nations with significant aeronautical industries to the military application of aviation technology. Transglobal flight in the postwar period distinguished itself perhaps most saliently through the growth in the number of passengers traveling around the world and the introduction of the jet-engine passenger liner. On June 17, 1947, the American carrier Pan American began the world’s first round-the-world commercial service when it started flying Lockheed Constellations and fully utilizing routes on which it held licenses to operate. Eastbound flights starting from New York were not true global circumnavigations because they terminated at San Francisco. The 21,642-mile flight included stops at Gander, Shannon, London, Istanbul, Karachi, Calcutta, Bangkok, Shanghai, Tokyo, Manila, Guam, Wake, Midway, and Honolulu before reaching San Francisco. In the inaugural flight, passengers were delivered back to New York on July 1.

Jets, Helicopters, and Experimental Craft

The jet airliner began to play a more important role in civil aviation in the early 1960’s. On September 4, 1960, Captains J. M. B. Botes and S. Pienaar of South African Airways demonstrated the wide acceptance, sales potential, and superior performance of the Boeing jet airliner when they flew the first Boeing 707-344 to enter service with their airline from Seattle, Washington, to Johannesburg, South Africa. They covered the distance of 11,445 miles in 21 hours and 35 minutes. Boeing revealed the first jumbo jetliner to the public in 1969, and that aircraft in particular occupies a prominent place in the history of transglobal flight. Its large size and long range made it a virtual icon of long-distance air travel. On October 30, 1977, a Pan American Boeing 747SP completed a round-the-world flight over the North and South Poles, carrying 165 passengers a distance of 26,382.75 miles in 54 hours, 7 minutes, and 12 seconds. Flying from and to San Francisco, the aircraft stopped at London, England; Cape Town, South Africa; and Auckland, New Zealand, and set a record for circumnavigating the globe via the poles.

The 1980’s witnessed record-setting flights by helicopters and other types of aircraft as well. On September 30, 1982, the world’s first circumnavigation by helicopter was completed when American pilots H. Ross Perot, Jr., and Jay Coburn landed their Bell 206L LongRanger at Love Field, Dallas, Texas, from where they had departed on September 1. They had covered 26,000 miles in twenty-nine stages flying over twenty-three countries. Another milestone in aviation history was made when Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager completed the first nonstop unrefueled flight around the world in a heavier-than-air flying machine. In a flight that began on December 14 at Edwards Air Force Base in California, the Rutan Voyager covered 24,986.664 miles in 9 days, 3 minutes, and 44 seconds, at an average speed of 115.8 miles per hour. Flying west, the machine traveled across the Pacific, the north coast of Australia, the Indian Ocean, the southern tip of Africa, the Atlantic, and up the coast of South America and Mexico.


  • Baker, David. Flight and Flying: A Chronology. Facts on File, New York. 1994. Useful and detailed survey of the history of flight.
  • _______. Jane’s Aircraft Upgrades. 8th ed. Surrey, England: Jane’s Information Group, 2000. Exhaustive discussion of aircraft types, history and performance. Very useful reference work.
  • Glines, Carroll V. Around the World in 175 Days: The First Round-the-World Flight. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001. An account of the 1924 circumnavigation of the globe by U.S. Army Douglas World Cruisers.


Commercial flight

Experimental aircraft

Jet engines

Charles A. Lindbergh

McDonnell Douglas

Wiley Post

Record flights

Burt Rutan