Seattle flight was second only to Wright Brothers in aviation history

Sep 28, 2022, 9:02 AM
A monument to the 1924 around-the-world flight was dedicated Sept. 29, 1924 next to the airfield at Sand Point; it was moved to the side of Sand Point Way in 1974. (MOHAI) The monument in its original location as it appeared in the 1920s. (MOHAI)
Pilots who flew the around-the-world flight were back at Sand Point the day after their triumphant return for dedication of the monument. (MOHAI) An illustration of the runway at Sand Point from a 1927 U.S, government 'Air Bulletin.' (Courtesy Lee Corbin) Lee Corbin believes the original Sand Point runway was located within what's now the NOAA facility at Sand Point. (Google Map annotated by Lee Corbin) The current NOAA pier at Sand Point may be located in the exact same spot as the original Sand Point airfield pier from the early 1920s. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) (L-R) Aviation historian Lee Corbin; Friends of Magnuson Park president Ken Sparks; and Friends' executive director Elisa Law stand by the around-the-world flight monument along Sand Point Way. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio)

A community group is making plans to celebrate the centennial of a 1924 Seattle event that some consider to be second only to the Wright Brothers’ flight at Kittyhawk in the history of aviation.

“This is the best-kept secret in aviation,” said Ken Sparks, president of the non-profit Friends of Magnuson Park. “How many people go through this park, go by that monument, and don’t have a clue what it’s all about?”

“That monument” is a tall obelisk topped by a winged globe and is a creation of Seattle sculptor Victor Alonzo Lewis, who also designed the city’s storied “Doughboy” statue.

The “best-kept secret,” says Sparks and Friends of Magnuson Park director Elisa Law, is that four Douglas World Cruisers took off from the waters of Lake Washington just offshore from what’s now Magnuson Park April 6, 1924. They were biplanes built by Douglas in California specially for the U.S. Army, and each had a two-man crew who sat in open cockpits. The planes had been flown to Seattle in March 1924 and landed on wheels on the main runway at what was known as Sand Point Airdrome or Sand Point Airfield.

At Sand Point – which had been home to an airfield since around 1920 – the World Cruisers were outfitted with wooden pontoons by employees of the young Boeing Company. These would make it easier to land on water in remote areas between here and Japan, as the flyers traveled north through Canada, west across Alaska Territory, and then out along the Aleutians before making the hop to Asia. In 1924, airstrips were few and far between – while lakes, rivers and harbors were in great supply.

Fast-forward to Sept. 28, 1924, and the World Cruisers returned to Sand Point, having successfully completed the first around-the-world flight. The achievement at that time can’t really be overstated.

Technically speaking, only two of the four planes made the full trip. The World Cruiser named “Seattle” had crashed in Alaska, and the “Boston” had crashed in the Atlantic Ocean. Still, the fact that two of the original planes and one replacement made it back to Seattle is only part of the story.

“The more amazing thing is not just the physical fitness [of the pilots] for making the flights, but the logistics,” said Ken Sparks.

Sparks considers the 1924 flight nothing short of a logistical masterpiece: flying more than 26,000 miles in a total of about 363 hours in the air in a period of 175 days. To keep the motors running and get the fuel and other supplies to be in the right place at the right time in what were often very remote parts of the world required not only American military might and equipment but also the largesse of what’s now ExxonMobil – who donated all the fuel.

Thus, it’s perhaps not a surprise that when those three planes landed at Sand Point exactly 98 years ago Sept. 28, 1924, it was one of the biggest public gatherings in Seattle since the 1918 Armistice, and perhaps even bigger. Newspaper accounts say an estimated 50,000 people were on hand, including many who had camped out overnight. Thousands of vehicles were parked in the grassy areas surrounding the 1,800-foot grass runway, where the World Cruisers – which had shed their floats on the East Coast before making the hop cross-country – eventually touched down around 1:28 p.m. Pacific Time.

In retrospect, the welcome celebration for the World Cruisers probably held the record for the biggest gathering at Magnuson Park at least until the Seafair hydro races were staged there 50 years later in 1974, or when Pearl Jam did their “Drop In the Park” concert in 1992.

Which is part of the reason why the Friends of Magnuson Park want to go all out to celebrate the centennial two years from now.

“It was wild,” Elisa Law told KIRO Newsradio. “These flyers were descended upon by gaggles of women having pieces of their uniforms cut off with penknives – the seat of their pants, their buttons, locks of their hair. People were coinciding their marriages with the landing of the first world flight, they were naming their children after the flyers.”

“It was huge,” Law said.

After a day of celebrations at Sand Point and in other parts of the city, the flyers came back the next day for another ceremony: to dedicate the monument.

Originally, Lewis’ sculpture stood right alongside the Sand Point runway where the World Cruisers had completed their journey. Expansion of the airfield, and conversion to a full-fledged Naval Air Station in the 1930s, meant the monument eventually got moved. Like the Doughboy, the monument may have been moved more than once, and even placed temporarily in storage, before it was installed at the entrance to Magnuson Park to mark the 50th anniversary of the flight in 1974. An old newspaper story from the 1930s even recounts an incident during expansion of the Naval Air Station in which an incoming plane clipped the top of the monument and flipped over – though the two men in the plane were not injured.

As wild as it was in 1924, what might be even more wild about the story of the World Cruisers and Sand Point’s role in the flight is how quickly the whole thing disappeared into the mists of time. Though, Elisa Law and Ken Sparks say there are credible historians who believe the 1924 flight is even more significant than Charles Lindbergh’s solo jaunt across the Atlantic in 1927.

For some reason, that Lindbergh flight and maybe even the disappearance of Amelia Earhart effectively eclipsed the legacy of the 1924 flight.

Elisa Law’s theory is that group achievements aren’t nearly as memorable as solo endeavors.

“It’s not associated with one person,” Law said. “We remember names like Amelia Earhart. We remember names like Charles Lindbergh – one-person operations – whereas this was like a United States military operation.”

“There were eight flyers, four of which made it all the way around, officially,” Law continued. “And because there were so many people involved, my theory is that it gets harder to stick in your memory when it’s more than just one intrepid person.”

The Friends of Magnuson Park are counting on many intrepid people for financial and other support to fund their plans for a big celebration Sept. 28, 2024, which conveniently falls on a Saturday. Law says they hope to partner with aviation organizations and history groups to create something really memorable.

“Friends is entering a new era,” Law said. “We’re starting to run walking tours of the historic district, partnering with Seattle Architecture Foundation to focus on the art deco and colonial revival features of some of these buildings here. We have art exhibits and educational exhibits kind of spread out throughout the historic district” including a 60-foot long photo display about the 1924 flight in the public lobby of one of the recently restored Mercy Housing buildings.

“There’s a lot to be done,” Law continued. “And it’s a really exciting time for our organization and for new people and new ideas to come in and make the organization what they feel it should be.”

One thing that makes marking the 1924 history somewhat challenging – even doing something as simple designing a map for a walking tour to tell the story of the World Cruisers – is how radically altered the landscape is at Magnuson Park and on the grounds of the adjoining National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) facility.

Lee Corbin is a local expert on military history and aviation history, and is currently involved in the effort to restore the Associated Students of the University of Washington (ASUW) Shell House – the home of legendary “The Boys in the Boat” – along the Montlake Cut.

After meeting with Elisa Law and Ken Sparks earlier this week, Corbin led an informal driving and walking tour around Magnuson Park to try and identify exactly where the original 1920s runway, hangar and seaplane dock were located, and to try and find the original spot where the 1924 flight monument was dedicated. Corwin had conducted several hours of preliminary research using old maps, newspaper clippings and aerial photos.

Corbin says it appears that the site of the original early 1920s Sand Point Airfield now lies within the restricted area of the NOAA facility, though there are some possible clues visible from public areas of Magnuson Park through the NOAA fence – including an old shed and a modern pier.

“It’s a corrugated metal roof and just a plain cinder block [structure] from what I can see,” Corbin said, pointing through the fence that lines the eastern edge of parking area in the northernmost section of Magnuson Park. “The only problem is, it looks like it’s oriented north-south, whereas the original hangar was east-west.”

Corbin, whose main focus these days is the ASUW Shell House – which dates to a similar era as the original airfield at Sand Point – has done his homework when it comes to the old Sand Point hangar.

“Supposedly, the Army brought that hangar in,” Corbin said. “I’ve seen two descriptions. One was they brought it in from overseas, and the other description said they brought it in from California. That kind of caught my attention because of my interest in wooden World War I seaplane hangars,” he continued, chuckling at the specificity of his latest deep-dive into aviation history.

While the shed visible on NOAA property may not be an important clue, Corbin thinks the modern NOAA pier that juts into Lake Washington’s Pontiac Bay might be a valuable indicator about the earliest days of Sand Point Airfield.

“I firmly believe that that pier is in the original location [of the 1924 seaplane dock] and then they built this other piece here,” Corbin said, standing on the 1930s era concrete ramp built for PBY Catalina aircrafts and pointing toward the NOAA pier. “I think that’s in the original location, because why would they change it?”

“So I’ve been using that as a reference point to figure out where I think the airfield was,” Corbin said.

Sometime later this year, Corbin and the Friends of Magnuson Park will seek permission to access the NOAA grounds and take a closer look – and maybe the place where the “best kept secret in aviation” happened will give up a few more clues and help clear away some of the mists of time before the 2024 centennial celebration.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or questions, please email Feliks here.

Feliks Banel

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Seattle flight was second only to Wright Brothers in aviation history