Round-the-World: Pre-Game Flight

The quartet of airplanes made their way up from California to the Seattle area beginning on March 17, with high hopes.

From Sky Master: The Story of Donald Douglas: “For half a year the Air Service had been working on the final plans on their aerial expedition. The flight was to leave from Santa Monica, cover some twenty-two countries and approximately 25,000 miles, [and] return to Santa Monica in August.

“The foreign lands to be visited or flown over were Canada, Alaska, Russia (the Kamchatka Peninsula), Japan, China, Indo-China, Siam, Burma, India, Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Rumania, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria, Germinay, France, England, Scotland, the Danish Faerce Islands, Iceland, and Greenland.

The globe-circling course as viewed from the North Pole also carried the images of several crew from the Douglas World Cruisers round-the-world flight. [Credit: From “Sky Master: The Story of Donald Douglas,” by Frank Cunningham]

“During the flight, the airmen were to soar over numerous bodies of water, such as the Gulf of Alaska, North Pacific Ocean, Yellow Sea, China Sea, Gulf of Siam, Bay of Bengal, Persian Gulf, The Straits, English Channel, the North Sea, the North Atlantic Ocean, the Denmark Strait, the Davis Strait, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.”

But that was if the intrepid adventurers could make it past the western coast of the United States.

Misfortune descended upon Captain Martin’s airplane, the Seattle. As he flew up the San Joaquin Valley towards points to the north, Martin made a forced landing. From Sky Master: “He didn’t know it then, but that was nothing compared to what was to come a short time later.”

Women of Douglas Aircraft

The foundation for the Douglas Aircraft Company started with a woman’s financial support: Charlotte Douglas married Donald in 1916, and cashed in a life insurance certificate she had in savings of $2,000 in 1922 to help launch Douglas Aircraft following his break with Davis.

Charlotte also led the team of women who hand-stitched the fabric covering the wings and fuselages of the Cloudster and Douglas World Cruisers, and performed subsequent detail work within the shop.

Women crafted the fabric covering for the fuselage and wings of the Douglas World Cruisers. [from “Together We Fly: Voices From the DC-3” by Julie Boatman Filucci]

She served as the social director, a counterpoint to Donald’s reserved nature, up until their bitter divorce in 1953.

Douglas, however, was far from finished with having women serve in vital roles for the company.

Peggy Tucker began her time with DAC in the 1930s as a driver, and worked her way up into roles ever closer to “Doug”—to the point where they began an affair leading to their marriage as soon as the ink was dry on his divorce.

As Peggy Douglas, she installed herself literally as the gatekeeper to the executive suite—not as a secretary but as the corporate deputy to Doug.

How did that work out? Read the rest of the tale in “Honest Vision: The Donald Douglas Story.”

A Clutch of Cruisers Leave Clover Field

March 17, 1924, marked a St. Patrick’s Day to remember for the Scottish Douglas clan of Southern California.

While recovering from the illness that had barred him from attending the events surrounding the impending departure of the Douglas World Cruisers, Donald Douglas surely smiled at least a little bit. For his ambition to grow the Douglas Aircraft Company by means of incredible feats of aviation history were about to take flight.

Robert Arnold, grandson of Douglas and Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, recalled his mother Barbara’s memory of her own grandmother’s recollection of the occasion. “Granny [Arnold came] up for some of these events from San Diego, and during one of them, Hap put her in the back seat of [one of] the World Cruiser[s] and took her up for a spin. And Granny was about 4 foot 10 inches and always wore big hats, and always a charming and, for her time, a highly educated woman.”

The Douglas World Cruisers lined up at Clover Field on the departure day, March 17, 1924. [Courtesy of the Santa Monica Public Library]

“Doug” watched the send off in a checkered cap and horn-rimmed glasses, striving to look the part of the nonchalant man-of-the-world he strove to be.

On the morning of the grand departure, the airplanes stood ready to go, but fog blanketed Clover Field. After a two-hour delay, three of Cruisers lifted off. It was 9:30 a.m., according to “Sky Master.”

What about the fourth? Lt. Nelson’s airplane, Ship Number Four, the New Orleans, sat in San Diego, only just completed the day before. Nelson made his way up the coast solo to join his compatriots in Seattle.

Douglas World Cruiser Departure, Almost!

Of all the best laid plans, the launch of an around-the-world flight still ranks as a prodigious undertaking—and that’s in the modern era, with reliable aircraft, satellite imagery, and global weather sourcing. Any number of calamities grave and minor could conspire to scuttle the start of the epic journey proposed by the U.S. Army Air Corps for its quartet of Douglas World Cruisers.

Still, hope springs eternal—and certainly it did in the Roaring Twenties. March 16, 1924, was selected as the target, and the city of Santa Monica hosted its World Flight Day on that pleasant Sunday. With a high of 65 degrees F and no precipitation, it would have made a perfect day to take off from Clover Field for points north but for one thing.

The entire Douglas family—at the time, Donald, Charlotte, Donald Jr (born in 1917), William (1918), and Barbara Jean (1922)—fell ill to whooping cough and missed the festivities. The family would catch up to the mighty DWCs as they were prepped to go in Washington state a couple of weeks later.

And who would fly these ships of wood and metal and fabric around the world? Each one would carry a pilot and a technician—one to fly and one to keep it flying—and the roster represented what the Air Corps considered to be its top ranking pilots, as well as ones capable of the mission ahead.

In Ship Number One: Major F.L. Martin, commander of the World Flight and Commandant of Chanute Field in Rantoul, Illinois; and Staff Sergeant A.L. Harvey, mechanic.

In Ship Number Two: Lt. Lowell Smith, a transcontinental ace and holder of the world’s endurance record at the time; and Technical Sergeant A,H. Turner, technician.

In Ship Number Three: Lt. Leigh Wade, former test pilot at McCook Field; and Staff Sergeant A.H. Ogden from the First Pursuit Group in Detroit.

In Ship Number Four: Lt. Erik Nelson, engineering officer for the World Flight; and Lt. John Harding Jr., maintenance officer.

Alternate crew members were there as well: pilots Lt. Leslie P. Arnold, and Lt. LeClair Schulze, a Pulitzer racer in 1922.

As the pilots assembled for the flight, they were supposed to bunk at the posh hotels in Santa Monica, but none would give the DWC crews special rates. I suppose pilots were cheap even back then… fortunately, the Christie Hotel in Hollywood stepped up to the plate.

From “Sky Master”: “Although an excellent hotel, the Christie wasn’t among the blue-blood establishments. The offer was accepted. When the flyers returned as heroes to Santa Monica after encircling the world, the managers of the luxury hotels begged the men to be their guests without any charge. The flyers thanked them, smiled, and returned to the Christie.”

Dateline: Santa Monica, 1924

If you pick your way along the paths that front the ocean between Malibu and the Santa Monica Pier, you’d best stay heads up from your phone, lest you get creamed by slender blondes and bronzed others ricocheting past on a run.

That’s not the Santa Monica that Donald Douglas knew—nearly a century has passed since he first walked down to the shoreline from his new house on San Vicente Boulevard in the early Thirties.

What would you have seen, though? I follow a couple of historical accounts on X/Twitter, including Pamela Grayson’s Lost Los Angeles, and the Santa Monica History Museum. Recently they’ve published a few photos from late 1923 into 1924… take a look at the pier that was—and the fire that nearly wiped out the Ocean Park Pier.

This is the scene within which the Douglas Aircraft Company finished assembly and test flying of its Douglas World Cruisers ahead of their planned launch from Clover Field (now KSMO) on March 16.

You might also enjoy this piece from Los Angeles Magazine, “When Santa Monica Airport Was Clover Field,” published in 2014.

Where Honest Vision Was Born

We’d traveled to Santa Monica on the day before, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the DC-3’s first flight. Because the weather on the actual day, December 17, 2010, threatened low clouds and rain, we planned to fly with a friend in Betsy’s Biscuit Bomber, a C-47 based in Paso Robles, on the afternoon of the 16th, from the Santa Monica Airport at 3:30 pm, to match the time that Carl Cover first took a Douglas Sleeper Transport to the skies in 1935.

But we had time to kill—a dangerous thing for a pilot crew—so I told my pals Dan and Matt that we’d drive down San Vicente Boulevard, so that we could see the house that Donald Douglas had designed and built, in 1927, for his family. Well, what we *could* see of it, hidden behind its long stucco walls.

We parked and walked along the sidewalk to the front gate, which had been braced with the Olde English style lamps that Doug favored. I peered through a crack…you couldn’t really see a thing from the road. “Should we see if anyone’s there?” said Dan. I hesitated. It never occured to me to ring the bell, to disturb whoever lived there. But it was early afternoon on a weekday—so in my mind, no one was likely to answer.

But someone did. And introducing himself as the house manager, the man asked what we wanted. Dan told him we were in town to celebrate the DC-3, that we knew the house as Doug’s own. And next thing we knew, the gate parted, opening onto a drive down which strolled Douglas, the kind estate manager, who offered to show us around.

I was stunned, not believing our luck. Jim Douglas, Doug’s son, had told me that he hadn’t seen inside the house since it was sold, following his parents’ divorce, in the mid 1950s.

We walked past the rose garden and around the back into the living room. The house was overjoyed with Christmas decorations, lending it a timeless, enchanted feeling. Douglas detailed the restoration work that the owner had completed—she was a native to the neighborhood, and most everything in the house was still original, as the only intermediate owner died without any money to remodel or fix things up.

He introduced us to the kitchen, the dining room, and the lounge, complete with its own pine-clad bar set into the wall. He showed us where the fallout shelter had been, and where Doug’s shop once stood—it was now an intimate movie theater, where once Doug had built models and tinkered with inventions with his children.

Finally, we stood in what had been Doug’s study, and I took in its somber, yet inviting warmth. I imagined his books lining the shelves—knowing that he kept special ones locked away in a hidden cupboard. I asked Douglas if he’d found it, and he smiled. Yes, and he showed us where it was—exactly where my eyes had been. It was the most logical place, but somehow, also, it made sense to me in a different way. I understood a little bit more that day about the man who led his company to create the DC-3.

He came home to his study each day during those years between 1932 and 1936, when the development of the Douglas Commercial line hit full stride, and came to a milestone with the entry into service of American’s first DST in 1936. Douglas had set out a leather-bound folder on the desk, with Doug’s initials (DWD) embossed in gilt on the front cover. Inside were a series of professional photos, shot dramatically in black and white—they were staged for an issue of Architectural Digest that neither Douglas nor I have been able to locate. These were used to help the owner restore the home to its period state.

But more so than that, they confirmed that where we stood resembled very closely the home in which Doug lived while the DC-3 came to life in the factory over in Santa Monica’s Clover Field municipal airport. I breathed in every bit of those rooms that I could, knowing that someday I would write more about this intriguing man’s life.

That was eight years ago, of course. So this year, I’m proud to wish a Happy 83rd Birthday to the DC-3, and raise a toast to 2018 during which that biography, “Honest Vision: The Donald Douglas Story,” came to life.

The Douglas C-47 Miss Virginia at Oshkosh 2018. Photo by Stephen Yeates.

Happy 80th, Darla Dee

On October 29, 1938, a DC-3-227A, c/n 2054, rolled out of the Douglas Aircraft factory in Santa Monica, California, on a beautiful autumn day. Nothing of particular note on her entry into service–except for where she was bound. She’d soon be put on board the deck of a ship bound for Antwerp, Belgium, where she’d be reassembled and put into flying condition. Reborn as HB-IRO, she’d fly for Swiss Air until the war shadowed Europe and she detailed to that effort.

Her early life, for Swiss Air, as HB-IRO

After World War II, she returned to the United States, where she flew as a corporate transport, until Ozark Airlines snapped her up in the late 1950s, and christened her “N143D.” She flew around the Midwest for several years, until she retired from airline flying in 1968. Academy Airlines, a cargo operation in Griffin, Georgia, put her back to work in the 1970s and 80s, and she trained new pilots to the joys of large tailwheel flying–and the life of the freight dog.

N143D during her days flying cargo for Academy Airlines

Since 2001, she’s had an easier life, back to training full time, then, beginning in the summer of 2017, providing lift for skydivers in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. She visits airshows from time to time, sponsored by Gold Seal Ground Schools–but her favorite thing has to be showing kids what flying history looks like. You can read more about her story in “Together We Fly: Voices From The DC-3,” and more about how Donald Douglas led the team that developed the Douglas Commercial aircraft line in “Honest Vision: The Donald Douglas Story.” Happy birthday, Darla Dee!

N143D showing a beautiful wing at Oshkosh 2017. Photo by David Parlee/ASA 2018