Any American who can fog a mirror will know the name of the airplane and aviator that first flew from New York to Paris nonstop, but the details of a perhaps more difficult accomplishment—first to fly all the way around the world—are known only to aviation buffs. The six-month voyage of two Douglas World Cruiser biplanes from Seattle to Seattle westbound in 1924 was overshadowed by Lindbergh’s epic solo just three years later. Retired Boeing avionics engineer Robert Dempster and his wife, Diane, herself a member of Boeing’s 737 team and also a pilot, now intend to fill at least some of that void.
Over the last decade, Bob Dempster and a small group of volunteer craftspeople have constructed a remarkably accurate replica of a Douglas World Cruiser, and the Dempsters plan to re-create the original 73-leg round-the-world feat starting early next April. (The airplane, Seattle II, made its maiden flight on June 29, at Boeing Field in Seattle.)
The original record flight was not only a technological milestone but also an organizational and logistical triumph, orchestrated by the U.S. Army Air Service. Some 30 spare engines, standby floats and wheeled landing gear—the World Cruisers would use both setups—plus fuel and support personnel were stationed all along the route, with U.S. Navy vessels spaced along the overwater legs. Four World Cruisers started the flight. One, Seattle, crashed in Alaska not long after the start of the epic journey, and Boston ditched in the North Atlantic four months later. (Both crews were rescued.) New Orleans and Chicago survived the entire circumnavigation, joined by the prototype, christened Boston II.
The Dempster Douglas is a triumph as well. Bob started the project with his and Diane’s own funds 10 years ago and only slowly acquired helpers and sponsors. The project has at times been homeless, shifting from hangar to friendly hangar, at one point ending up in a Boeing facility. With a 50-foot wingspan and towering to 15 feet on floats—even with the airplane on wheels, Dempster can stand under the nose—his airplane is, for a single-engine biplane, a monster. Gross weight is nearly four tons, making this one of the largest and heaviest homebuilts ever attempted.
Dempster’s only concessions to current technology are modern avionics; aluminum Edo floats with water rudders; a tailwheel rather than a skid for runway landings; and aircraft-grade fasteners, fittings, fuselage tubing and fabric. At one time, Dempster planned to use a modern engine in place of the original World Cruiser’s Liberty V-12, but his replica will be outfitted with a fully restored, Lincoln-built, 420-hp Liberty Model A for the trip. A gutsy move, since the original World Cruisers underwent complete engine changes in Japan and then India. See seattleworldcruiser.org.