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"Magellan of the Air": Fascinating Stories Beyond the Exhibit

June 4, 2024
Beginning of Aviation Exhibit in Metro Archives with mannequin wearing WWI aviator uniform
Entrance to "Magellans of the Air" exhibit in Metro Archives.

The current exhibit in Metro Archives tells the abbreviated story of the first flight to circumnavigate the globe, a significant event that unfolded precisely a century ago. What makes it particularly noteworthy for Nashville? It's because one of the mechanics aboard the expedition was none other than Nashville's own John "Smiling Jack" Harding. 

The tale of the mission itself is inherently heroic, but when you factor in the numerous close calls and amusing anecdotes, it truly springs to life. Regrettably, we couldn't incorporate all the tales from the exhibit, as they were documented in Lowell Thomas's 1924 book, The First World Flight. However, we have a bit more space here to delve further into their journey, commencing with the milestone of being the first flight to traverse the Pacific Ocean. 

Before I begin though, we'd like to provide this disclaimer for the content shared from The First World Flight book and the thoughts from the aviators...

The language directly quoted from the aviators has been preserved in its original form as documented by Lowell Thomas in The First World Flight and other historical records. This language reflects the era in which it was written and is provided for historical accuracy. It is neither created nor endorsed by Metro Archives or the Nashville Public Library.

Photo of the original personnel of the world flight

May 15th-17th: The Flight Crosses the Pacific

Map of Flight Jump clipping
Clipping from the San Francisco Examiner, date: May 19th, 1924.
The fliers' first view of Siberia.
The fliers first view of Siberia. Photo from The First World Flight book, A/I enhanced by Bob Henderson.

One of the first big milestones of the journey included crossing the Pacific Ocean by air, and this would be the first time that was accomplished. Their sights were set for the Kurile Islands, but poor visibility and weather had other plans. So they were forced to land in Russian Territory. That wasn't exactly planned, nor was it a big no-no. 

They landed in the water in Nikoloski Harbor alongside the Eider, which was there just in case of emergency. From Lt. L.P. Arnold, mechanic of the "Chicago"...

"The port officials came aboard and while very pleasant informed us that we'd have to stay aboard the Eider and that they had wired Russia regarding us -- but if only we have decent weather in the morning we will be gone."

And from another member of the crew (unknown)…

"We heard nothing more that day officially. They sat around smoking cigarettes and chatting for a while. Upon returning to the village, they showed their good-will by sending out a flagon of vodka – which, however, we did not drink.

Just as we were getting ready to take off, out came the bearded committee in their little boat with word from Moscow that we could not be allowed to stop there. We thanked them for their courtesy, and chuckled to ourselves a bit because we had already remained as long as we wanted."

Excited Onlookers Throughout the World

Arriving in Japan
Onlookers waiting for the aviators arrival in Japan. Photo from The First World Flight book, A/I enhanced by Bob Henderson.

Considering the magnitude of their mission, it's not surprising to learn that with almost every stop they made - they were greeted by not just a few people, but thousands. Here are a few tales from their various landings.

When the Boston and New Orleans reached Shanghai, the Yangtze-Kiang River was swarming with junks and sampans...

"As we flew across the mouth of the river and drew near Shanghai, we were amazed at the number of craft below us. The river teemed with tens of thousands of junks, sampans, and steamers. But we found when we came down that the harbor-master had held up all traffic in the river for hours. Just in one bunch there were over two hundred and fifty boats loaded with fish, and these hardly represented a hundredth part of all that Bedlam of boats. Not knowing just how much space we should require, the harbor-master had cleared several miles of water-front in order to save us from the fate of D’Oisy, the French world flier, who had crashed on the outskirts of Shanghai a few days before."

Landing in Kagoshima, Japan, onlookers waving American flags.
Landing in Kagoshima, Japan, onlookers waving American flags. Photo from The First World Flight book, A/I enhanced by Bob Henderson.



Landing in the City of Light

Lieutenant Ogden Waving the Tricolor Flag of France as the Boston Taxied across Le Bourget Aerodrome on Bastille Day
Lieutenant Ogden waving the tricolor flag of France as the Boston taxied across Le Bourget Aerodrome on Bastille Day. Photo from The First World Flight book, A/I enhanced by Bob Henderson.

Exhaustion trailed the globe-trotters throughout the entire flight, even during their landing into Paris. But the reception that met them there was no small crowd. According to the men, it took them quite some time to make it through the crowd just to work on their planes.

"It was the afternoon of July 14th, Bastille Day, and thousands of people were cheering and waving flags when at five-fifteen we taxied up to the hangars at Le Bourget. An hour passed before we could get a chance to do any work on our planes because it took that long for us to shake hands with the many high French officials and foreign diplomats who had come out to greet us." 

And, in the evening when they were taken to the Folies Bergéres (a cabaret music hall), they had a hard time staying awake during the performances...

"...Dead tired after having flown more than ten hours that day, as soon as we had made ourselves comfortable in the box, we promptly fell asleep. The whiskers of the Assistant Cabinet Minister, who was sitting near me, bristled with astonishment at my behavior: I know they did, because he gave me a nudge in the ribs during a particularly spectacular scene. I opened my eyes, looked at him and then at the celebrated Folies, who were prancing along a runway out over the heads of the audience. “Huh,” I said, too tired to take interest, and then went back to sleep. The Paris newspapers commented on this and Le Matin said: “If the Folies Bergéres won’t keep these American airmen awake, we wonder what will?"

Posing for the camera in Paris. When they landed on the outskirts of Paris, Nelson and Ogden were still wearing the knee pants they had picked up in India. Photo from The First World Flight book, A/I enhanced by Bob Henderson. 

Around the world and landing in Santa Monica (California)

Landing back in Santa Monica on a field of roses.
Landing back in Santa Monica on a field of roses. Photo from The First World Flight book, A/I enhanced by Bob Henderson. 

When the men circled back to their unofficial starting point, the reception they received was akin to a mob scene, reminiscent of the Beatles' arrival in the United States in 1964.

"As we approached Santa Monica and looked down to see whether Clover Field, under command of Lieutenant Horace Kenyon, was still there, we noticed that the adjoining fields were packed with automobiles. They were lined fender to fender in rows a half-mile long and a half mile deep.

The size of the crowd was variously estimated at from one hundred thousand to a quarter of a million. As we circled around and came gliding down into the wind at 2:25 P.M. I thought to myself: “Boys, we’re in for a wild time.” And we were."


"All around was a heavy line of guards. As we crawled out of our cockpits, the crowd went wild. With a roar, they knocked down the fence. They knocked down the police. They knocked down the soldiers. They knocked us down.

They tried to pull our ships apart for souvenirs, but somehow we fought them off. Los Angeles had a pot of gold waiting for us in the grandstand, we were told, symbolizing our arrival at the end of the rainbow. But we had as hard a time reaching it as the Forty-Niners had in winning gold from the soil of California."

You Can't Make This Stuff Up...

The journey was brimming with unforgettable moments, each imbued with rich context that offered insight into their daily lives. Some of the experiences they encountered were so extraordinary, they defy imagination!

Drawing by Franklin Collier for The Independent, "If they had brought home all their gifts and souvenirs."
Drawing by Franklin Collier for The Independent, "If they had brought home all their gifts and souvenirs."

Leather Helmets in the Desert?!

Crew at their planes in Ambala, India.
Crew at their planes in Ambala, India. Photo from The First World Flight book, A/I enhanced by Bob Henderson.

Dining with the Royal Air Force pilots in Ambala, India, the pilots shocked the Royal Air Force crew with their headwear while flying through the desert...

"These lads were horror-struck when they saw us climb from our planes wearing the regulation leather helmets used in temperate climates, and they told us harrowing tales of how men went mad in the air as a result of the tropical Indian sun penetrating their skulls. While flying along the Afghan frontier, where the Royal Air Force has a patrol, they told us that pilots sometimes did insane stunts that could only be accounted for by the sun. So not wanting to arrive in Baghdad crazy as loons, we were very glad to accept their kind offer of specially constructed aviation sun helmets made for India."

The Stowaway

Photo of the journalist that snuck on one of the planes
Journalist Linton Wells, the man who snuck on board the Boston to continue following the flight. Photo from The First World Flight book.

When the flyers landed in Calcutta and switched their planes from pontoons to wheels, they gained an unexpected extra piece of cargo. Linton Wells, an Associated Press reporter, had followed the boys from Japan and snuck on board to continue following them. When they landed in Allahabad, Wade and Sgt. Ogden of the Boston heard an unfamiliar noise while servicing their planes. Having been completely familiar with every noise and squeak the planes made, they knew this was unusual. When they discovered Mr. Wells, they sent a message to Gen. Patrick about allowing him to continue on the flight. Until they heard back though, Mr. Wells had to find another seat...

"On this trip, the stowaway was no longer obliged to conceal himself in the tool compartment, for Ogden invited him to share his cockpit. Wells sat on six inches of seat, wedged against the dual set of controls. For six hours they sat jammed together, so neither could move."

The Human Homing Pigeon

Lt. Lowell H. Smith (1892-1945), "the homing pigeon". Photo from The First World Flight book, A/I enhanced by Bob Henderson.

Lt. Lowell Smith, a direct descendant of Daniel Boone (on his mother's side), was the right man to have for the navigational job. With all of his education and experience, he was nicknamed the "homing pigeon". And that experience saved their lives during this mission, several times...

"Although the rain and wind were coming from the north and west, we knew they might shift any moment. So, of course, it was impossible to tell where we might drift. It had been our custom to cut our maps into strips and roll them so they would be easy to handle in the cockpit as we flew. They were large scale, and whenever flying over thoroughly explored regions showed every village, mountain, stream, or other landmark. The strip we had along on this hop to Iceland included nothing but the Orkneys, the Faroes, and the eastern end of Iceland. So we could only make a rough guess as to how far we were from the nearest mainland.

We now did a thing that caused the rest of the fellows afterward to dub us the world’s greatest optimists. “Hank” climbed out of his cockpit, hung on to the edge of it with one hand, opened the tool compartment, and ferreted out a very small-scale National Geographic Society map of the world which we had carried all the way with us. On this map we measured off the distance we were from the coast of Norway, and calculated that with favorable winds we might possibly exist – until we drifted to those shores, providing, of course, that we could keep the plane intact that long.

Nelson and Wade pay tribute to Smith for his skill as a navigator. Indeed, everyone who has flown with him declares that his instinct for direction is like that of a homing pigeon."

Reflection on the Impact of Aviation

Finally, the magnitude of their mission was not lost on these men. Throughout The First World Flight book that's a direct telling of the 6-almost 7 month journey, the men would provide insights into the achievement they were striving for and what the future of aviation might look like (based on their perspective). One of these reflections comes from their flight over the Arabian Desert...

"Below us passed many another caravan. ‘hen the airplane comes into its own, as it is sure to do within a few years. one wonders what will become of that most picturesque of men, the desert Arab. Journeys that take him two months can now be made by airplane between sunrise and sunset. Within a short time, planes will be so cheap that even the Bedouin sheik will own one, or several. Then the day of desert raids and racing camels will have passed, because the sheik with his swift pursuit planes will be able to overtake and wipe out his enemy within a few minutes. Both the British in Mesopotamia and the French at Aleppo told us that the Arabs were extremely interested in flying developments. When taken up in a plane the average sheik keeps begging the pilot to go higher and faster.

Long before this, we had already become convinced that the airplane is destined to have an immense influence on the peace of the world. The speed with which men will fly from continent to continent will bring all peoples into such intimate contact that war will be as out of date as the cuneiform inscriptions of the ancient civilizations that the shadows of our Cruisers were passing over."

A view from above, the men flying over New York.
The men arriving in New York. Photo from "The First World Flight" book, A/I enhanced by Bob Henderson.

If you're interested in learning more...

Come to our next program!

Promotional postcard for the next exhibit program on Saturday, June 15th at 2 p.m.


Or, come visit the exhibit! 

It will be up until the first week of October, 2024. Location: Metro Archives (3rd floor of the Downtown Library building).

'Til next time, 


lucille ball


Sarah is a Program Coordinator with Metro Archives. Her interests and areas of expertise are history, reading books (of any kind), music, travel, Harry Potter, and bingeing a good comedy series. When not in Archives, she is either nose-deep in a book or planning her next trip. Learn more about the fascinating materials found at Metro Archives through their website.