Aerial Circumnavigation: Records


Many nations gave birth to aviation and the pioneers who propelled its stunning successes. The idea of flying around the world may be rarely followed by a pilot. Whether due to time constraints, finances, lack of a suitable airplane or other responsibilities, the obstacles are just too daunting for a pilot. In 1913, John Henry Mears was an American who made the record for the fastest trip to circumnavigate the earth in 35 days, 21 hours and 35 minutes; he travelled by a combination of steamers, yachts, and trains; in 1928, he set the record again at 23 days, 15 hours and 21 minutes. But until 1924, no one had tried to circumnavigate the world by air.


The first aerial circumnavigation of the world was completed as early as in 1924 by four aviators from an eight-man team (pilots and mechanics) of the US Army Air Service, the precursor of the US Air Force. On 6 April 1924, four Douglas World Cruisers (DWC) left Sand Point near Seattle, Washington, and completed the first circumnavigation of the globe by air in 175 days on 28 September, after making 74 stops and covering about 27,550 miles.

Douglas DWC No 2 (Chicago)

Two of the four aircraft used for the round-the-world flight crashed or were forced down at the beginning of the journey; the actual expedition was made for most of the flight with two single-engine open-cockpit DWC (the Chicago and the New Orleans) configured as floatplanes, especially developed by the Douglas Aircraft Company to meet a requirement from the US Army Air Service for an aircraft suitable for an attempt at the first flight around the world. The airplanes were named for American cities and carried a flight number: Seattle (1), Chicago (2), Boston (3), and New Orleans (4).

The flight of the DWC was a massive undertaking. They flew over the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic oceans and encountered climatic extremes from arctic to tropical. Thousands of gallons of fuel and oil, 35 replacement engines, and numerous spare parts had to be distributed throughout the world, including places where airplanes had never before flown. To keep their airplanes light enough to get aloft, the fliers could only take 300 pounds of supplies in each plane. They had to make tough decisions about what to include; they did not take parachutes or life preservers. Since a circumnavigation had been done, it became from there necessary to set a speed record in this category.


In 1929, the record for flying around the world was not held by a fixed-wing aircraft, but by the Graf Zeppelin, piloted by Hugo Eckener with a time of 21 days 5 hours and 31 minutes (the only such flight by an airship). The airship departed from Lakehurst, New Jersey on 8 August 1929 and ended at the same place on 29 August.



Souvenir sheet commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Graf Zeppelin airship flight around the world. It reproduces two commemorative cancels related to the Graf Zeppelin LZ 127 round-the-world flight in 1929.


However, two years later, American pilot Wiley Post and Australian navigator Harold Gatty flew a single-engine monoplane Lockheed Vega 5C known as Winnie Mae around the world without navaids, radios, autopilot, life jackets or raft, into unknown weather, at remote and unimproved grass fields with questionable fuel and oil availability. They left on 23 June 1931 Roosevelt Field on Long Island, New York and arrived back on 1 July, after travelling 15,474 miles (24,903 km) in the record time of 8 days and 15 hours and 31 minutes, in the first successful aerial circumnavigation. On 15 July 1933, Wiley Post set off on what he hoped would be a record-breaking flight with the Lockheed Vega 5C Winnie Mae, trying to repeat his flight around the world, this time using the autopilot and radio direction finder in place of his navigator and becoming the first to accomplish the feat alone; fifty thousand people greeted him on his return on 22 July after 7 days, 19 hours and 49 minutes.


First Day Cover commemorating Wiley Post’s feat.


On 14 July 1938, Howard Hughes (with a crew of 3) set another record with a Lockheed 14 Super Electra by completing a flight around the world in 3 days, 19 hours, 17 minutes, beating the previous record set in 1933 by Wiley Post by almost four days. Taking off from New York City on 10 July 1938, Hughes flew a Lockheed 14 Super Electra, a twin-engine transport with a four-man crew fitted with the latest radio and navigational equipment.


Since the 1920s, the challenge of aerial circumnavigation was successfully completed a handful of times in the 1930s, but with the aircraft needing to land to refuel. On 26 February 1949, US Air force pilots went one better with a non-stop flight around the world in 94 hours and 1 minute on a B-50 Superfortress called the Lucky Lady II, though they were refuelled four times in the air. Ended on 2 March 1949, the mission required a double crew with three pilots, under the command of Capt. James Gallagher. Lt. Col. James H. Morris was the co-pilot aboard the Lucky Lady II flight.

A B-52B Stratofortress, called Lucky Lady III and commanded by Lt. Col. James H. Morris, set out to break the previous records. He departed Castle Air Force Base in Merced, California (now closed) on 16 January 1957 and completed the trip around the globe on 18 January, still with refuelling in the air, in 45 hours and 19 minutes, i.e., in less than half the time it took Lucky Lady II. Two of the planes were flying as spares.


Souvenir Cover commemorating Lucky Lady II’s feat in 1949.


On 19 March 1964, Geraldine Jerrie Mock set out from Columbus, Ohio, in a single-engine Cessna 180 (registered N1538C) christened the Spirit of Columbus and nicknamed Charlie; on 17 April, she became what Amelia Earhart had hoped to be: the first woman to fly around the world in a single-engine plane, covering 36,790 km in 29 days at 38.


First Day Cover commemorating Geraldine Mock’s feat in 1964.


Polar circumnavigation is complete navigation around Earth through both the North Pole and the South Pole. Several parties have successfully done it. The first pole-to-pole circumnavigation flight took place between 14 and 17 November 1965 in a modified Flying Tiger Line Boeing 707-349C carrying 40 scientists, guests and crew. To make the trip possible, the plane - nicknamed Pole Cat - had to be modified with two additional fuel tanks installed in the main cabin. The trip took 62 hours and 27 minutes. The route started from Honolulu, Hawaii, USA.

In 1968, a Modern Air Transport Convair 990 airliner with 78 passengers and crew flew over both poles. This plane didn't set a speed record, but by landing for fuel at Antarctica's McMurdo Station, it was the first aircraft to touch all seven continents.


Cover commemorating the first flight around the world from Pole to Pole in 1965.


The fastest circumnavigation of Earth via both the geographic poles by aeroplane is 46 hours 40, minutes and 22 seconds was achieved by Captain Hamish Harding (UK), Captain Jacob Bech (Denmark), Captain Jeremy Ascough (South Africa), Captain Yevgen Vasylenko (Ukraine) and Qatar Executive (Qatar) at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, USA on 11 July 2019. The attempt made three stops for fuel along the way: in Chile, Kazakhstan, and Mauritius. The crew took off on 9 July from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, heading directly to the North Pole in a Gulfstream G650ER jet that can travel at just a few clicks under the speed of sound. The flight came in the 50th anniversary year of the Apollo 11 moon landing and the 500th anniversary year since Portuguese Explorer Magellan sailed on the first maritime trip around the globe.

Finally, there was only one record left to be broken: to circumnavigate, non-stop, without refuelling. On 14 December 1986, Richard Rutan and Jeana Yeager flew a canard wing plane Voyager and took off from Edwards Air force Base, California. Carrying an unprecedented load of fuel, it took the aircraft 9 days, 3 minutes and 44 seconds to become the first aircraft to circumnavigate the globe non-stop, without refuelling. After circling the airport a few times after take-off, the team shook off the damaged wing tips and decided the aircraft could continue with the flight as planned. It was not until Voyager landed nine days later that anyone could see the extent of the damage done to the wings at take-off. Voyager landed again at the Edwards Air Force Base on 23 December 1987. The plane had a 33.5 m wingspan and two engines, one on each end of the main fuselage. The rear engine provided most of the propulsion while the front engine was used for extra energy in climbs. The flexible wings were designed to flop by as much as 9 m. Rutan meant for the development of Voyager, as well as its flight, to inaugurate a new era in aviation. The flight demonstrated the possibilities of non-conventional design and construction to satisfy fields of aviation.

First Day Cover commemorating the flight by Voyager in 1986.


Concorde was jointly developed and manufactured by Sud Aviation (later Aérospatiale) and the British Aircraft Corporation under an Anglo-French treaty. Twenty aircraft were built, including six prototypes and development aircraft. Air France and British Airways were the only airlines to purchase and fly Concorde.

First commercial flight of the Concorde between Paris and New York in 1977

Concorde set the official speed records of the Fédération aéronautique internationale (FAI): "Westbound Around the World" and "Eastbound Around the World" world air speed records. On 12–13 October 1992, in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus's first New World landing, Concorde Spirit Tours (US) chartered Air France Concorde F-BTSD and circumnavigated the world West in 32 hours 49 minutes and 3 seconds, from Lisbon, Portugal, including six refuelling stops. The eastbound record was set by the same Air France Concorde (F-BTSD) under charter to Concorde Spirit Tours in the US on 15–16 August 1995. This promotional flight circumnavigated the world from JFK International Airport, New York in 31 hours 27 minutes 49 seconds, including six refuelling stops.



First Day Cover of Maldives commemorating the 25th anniversary of the first Concorde flight and the 50th anniversary of ICAO.


The balloon had been invented in 1783; none had yet circled the earth. Bertrand Piccard (grandson of balloon pioneer Auguste Piccard, who was the first person to reach the stratosphere by balloon) and Brian Jones made the first non-stop flight around the world in a balloon, the Breitling Orbiter 3, carried by the wind without any engine or way of steering. They started from the Swiss Alpine village of Château-d'Oex on 1 March 1999. They landed in the Egyptian desert after being aloft 19 days, 21 hours, and 55 minutes on 21 March 1999, having travelled a distance of 40,814 km. During the course of the flight, the balloon had climbed to altitudes of up to 11,737 m, and achieved speeds up to 123 knots.



Maximum card issued by Switzerland in March 1999 to commemorate the first non-stop flight around the world by the Breitling Orbiter 3 balloon.


The GlobalFlyer

James Stephen (Steve) Fossett was an American businessman and the first person to fly solo non-stop around the world in a balloon. On 19 June 2002, Fossett made his sixth attempt at the record, taking off from Northam, Western Australia, in the Spirit of Freedom and drifted eastward. On 3 July 2002, he made history as he crossed his starting point, eventually landing in the outback of Queensland after 13 days, 8 hours, and 33 minutes. The Spirit-of-Freedom was a Rozière balloon, which combines the features of a hot-air balloon and a gas balloon, with a helium cell within a hot-air envelope.

In 2005, Fossett became the first person to fly an airplane around the world solo without stopping or refuelling. Piloting the GlobalFlyer, a specialized plane that featured 13 fuel tanks and a 7-foot (2-metre) cockpit, he took off from Salina, Kansas, on 28 February and returned there some 67 hours later, on 3 March.


Solar Impulse is not the first solar airplane, but it is the first to fly day and night, without any fuel, only using energy stored in its batteries. The plane’s unusual look undoubtedly helped the message of the project to be spread worldwide. The wingspan of a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet, the weight of a family car, the power of a small motorcycle, Solar Impulse 2 is the largest aircraft ever built with such a low weight. It has a non-pressurized cockpit and a single wing; the propeller-driven aircraft four engines are powered by energy collected from more than 17,000 solar cells built in the wings. Excess energy is stored in batteries.

During daylight, the solar panels charged the plane’s batteries, which make up a quarter of the craft’s 2.3 tonne weight. The pilot usually climbed to 29,000 feet (9,000 metres) during the day and glided down to 5,000 feet at night, to conserve power. The plane flies at about 30 mph, although it can go faster, if the sun is bright, at a cruising speed of no more than 90 km (56 miles) per hour.

Swiss pioneers Bertrand Piccard (who had already made the first non-stop flight around the world in a balloon, the Breitling Orbiter 3, in 1999) and André Borschberg completed the first round-the-world solar flight, after 14 months since their departure from Abu Dhabi (UAE) on 9 March 2015; they landed at its original take-off point on 26 July 2016. Although achieved in several legs, Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg cumulated around 550 flight hours in the tiny cockpit, travelling 25,000 miles around the world without a drop of liquid fuel; the sun's vibrant rays supplied the craft's only power.


Travis Ludlow, the UK became the youngest person to fly solo around the world at age 18 years in 2021. He took off on his record-breaking journey in a Cessna 172R Diesel from Teuge Airport, Netherlands on 29 May 2021 and finished his route on 12 July 2021 (after 44 days) at the same place after traversing four continents, 15 countries and 63 stops. The advantage of having to fly at a relatively low altitude meant that Travis got to witness some of the most remarkable views our planet has to offer. He met the previous record-holder, Mason Andrews, in Louisiana who completed his round-the-world journey in October 2018. A nice picture of Travis Ludlow in front of his Cessna can be viewed at the following link: Travis Ludlow.


Zara Rutherford is a Belgian-British aviator; she grew up in a family of aviators. At age 19, she became the youngest female pilot to fly solo around the world; aside from this record, she also broke two other records to become: 1) the first woman to circumnavigate the world in a microlight aircraft; and 2) the first Belgian to circumnavigate the world solo in a single-engine aircraft.

The Shark UL Aircraft

On 18 August 2021, Zara Rutherford began her journey from Kortrijk-Wevelgem Airport in Belgium heading west aboard the two-seat Shark Ultralight aircraft, which was loaned to her by the Slovakian manufacturer Shark.Aero; the Shark Aero is a lightweight, low-altitude plane that is known for its speed and agility with a flight ceiling of about 3921 metres. After five months, she landed on 20 January 2022 at the same airport from which she began the trip, completing her flight around the world in 199 days. Zara Rutherford’s epic journey spanned five continents and 52 countries. The circumnavigation included more than 60 stops, including one at Saint-Hubert’s airport, just south of Montréal, on 25 August 2021.

She faced many difficulties: visa issues, bad weather, no Wi-Fi service and winter storm in Russia; strict COVID-19 restrictions in China; thunderstorm in Banda Aceh, Indonesia; flat tire in Singapore; earthquake in Veracruz, Mexico; maintenance at several points along the way; etc.

In her single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza A36 aircraft, the American aviator Shaesta Waiz was the first female certified civilian pilot who, in 2017 at 30, became the youngest woman to fly solo around the world in a single-engine aircraft in 145 days, a record she held until Zara Rutherford completed the flight at the age of 19.

A nice picture of Zara Rutherford in front of her plane can be viewed at the following link: Zara Rutherford.

Through this expedition, Zara also aimed to encourage girls and young women to pursue their dreams and promote aviation and STEM-related careers (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) for them. Only 8% of commercial pilots and 20% of scientists are women. In both areas – aviation and STEM – the gender gap is huge. As more and more businesses and organizations look to innovate, modernize and grow, the demand for people who can fill STEM-related jobs will only increase.

Mack Rutherford, 16-year-old, was inspired by his sister, Zara Rutherford; he hopes to join his sister in the record books after starting his attempt to become the youngest person to fly around the world solo in a small plane on 23 March 2022. In a Shark ultralight aircraft, he took off from an airstrip west of Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, in windy but clear conditions on. His sponsor, the web hosting company ICDSoft, is headquartered in Sofia and it also loaned him the plane. If successful, he would displace Travis Ludlow of Britain who was 18 when he set the record in 2021.


Zara Rutherford after the solo flight on 20 January 2022.


But what's the very fastest we can circumnavigate the globe today? Essentially, the answer depends on the rules of the game. The record for circumnavigating the world within our own atmosphere was set back in 1992 by Air France with the Concorde in a little under 33 hours. But once you get into outer space, much faster times become possible. The astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) circle the Earth every 92 minutes.