A Brief History
On February 16, 1960, the US Navy submarine, USS Triton SSRN-586, set out on a voyage of circumnavigation of the Earth, the first time anyone had made such a voyage completely underwater! Called Operation Sandblast, the voyage of the Triton is one of the most famous trips around the Earth that we list today, joining other pioneering events that have gone down in history as famous trips around the globe.
Questions for Students (and others): Which trip around the Earth do you think is the most famous? Which circumnavigation of the globe do you think was the most groundbreaking? Which of these trips have you not heard of? Are there any other circumnavigations of the Earth that you would like to mention?
1. USS Triton, 1960 (First Underwater).
The Triton was a submarine called a “radar picket sub,” of course nuclear powered and commissioned in 1959. She had a crew of 172 and was over 447 feet long with a top speed on the surface of 30 knots, and able to make 27 knots submerged. Her designed mission as a radar picket was made obsolete by radar carrying airplanes after only 2 years of service in her designed role. Her famous trip lasted from 24 February 1960 to 25 April 1960 (officially, though she left port on February 16, 1960).
2. Magellan, 1519-1522 (First Ever).
While we often hear of Magellan as the “First man to circumnavigate the globe” the truth is he did not even make it, but some of his men did. In fact, only 18 of the 270 sailors on the 5 ships sailing with Magellan finally made it back to Spain! So extraordinary and so perilous was such a voyage during the 16th Century, that the feat was not repeated until Sir Francis Drake matched the accomplishment 58 years later. A note of trivia, is that Magellan in a manner of speaking did personally circumnavigate the Earth, though this conclusion can be reached only by counting 2 separate voyages he made, one from West to East and one from East to West, neither of which by itself made it all the way around the world, though each voyage made it a bit more than halfway.
Honorable mention: Francis Drake, 1577-1580 (First by an Englishman). When Drake made his trip around the world, he became the first Captain to make such a circumnavigation all the way. His ship, the Golden Hind, became one of history’s most famous ships due to this trip. Drake received even more fame by acting as second in command of the British fleet in 1588 when they defeated the Spanish Armada, one of the most famous naval battles of all time.
3. Yuri Gagarin, 1961 (First to orbit the Earth in space).
On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut (their version of astronaut) was sent into orbit around the Earth aboard Vostok 1, becoming the first human being to “slip the surly bonds of Earth” and voyage where no man had gone before, Outer Space. Yuri Gagarin was a Soviet pilot born in Russia in 1934, and despite surviving the dangerous first mission to space, was killed in a 1968 crash of a fighter plane he was piloting. Vostok 1 was the only space flight Gagarin ever made.
Honorable Mention: John Glenn, 1962 (First American to orbit the Earth in space). Not only was Glenn not the first to orbit the Earth in space, he was not even the first American in space, although until Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon Glenn was probably the most famous astronaut in the US.
4. Nellie Bly, 1889-1890 (World Record trip in less than 80 Days).
On November 14, 1889, American female journalist, Nellie Bly, began her trip around the world in a successful attempt to match the fictional story of Phileas Fogg who went Around the World in 80 Days in the 1873 Jules Verne novel. Not only did Bly become the first known human to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days, she actually beat the target by completing the journey in only 72 days, a world record at the time. Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in Cochran Mills, Pennsylvania in 1864, Bly was incensed in 1880 when she read an article titled “What Girls are Good For” in a Pittsburgh newspaper. Her response, under the pseudonym “Lonely Orphan Girl” impressed the paper’s editor so much he asked the writer to contact him and offered her an opportunity to write more articles, and then gave her a full time job. She assumed the pen name “Nellie Bly” as a variation on the Stephen Foster song, “Nelly Bly.” By 1885 she was working as a foreign correspondent in Mexico, having tired of assignments writing about women’s fashion and the like. In 1887 Bly took on a dramatic assignment as an undercover mental patient at the Women’s Insane Asylum in Blackwell’s Island, New York (now called Roosevelt Island) while working for the New York World (owned by Joseph Pulitzer). Declared insane by multiple doctors, Bly endured 10 days of hell in the asylum, until the newspaper staff got her released. Though her record breaking trip was soon bested, she has received enduring fame for her 72 day trip around the world.
5. US Army/Douglas Aircraft, 1924 (First by airplanes).
Then called the United States Army Air Service, the organization that would later become the US Air Force sponsored an aerial expedition by 4 Douglas DT-2 torpedo bombers, biplanes that were specially modified to carry more fuel., a massive increase from 115 gallons to a whopping 644 gallons! Each plane carried a crew of 2 men, and each plane bore the name of an American city, Seattle, Chicago, Boston and New Orleans. Only 2 of the Douglas aircraft made it back to Seattle, along with a replacement plane called Boston II that took the place of Boston that had gone down over the Atlantic Ocean (but the crew was rescued). The record flight took 175 days and included 5 engine changes and 2 wing changes for each airplane!
6. US Air Force, 1949 (First non-stop by airplane).
On February 26, 1949, the Boeing B-50 bomber named Lucky Lady II took off from Fort Worth, Texas, on a non-stop around the world flight. At this point in history, the United States was the only nuclear power in the world, and the B-29, with its replacement, the B-50, the only nuclear bombers. When the B-50 made its 94 hour flight, it did so with 4 air to air refueling and with extra gas tanks occupying its bomb bay. The plane made the flight with a double crew, which included 3 pilots, to allow crewmembers to take shifts flying while others napped. As with the Great White Fleet 4 decades earlier, the record flight was a notice to the Soviet Union and the world that the US Air Force could fly anywhere in the world to deliver a nuclear weapon.
7. Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, 1986 (First non-stop, non-refueled by airplane).
Dick Rutan is a retired US Air Force pilot and a well known aviation pioneer. Jeana Yeager, no relation to the famous US pilot Chuck Yeager, is also a pilot, and the 2 of them have set numerous flying records. The previous long distance unrefueled flight record of about 12,000 miles was held by a USAF B-52, set in 1962. The incredible flight by Rutan and Yeager was set in a specially designed long distance airplane called the Rutan Voyager, designed by Rutan for the purpose of making the record flight. A weird looking contraption, the plane only weighed a bit under 10,000 pounds empty, and was made with twin engine booms and a crew nacelle in the middle, remotely similar to the WWII P-38 Lightning, except the twin propellers were located on the front and back of the middle nacelle instead of the twin booms. Looking more like a glider than a powered airplane, the Voyager had a length of only 29 feet but a wingspan of 110 feet. The fragile looking plane was designed to fly at a top speed of only 122 mph with an endurance of 216 hours of powered flight. The record flight lasted just over 9 days long, an exhausting experience for the cramped pilots. Average altitude was 11,000 feet and total distance traveled was 26, 366 and only 116 gallons of fuel remained when the flight was complete, a mere 1.5% of the total fuel at take off from Edwards Air Force Base (California). Speaking of fuel, at take off, the wings laden with fuel drooped so much that the wingtips hit the runway, breaking the winglets installed on them, but the damage was disregarded and the flight went off anyway.
8. Richarda Morrow-Tait, 1948-1949 (First woman, and still youngest woman to fly around the Earth).
This Englishwoman became a pilot at the age of 23 in 1946, and in 1948 took off for her history making flight around the world. Leaving from Croydon, England with only a navigator as passenger, she flew a single-engine Percival Proctor IV, a single engine low wing monoplane and returned 1 year and 1 day later, the flight having many hiccups along the way. A 7 week wait for a new engine in Calcutta, India, certainly added to the length of the trip! Most of the way around the world, a serious problem caused Richarda to make an emergency landing on the ALCAN Highway in Alaska, then little more than a rough road. With the Percival Proctor wrecked, Richarda was fortunate enough to be given a 1942 Vultee Valiant through the donations of supportive Americans. Only 8 months after landing triumphantly in England, Richarda gave birth, causing her husband to divorce her on the grounds of her infidelity with her navigator. She died in 1982 of a blood disease.
9. Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones, 1999 (First non-stop balloon trip around the Earth)
Swiss balloonist Bertrand Piccard and English balloonist Brian Jones made their impressive history making flight in a composite hot air balloon with a Helium filled cell also in the gas bag, named Breitling Orbiter powered by propane flames, taking off from Switzerland and flying Eastward until landing in Egypt almost 18 days later. No typical wicker gondola type balloon you may see at your local Balloonfest (Ashland Balloonfest, Ohio, every year during 4th of July Week!), the Breitling Orbiter was a high tech machine, complete with carbon fiber and Kevlar gondola that was pressurized to allow flights at high altitude. Both of these brave pilots are also involved in other record breaking aerial activities, including Piccard being a pilot on the first ever round the world flight in a solar powered aircraft (2015-2016 in the Solar Impulse 2).
Honorable mention: Steve Fossett, 2002 (First solo non-stop balloon tip around the Earth).
Steve Fosset is more than just a balloonist, as he has set over 100 records for long distance travel in balloons, airplanes, and even boats. He is only the second person to fly around the world non-stop and unrefueled, and the only one to make that flight solo (in the GlobalFlyer in 2005). Did we mention his records in mountain climbing and cross country skiing? And that is not all! Steve Fossett, born James Stephen Fossett in Tennessee in 1944, is one truly remarkable person. Sadly, he died in a plane crash at the age of 63 in 2007.
10. The Great White Fleet; 1907–1909 (First Naval fleet to sail around the Earth).
President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt made the phrase “Speak softly but carry a big stick” famous, and while he was President of the United States the “big stick” of the USA was its Navy. Roosevelt understood better than most politicians the importance of sea power as a projection of a nation’s power and prestige. Sending the Great White Fleet around the world advised all nations, friendly and enemy to the US that the United States was a major actor on the international scene and was assuming its rightful place among the world powers. The sight of 16 modern bright white battleships along with support vessels must have made quite an impact on all who witnessed the fleet pull into port. The world was on notice that the US had a big stick indeed.
Bonus: Joshua Slocum, 1895-1898 (First to sail solo around the World). Born in Nova Scotia in 1844, Slocum led a sailing life and went on many long distance voyages with his family or alone. He set sail on a 36 feet 9 inch sloop (gaff rigged) named Spray in 1895, sailing from Boston to Nova Scotia before heading East to the Mediterranean where he intended to take the Suez Canal to the Red Sea. On arrival at Gibraltar, he was advised of the extreme danger of pirates along the North African coast, and instead turned back and sailed West to Brazil to make his around the world voyage a Westward one! In 1898 he finally completed his journey, landing at Newport, Rhode Island, having sailed solo for over 46,000 miles. Oddly enough, there was no fanfare, as the start of the Spanish-American War had all the headlines!
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For more information, please see…
Connelly, Jack. Ferdinand Magellan: Circumnavigating the Globe. Cavendish Square Publishing, 2015.
Grant, RG. Flight: The Complete History of Aviation. DK, 2017.
Phelps, Mark. Flight: 100 Greatest Aircraft. Weldon Owen, 2013.
Wimmel, Kenneth. Theodore Roosevelt and the Great White Fleet: American Sea Power Comes of Age. Potomac Books Inc, 1998.
The featured image in this article, the undersea route of USS Triton, SSN(R) 586, shown here is course Magellan sailed topside, 1519, from U.S. Navy All Hands magazine July 1960, p. 53, is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain in the United States.