by Paul R. Spitzzeri
When Los Angeles hosted the National Air Races and Aeronautical Exposition at Mines Field, now Los Angeles International Airport, on the undeveloped western fringes of the burgeoning metropolis from 8-16 September 1928, one of the many events was the honoring of a group of aviators who completed a flying achievement that has been almost completely forgotten in the wake of individual endeavors like Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris in May 1927.
This was a circumnavigation of the planet eight by “air Magellans” (Ferdinand Magellan being the head of a Spanish sailing expedition around the world in the early 16th century), who left Clover Field—now Santa Monica Airport—and headed to Seattle, where the official start to the flight took place. Among the octet was Lieutenant John Harding, Jr., who was the co-pilot and mechanic for Swedish-born Erik H. Nelson in the airship New Orleans, one of the four craft that embarked on the epic flight.
Harding was born in 1896 in Nashville, Tennessee and spent most of his youth in that country music mecca. After a year at his hometown Vanderbilt University, he moved to Detroit, the automobile capital of the nation, where he worked as a machinist for the Dodge Motor Car Company. Harding initially sought an exemption when he registered for the draft in June 1917 just after the United States joined the Allies in World War One because of his mother being a dependent, but he then enlisted with the Army Air Service.
After the conclusion of the conflict, Harding remained in the military was a mechanic sergeant when he was selected to join a quintet of Army personnel, led by Lt. Col. Rutherford S. Hartz, as they flew a bomber on a 7,805-mile journey around the rim of the country. The Los Angeles Evening Express of 24 July 1919 reported that
The flight is the longest ever attempted by the [A]rmy air service and will carry the machine through 31 states, over 95 cities and cover long stretches of the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts as well as the Canadian border.
The craft, a dual-engine Martin bomber, left a field near Washington, D.C. and went first to Augusta, Maine and some of its stops included Duluth, Minnesota; Seattle; San Diego; San Antonio; Miami. Impressive as this feat was, especially for the time, five years later was the aforementioned global flight, which received a great deal more media coverage in greater Los Angeles because of the launch from Santa Monica.
The Army “Round-the-World” fliers were frequently photographed as they prepared for their journey, including the obvious gathering of the aviators around a massive globe or lined up in formation next to one of the planes. The Los Angeles Times of 9 March 1924 called the expedition the “event of a generation” and provided a great rendering of the Douglas-built, single-engine biplane, 37 feet in length and with the propeller 8 feet long.
The craft had, below the cockpit, three gasoline delivery systems, with a combined total of 450 gallons, that were powered by the 400-horsepower Liberty motor, wind and hand, while there was an emergency 60-gallon tank in the upper wing, which was 50-feet wide and 9 1/2 feet deep, that could use gravity to delivery the fuel.
Also located there was a 5-gallon tank with water for the radiator and a pair of lights. Behind the cockpit was storage for 300 pounds of equipment and supplies with a small compartment above it and just behind the mechanic for food, water, maps and other essentials. The drawing also noted the welded steel frame construction, additional lights, a tail skid and other features of the flying machine.
With a maximum altitude of 10,000 feet and landing gear that could support 7,000 pounds, the planes also had a pontoon system for sea landings that allowed for an altitude of 7,000 feet and weight of 8,000 pounds. For the pilot and mechanic, their seats were also a parachute strapped to their back and legs, while under them were cushions that doubled as life-preservers. Towards the rear was a compass that was wind-driven; in all, the Douglas bombers represented the latest advancements in this type of craft.
All eight of the aviators, naturally, had to obtain passports with that of Harding showing that, instead of three spaces for countries, red crayon markings were for “No. America,” “Europe,” and “Asia.” The official place of departure was Seattle and on board the “Douglas World Cruiser; naturally, there was no fee charged for securing the document.
A 26 February 1924 War Department document from the Adjutant General’s office to Maj. Frederick L. Martin, the commanding officer of the expedition and who was commander as a major general of the Army’s air forces at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attack took place in December 1941, listed all the stops on the mammoth flight, starting at Santa Monica.
The Times article referred to above also printed the itinerary of the 25,000-mile trip, which began in early April and headed to Alaska before making such major Asian stops as Yokohama, Shanghai, and Saigon, before proceeding to India with main landings at Calcutta and Karachi (now in Pakistan). The two major locations to stop in the Middle East were in Baghdad and San Stefano, after 1926 Yesilkoy, Turkey.
Through Europe, the main stops were in Vienna and London, with three others in the north Atlantic being the Faroe Islands owned by Denmark and northwest of the United Kingdom; Reykjavik, Iceland; and Angmagsalik in southeastern and Ivigtut in southwestern Greenland. After flying over eastern Canada, the planes made landfall at Boston and then crossed the United States before finally reached the end of the trip at Seattle at the end of September.
On the 23rd, a massive crowd of 200,000, according to a National Archives magazine article, greeted the caravan and overwhelmed the police guard, necessitating an extra day’s stay because refueling was impossible amid such a sea of well-wishers. That day’s Express, among its coverage, commented that
Mrs. Roberta Chase Harding, mother of Lieut. John Harding of the world fliers, today is the happiest woman in all California, or at any rate on Clover field, where this afternoon thousands gathered to see the return of the boys who circumnavigated the air above the world, just as centuries ago Magellan circumnavigated the globe in his vessel.
Actually, it was a far cry in comparison, as Magellan and his five ships with 270 men encountered all manner of trouble and suffering, including his death in the Philippines, and only 18 men on one ship straggled into Seville after three years. The only major problem experienced by the “Air Magellans” was that commander Martin and his mechanic Alva Harvey crashed during a terrible storm in Alaska, though, after ten days, during which many have up hope for their survival, the duo was sighted walking on a beach—their journey, however, was over and it was left to three planes and the six crew to complete the flight.
As for Mrs. Harding, the account continued that “she was the first to greet her big handsome son at San Diego [Clover?]” and proudly asked “Isn’t he handsome?” while she claimed “Magellan was never half so brave” and added, “John will be in history, everybody will read the airmen’s exploits and thrill at their daring and endurance. This light has made history, such history as was never before made.”
The ebullient mother’s schoolmate, the popular Express columnist, Estelle Lawton Lindsey further covered the reunion of the Hardings, with Lindsey calling him a “Columbus of the Air” and she portended that “in years to come the world and his wife will eagerly recall the end of the great adventure, ‘when six Magellans came home.'” As for the aviator and mechanic, the piece ended with “all the world was there calling to John Harding. Groups surged around the other planes. Telegraph instruments clicked. John Harding waded out into the sea of humanity that closed about him, faces raised.”
James Hoeck of the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News offered this opening to his coverage, stating, “the greatest melodrama of the age has reached its happy ending” and adding “the curtain fell at Clover Field yesterday, when the world flight, lustrous prelude to a new tempo in civilization, was completed.” Referring inevitably to Magellan, Hoeck forecasted that “a moment had elapsed, yet in that moment the cumulative history of centuries was written.”
Over a half of year, the eucalyptus leaves changed color, the hills browned “and hundreds of thousands of maniacal residents of Los Angeles had been worked to the pitch of enthusiasm to come to the field and utter roaring volleys of welcome.” For the journalist, “it was as if the world had come to Los Angeles in order to say hello to the heroes of America.”
Fame, as we know, is consistently fleeting and, as noted above, the feat of the “Lone Eagle” in 1927 eclipsed and overshadowed the accomplishment of the half-dozen “Air Magellans,” including Harding, who embarked on a national tour with Lowell Thomas, who wrote a 1927 book about the world flight and its pilots and went on to renown in broadcasting.
He had a brief return to the spotlight with his appearance at the Los Angeles air races the following year and the featured photo for this post shows him with the John L. Mitchell Trophy, given out by Army Air Service assistant chief, Brigadier General William Mitchell, in honor of his brother, an aviator who died in action during the late war, to Air Service pilots competing in the national races.
Harding continued his association with the aviation industry, living for some years in Seattle, where he and Nelson worked together and then in a Cleveland suburb, where he was a aircraft accessories manufacturing firm sales manager. His next stop was in Dallas, where he formed his own accessory company ad ran that until retirement.
After a lengthy illness, Harding died, a week prior to his 72nd birthday, in La Jolla, near San Diego in 1968, and a Nashville newspaper reported that the Air Force spread his ashes over the Pacific—certainly a poignant tribute to an aviation pioneer, who, as with his colleagues, has not been as well-remembered as he should. The New Orleans, meanwhile, is now at the Museum of Flying at the Santa Monica Airport, formerly Clover Field, so you can pay tribute to Harding and is fellow intrepid aviators in person.