September 30, 1936: Girl Around the World

Reporters Leo Kieran of the New York Times and Herbert Ekins of the World-Telegram were out to demonstrate that air travel was shrinking the world and that it was pretty much in the reach of most people. They would do this by means of a race around the globe using kilgallen2commercial transportation available to anyone with the price of a ticket. When the race started on the evening of September 30, 1936, they had been joined by a last-minute participant from the Evening Journal — a 23-year-old rookie crime reporter named Dorothy Kilgallen.

A fierce rainstorm kept the three contestants out of the air for the first leg of the race — a short hop to Lakehurst, New Jersey, to catch the airship Hindenburg. Kilgallen almost missed the flight, but the crew delayed departure until she boarded.

Ekins quickly proved to be the savviest traveler as well as the most competitive. Arriving late in Frankfurt, Germany, he quickly boarded a KLM DC-2, a plane that had finished second in an air race from London to Melbourne. Kilgallen and Kieran, on the other hand, headed to Brindisi, Italy, by train to catch a flight from there to Hong Kong on a British carrier, Imperial Airways. The train was excruciatingly slow, and the flight was delayed for seven hours because of wind.

When the two reporters arrived at a stopover in Bangkok, Siam, Kilgallen opted to hire a single-engine plane whose pilot lost his way in Indochina and made a frightening landing in the middle of a field before finding his way to Hong Kong.

Waiting to board a steamship headed from Hong Kong to Manila and the Pan Am China Clipper for the flight back to the States, Kieran and Kilgallen learned that Ekins was long gone. He had talked his way onto a Pan Am trial flight as a crew member. Although taking the no-passenger flight was cheating, Ekins was pronounced the winner, having completed his journey in 18 days.

With just the tiniest bit of grousing, the two defeated reporters acknowledged his victory in a cable from Manila while waiting for a typhoon to pass. They completed the journey in 24 days. In some ways, Kilgallen was the real winner, despite her second-place finish. Her accounts of the journey, cabled back to the Evening Journal each day, filled with descriptions of exotic lands, jungles full of dangerous beasts and shark-infested waters, made her a celebrity. It also launched her successful career which ended abruptly in 1965 with her mysterious death (a story for another day).

Kilgallen gathered her cabled columns into a book titled Girl Around the World, published in 1936. A few excerpts:

I love calling a young man on the telephone and saying, “Sorry I can’t go to the Harvard-Yale game. I’m on my way to Hong Kong.” I’m getting quite blasé about it already.girl-around-world

They tell me that 250 Nazi Storm Troops will wait at the airport until the Hindenburg heaves into sight at 9 o’clock this morning.

Some day I’m coming back and really get to know Athens. Making a mad dash around the world you see just enough of strange and interesting places to want to stay. It’s like ordering a seven-course meal and having the waiter say you can’t have anything but soup.

I spent exactly an hour and a half in the Holy Land, swinging down from Alexandria onto the Asiatic continent at 8:20 a.m. …and was off for Rutbah Wells, which I hope the pilot can find, at 9:50.

Seems Imperial Airways doesn’t go on a time table, but on an eat table, and one can almost hear the announcer bellowing: “The next plane for breakfast leaves at so-and-so…. Due in Rutbah Wells at lunch time!”

Bump! bump! splash! We thumped down jarringly in the middle of a rice field. The plane [a Puss Moth] was not damaged, but in a second I thought all my worst fears about Kwangsi province were realized. Appearing like gnomes from the ground, about 600 chattering natives, nearly naked, surrounded the plane. They spoke no English, of course, and could not understand Siamese. We waved our arms, made signs without fingers, played “handies,” and finally made them understand we were lost.


September 17, 1908: Flying Too High with Some Guy in the Sky

It had been about five years since Wilbur and Orville Wright made history with their airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. During the following years, the brothers developed their flying machine into the first practical fixed-wing aircraft, the Wright Flyer. And in 1908, Orville took the Flyer flyerto Fort Myer, Virginia, to demonstrate it for the US Army Signal Corps division.

     Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge arranged to be a passenger on the demonstration flight while Orville piloted the craft.  Selfridge might be considered one of the first frequent flyers. Selfridge took his first flight in 1907, a flight that took him 168 feet in the air above Bras d’Or Lake in Nova Scotia, Canada. He also piloted a Canadian craft that flew three feet off the ground for about 100 feet.  He next took to the air in Hammondsport, New York, traveling 100 feet on his first attempt and 200 feet on his second. The next day he added another 800 yards to his mileage credit. A successful flight with Orville would no doubt have given him an upgrade if not a free flight.

     On September 17, 1908, Selfridge and Orville circled Fort Myer in the Wright Flyer 4½ times at 150 feet. Halfway through the fifth go-round, the right propeller broke, losing thrust. A nasty vibration ensued, causing the split propeller to hit a guy wire bracing the rear vertical rudder. Luggage flew out of the overhead storage compartments; the wire tore out of its fastening and shattered the propeller; the rudder swiveled and sent the Flyer into a nose-dive. Orville ordered Selfridge to return to his seat and fasten his seat belt. Then he shut off the engine and managed to glide to about 75 feet, but the Flyer hit the ground nose first — not a smooth landing.

     Orville was bruised and quite embarrassed.  His passenger was unfortunately dead, the first ever airplane fatality.  If Selfridge had been wearing a helmet of some sort, he most likely would have survived the crash. The fatality also saddled the fledgling flying industry with a pretty poor safety track record – one death per 2,500 passenger-feet, just slightly better than traveling on the back of a hungry lion.

There are only two emotions in a plane: boredom and terror. — Orson Welles



August 17, 1978: Give ‘Em Helium

Three Americans from New Mexico completed the first transatlantic balloon flight, landing in a barley field 60 miles from Paris, 138 hours and six minutes after lifting off from Presque Isle, Maine. The helium-filled Double Eagle II covered 3,233 miles in its six-day journey.

Almanac devotees will remember (having most certainly taken notes) that Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard crossed the English Channel to great fanfare some two hundred years earlier.

Balloonists began attempting the Atlantic crossing in the mid-1800s, with 17 unsuccessful flights, balloonresulting in the deaths of at least seven balloonists. Two of our three balloonists gave it their first shot in September 1977, aboard the Double Eagle I, but were blown off course, landing off Iceland after 66 hours.  After recovering from bruises, embarrassment and frostbite, they were ready to foolishly rush in again.  A third pilot was brought in to spread the pain.

The Eagle Junior was a big balloon – 11-stories of helium.  It made good progress after blastoff, but during mid-trip, plunged from 20,000 feet to a hair-raising 4,000 feet, forcing them to jettison ballast material and many of their inflight amenities.  Among the items chucked overboard was evidently all of their finer cuisine, for they were forced to finish the trip dining only on hot dogs and sardines. Toward the end of the trip, one balloonist was heard to remark somewhat testily: “Skip the bun; just grease up my hot dog with mustard real good and I’ll shove it in my ear.”

Panic set in when the balloonists couldn’t find the Eiffel Tower.  Blown off course, they touched down just before dusk on August 17, 1978, near the hamlet of Miserey, missing the wine and ticker-tape parade in Paris. Parisians, not wanting to give up a celebratory occasion, amused themselves in honor of the storming of the Bastille.


In order to understand mankind, we must look at the word itself, “mank” and “ind”. What do these words mean? Maybe we’ll never know. ~ Jack Handey

June 8, 1988: The Eyes of Japan Are Upon You

Japanese carrier All-Nippon Airways announced in 1988 that painting eyeballs on its jets cut bird collisions by 20 percent. The menacing-looking eyes painted on the engine intakes of its jet aircraft frightened away the birds, preventing them from throwing themselves at the plane during takeoff.

This conclusion was drawn after a controlled experiment in which the Japanese domestic

Another misstep: passengers in the rear compartment complained about congestion and lousy meals, passengers up front (ten to a wing) were annoyed by collisions with birds
Another misstep: passengers in the rear compartment complained about congestion and lousy meals, passengers up front (ten to a wing) were annoyed by collisions with birds

airline painted the evil eyes on 26 of its Boeing 747’s and 767’s, leaving the rest of its fleet eyeless. After a year, an average of only one bird had hit each of the eyeballed engines while nine birds struck each unpainted engine.

The airline estimated that the reduction in bird strikes during the testing period reduced the damage to its aircraft from $910,000 to $720,000. Consequently, All-Nippon said it would paint eyes on all its large-body aircraft.

Continuing its program of thinking outside the fuselage to reduce costs, the company in 2009 planned to ask all passengers to use restrooms before boarding. During a four-week test, agents at the gates suggested that passengers use terminal restrooms to relieve themselves before getting on the plane. All-Nippon’s bathroom experiment was a way to cut fuel consumption, thereby resulting in decreased carbon emissions and lower costs. Travelers, however, did not warm up to the plan, finding it embarrassing and offensive. The plan went the way of the eyeballs. Oh yeah, the eyeballs were removed from planes in 2000 because – well, the company didn’t say why – just eye strain, perhaps.

My fear of flying starts as soon as I buckle myself in and then the guy up front mumbles a few unintelligible words then before I know it I’m thrust into the back of my seat by acceleration that seems way too fast and the rest of the trip is an endless nightmare of turbulence, of near misses. And then the cabbie drops me off at the airport. — Dennis Miller


Man is flying too fast for a world that is round. Soon he will catch up with himself in a great rear end collision.James Thurber