Journeys Around the Globe

In Uncategorized on August 25, 2011 by hillermuseum

Reid Dennis Albatross at Hiller

Circling the Globe With Private Pilot Reid Dennis and Astronaut Ed Lu
By Jon Welte

Eratosthenes of Cyrene made the first accurate measure of the circumference of the Earth some 2,200 years ago. At nearly 25,000 miles, this distance has daunted the navigators and travelers of the world ever since. Going “around the world” seemed an absurdly difficult task, with the world so much vaster than everyday human experience many could not grasp the reality of living upon a spherical world. It was not until 1522 that the survivors of Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition became the first humans to circumnavigate the globe after a tortuous three year journey.

Although the airplane’s first flight covered a distance of but 120 feet, aviation has always held the promise of bringing the far places of the world closer together. Barely two decades after Kitty Hawk, a pair of specially modified Douglas DT torpedo planes landed in Seattle, Washington to complete the first circumnavigation of Earth by air. The mission lasted six months from first takeoff to final landing, but a new way around the world had opened in the skies. Only a few years later the giant airship Graf Zeppelin circled the globe in just three weeks, and today aircraft have lapped our planet in a matter of days.

Modern long distance travel is often imagined as a journey requiring massive airliners or sleek military aircraft, but a modestly sized, appropriately equipped general aviation airplane is capable of such flights when operated by an experienced, well-prepared pilot. That aptly describes San Carlos-area aviator Reid Dennis. Dennis earned a private pilot certificate in the 1960s for business use, flying a twin Cessna throughout the Midwest to meet with local sales representatives. In 1970 he, his wife Peggy, and another local pilot took a modified Cessna 320 on an extended business trip—from San Carlos to Europe. Equipped with long range radios, detailed weather forecasts and an auxiliary fuel tank, the small plane made the journey hopping from island to island across the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap.

As Dennis continued to make long-distance business trips on an ongoing basis, he also developed an interest in amphibious aircraft. In the 1970s he acquired and restored a Grumman Mallard, a vintage design intended for use as a small 10-seat airline aircraft able to fly from both runways and open water. In the 1990s he commissioned a restoration of a larger Grumman Albatross, widening its wingspan, updating its cockpit and installing a new interior ideally suited for long distance adventures. It was with this aircraft, Albatross N44RD, that Dennis completed the ultimate aviation journey—a flight around the world.

The Albatross restoration project was not undertaken with an around-the-world mission in mind, but as it approached FAA recertification Dennis came into contact with pilot Linda Finch. Finch was rebuilding a Lockheed Electra 10E landplane, a rare aircraft identical to that flown by famed American pilot Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan on an ill-fated attempt at circumnavigating the globe in 1937. Earhart and Noonan disappeared over the Pacific while attempting to locate remote Howland Island midway between Australia and Hawaii. Finch’s goal was to complete that flight on its 60th anniversary.

Dennis’ Albatross was an ideal support plane, and together the two aircraft departed Oakland International Airport—starting point of Earhart’s final journey—in March, 1997. Six months, 26,000 miles and nearly 200 flying hours later, the pair returned to Oakland. More than thirty stops across six continents were needed to complete the epic mission.

Even today, flying a piston-engined airplane around the world is a long and arduous endeavor. In contrast, spacecraft orbiting just beyond the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere are bound by the laws of physics to travel all the way around the globe in little more than 90 minutes. The first person to complete such a journey was Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, whose mission aboard Vostok 1 in 1961 opened the era of human space exploration. This flight made an uneasy transition from an era of airborne aviation to one of spaceflight—Gagarin bailed out from his spacecraft at an altitude of some 20,000’ and descended back to Earth by parachute, as Vostok had not been designed to make a soft landing. However, Soviet officials for years reported that Gagarin had landed aboard the vehicle, since the world body governing aeronautical records would not certify a flight in which the pilot jumped out before landing.

Since November 2000, humans have inhabited low Earth orbit on a continuous basis. Most activity has centered on the International Space Station, along with shorter missions flown by the recently-retired NASA space shuttle and free flying Soyuz spacecraft operated by the Russian Space Agency. Astronaut Ed Lu is one of a select group of spacefarers to have flown aboard all three spacecraft, as well as the Mir space station operated by Russia through the 1990s. At an orbital speed of over 17,000 miles per hour, distances pass by on the planet below at a rate unimaginable in winged flight. During a mission aboard space shuttle Atlantis in 2000, Lu conducted a spacewalk with Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko to prepare the first modules of the then-unmanned International Space Station for regular habitation. Their extra-vehicular activity lasted some six hours, and during the jaunt the two spacefarers circled the world four times—an achievement that would have astounded Magellan some five centuries earlier.

This fall, the Hiller Aviation Museum welcomes two very different world-circlers to its annual Above and Beyond Benefit Celebration. The Museum will recognize Reid Dennis as this year’s recipient of the Stanley Hiller, Jr. Intrepid Pioneer Award. Astronaut Edward Lu joins the festivities to give a brief presentation on the future of America’s human spaceflight program. Join us at the Hiller Aviation Museum on Saturday, November 5th, to support the Museum’s ongoing mission and encounter two remarkable individuals in the realms of air and space.


Dean, Patrick. “Return of the Albatross”. Warbird Digest, July/August 2006. Pg. 2-7.

Paull, Mike. Tales From The Sky Kitchen, 2011. Pg. 71-83. Downloaded 31 July 2011. Downloaded 31 July 2011. Downloaded 1 August 2011.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: