In 1924, Seattle’s Sand Point was the site of one of the greatest aviation milestones of all time. But the event was eclipsed by other aviators like Charles Lindbergh and the Wright Brothers. Now, a Seattle couple wants to breathe new life into that momentous time with their own pioneering project.
First Flight Around The World
You’ve seen it if you’ve ever driven along Sand Point Way: a tall obelisk with bronze wings at the top. It stands at the entrance to Magnuson Park. It marks the spot where, in 1924, four planes took off on a mission to circumnavigate the globe. It was three years before Lindberg crossed the Atlantic, so flying all the way around the world seemed as risky and as audacious as going to the moon. The planes, called World Cruisers, were each named after a US city. The lead plane was named the Seattle.
“As they took off, they looked back at Mt. Rainier, and one of the pilots said, ‘I wonder when, if ever, we’ll ever see this majestic mountain again,’” says Seattle pilot Bob Dempster.
Two of the planes crashed along the way, including the Seattle. The other planes completed the journey around the globe and returned safely to Sand Point.
The Seattle II
Bob and his wife, Diane Dempster, who is also a pilot, have spent the last 12 years building a 1924 World Cruiser replica. They plan to fly it around the world, retracing the original flight. This Saturday, they will christen their plane at the Museum of Flight. It’s called the Seattle II. They plan to use water from Lake Washington for the christening, just as was done in 1924 when champagne was off-limits due to prohibition. The ceremony marks the culmination of years of work. But now time is short and there’s a lot left to do.
Diane is in charge of acquiring the christening bottle. It needs to be made of a special kind of glass that will shatter easily but won’t damage the plane or leave a mess on the runway. She's no stranger to these kinds of details. She works long shifts at Boeing on the 737 assembly line, usually getting home around midnight.
Bob, on the other hand, is an early riser and spends seven days a week down at the hanger working on their plane. “He typically gets up at about 3:00 a.m.,” says Diane.
The couple doesn’t get to share much time together, but they do share a dream: The World Cruiser. In the beginning, Bob and Diane took out loans against their house to finance the project. They gathered with fellow pilots and neighbors at a local coffee shop to talk about their plans.
An Airplane In A Coffee Shop
One day, Bob arrived at the coffee shop to find a sign on the door saying the owners had retired. "You can’t do that!” he recalls saying to himself. “That’s our neighborhood coffee shop. And besides, where am I going to drink coffee?” He talked with Diane, and she suggested they just buy it. “We decided we were going to start a coffee shop knowing nothing about coffee,” she says.
Pretty soon, Bob and Diane began lugging in pieces of wood and building their plane in the coffee shop. They recruited anyone who stopped by to help out. Bob even convinced their postwoman to hammer together some structural parts for the wing. “And of course, who can refuse one of Bob’s scones and a good cup of coffee?” Bob laughs.
“It was fun,” recalls Diane. “But we needed to move on to bigger parts of the airplane you can’t do into the coffee shop.” Eventually, they moved to a hanger. Now, the World Cruiser is parked outside on the tarmac at Boeing Field.
The Dempsters want this plane to be as authentic to the original as possible. Many of the parts come from original stock, like a reconditioned 1918 Liberty engine and antique instruments. If an original part was unavailable, Bob made an exact replica from the blueprints.
Bob has also added a few modern touches, like the airplane skin, which is a synthetic fabric. “The original fabric was cotton,” he says. “It was highly, highly flammable. A plane could catch fire and it would flash-fire so fast it wouldn't even burn the wood. The fabric would burn right off it."
It Takes Two To Fly
After 12 years of hard work, the Dempsters’ plane is almost complete. But wires still need to be hooked up. The final instruments need to be clipped into place. And it all needs to happen before Saturday. That’s because Bob and Diane hope their plane will take its first official flight after the christening.
“This is all I’ve done for 12 years,” Bob says. “Day after day, seven days a week.” Then he adds, “And Diane’s been working so hard. Oh my God. The other day, she got up at 8:00 in the morning and she was working on the computer, and when she got into bed, I looked at the clock, and it was 3:47 in the morning. She had been working there all that time. If it wasn’t for Diane, it wouldn’t be here. That’s all there is to it.”
The World Cruiser has two open-cockpit seats and needs two pilots to fly. But on its first flight, a professional test pilot will be on board. So, only one of the Dempsters can go.
“There’s no question in my mind who is going to be on that airplane,” says Diane. “It’s not going to be me. Not because I don’t want to be in it, but every nut and bolt in that airplane is Bob. I shouldn’t say nut,” she adds laughing. “But Bob is Seattle World Cruiser.”
But when Bob and Diane take their Seattle II around the world on the 90th anniversary of the original flight, they will both be at the controls, flying together.
Want to see what Sand Point looked like in 1924 when the World Cruisers were christened? Watch this short video.