Local couple’s around-the-world flight plan for peace

Bob Dempster pushes over the rudder of The Seattle II, a Douglas World Cruiser replica built nearly from scratch that he and his wife, Diane, intend to fly around the world. (Photo by Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Bob and Diane Dempster are flying a replica 1920′s era open-cockpit plane around the world to commemorate a milestone in aviation history.

“If I could have gone to Sears and Roebuck I would have bought one,” says Bob Dempster as the roar of a departing airplane fills his cluttered workshop at Boeing Field. “I just wanted to fly.”

But he couldn’t buy the plane he was looking for — the only way to fly it was to build it.

In 2001, Dempster and his wife, Diane, had just returned from flying a “Super Cub” vintage airplane from Seattle to Japan (via London, Saudi Arabia and Tasmania). They were looking for their next adventure when a historic flight snagged their interest.

On April 6, 1924, four converted WWI torpedo bombers called Douglas World Cruisers left Sand Point — then Seattle’s Municipal Airport. They were The Chicago, The Boston, The New Orleans and The Seattle. Their mission was to become the first airplanes ever to fly around the world.

The Boston’s engine failed between the Faeroe Island and Iceland and The Seattle went down in Alaska (in both cases the crew survived). But almost six months and near 70 stops later The Chicago and The New Orleans made it back to Sand Point and made history.

“It was the second aviation milestone after the Wright brothers, it was that significant,” says Dempster, 67, who wants to celebrate that history by re-enacting the 1924 flight with Diane, his wife of 33 years, as his co-pilot.


The planned route for the Dempsters’ around-the-world flight.

But before they could tackle the challenges of circumnavigating the globe in an open cockpit at 85 miles per hour and an altitude so low you can “see the color of the cars,” Dempster had to figure out how to build the antique plane himself.

It took 12 years and help from The Museum of Flight, the McDonnell Douglas aerospace company — who manufactured the original planes — the Smithsonian and a number of other institutions. It also took the dedication of 50 volunteers.

Now, The Seattle II is about to take its first flight.

Assuming its preflight inspection by the FAA goes well, the Seattle II will be christened this Saturday with Lake Washington water (prohibition was in effect back in 1924 so no Champagne allowed) in a ceremony hosted by The Museum of Flight and open to the public.

Afterward the Seattle II will take to the skies for the first time, flying for a few minutes — above Boeing Field.

All this is in preparation for the planned departure date of the around-the-world trip on April 6, 2014, the 90th anniversary of the original flight.

Bob Dempster (right) and his engine specialist Peter Orton (left) prep the "Seattle II" for it's test flight. (Photo by Sarah Stuteville)

Bob Dempster (right) and his engine specialist Peter Orton (left) prep the “Seattle II” for it’s test flight. (Photo by Sarah Stuteville)

There’s plenty more testing to be done in the coming year, including safety checks and test flights.

This week, local FAA Aviation Safety Inspector Guy Shinkaruk, was taking his time looking over everything from the specialty “flying wires” (those crisscrossing wires that are strung between stacked wings on vintage planes) to the wooden propeller and the 1920s engine.

Shinkaruk has been inspecting planes for over 30 years. While he sees plenty of vintage planes built from kits, he’s never seen anything like the Seattle II.

“This is all handmades’ and one-offs,” he says as the Seattle II’s silver body winks in the sun behind him. “This didn’t come out of a box.”

While historical details and accuracy are important to Bob Dempster, there will be significant differences between the 1924 and 2014 flights. Materials have been updated for safety (nonflammable cloth, GPS and stronger steel).

The destinations will also differ slightly. The 1924 flight landed in Baghdad, Aleppo and Karachi, cities that in 2014 will probably be replaced by more stable alternatives.

But some things never change — weather patterns still dictate the same time frame and route.

“(You’ve got to) get through Japan before typhoon season starts and through India before monsoon season starts and across the North Atlantic before early winter sets in,” says Dempster with a far-off look that makes me think he’s already imagining himself in the cockpit.


Museum of Flight video on the first Round the World flights in 1924

While a love of flying and aviation history is the primary motivation of this project, the diplomatic implications are not lost on Dempster. He hopes this trip, like the first one, will “link the world in a peaceful way.”

“It’s not any less important now than (it was) then,” he says.

And it may be even more so.

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