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A Brief History of Known World Solo Flights and the 10 Women Who Have Completed Them

Before I encountered the Joan Merriam Smith story, I had never really stopped to think about the concept of completing a world solo flight. While I had known that Amelia Earhart was famous for attempting a world flight, it was not truly a solo attempt as she was accompanied by her navigator, Fred Noonan. I wondered: when did the actual first solo flight around the world take place? How many people have completed a world solo flight? Who are the types of people that do this, and why? The more I looked into it, the more intrigued I became.

A March 18, 1937 article regarding Amelia Earhart’s first attempt at a world flight.
(Image source)

After reaching out to several organizations to try and figure out the answer to this question on my own, I was soon surprised to learn how difficult this information was to find. Luckily, I was able to eventually locate Australian-based aviation enthusiast Claude Meunier of Earthrounders, who completed his own solo flight around the world in 1996. Upon discovering Earthrounders, I was amazed to find an entire association dedicated to pilots who have completed flights around the globe! From his website, he talks about his motivation behind starting Earthrounders:

“After flying solo around the World in 1996, for a reason I have since forgotten, I became interested in finding out who else had flown solo around the World. I intended to write a book on those pilots and their flights. Later, speaking with Ron Bower in Austin TX, he suggested to create an Internet Site instead of writing a book, which I did, both in English and in French (‘soloflights.org’ and ‘volssolitaires.com’). I remembered Gaby Kennard, the only Australian woman having flown solo around the Wold, I remembered Don Taylor the first home built aircraft having done so, I also remembered the adventures of Dick Smith in his helicopter. But I was sure there were more pilots having done the same flight. So, I started a research and found a few names, some like Wiley Post who is no longer with us anymore, and I decided to try to meet as many of these pilots as I could.”

Claude Meunier, Earthrounders

A Brief History of World Flight Attempts

According to Claude, there is no official register of world flights. However, he has done a very impressive job of personally cataloging a chronological listing of all known flights around the world, which I encourage you to check out here. According to the list, the first known world flight was sponsored by the U.S. Army Air Service in 1924 when eight pilots and mechanics took off from Seattle, Washington in four airplanes to attempt a circumnavigation of the globe. They completed the journey 175 days later on September 28, after making 74 stops and covering about 27,550 miles. Can you imagine?

The World Flight crews at Sand Point, Washington, before the start of their round-the-world journey in 1924. (Image Source)

In terms of known solo flights around the world, however, it wasn’t until 1933 that Wiley Post completed the first solo flight around the globe. Post’s flight set a record of seven days, 18 hours, and 49 minutes, bettering his previous around-the-world record of eight days, also set in the Winnie Mae in 1931, with navigator Harold Gatty.

The Female Earthrounders

Of the 127 known solo flights Claude’s tracked, however, only TEN have been made by women. Furthermore, only THREE women completed solo flights before the introduction of the Global Positioning System (GPS) in 1973. The full list of women who have completed solo flights around the globe includes:

  1. Geraldine Mock (1964)
  2. Joan Merriam Smith (1964)
  3. Sheila Scott (1966, 1969, and 1971)
  4. Judith Chisholm (1980)
  5. Gaby Kennard (1989)
  6. Jennifer Murray (2000)
  7. Polly Vacher (2001 and 2004)
  8. CarolAnn Garratt (2003 and 2011-12)
  9. Julie Wang (2016)
  10. Shaesta Waiz (2017)

(To learn more about each of these 10 women listed above, please visit the dedicated “Female Earthrounders” page here.) In closing, below follow a couple of videos for you to enjoy summarizing the first three solo flights made around the world by women. Truly inspiring, and worth the watch.

Jerrie Mock Flies Solo Around The World (1964)

Joan Merriam Smith Returns from Following Amelia Earhart Route (May 1964)

Sheila Scott’s 30,000 Mile Solo Flight (1966)

Why I Became Interested in Learning All That I Could About Joan Merriam Smith

Joan Merriam Smith

For all intents and purposes, Joan Merriam Smith should be a household name across the United States of America. Instead, her incredible personal story and amazing accomplishment of becoming the first person to fly solo around the world at the equator, as well as the first person to successfully complete the Amelia Earhart route (at the age of 27 nonetheless), has gone largely untold, until now. Why?

For my entire life I have known about the name Joan Merriam Smith, but not for the reasons you might expect. That’s because on February 17, 1965, Joan died in a plane crash over the mountains of Los Angeles together with my grandmother, Trixie Ann Schubert. As a child, I often heard about the day that my mother learned about her own mother’s death: she was abruptly pulled out of her elementary school classroom, only to be matter-of-factly informed that there had been a tragic accident.

About 10 years ago, for the first time I felt compelled to Google Joan’s name. Not surprisingly, the search results essentially turned up nothing. At the time, the only real information I could find about Joan online was a reference to her fatal plane crash from a 1965 Associated Press news article. Literally, this was the extent of what I was able to locate:

The article states:

“Los Angeles (AP) — The first woman to fly the equatorial route around the world is believed to have piloted a small plane that crashed in the San Gabriel Mountains Wednesday, killing the two women aboard. Although the coroner’s office declined official identification until her husband views the badly burned bodies, the husband said he had no doubt his wife, JOAN MERRIAM SMITH, 28, is dead. Authorities believe the other woman was TRIXIE ANN SCHUBERT, 42, of Los Angeles, who was writing JOAN’S life story.”

Intrigued, I wanted to learn more about why Joan was considered famous. I had always known that Trixie was working on a book about Joan when she died, but I wanted to know what it was about. How did the two become friends? Why did Trixie want to write a book about her? And of course, why did their plane crash? Ultimately, this led to a blog post I wrote about Trixie back in 2010, which unexpectedly launched a ±10-year journey of discovery with people from across the web to learn more about both Joan and Trixie’s lives.

In the early days of my research, the only articles I could really find about female pilots in the 1960s mentioning Joan Merriam Smith had to do with Geraldine Mock, the official first woman to fly around the world solo in 1964. Of course, I wondered why Mock had received so much publicity, and why there was literally nothing much written about Joan. Even back then, something just did not sit right with me, and I wanted to explore it. After all, if Trixie wanted to tell Joan’s story, I believed that Joan must have had quite some story to tell.

Trixie was known for taking on big projects. At the time of their deaths, she had just returned from reporting behind the Iron Curtain in Russia as an Associated Press foreign news correspondent. In 1963, she published a book about the adventurous navy veteran and American goodwill ambassador Aloysius Eugene Francis Patrick Mozier. As it turns out, the more the dug into Joan and Trixie’s story, the more I became enthralled and intrigued by what I was learning.

Fate on a Folded Wing is the culmination of years of research and personal explorations made into better understanding the life and great accomplishments of Joan Merriam Smith. It’s been my great pleasure to research this story, and I look forward to sharing it with you!