Dick Merrill, an aviation pioneer, flew the first round-trip transatlantic flight in 1936. Millionaire singer Harry Richman, famous for Puttin’ On the Ritz, was convinced by Merrill to put up the money for a round-trip flight across the Atlantic. A recently certified pilot, Richman purchased A Vultee V-1A and he and Merrill extensively modified the plane which was formerly used to set flight records. Jimmy Doolittle set a transcontinental record in 1935 flying the Vultee; Leland Andrews used it to set a long-distance speed record between Los Angeles and Mexico City.
Modifications to the Vultee included extra fuel tanks, a 1,000 hp Wright Cyclone with a two-blade constant-speed props, a Hooven Radio Direction Finder, and 41,000 ping pong balls filling empty spaces in the wings and fuselage – They hoped the balls would allow the plane to float just in case the airplane was forced down in the ocean .
Merrill and Richman departed for London on September 2, 1936. Good weather prevailed until they were 600 miles off the coast of England when they encountered stormy skies. To avoid the storm, they landed in Llandeilo, Wales, about 175 miles west of London and calculated their time crossing the Atlantic – 18 hours and 36 minutes, the fastest ever recorded.
Reaching London the next day, Richman christened the Vultee Lady Peace and prepared the plane to depart for America on September 14 from Southampton. Richman, more of a showman than a professional pilot which Merrill was, dumped 500 gallons of fuel when they encountered strong headwinds. As a result, Merrill was forced to land on a soft bog at Newfoundland’s Musgrave Harbor, After minor repairs and refueling, they landed in New York a week later. The round-trip flight cost Richman $360,000, and is known in aviation history as the “Ping Pong Flight.” Richman sold autographed ping pong balls from the flight for years after.