With the end of World War I, peacetime aviation seemed poised for an exhilarating leap forward. The great challenge – and the great obstacle – that dominated the thinking of the men who built airplanes and those who flew them was the Atlantic Ocean. Like some menacing beast from an ancient myth, it lay in wait between the Old World and the New, an intolerable barrier, both real and psychological.
To begin with, the Atlantic was immense – almost four times wider at its narrowest point than the longest distance that had yet been flown over water. It produced weather of nightmarish proportions: gales that could reduce air speed to a walk and blow a plane miles off course in an hour, or billows of freezing fog that rose to the heavens and could coat a plane with ice in minutes, forcing it into the sea. And the best route across this treacherous pond lay far north of the shipping lanes, making rescue unlikely in the event of a crash.
Such perils were enough to frighten away the prudent. But to a few men the dangers were irresistibly seductive. Within the fraternity of aviation there was an unspoken agreement that one day soon the Atlantic barrier would be overcome. The fliers and builders were, after all, immediate heirs of the prewar aviators who had proved that, given flying machines that were little more substantial than motorized kites, daring men could leap between cities, soar over lofty mountain ranges and cross expansive bodies of water that had seemed impassable until the first airmen showed the way.
Certainly before 1919 the Atlantic was beyond the aviator’s reach. But the Great War changed all that. During the War the contending armies had pressed, forcefully and successfully, for more powerful engines and better-designed planes to fly heavier payloads for greater distances. After the War ended, these new aircraft – and succeeding generations of ever-more capable ones – pointed the way to a golden era of epic flights that eventually would leave no continent untouched, no sea or ocean unspanned.
The men who accepted the challenge knew that they flew at the fringe of aeronautical knowledge, each pressing to do what no one had done before. As the era began, airplanes, though capable of marvelous feats, had not yet become so reliable that marvelous feats were commonplace. Navigation aids were rudimentary at best. Once the takeoff roll began, these adventurers in the cockpit were on their own, with little to rely on but their finely tuned skills as pilots, and the engines that droned along reassuringly up ahead. Like Columbus and Magellan, who centuries earlier had crossed the great oceans, these men were pathfinders – shrinking by air the world that seafarers had enlarged under sail. And their first goal was the Atlantic.
At daybreak on April 28, 1910, John Alcock, an 18-year-old apprentice engineer, watched with thousands of other flying enthusiasts outside Manchester, England, as an adventurous Frenchman, Louis Paulhan, bounced safely to earth in his Farman biplane. On landing, Paulhan claimed one of aviation’s first rich rewards: the £10,000–approximately $50,000–offered by Lord Northcliffe, the owner of the Daily Mail, to the first pilot to fly the 186 miles northward from London to Manchester within 24 hours. Alcock, an eager lad with a loud laugh, a ruddy face and a crop of hair the color of ginger, had loved speed and airplanes since his boyhood, and Paulhan’s feat stirred him to act. Soon afterward, Alcock took a job as mechanic at one of England’s first schools for training men in the skills of flying.
The aviation school was located at Brooklands– a race track turned aerodrome about 20 miles southwest of London – and it was run by Maurice Ducrocq, a flier from France, which was the European centre of aviation in 1910. At Brooklands toiled airplane builders whose names and products would soon become famous in World War I–Bristol, Avro, Sopwith, Martinsyde, and ultimately the most important for Alcock, the recently established aviation division of Vickers Ltd., the famous armament manufacturer.
As Ducrocq’s sole mechanic, Alcock was on the road to the life he had dreamed. He repaired airplanes and off duty he haunted the Blue Bird Restaurant, endlessly, talking aviation with other young men in greasy whipcord and leather jackets. Alcock himself learned to fly in two hours by sitting behind Ducrocq in flight and resting his novice hands on Ducrocq’s experienced ones.
Alcock soloed in an old Farman machine pushed along by a propeller in the rear; he soon entered a weekend competition at nearby Hendon aerodrome and won a race. Aeroplane, a magazine that chronicled the feats of the early aviators, ran his picture under the heady caption, “Mr. Jack Alcock– the latest crack pilot.”
For all the enthusiasts of the Blue Bird cafe there were air derbies to win, distance and altitude records to break. But these weekend events paled in comparison to the new challenge– and reward – offered in 1913 by Lord Northcliffe’s Daily Mail: another £10,000 prize, this time for the first flight across the Atlantic.
At the Blue Bird, airplane builders, fliers and mechanics chewed eagerly on this provocative idea. Clearly, no airplane then flying could perform the feat. But Lord Northcliffe’s intent was to stimulate aeronautical advances. And what strides such a flight would demand! The shortest distance across the Atlantic Ocean – some 1880 miles – lay between Newfoundland, the eastern prominence of North America, and Ireland. A flight of such great distance either would demand an impossible number of refueling and maintenance stops in the water, or for a nonstop flight, would require enormous gasoline tanks and engines that could operate faultlessly for 20 to 30 hours, roughly 10 times the average achieved in 1913.
Right photo: Alfred, Lord Northcliffe, depicted at age 30 in an 1895 Vanity Fair
Before any pilot or builder could rise to Lord Northcliffe’s challenge, World War I intervened. Alcock joined the Royal Naval Air Service and as a flight lieutenant flew bombing missions against the Turks, who shot him down in the waning months of the War and took him prisoner. In captivity, he talked endlessly to his cell mates of his plans to fly across the Atlantic. Demobilized as a captain in the Royal Air Force, which had incorporated the Naval Air Service in 1918, Alcock returned to Brooklands looking for a job. At Vickers Ltd., he managed to talk himself into the perfect assignment to fly their latest aircraft in quest of Northcliffe’s Atlantic prize.
The works manager at the Vickers plant, a Scotsman improbably named Maxwell Muller, led Alcock into the assembly shed to have a look at the plane. There, half finished, stood a Vickers Vimy, a speedy bomber that was named for a town in northern France near the site of a Canadian victory. The Vimy reflected all the impressive advances in aeronautics that had been made during the War. It was a big, handsome biplane with a two-man cockpit and a wingspan of slightly more than 67 feet. Each of its two reliable 12-cylinder Rolls-Royce Eagle Mark VIII engines was capable of generating 360 horsepower. Once the bomb racks were removed, a forward gunner’s cockpit omitted and new tanks installed to nearly double the original fuel capacity, the Vimy would be ready to go. Although 865 gallons of gasoline in the fuselage would make the plane 1000 pounds overweight (gasoline weighs more than 6 pounds per gallon), Vickers Ltd. was confident that the Vimy could not only get off the ground but, at a cruising speed of approximately 100 miles per hour, stay in the air long enough to cross the ocean.
With Alcock enrolled as pilot, Vickers had only to find a navigator. A few weeks later, a quiet man in a neat Royal Air Force uniform limped into Max Muller’s office leaning on a walking stick. His name was Arthur Whitten “Teddie” Brown and he was an engineer looking for a job. In the interview that followed, Muller happened to mention aerial navigation. It was like opening a floodgate. Brown’s reticence vanished as he talked eagerly – and knowledgeably – of sextants, star sightings and drift calculations.
Brown had been born of American parents and raised in Manchester. In 1914 he had relinquished his United States citizenship to join the British Army. He became an aerial observer, then crashed behind German lines, so injuring his left leg that he would never walk normally again. Brown, a prisoner of war like Alcock, had spent his months of incarceration mastering navigation with books procured through the Red Cross. Could he, Muller asked; navigate a plane across the Atlantic? He could indeed. It was the very puzzle he had posed for himself, and solved, in a prison camp.
Muller led Brown out to the works and showed him the Vimy. “That’s our bus,” he announced, “and there’s the man who’s going to fly her. Come and meet him.”
Brown was instantly impressed. Jack Alcock, dressed in white overalls and a tweed jacket, radiated an insouciant confidence. Within minutes he and Brown were sketching transatlantic routes in chalk on the shop floor. Afterward, as they were inspecting the plane, Alcock noticed Brown’s walking stick.
“You won’t be needing that,” he said, with a grin that cemented their partnership. “We’re flying, not imitating Moses.” There was only one problem: Brown was due to get married soon. That night Teddie Brown broke the news to his fiancee. They would have to delay the wedding because he was going to fly the Atlantic.
By April 1919 the prize for a transatlantic flight – Northcliffe’s, now augmented by offers from a private businessman and a tobacco company – had grown to £13,000, and a competition had developed in which Alcock and Brown were late starters. There were five other contenders, four British and one Swedish. Alcock was a friend of two of the competing pilots, Frederick Raynham at 26 looked barely out of his teens, but he had learned to fly in 1911 at Brooklands and that same year took charge of the Sopwith airplane company’s flying school. The other friend, one of Raynham’s first students, was a young Australian named Harry Hawker, a lean, smallish man with dark curly hair and a quick smile. Four days after his first flying lesson, Hawker had soloed. Back injuries he had suffered in numerous plane and car accidents had kept him out of military service in World War I but had not prevented him from test flying 283 aircraft in a two- year period. Such gifted pilots were naturally attracted to the Atlantic competition, and so was Britain’s aircraft industry. Like Vickers, other firms were preparing to compete for what they regarded as a potentially huge postwar market in commercial aviation; winning the race across the Atlantic would be a convincing demonstration of any airplane’s reliability and safety.
By the time Alcock joined Vickers, Sopwith had under construction an aircraft of new design, which the company pointedly christened the Atlantic. A single-engined biplane in which the pilot sat beside and a little behind the navigator, the Atlantic had a feature that was unique among the competing aircraft. Following takeoff, the plane would be streamlined by dropping its landing gear – a belly skid would be used for landing. The resulting seven-mile-per-hour gain in air speed would enable a single Eagle Mark VIII engine to pull the plane along at 100 miles per hour for 3,000 miles on 330 gallons of fuel. And in case the plane fell into the ocean, the upper part of the Sopwith’s fuselage was designed to serve as a lifeboat. To fly the Atlantic, Sopwith turned to its most competent pilot, Harry Hawker.
The Martinsyde Company also produced an entrant – a somewhat smaller single-engined two seater. Though powered by a Rolls-Royce Falcon mustering only 285 horsepower, it could fly 110 miles per hour because it was lighter, and even with wheels attached, more streamlined than the Sopwith. Carrying 393 gallons of fuel, the Martinsyde aircraft had a range of 2,750 miles. Freddie Raynham would pilot the plane and he counted on its greater speed to make him the winner if the contest developed into a neck-and-neck race.
Both firms engaged navigators who had been trained, like almost all aerial navigators of the era, on the sea. Sopwith chose Lieutenant Commander Kenneth Mackenzie Grieve, known as Mac, a Scotsman who had joined the Royal Navy when he was 14. Now at the age of 39, he was a tall, quiet, almost cadaverous man who had had no flying experience whatsoever until Hawker gave him first training flight. Martinsyde’s navigator was Captain C.W. Fairfax Morgan, like Alcock, a veteran of the Royal Naval Air Service. Fax Morgan claimed to be a direct descendant of Henry Morgan, the pirate. Like Teddie Brown, he had been shot down over France, but his luck was worse than Brown’s; his left leg had been amputated and replaced by an artificial one that was made of cork. But then, as Alcock had said, none of them intended to walk across the Atlantic.
One other big name in British aviation, Handley Page, Ltd., fielded an entry. Its new V/1500 bomber – like the Vimy, built to bomb Berlin – was the biggest plane flying. Powered by four Rolls-Royce Eagle engines, it would carry a crew of two plus a commander. In charge would be Admiral Mark Kerr, who at age 55 was old enough to be John Alcock’s father.
Two contestants were eliminated early in the game. In the United States, a Swedish-American pilot named Hugo Sunstedt entered a biplane of his own design. Called Sunrise, it flew well enough to chance the ocean, and Sunstedt was an experienced flier. But during a test flight in February of 1919, another pilot spun the Sunrise into the sea off Bayonne, New Jersey.
On April 8, Major J.C. P. Wood became the second competitor to drop out; with little preparation and less thought, he took off from Eastchurch, England, in a Short Brothers seaplane and headed west. Twenty miles beyond Holyhead, Wales, his engine quit and he ditched in the Irish Sea, from which he was duly rescued. Wood and his navigator were fortunate that their engine conked out when it did. In flying from east to west, they were bucking head winds that would have exhausted their fuel supply before they reached Newfoundland, and they would have gone down in the icy North Atlantic. To avoid that fate, the other competitors had decided to transport their aircraft to Newfoundland by sea. Starting from there, they could expect to ride a tail wind all the way to Ireland. By May 1, Hawker and the Sopwith Atlantic, Raynham and the Martinsyde Raymor (named for the pilot and for navigator Morgan), Admiral Kerr with the Handley Page V/1500 and their support crews were all either en route to Newfoundland by ship or already there.
Only Alcock and Brown were still in England, completing the Vimy and gathering the equipment and supplies – fuel, navigation instruments, even an electrically heated jacket for Brown to wear under his flying suit, which came from Burberry’s the celebrated London haberdasher. On Good Friday they had attached the last wire brace to the Vimy and tried it out. Alcock was delighted with the maiden flight. “It’s a piece of cake,” he remarked of the challenge ahead. “All we have to do is to keep the engines going and we’ll be home for tea.” Finally they crated the plane – fuselage in one box, wings in two others, engines in a fourth – for the voyage to Newfoundland by freighter. Alcock and Brown took the passenger ship Mauretania to Halifax, Nova Scotia, then boarded a train for the two-day trip by rail and ferry to St.John’s, Newfoundland. They arrived on May 13, well ahead of the Vimy. It was midnight, in the middle of a violent storm, when they beat on the door of the Cochrane Hotel. Eventually it was opened by Agnes Dooley, the proprietor’s sister-in-law, who helped to run the establishment.
Left: Arthur Whitten Brown and John Alcock; Right: Friendly rivals (from left) Kenneth Mackenzie Grieve, Frederick Raynham, Harry Hawker & Fairfax Morgan
“We’re the Vickers Party,” Alcock announced. “We’ve come to fly the Atlantic.”
“Lord save us,” said Miss Dooley, “more flying people. The hotel’s full of you already. Is the whole world gone daft?” But she took them in, and the next morning at breakfast Hawker and Raynham and their crews gave the Vimy fliers a raucous welcome.
The immediate problem, as Alcock and Brown soon learned, was to find an airfield. Newfoundland had none in 1919. Hawker observed later that he “knew from maps that Newfoundland was the last place to look for spacious landing ground, but if anything, the maps seemed to flatter the country. The hilly terrain made level fields of any size extremely rare, and to take off, the heavily laden panes would need an unobstructed run of at least three hundred yards. The best of the makeshift sites had already been taken by the early arrivals. Raynham and Morgan occupied a meadow near Quidi Vidi Lake, a half mile from St. John’s. Hawker had claimed an L-shaped field of 40 acres near Mount Pearl, six miles away. Its longer leg, he thought might just be long enough for the Sopwith. However, the field lay at a windy elevation and was hemmed in by a disturbing row of trees. Neither of the strips would be long enough to accommodate the overweight Vimy.
Admiral Kerr, who arrived at about the same time as Alcock and Brown did, took the Handley Page to an isolated site near Harbour Grace, 60 miles away. A reporter’s description of this takeoff strip showed just how difficult the conditions were:
“It wasn’t one field but a series of gardens and farms with rock walls between them. All of these had to be removed, as did three houses and a farm building. A heavy roller, drawn by three horses and weighed down with several hundred pounds of iron bars, eliminated the hummocks. The result, after a month, was a bumpy aerodrome.”
Brown spent his days in St.John’s asking where he might find level ground, while Alcock drove an old Buick touring car around the farm roads in a similar search. The only fields that they were able to locate were planted, and the cost to purchase and destroy the crops would be prohibitive.
It began to look as though Alcock and Brown would be the last contestants to start. They had no airfield and their airplane was still at sea. The assembly of Admiral Kerr’s plane was progressing at Harbour Grace, where the admiral was living comfortably as the house guest of Robert Reid, the wealthy builder of Newfoundland’s only railroad. At St. John’s, in the meantime, Hawker and Raynham had their planes ready. Only the weather held them back, and each was like a greyhound on a leash. Every morning they went to the naval station at Mount Pearl, only to hear the same report from the meteorologists: bad weather over the North Atlantic. Every morning Agnes Dooley at the Cochrane Hotel prepared sandwiches and Thermoses for the aviators to take aloft with them if the weather improved. And every night they returned to the hotel, laughing and joking but increasingly tense. The two pilots watched each other so carefully that each finally agreed to alert the other before going. The bad weather was all the more frustrating because the sun seemed to be shining everywhere else in the world. Mac Grieve, Hawker’s navigator, received a message from the women in the cable office of the British War Mission in New York:
SIR, DO BUCK UP AND START. WE CANNOT STAND THE SUSPENSE MUCH LONGER. BEST OF LUCK FROM TWO CABLETTES.
With little to do but fret about the weather, the two crews amused themselves with practical jokes, sometimes choosing as victims the reporters who had gathered in St. John’s from London and New York. Among the newsmen was a gullible fellow from a New York paper. One night he asked Morgan how he proposed to navigate to Europe. With a straight face, the pirate’s descendant whispered: “Well, that’s a bit of a secret, but I like you, so here it is. I’ve got six carrier pigeons whose home is Brooklands. After we have flown about three hundred miles I’ll release one. The bird will head straight for Brooklands and we’ll just alter course to his direction. “Releasing a bird every 300 miles would get them over Ireland, he said, “and then we just follow the chart.” History does not reveal whether the newsman actually sent the story to his paper.
Hawker and Raynham slipped a smelly codfish into the bed of another reporter, who had kept everyone awake by typing at night. They poured water into the hollows of the deep leather chairs in the hotel smoking room and awaited victims. The jokes were no doubt betted by judicious tippling from the limited local supply of liquor. In Newfoundland prohibition was the law in 1919, the result of a measure that had been passed during the War. But the airmen had a great fan in the local physician, who prescribed “tonic waters” that were dispensed from the back door of the drugstore. Moreover, a dozen cases of comforting spirits, packed in a box marked aviation spares, had accompanied Raynham’s plane from England.
May 18 for a change was windy and bright. Hawker ordered the Sopwith fuelled, and Raynham’s men began filling the Martinsyde’s tanks. Both pilots haunted the weather station, where the picture was uncertain. In fact, foul weather was building, but it would be seven years before ships at sea began making regular weather reports by radio, and the deteriorating situation was not evident at St. John’s. Hawker saw conditions as “not yet favourable–but possible.” At noon he decided to go and informed Raynham. By mid afternoon the Atlantic’s tanks were brimming and its engine had been tested. Agnes Dooley’s sandwiches were stored, a sack of letters was loaded aboard and seals were affixed to the plane to prove, when it landed in Ireland that it had taken off from Newfoundland. Hawker and Grieve struggled into watertight suits, shook hands with many of the crowd that had gathered, and climbed into the cockpit.
Now came the first test. Like other contenders, the Sopwith had been converted into an overweight flying gasoline tank. The takeoff would be hazardous. Hawker had made two-900 mile test flights before leaving England, but neither had required taking off with a full load of gasoline. To complicate matters further, the field was soft and bumpy.
“Tell Raynham I’ll greet him in Brooklands,” Hawker shouted above the idling engine. The he threw a salute and sent the Sopwith lumbering across the field. It was 3:40 p.m. local time. The plane lurched and shuddered across the soft ground and ran a full 300 yards before it lifted off. Up and up it inched, just clearing the ominous line of trees. Hawker could not resist a last turn above his rival at Quidi Vidi Lake. The Sopwith headed for the coast, jettisoned its landing gear and in six minutes was out of sight.
Raynham was unperturbed. His faster Martinsyde could still overtake the Sopwith. Two thousand spectators gathered at the airfield to watch him take off. The crowd was in a merry mood despite the presence of danger. A group of girls twitted navigator Morgan about his urine relief hose, which they noticed trailing from the leg of his Burberry flying suit.
The wind at Quidi Vidi blew across their path instead of in it. The crosswind would reduce lift, but if Raynham was to catch up with Hawker, he could not wait for the wind to change direction. Two hours after Hawker had departed; the boyish-looking Raynham waved from his cockpit and advanced the throttle. A silence fell over the crowd as the plane started to move, its engine roaring. The heavy plane ran 100, 200, 300 yards on the ground. Then a bump tossed it into the air. The Martinsyde sagged along for another hundred feet, drifting sideways in the crosswind; then it fell back to earth. Its landing gear sheared off and the nose dug in with a crash. Horror-stricken, the crowd ran across the field to help. Raynham crawled out but Morgan had to be lifted from the cockpit.
Alcock and Brown were returning from another fruitless search for a field when a motorist hailed them. “Hawker left this afternoon,” the man shouted. “And Raynham?” “Machine smashed before he could get it off the ground.”
They found Raynham at the hotel, his head bandaged. Morgan lay in the hospital. That evening, awaiting word of Hawker’s expected triumph, Raynham offered the Vimy men his field at Quidi Vidi. At least they could assemble their machine there when it arrived; afterwards they would have to move: They would need a longer field to take off fully loaded for the transatlantic flight.
Hawker’s Sopwith was equipped with a radio, and the naval station at Mount Pearl was standing by for one of the 24 commercial vessels sailing near Hawker’s route to relay his reports of the flight. None came. All night the airmen sat by the Cochrane Hotel’s telephone. The jokes died down. At dawn the men began to worry. Hawker’s fuel, they estimated would last for about 22 hours. By afternoon it had become obvious that the Sopwith must be down at sea. Flags at St.John’s were lowered to half-mast.
The week that followed was long and sad. The sea had obviously swallowed Hawker and Grieve. At the hospital the one-legged Morgan learned that he would lose an eye. His flying days were over. Then, on Sunday, May 25, Fred Memory, a reporter for the Daily Mail, bounded into the hotel, a cable in hand. “They’re safe,” he shouted. “Harry and Mac landed in Scotland this morning!”
But they had not arrived by air. Earlier that morning, a Danish tramp steamer, the Mary, had arrived off the coast of an island in the Herbrides and sounded her siren. With flags she reported: “Saved hands Sop aeroplane.” Fluttering flags from a Navy communication station responded: “Is it Hawker?” “Yes.” Then the station transmitted the news to the world.
In the midst of the ensuing celebration at the Cochrane Hotel, Alcock sent an urgent message to Vickers Ltd. at Brooklands. Find what happened. Soon the details flooded in. First, the Sopwith’s radio had failed. The weather had deteriorated steadily, and after four hours the plane was labouring through heavy rain squalls, with clouds towering higher than 15,000 feet. Then Hawker noticed the engine temperature climbing dangerously. Steam began to seep from the radiators; it froze into drops of ice on Hawker’s goggles. Shouting to each other above the racket in the open cockpit, Hawker and Grieve concluded that rust or bits of solder in the radiator must have clogged the water filter. Unless they could somehow jar the particles loose, the radiator water sooner or later would boil away and the engine would seize. Hawker cut the engine, dived 3,000 feet and then pulled the nose up sharply, hoping the manoeuvre would clear the water filter. The temperature dropped a few degrees but soon was climbing again.
The situation was ironic. “The whole dammed Atlantic was beneath us,” Hawker said later. “We could have let down a bucket and a rope for water if we had had a bucket and a rope.” Again and again he shut off the engine and let the Sopwith dive. Once when he tried to restart the engine, nothing happened. Grieve frantically pumped gasoline from an auxiliary tank as the plane dropped. At 100 feet the engine caught. Hawker “gave her a good mouthful of throttle and she roared away.”
All the climbing caused the Sopwith to burn up fuel much faster than Hawker had anticipated. Nine hours from St. John’s, he and Grieve had consumed half their gasoline, but they had travelled less than half the distance to Ireland. At dawn, with the radiator steaming steadily, Hawker knew that they would never make it. They had to come down. Grieve estimated that by now they were near the Atlantic shipping lanes, so Hawker flew close to the stormy surface, weaving back and forth in search of a vessel.
After two suspense-filled hours nursing an engine that they expected to die at any moment, they saw a ship through a rain squall. They flew alongside at bridge level and fired a red Very light as a distress signal. Then Hawker set the plane down in a trough between waves. Hastily the two fliers unshipped the lifeboat section of the fuselage and lowered it into a sea that was whipped to 12-foot crests by a brewing gale. Hawker and Grieve bobbed helplessly in their tiny craft for 90 drenching minutes before the crewmen of the ship could get a boat to them. Had Hawker ditched a half hour later, the ship’s skipper said, the worsening weather would have put him and Grieve beyond help. By then however, they were safe and dry aboard the Mary, drinking aquavit and coffee. But they could not report that they were safe; the ship had no radio. (Amazingly the Atlantic did not sink. Ten days after the crash, a passing ship salvaged the wreckage and returned it to England, where it was displayed in Selfridges, a London department store).
Off the coast of Scotland, Hawker and Grieve transferred to a British destroyer that took them to London. The two airmen were received as heroes. The Daily Mail announced a consolation prize of £5,000, and they were feted everywhere. In St.John’s, Alcock observed glumly to Brown that England’s “hands are so blistered clapping Harry Hawker that we’ll be lucky to get a languid hand”–assuming that they ever got off the ground in Newfoundland.
Putting the Vimy together again:
A tent at Quidi Vidi sheltered mechanics preparing to reassemble the Vimy, but was too small to hold the plane itself; The 50-foot long crate containing the Vimy’s fuselage arrives from the dock at St. John’s on a horse drawn wagon; The crews back the partially finished Vimy into position for completing the wing assembly; A mechanic crouched on a suspended plank, bolts a strut to the right wing tip before it is attached to the plane; The assembly finished, a satisfied crew filters fuel for the Vimy through a funnel lined with copper gauze to trap impurities
The huge crates containing the Vimy arrived on May 26, the day after the news of Hawker’s rescue and 16 days after Admiral Kerr and the Handley Page crew had arrived at Harbour Grace. A local drayman named Lester, who had hauled the Sopwith and the Martinsyde to their takeoff points, took charge. “Don’t you worry, Skipper,” he boomed at Alcock. “We’ll get your flying machine up to Kiddy Viddy even if we have to knock a few houses down and build a bridge.” A fence or two did have to come down, some houses were slightly chipped, and when the crates jammed between the bridge parapets the structures had to be disassembled and later rebuilt–but Lester delivered the plane as he had promised.
The Vimy was too big to fit into the hangar tent at the lake so, like Admiral Kerr’s Handley Page 60 miles away, it had to be assembled in the open. Canvas screens stretched between posts blocked the worst of Newfoundland’s cold spring wind, but frequent rain forced the crew of mechanics and riggers who had accompanied the Vimy from England to stop work and cover the plane with tarpaulins. It was brutal exhausting labour, but the Vimy soon took shape.
For all his explorations of the countryside, Alcock sill had not found a field suitable for takeoff with the Vimy fully fuelled, but once more Lester, the drayman, saved the day. He had a pasture in mind that might do, and he and the pilot drove out to see it. The field measured only 300 yards but beyond it lay 200 yards of reasonably open land. Boulders would have to be moved, trees felled, a stone dike taken down and a ditch filled, but the row of meadows satisfied Alcock. “We’ll call it Lester’s Field,” he said. “The first transatlantic aerodrome!” For three days all available hands worked to smooth the ground. Brown, though his game leg hurt so that he could not pull on overalls without help, toiled alongside the rest. Even soft-palmed journalists bent to the task. The new field was ready on Sunday, June 8, 1919. Looking it over, Alcock said to his navigator, “It’ll do, Teddie, it’ll do. But I hope we only have to use it once!”
They would have to use it quickly. On that same day, the first warm Sunday of a tardy Newfoundland spring, they heard Admiral Kerr’s Handley Page drone serenely overhead. For an awful moment they feared the old sailor and his crew was setting out for Ireland. But no; the plane turned back toward Harbour Grace. The flight was only a trial run. Unknown to Alcock and Brown, the Handley Page had developed a problem with one of its radiators, and repairs would delay its takeoff for Ireland for several days.
The Vimy flew the next day, lifting off from Quidi Vidi with just enough gasoline to reach Lester’s Field after a test flight. On landing at the new airstrip, Alcock gunned the right engine to swing the plane to a stop just short of the fence.
MACHINE ABSOLUTELY TOP-HOLE, he cabled to Vickers. And so it seemed, except for the radio, which gave Brown an electric shock. Even more jolting was the sight of the Handley Page wheeling overhead on a second test flight and the discovery that the Vimy’s fuel supply was useless, contaminated with a gummy residue that Alcock feared would clog his Rolls-Royce engines. Raynham, whose Martinsyde was not yet repaired, generously offered his gasoline to Alcock, who gratefully accepted. But Raynham’s offer proved unnecessary; Max Muller arrived from Vickers with an unexpected supply of fresh fuel.
Alcock was restless; it’s time to go. But a gale blew in on June 10 and 11, postponing the flight. An exasperating cable came from Britain: WEATHER PERFECT HERE? PLEASE CABLE REASON FOR NON-START. Disgruntled over the bad weather in Newfoundland and the seemingly interminable series of delays, normally easygoing Alcock lost his temper for the first time, snapping at his ground crew. Brown, to calm himself, went fishing with a fellow angler he had met in Newfoundland.
On June 13 the weather over the Atlantic seemed to be improving, though winds were strong at St. John’s. Despite the wind, Alcock had the Vimy fuelled with gasoline hand-pumped from the drums and filtered through fine copper mesh. One of the riggers tacked a horseshoe under Alcock’s seat for luck. It required most of the morning to fill the tanks. As the plane took on fuel, its weight increased and the wheels sank deeper into the turf. A mechanic clutched Brown’s arm and pointed urgently at the undercarriage. A shock absorber had broken and the plane was sagging. It took all afternoon to empty the gasoline tanks so that the plane could be lightened enough to make repairs. The pilots returned to the hotel to rest, while crewmen worked all night by the light of automobile head lamps and paraffin flares to fix the Vimy and pump the fuel back into the tanks for an early takeoff.
On the morning of the 14th, everything was ready. The 4 a.m., weather report was typically sketchy: “Strong westerly wind. Conditions otherwise favourable.” It was the best forecast they would get. Brown dressed in his uniform. Alcock downed a blue serge suit and before dawn they drove to the field. Presently a boy on a bicycle set after them; he was carrying sandwiches and a Thermos of coffee prepared for the trip by Agnes Dooley. The wind slackened but remained gusty, and the airmen waited through the morning for it subside. Special mail was loaded and seals were affixed to the fuselage.
Water for the radiators had been twice filtered, then boiled, to clear it completely of sediment. Alcock did not want to suffer a cooling system failure as Hawker had. The Vimy did not have a built-in lifeboat; its lifeboat was a detachable fuel tank. The compasses had been swung, Brown wrote, “more elastic shock absorbers were wrapped around the axles, and the navigating instruments were taken on board, with food and emergency supplies.” Then, he added, “a large black cat, its tail held high in a comical curve,” sauntered by. “Such a cheerful omen made me more than ever anxious to start.” it also reminded Alcock to fetch their own mascots, two stuffed cats named Lucy Jim and Twinkletoe. Lucy Jim was lashed to a wing strut and Twinkletoe rode tucked into Brown’s flying suit.
Coaxing their Vickers Vimy into the air above the raw landscape of Lester’s Field near St. John’s Newfoundland, Alcock & Brown head towards Ireland. The twin-engined bomber, too late for operational service in the First World War, achieved fame with the first non stop transatlantic flight
There was one more problem. The wind shifted. In order to take off into the wind, the plane had to be pushed across the field; the takeoff would be slightly uphill. In the course of the move, a fuel line was crushed. It took an hour to fix it, and Alcock and Brown used the occasion to eat lunch. “We’ll have our next meal in Ireland,” Alcock promised. A car drove up, klaxon hooting. It was the doctor who had prescribed the “tonic waters.” He presented them with a bottle of whiskey, and Alcock took a jolt.
The wind continued to bluster, but the weather was as favourable as any the two fliers had seen during their weeks in Newfoundland. Alcock told Brown quietly that if they did go now they probably never would. Brown agreed, and both men climbed into the cockpit. Alcock fired up the two engines. One after the other they threw out a cloud of blue smoke; then they settled into a smooth and steady beat. He raised his hand to the men who stood in front of the wings acting as brakes to hold back the plane. One of the men later remembered: “Alcock revved up the engines to full power. Then on a signal, we all sat down on the ground and the plane shot forward.”
Lurching from side to side in the wind, the Vimy lumbered more than 300 of its allotted 500 yards, “showing not the least desire to rise.” Raynham watched in anguished silence. When they were “almost at the end of the ground tether allowed us,” Brown recalled, the plane rose, skimmed narrowly over a stone dike and a row of trees, then sagged below a hill crest a few hundred yards away. The crowd, certain that the Vimy had crashed started to run. The doctor pushed people aside, shouting, “Make way–they’ll be needing me.” but then the Vimy reappeared, airborne and climbing, with Brown waving from the cockpit. Brown looked at Alcock and “noticed that the perspiration of acute anxiety was running down his face.”
Ships in St. John’s harbour saluted them with whistle blasts they could not hear. At 1200 feet, they crossed the coast. Flying under patchy clouds, they saw icebergs on the horizon. Brown radioed a message “All well and started.” Then the wind-driven generator propeller sheared off, leaving the radio powerless. There would be no asking for help or guidance. Perhaps they would need none. The weather appeared favourable and they were riding a whistling tail wind. Brown now faced the formidable task of finding the way to Europe in a speeding aircraft. He had a standard naval sextant with which to shoot the sun or stars. The sextant had a crude artificial horizon in case the clouds obscured the real horizon, as they so often did. Using a slide rule and navigation tables, he could convert the sextant readings into a position on the chart he carried open on his knees. When the sky clouded over, he could rely on dead reckoning – estimating the effect of wind velocity and the Vimy’s air speed on the plane’s position. The trouble with dead reckoning was that a crosswind could blow them as much as 50 miles off course in an hour, a potentially fatal deviation. To measure this sideward motion, Brown had an instrument called a drift bearing plate. But he could use it only when he could see the water below, when clouds obscured the sea, crosswinds would be undetectable.
Kneeling in his seat, Brown pointed his sextant toward the southwest to make his first sun shots. Then, with drift and speed measured from the waves, he began to lay out their progress on the chart. He had barely acquired this basis for dead reckoning when, within an hour after takeoff, they passed over a vast fog bank and lost sight of the sea. Then the haze above thickened and blotted out the sun. There was no way to determine their position. Half an hour later, the starboard engine made a sound like a machine gun firing at close quarters. “A chunk of exhaust pipe had split away,” Brown wrote later, “and was quivering before the rush of air like a reed in an organ pipe. It became first red-, then white-hot, and softened by the heat, it gradually crumpled up. Finally it was blown away.” The exhaust from six of the engine’s 12 cylinders ripped through the air a few feet from their heads. Flames once diverted by the exhaust pipe now played on a bracing wire. It glowed red- hot but did not break, and the flames did not appear to be reaching the flammable fabric skin of the aircraft. Alcock and Brown roared on, the brutal noise blasting their ears.
Next, the battery that warmed Brown’s electric jacket failed, but he was not uncomfortable. The Vimy’s cockpit, though open, was partially sheltered. At 7:30, Brown twisted around and dug out Agnes Dooley’s sandwiches and opened a thermos of coffee. He handed Alcock’s share of the meal to him a bit at a time and Alcock ate with one hand on the control sick. Throughout the long flight, Alcock would never let go of the controls. After supper, Brown passed a scribbled note to Alcock: “I must see the stars.”
Up they climbed until they broke out of the clouds into dim moonlight at 6000 feet. The air at this altitude was much colder than they had experienced so far. With aching fingers, Brown turned the knobs of the sextant and found his position. Eight hours out, they had flown 850 miles, almost half the distance to Ireland. These figures translated into an average ground speed of 106 miles per hour, slightly more than they had anticipated. Alcock dropped to 4000 feet and skimmed the tops of the clouds cruising along under a hazy moon. “An aura of unreality seemed to surround us as we flew onward towards the dawn and Ireland,” Brown wrote. “The distorted ball of a moon, the weird half-light, the monstrous cloud shapes, the fog, the misty indefiniteness of space, the changeless drone, drone, drone of the motors.”
At 3 a.m., as dawn was streaking the sky, a cloud appeared like a wall before them, and they plunged in. The plane careened in violent winds and Alcock, unable to see the horizon, became disoriented. “Left to its own devices,” Brown recalled, the Vimy “swung, flew amok and began to perform circus tricks. Until we should see either the horizon or the sky or the sea and thus restore our sense of the horizontal, we could tell only by the instruments what was happening.” But the Vimy’s primitive blind-flying instruments were of no assistance. The bubble disappeared from the glass of the turn-and-bank indicator, the instrument that was supposed to tell the pilot whether the plane’s wings were level. The airspeed indicator jamed at about 90 miles per hour, so that Alcock was not aware that he was flying the Vimy slower and slower, approaching the stall speed at which the plane would no longer be able to remain aloft. Suddenly the Vimy shuddered, its flying speed exhausted. The nose dropped, and the plane whipped into a spin. Down they plunged through the blackness. The sinking altimeter told them they were falling; the revolving compass told them they were spinning. But “how and at what angle we were falling we knew not,” reported Brown. “Alcock tried to centralize the controls but failed because we had lost all sense of what was central.”
The altimeter registered 3,000 feet . . . 2,000 . . . 1,000 . . . 500. In the quiet of the throttled-back engines, Brown could hear the sea thundering below. He stuffed the flight log into his flying jacket, though he knew that if they hit the water there was almost no chance of survival in the icy embrace of the waves below. Then, as abruptly as they had entered the cloud, they popped out of it. The ocean was less than 100 feet below but the plane was nearly upside down, so that the water appeared to threaten them from above. Alcock’s ability as a pilot would never be more severely tried. At the sight of water, his equilibrium returned. With only seconds to live, he snapped the plane out of the spin, levelled off and shoved the throttles forward. The propellers bit the air, and the plane flew along no more than 50 feet above the waiting embrace of the Atlantic. Brown felt that he could almost have reached out of the cockpit and touched the whitecaps with his finger tips.
With the instruments registering again, Alcock started up into the murk, seeking the altitude that spells safety for pilots. Heavy rain fell, and as they gained altitude it turned to snow that coated the plane. Ice began to form. Several times Brown had to stand on his seat and clutching a strut with one hand, use the other to clear the snow away from the face of a vital fuel gauge and from the tubes that governed the air speed indicator. “The change from the sheltered warmth of the cockpit to the biting icy cold outside was startlingly unpleasant,” he wrote. But they dared not descend. They had to climb above the clouds so that Brown could use his sextant again to pinpoint their position after flying aimlessly in the turbulence. Somewhere above 11,000 feet, Brown caught a glimpse of the sun through the clouds and took the long-awaited sun shot. At that point said Alcock, “we had no certain idea where we were,” but Brown made some calculations and consulted his chart. They were a bare 80 miles away from Ireland.
Then a series of sounds like rifle shots cracked from the starboard engine. Alcock shut it down. Ice had partially covered its air intake, causing it to backfire. With the other engine idling, Alcock began a long and shallow glide toward warm air at a lower altitude. The plane could not fly on one engine; the question was whether the ice would melt before they struck the water. Down they went until they broke into the open 500 feet above the sea. Alcock restarted the dead engine, then advanced the throttles; the engines responded with a healthy roar. Twenty minutes later Alcock and Brown passed two islands, and 10 minutes after that they were over Ireland.
Alcock swung the Vimy along the coast, saw the radio masts of the military installation at Clifden and headed for what appeared to be a smooth green field nearby; it was actually an immense bog. Men on the ground tried to wave the Vimy away from its intended landing spot, but Alcock and Brown merely waved back, returning what they interpreted as a greeting. As the Vimy touched down on the marshy surface, its wheels dug in and the plane nosed over. Both men scrambled out, Brown nursing a bumped nose. They had been in the air for 16 hours and 28 minutes. “What do you think of that for fancy navigation?” asked Brown. “Very good,” said Alcock, and they shook hands.
The two men were soon enjoying a triumphal journey by train and ship to London. At every stop people thronged to greet aviation’s newest heroes. In London, the fliers rode to reception at the Royal Aero Club, their open Rolls-Royce proudly flying the Union Jack. Lord Northcliffe’s, whose challenge had inspired their flight, was too ill to greet them or to award the £13,000 in prizes during a luncheon at the Savoy Hotel. In his stead he enlisted Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for War and Air, to do the honour. On the following day Alcock and Brown were knighted by King George V.
Britain’s unabashed delight in the successful transatlantic flight soon turned to sorrow. In December 1919, Sir John Alcock, while delivering a new Vickers Viking to an air show in France, attempted to land in a fog, fouled a wing tip on a tree and crashed. He died a few hours later without regaining consciousness. Sir Arthur Whitten Brown, although he lived well into the 1940s, never flew again.
By courtesy: The Pathfinders by David Nevin and the Editors Time Life Books Chicago Illinois 1980