THE DEPARTURE FROM NEWFOUNDLAND on June 14, 1919. The aeroplane in which Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown flew across the Atlantic was a Vickers Vimy biplane. The machine had been designed during the war of 1914-18 as a heavy bomber, but certain modifications were carried out before the first North Atlantic flight. Fuel tanks of extra size were added, to enable the machine to take 865 gallons of petrol and 50 gallons of oil. Fully loaded, the aeroplane weighed 13,300 lb, and it had a cruising speed of 90 miles an hour. The main planes had a span of about 68 feet.
IN the summer of 1937 British and American flying boats carried out a series of experimental flights for the ultimate establishment of a regular transatlantic mail and passenger service. The machines and the men who flew them were rightly applauded.
In our admiration for these flights let us pause and salute two pioneers who made them possible, two men whose names are enshrined with the immortals. Let us recall the superb feat of Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown. In June 1919 they flew a Vickers Vimy biplane, from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Clifden, Ireland. Through fog and sleet, now
11,000 feet up, lost in dense cloud banks, now only 10 feet above the sea, they flew 1,960 miles to make the first direct, non-stop flight across the North Atlantic and to write an imperishable page in the history of aviation. Alcock and Brown had served with distinction in the war of 1914-18. Both had been prisoners of war. Both had had experiences which would have made many other men decide on a quiet life; but Alcock and Brown were men of vision and imagination. They had that divine restlessness and discontent without which progress is impossible, and, as we shall see, they were men of courage also.
Alcock had taken his pilot’s ticket before he was twenty, in 1912. Even before the war he had distinguished himself by taking third place in the race from London to Manchester and back.
Born in Glasgow in 1886, Whitten Brown, quiet, scholarly and retiring, had been attracted by aerial navigation from his early youth. In 1919 these two men joined the small group of British fliers who were already in Newfoundland, eager to win aviation’s greatest prize. There were the honour and excitement of the flight itself. There was a prize of £10,000 offered by Lord Northcliffe to the first men to fly across the North Atlantic. But if there was much to attract, there was much to deter them.
While Alcock and his navigator went quietly about their preparations for the great adventure, another pilot challenged the Atlantic. This was H. G. Hawker, who, with his navigator, Mackenzie Grieve, attempted the flight a month before Alcock and Brown set out. Hawker’s attempt failed. He and his navigator were saved only by chance after their machine had crashed in the sea. Alcock and Brown went ahead with their preparations.
The machine chosen for the flight, a Vickers Vimy biplane, had been designed during the war as a heavy bomber. Certain modifications were made in it for the North Atlantic attempt. The armaments were stripped, the crew reduced from three to two,
and the seats adjusted so that pilot and navigator sat side by side. Extra large fuel tanks were added. Fully loaded with 865 gallons of petrol and 50 gallons of oil, the aeroplane weighed 13,300 lb, and its estimated range was some 2,440 miles.
Under test it had a maximum speed of 100 miles an hour and a cruising speed of 90 miles an hour. The two engines were Rolls-Royce Eagle engines of 360 horse-power each. The Vimy was a large machine, the span of its main planes being about 68 feet. It measured 42 ft 8-in overall and stood 15 feet high.
By Friday, June 13, 1919, the men and the machine were ready.
The superstitious who took this to be a fateful date had something to support their superstition. If the month were June the weather was more fitted for midwinter. The narrow field at St. John’s, from which the fliers were to take off, was shrouded by fog and swept by blinding rain. During the afternoon it became obvious that the start must be delayed.
Meanwhile, Alcock and Brown waited, deaf to the gloomy forecasts of the superstitious.
Soon after four o’clock on the Saturday afternoon Alcock and Brown climbed into the cockpit. The weather was much improved, but the pessimists predicted disaster. They had reason for their predictions. The machine, abnormally loaded with three and a half tons of petrol, was to take off uphill in a cross wind. John Alcock, however, knew his aeroplane. He began to taxi over the
rough, uneven ground, gaining speed with every yard, until at last, after a run of 400 yards, the take-off was achieved.
The greatest flight in the history of aviation had begun. Ten years after Bleriot had astonished the world by crossing the English Channel, over a distance of twenty-one miles, two Britishers were challenging the North Atlantic’s 1,960 miles.
At 4.28 (Greenwich time) Alcock and Brown crossed the coastline. Despite all the predictions, a good start had been made, and now, with a following southwesterly wind and with visibility good, a successful crossing seemed assured. But some perverse fate, which seemed to have set its hand against the flight from the beginning, was waiting for them. Soon after they had crossed the coastline they were trapped in the Newfoundland fog bank. For seven hours they were to fly through that fog. For seven hours they were to see neither the sky nor the sea. It is not difficult to imagine the feelings of Whitten Brown as he sat there, frustrated, his great navigating skill useless, as he could make no observations for the setting and checking of their course.
Alcock’s position was almost equally serious. With his vision obscured by fog he could not see the horizon, and it was virtually impossible for him to keep the machine straight. Such difficulties are now met by what is known as “blind flying” (which will be described in a later chapter in this work), but even today with the use of many sensitive instruments, flying in such conditions still tries experienced pilots.
THE FIRST NORTH ATLANTIC FLIERS were Captain John Alcock (left) and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown (right). Both men had served with distinction during the war of 1914-18. Alcock had taken his pilot’s ticket in 1912, before he was twenty. Whitten Brown, born in 1886 at Glasgow, had been attracted to aerial navigation since his youth. Both men, after their historic flight, were knighted by King George V.
If this was bad, worse was to follow. The radio apparatus became useless through a seized armature. Now that it was impossible for messages to be sent out, success was imperative.
Those seven hours seemed unending to the aviators, but at midnight the sky cleared. The fog disappeared and made way for the moon and the stars. Whitten Brown took his observations while Alcock relaxed a little in the knowledge that he could keep his machine level with the horizon. This, however, was only a temporary respite, a false raising of hopes which were to be quickly dashed. Swiftly the sky was clouded over. Once more the Vickers Vimy was plunged into a blanket of fog. Then, unexpectedly, among that embracing darkness, came the most dramatic moment of the flight: a moment that called for a great pilot. Alcock knew that something was wrong. There was a quick, rising roar from the engines as of protest. The machine seemed to tremble, then it dived, spinning out of control. Alcock knew at once that his air speed indicator had failed to register. It had jammed when showing at ninety. It seemed to Alcock that every trick known in aerobatics was performed during that headlong drop to the sea. He tried all he knew to avoid what seemed to be the inevitable; but, out of touch with sea and horizon and unable to check his position, he was helpless.
Suddenly the Vickers Vimy emerged from the fog into atmosphere sufficiently clear for Alcock to use his great piloting skill. With amazing dexterity he manoeuvred this heavy, cumbersome machine into a position of safety. As he did do he saw that he was within 50 feet of the water.
Only a matter of seconds had saved them from death.
Alcock quickly put the machine on a true course and climbed to 6,000 feet, trying to break through the blanket of fog. Twice he did break through, only to find that he was flying between two banks of cloud again.
Once more he was forced to fly through fog, cloud and a freezing atmosphere. But the tail wind was helping them on towards the coveted goal. Whitten Brown was still unable to make any observations. They must fly by luck and by dead reckoning.
Then, some hours before dawn, as if fate had not done enough to deter them, ice formed on the wings of the ailerons and jammed them. As the fliers raced to meet the dawn they ran into a blizzard of snow and hail. The machine was covered with ice. It was ice which had probably damaged the head of the air speed indicator. It was ice which had damaged the ailerons. It was ice which now threatened the running of the Rolls-Royce engines as it formed on the radiator shutters.
Only 10 feet Above the Sea
For six hours the battle went on. During that time Whitten Brown was able to take only four readings. The communication telephone used by the pilot and navigator had broken down and they were able to talk only by signs. They were assailed by thirst, having drunk the last of their coffee and ale.
At dawn Alcock tried to climb above the clouds and eventually he reached 11,000 feet. At this height he broke through the pall of fog, and Whitten Brown was able to fix their position. Alcock flew down again so that his navigator could check for drift. But before visibility was good again Alcock was forced to take the Vimy to within a few feet of the surface of the sea. For forty minutes they flew about ten feet above the water.
They had now been flying for thirteen hours. They had estimated that the transatlantic passage should not take more than sixteen hours; thus, if their calculations were correct, they should reach the Irish coast in another three hours. Despite the weather, the Rolls-Royce engines had stood up to their task magnificently and were still running perfectly. With the fog belt above them, with dawn clearing a way ahead, the fliers sped on, taking fresh hope from the beginnings of a new day.
They were tired and weary-eyed, but the nearness of the Irish coast was like an ever-beckoning finger. They peered into the dawn, looking anxiously for any sign of land. Although visibility was much improved they were still flying through gusts of rain and filmy cloud. They flew on, steadily forging towards their goal, but still no land came in sight.
VICKERS VIMY BIPLANE in which Alcock and Brown made their historic flight. They flew from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Clifden, Co. Galway, Ireland, a distance of 1,960 miles, in fifteen hours fifty-seven minutes - at an average speed of more than 120 miles an hour. The aeroplane was powered by two Rolls-Royce Eagle engines, each of 360 horse-power. The Vickers Vimy was a large aeroplane, with its overall length of 42 ft 8-in and its height of 15 feet. The estimated range was some 2,440 miles.
Then they saw, or they thought they saw, the first landmarks, only a mile or so ahead, now showing, now disappearing through the rain and mist. Was this the land they so anxiously sought - or was it merely one of those mirages which are held so tantalizingly before the eyes of weary travellers? The Vimy sped on - and then they were certain. It was land. They were almost there. They had spanned nearly two thousand miles in a non-stop flight. It was not the mainland that they saw, but two islands, Eashal and Turbot, off the Galway coast. The mainland was still obscured by rain and mist, but Alcock and Brown knew that it could not be far off.
A few minutes later, at 8.25 a.m., they saw, above the mist and rain, the hills on the coastline. The mainland itself was still hidden, but ten minutes later the Vimy circled over the masts of the Marconi radio station at Clifden. Very signals were fired, but there was no answer. They flew on, over Clifden village, and fired more Very signals; still there was no reply.
There seemed to be no suitable landing place near the village. They flew back to the radio station. Alcock saw what he later described as a “nice meadow”. He put the Vimy into the wind, switched off his engines and glided down. The landing wheels touched the “nice meadow”, which proved to be a bog. The wheels sank into the soggy ground, up went the tail and the Vimy’s nose dug itself into the marsh. The lower plane was smashed. The propeller was damaged.
Alcock and Brown climbed from the cockpit, both unhurt. A group of men ran over from the radio station. At first they would not believe it, could not believe that they had seen history made, that this was a big moment in the story of man’s mastery over the air. We cannot blame them, as there had been no radio communication with the fliers and as they were not expected at that particular part of the coast.
Although Alcock said that “we were too tired to think much of the feat at the time”, even so, even those modest and retiring men could not have been wholly unaffected by the welcome when this small group of radio operators realized that the North Atlantic had been crossed in 15 hours 57 minutes - 1,960 miles at an average speed of more than 120 miles an hour. The excess of about 30 miles an hour over the cruising speed of 90 was due to the following wind.
Challenge to the Future
The course at which Whitten Brown had aimed would have taken the fliers to Galway Bay, only a few miles away. The slightness of the deviation is a magnificent tribute to his superb navigating skill. With only occasional glimpses of the stars he had been able to maintain an almost dead course.
The two aviators were knighted by H.M. King George V. Never were knighthoods more fittingly earned. As we look back on the story of aviation since 1919 we can merely speculate on the glorious pages that John Alcock might have added to that story; but a cruel stroke of fate decreed that he should add no more. Six months later, on December 18, 1919, he was killed while flying in France.
He had flown from England to France in a Vickers Viking aeroplane. The weather was bad and, as he approached Rouen, he ran into a heavy mist; what followed is not clear, but a farmer - the only man who saw the accident - said that he noticed the aeroplane flying unsteadily before it crashed to the ground. Despite medical attention, Alcock died that same afternoon.
The merit of his flight with Whitten-Brown is enhanced by the fact that nearly eight years passed before another aviator made a direct crossing of the North Atlantic. In May 1927 Charles Lindbergh flew “solo” from New York to Paris in a Ryan monoplane.
There had been two other direct crossings of the North Atlantic between Alcock and Brown’s flight and that of Lindbergh, but these were accomplished by airships. The chapter beginning on page 103 describes the flight in 1919 of the airship R 34 from East Fortune, Scotland, to New York.
In 1924, between October 12 and 15, the Zeppelin airship ZR 3, Dr. Hugo Eckener in command, flew from Friedrichshafen, Germany, to Lakehurst, New Jersey. The ZR 3 was taken over by the U.S. Government and renamed Los Angeles.
END OF THE FIRST NORTH ATLANTIC FLIGHT. At 8.25 a.m., on July 15, 1919, Alcock and Brown sighted Ireland. Ten minutes later they were circling over the radio station at Clifden. They decided to land on what Alcock later stated he thought was “a nice meadow”. It turned out to be a bog, however, and when the wheels touched they sank and caused the Vimy to tip over. The nose was buried, the lower plane smashed and the propeller damaged, but the two fliers climbed out unhurt.