Hello, and welcome back to Newfoundpod, a bite-sized podcast about Newfoundland. I’m your host, Debbie Wiseman, and today I’m going to talk to you about the first non-stop transatlantic flight, which originated here in Newfoundland 100 years ago.
If you are on social media, you probably heard a lot of grumbling this past week or so about flights. Weather delayed a lot of flights in the US, with people being stuck on planes for hours on end with no idea when or if they would take off. While I certainly sympathize with those people, I can’t help but also think about how good we have it. If you want to fly across the ocean, you just buy a ticket and settle into your seat, cramped and overpriced as it is.
People didn’t always have that luxury. If you wanted to cross the Atlantic, you had to go by boat. Depending on the voyage, that could take about a week. Luckily for us, a couple of British men named John Alcock, aged 26 and Arthur Brown, aged 32, dared to take a chance on that journey, one hundred years ago this year. This is the story of that journey.
Back in the early nineteen hundreds, the Daily Mail offered rewards for pilots who completed tasks that had up to that point not been completed. One of those tasks was to fly non-stop over the Atlantic Ocean, with the pilot or pilots who completed the journey in under 72 hours earning themselves 10,000 pounds. The journey had to originate in The United States, Canada or Newfoundland (Remember Newfoundland was not a part of Canada yet) and it had to terminate in Great Britain or Ireland.
Though the two men did not know each other previously, they had both served in the first World War and had been prisoners of war. When they heard about the contest, they approached the Vickers engineering company separately and were selected to fly a modified Vickers Vimy IV twin engined bomber in the competition. The plane was made from wood, canvas and wire. I will have a photo on the website.
Several teams entered the competition and had planned to take off from St. John’s. This was the most easterly point to start from, therefore making the trip as short as possible. They planned to land in Ireland.
I will read to you a passage from FLIGHT International magazine about some of the hardships they faced even before getting the plane, which had to be disassembled for shipment and re-assembled when it arrived in Newfoundland:
next month was one of agonising frustration. Initial
searches for a landing strip in the rugged Newfoundland
terrain were fruitless. The weather was inhospitable. The crated aircraft, drawn by horses from the docks, could not negotiate the main street until trees had been felled. Survival equipment was mislaid, fuel was found to have been contaminated in storage, and a Byrd bubble sextant sent from Washington by the US Navy did not arrive in time.
Despite all of this, they carried on, rebuilding and testing the plane at Quidi Vidi. Their closest competition to being the first to take of was the Handley Page team, run by a captain who was a perfectionist. This team couldn’t figure out why their radiator kept clogging. Alcock, though, realized it was the heavy mineral content and the sediment in the water and had it filtered several times and boiled before he used it. On the morning of their takeoff, the Handley team was still testing and the Alcock/Brown team were ready to go.
was no airport in St. John’s back then, so the teams and locals had
worked together to clear a patch of land near Blackmarsh Road. With
their plane ready to go, they flew it the short distance to their
makeshift runway. They had planned to take off on Friday, June 13th,
but bad weather once again stood in their way.
So, finally, on June 14th, 1919, at 1:40PM, they began.
The makeshift runway was uphill, bumpy, and they had to clear patches of pine trees at the end. The plane itself was heavier than usual due to the extra fuel they had to carry with them. Brown reported that they cleared the tops of those trees with only inches to spare.
Five minutes after they started down the runway, they were airborne.
the flight got underway, things didn’t get any better for them. The
Vimy had an open cockpit, so the men were subjected to the elements.
Just a couple of hours in, the wind-driven electrical generator
failed, causing them to lose radio contact, their intercom and their
heating. Shortly after that an exhaust pipe broke, and the noise from
that made it such that they could not hear each other speak.
Thick fog hampered them for hours of the flight. They were flying blind and at two times, Alcock lost control of the aircraft and nearly crashed into the sea. When the sky cleared briefly, they finally got some good luck and Brown was able to see that they were at least still on course.
worn electric heating suits, but those failed too.
Then, they flew into a snowstorm. Brown actually had to climb out onto the wings six times during the flight to try and chip off ice. Imagine that – climbing out onto the wing while flying over the Atlantic Ocean, holding on with one hand and chopping away at ice with the other. Several times, Alcock tried flying perilously close to the ocean, hoping that the air would be warm enough at that altitude to melt the ice that kept forming and clogging the engines. Brown was keeping a flight log, and later said that on at least two occasions, he thought he was making his last entry and hoped that his notes would help future pilots, should his body be found.
Finally though, they reached Ireland. I can’t imagine how they must have felt when they saw the Emerald Isle. When people on the ground saw them coming, they tried to direct them to a nearby airfield. The men just cheerfully waved back, though. Better to crash into a soft Irish bog than an airstrip, so that’s exactly what they did when they arrived at Clifden, Connemara, County Galway, Ireland. It wasn’t graceful, but they had survived, and made the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. People who ran to them after they crash landed asked if they were okay, and where they had come from. When they told them they had just crossed the Atlantic, the crowd laughed at them, thinking surely they were joking. The men had also been given a small amount of mail by the postmaster in St. John’s, so this also made it the first transatlantic airmail flight.
The New York Times declared: “Alcock and Brown Fly Across Alantic; Make 1,980 Miles In 16 Hours, 12 Minutes: Sometimes Upside Down In Dense, Icy Fog”
Captain Alcock was quoted as saying, “We have had a terrible voyage. The wonder is we are here at all.”
they HAD made it. And England celebrated their accomplishment. Alcock
and Brown were knighted by King George V and they were awarded the
Northcliffe prize by Sir Winston Churchill. They toured England and
were praised everywhere they went.
Unfortunately, John Alcock was killed in a crash just a few months later, and Arthur Brown never flew again and passed away in 1948 at the age of 62.
Since this is the one hundredth anniversary of the flight, there are some activities planned here in St. John’s.
There is a memorial plaque outside the Legion on Blackmarsh Road already, but a statue has been commissioned to mark our role in aviation history.
Tre Alcock and Brown 100th Anniversary Committee are planning a lot of events this summer during the centennial week. Speakers, concerts, an aviators ball, a garden party, a commemorative beer and even a recreation of the flight are some of the things that are planned.
I’m hoping to take part in at least some of that and of course I’ll be sharing photos on my Instagram if I do.
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Thanks again everyone and I’ll talk to you soon!