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Alcock and Brown: The First Transatlantic Flight

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Since his celebrated landing in Paris 90 years ago, we often hear of Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic.  He flew solo, taking off from Roosevelt Field in Brooklyn and landing in Le Bourget field in Paris after a flight of 33½ hours in his cramped, lightweight plane, The Spirit of Saint Louis.  Lindbergh was one of several individuals or teams who were competing for the Orteig Prize: a $25,000 purse offered to the first to fly from New York to Paris, offered by wealthy New York hotelier Raymond Orteig.  Lindbergh took off and landed perfectly, and managed to navigate the whole way without getting lost.  This was quite a feat in the days before computers to aid navigation, or the elaborate system of air traffic control that would come into being, once commercial airlines started to develop.  What Lindbergh did immediately made him an international hero and a household name for years after, with streets and buildings and yes, airports, named after him.  To this day, Charles Lindbergh is remembered for achieving the first solo flight across the Atlantic.

The first solo flight.  Solo wasn’t a prerequisite for the Orteig Prize.  In fact, Orteig expected planes to have crews of at least two pilots, possibly more.  It’s important to qualify Lindbergh’s flight as solo because while The Spirit of Saint Louis was the first airplane to fly from New York to Paris, it wasn’t the first airplane to fly across the Atlantic.  That plane didn’t have a name, but its pilots had names, even though they’re not as well remembered as Charles Lindbergh is.

The two pilots who pioneered transatlantic flight were named Jack Alcock and Arthur Whitten “Teddy” Brown, to early aviators from Manchester, England who made the crossing on June 14-15, 1919.  Their unnamed aircraft was a Vickers Vimy heavy bomber, a surplus war plane left over from World War I.  Alcock and Brown had been military pilots for the British Army.  After the war, they both wanted to continue flying.  Alcock favored piloting planes, while Brown was more interested in aerial navigation.  Like Lindbergh’s, Alcock and Brown’s transatlantic flight was in pursuit of a prize.  The Daily Mail started offering a prize of £10,000 to “the aviator who shall first cross the Atlantic in an aeroplane in flight from any point in the United States of America, Canada or Newfoundland and any point in Great Britain or Ireland in 72 continuous hours.”  The prize was first offered in 1913, but was suspended the next year at the outbreak of the war.  Once the war was over, the Daily Mail reopened the prize, and these two men stepped up to win it.

The Vickers Vimy, used by British airmen to bomb German forces in the trenches during World War I.

Alcock and Brown weren’t the only aviators gathered at Lester’s Field in St. John’s, Newfoundland on June 14, 1919.  There were other teams there preparing for their own flights to the British Isles.  They were running test flights, inspecting their planes, and checking the weather the best they could.  One of the many risks of flying across the Atlantic in 1919 was that there was still no way to forecast the weather conditions you might be flying into.  Flying in late spring and early summer minimized risk, but nothing was certain.  Early transatlantic flight attempts almost always left North America and headed to Europe, since the prevailing winds blow east.  Flying west to North America would mean flying into headwinds, and conquering the Atlantic was enough of a challenge already.

The Vickers Vimy was loaded with an electrical generator, an intercom for talking over the engine noise, body suits with electric coils in them to provide heat, and some mail to be delivered to England.  They took off at 1:45 in the afternoon, ahead of the other teams, and just barely clearing the trees surrounding the airfield, they were soon over the Atlantic, and all went smoothly.

It was all smooth for a while, anyway.  At 5:20 PM, their generator conked out.  Lack of a generator deprived them of heat and their intercom.  They really needed that intercom, since an exhaust  pipe burst soon afterward, making enough noise to drown out all conversation.

Soon after, they entered a thick fog.  Brown had been using a sextant to navigate by, but since you need to be able to see what’s in front of you in order to use one, it was completely useless.  Alcock lost control of the plane twice, dropping toward the ocean in a spiral dive.  By 12:15 AM, the fog cleared up, and Brown could see the stars and use his sextant.  He found they were on course, but was surprised to learn that they were also a mere 60 feet above the surface of the ocean, and flying sideways.  (This was an improvement over their occasionally having flown upside-down.)  They were also cold.  Their broken generator meant their electric body suits didn’t work, and since the plane had an open cockpit, this was important!  Freezing though they were, they also thought to bring coffee laced with whisky along, which somewhat made up for the broken heating system.

At around 3:00 AM, the weather turned on them as they flew into a heavy snowstorm.  The snow turned to rain, and their instruments started to ice up.  They got the instruments clear, with Brown doing most of the ice clearing, since navigation was impossible in that weather.  Once the snow and rain cleared up, Brown could navigate again, and discovered that they had somehow turned around and were flying back toward Newfoundland.  They turned their plane around and made way for the British Isles again.

Their intended landing spot was County Galway, Ireland.  They aimed for a spot closer to the town of Galway, but instead settled for the first green field they saw, near a small village called Clifden.  At 8:20 AM they came in for a landing, discovering too late that that field was actually a bog.  They crashed there, and walked away from the plane, unscathed.

Alcock and Brown's landing in County Galway, Ireland.  The plane was not unscathed.
Since word of their departure from Newfoundland was delayed for some reason, no one in Ireland was expecting their arrival, so there were no cheering throngs to celebrate their accomplishment.  In Clifden, there was only one person who knew anything about sending telegraphs, and she only knew enough to transmit short messages locally.  Eventually, Alcock and Brown made their way back to England, the proper communication with the press was made, and they got the heroes’ welcome they had earned.  While their flight of 1,890 miles was only a little more than half of the distance Lindbergh would cover in The Spirit of Saint Louis eight years later, this was still an impressive achievement.

In London, they were celebrated and quickly made Knight Commanders of the Order of the British Empire by King George V, and were given additional cash awards of £2,100 from the Ardath Tobacco Company, and £1,000 from private citizen Lawrence R. Phillips for being the first British subjects to fly across the Atlantic.  (They were still the first people to fly across the Atlantic, as well, but Mr. Lawrence put a premium on their being British while doing it, for some reason.)



The aviators were instant celebrities in Great Britain, but soon after, the hubbub died down.  Alcock went on to make appearances at air shows, but he never made that many.  Six months after their successful landing in Ireland, he was killed in a crash at an air show in France.

Brown’s career lasted longer.  He worked for British Westinghouse as an engineer for a number of years before joining the Royal Air Force at the outbreak of World War II.  He didn’t fly, but he was responsible for training pilots in the war effort.  He worked until his health started to decline in 1943 and retired.  Brown died in 1948.

In 1954, three monuments to Alcock and Brown’s flight were erected in Newfoundland, and one was erected in Heathrow.  There is also one at the Manchester Airport, just eight miles from Alcock’s birthplace.

Commemorative 15¢ stamp from Newfoundland, celebrating Alcock and Brown’s flight.  This stamp dates from 1930. Newfoundland issued its own stamps, since it was still a British possession at the time.  It didn’t become a province of Canada until 1949.

Comments

Wow! What a great article. Believe it or not, I had heard of Alock and Brown, but I had no idea they encountered so many obstacles along the way, and indeed barely escaped with their lives. You did an excellent job recounting the voyage. I could picture it in my mind! (I know that expression is a cliché, but it's nonetheless true). Question: Have you considering writing professionally and getting your work published in other websites? If not, you should! I liked this blog from the moment I first came across it, and the more I read it, the more I like it!

Getting back to Alock and Brown, it's so sad that, in life, they never got the recognition they deserved, and that Alock perished so soon after the feat that earned him a place in history. Despite the monuments and other honors, they never got enough recognition after their deaths, either. Just the other day, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine. He was talking about how only the first ones to do something are remembered. "Who was the first person to land on the moon? Everyone knows that. Who was the second? No one knows, or cares. How many people have landed on the moon? No one knows, or cares. Who was the first person to fly the Atlantic? Everyone knows that." At which point I, assuming that he was referring to Charles Lindbergh, said that Lindbergh was not the first person to fly the Atlantic, but rather the first American, as well as the first to fly the Atlantic both solo and non-stop. My friend was astonished, and visibly disappointed, as he is a very patriotic American.

On the subject of prevailing winds, you may be interested to know that there was actually a successful flight from Europe to the Americas in 1922, just three years after Alock and Brown's flight and six years prior to Lindbergh's celebrated flight. Portuguese aviators Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral flew from Lisbon to Fernando de Noronha, Brazil, albeit making a couple of stops along the way. After arriving in Fernando de Noronha, they made several more stops along the Brazilian coast until they reached Rio de Janeiro. Interestingly, Coutinho invented and used a special sextant that allowed him to navigate without needing to be able to see the horizon. The Wikipedia article on this flight is regrettably short, but it is nonetheless a good introduction to Coutinho and Cabral:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_aerial_crossing_of_the_South_Atlantic

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