The men let go and the First World War plane sped forward, rolling and bumping along a sloping farm field as it headed for a 600ft cliff. Overloaded with extra fuel, the plane bounced over the rough ground, approaching the edge of the precipice.
Slowly Vimy began to rise – only a few meters at first, but it was above the ground. RAF navigator Lt. Arthur “Ted” Brown, seated next to Alcock, watched nervously as the pilot struggled against a headwind to keep the rickety biplane in flight.
How Pearl Harbor forced the world’s first commercial round-the-world flight
The watching crowd at Lester’s Field in St. John’s, Newfoundland, began to cheer as the plane slowly climbed, then gasped in horror as it rapidly fell below the cliff. After some anxious moments, Vimy reappeared, rising unhurriedly into the sky. The spectators heaved a collective sigh.
On June 14, 1919, Alcock and Brown began a perilous quest to become the first aviators to fly nonstop across the Atlantic. While Charles Lindbergh is remembered for his solo crossing in a closed metal monoplane on May 21, 1927, this older and much more difficult journey in a wooden and fabric open-cockpit biplane is almost forgotten today. .
In itself, Lindberg’s accomplishment – achieved 95 years ago on Saturday – is a significant achievement. However, Alcock and Brown’s flight eight years earlier was nothing short of miraculous. Advances in aeronautical engineering in the short time between the two flights were considerable.
Wright Brothers vs. Smithsonian: The Bitter Feud Over Who Invented the Airplane
“The difference in technology, engines, instrumentation and navigational ability between 1919 and 1927 is like night and day,” said Robert O. Harder, author of the new book “First Crossing: The 1919 Trans- Atlantic Flight of Alcock and Brown”. “It’s just a few months after the end of the First World War, and these planes were still really, really rickety.”
Non-stop air travel between North America and Europe had been a dream since 1913, when British media mogul Lord Northcliffe offered a prize of 10,000 pounds – almost $600,000 today – to the first to accomplish it. Separately, Alcock and Brown plotted to earn the reward while awaiting the end of World War I in POW camps in Switzerland and Turkey. Both had been shot in action.
Alcock needed an experienced navigator, while Brown was looking for a pilot to take the controls. After the war, they had the chance to meet for the first time at the Vickers manufacturing plant in Surrey, England, just three months before the Vimy took off from Newfoundland. Both immediately realized that they were in agreement on this mission.
“It was quite fortuitous how the two men met,” Harder said. “They were at the factory at the same time and accidentally learned of each other’s plans. Their meeting was truly coincidental, but it was meant to be.
Fierce, feared and feminine: the WWII pilots known as the ‘Night Witches’
Both were at Vickers because they believed the Vimy, a twin-engine heavy bomber in production for World War I but delivered too late for combat, was the plane they needed to make the crossing. With a wingspan of 68 feet, it was one of the largest aircraft of its time. More importantly, it had a long range: around 2,000 miles. The biplane was modified for this flight to add extra fuel tanks so it had more than enough fuel to cover the 1,900 miles from Canada to Britain.
“It was cutting-edge technology at the time,” noted Harder, who flew 145 combat missions on B-52 bombers in Vietnam as a US Air Force navigator. “The plane could fly 100 miles per hour, which was a big deal at the time.”
In 1919, attempting to cross the Atlantic non-stop in an airplane was considered suicidal. Several pilots had attempted to win the prize; all had failed, some attempts ending in death.
A month before takeoff from Alcock and Brown, US Navy and Coast Guard airmen managed to make the trip with a 10-day layover in the Azores for repairs. Of the three NC-4 seaplanes used for the trip, only one survived the ocean crossing. Two crashed in the Atlantic, but the crews were rescued by support ships.
When Alcock and Brown arrived in Newfoundland on May 9 with their disassembled Vimy in boxes, there were already four other teams preparing to cross the Atlantic. One would crash into the sea shortly after takeoff, about three weeks before Alcock and Brown planned to take to the air.
After Vickers mechanics assembled the bomber, pilot and navigator conducted test flights to ensure their plane was ready for this endurance trip. Once insured, they filled the tanks and packed their food and drink – including beer and whiskey for “fortification” – as well as their lucky mascots: two stuffed cats, named Lucky Jim and Twinkle Toes.
The bumpy takeoff on the afternoon of June 14 was a harbinger of what was to come. Alcock and Brown faced many challenges during the trip, including dense fog, snow, rain and severe turbulence. Twice the Vimy unexpectedly dived into the waves. Twice Alcock pulled the stick at the last second.
In addition, an electric generator broke down, cutting off power to the radio, intercom and heating. Alcock and Brown were essentially flying blind across a vast ocean with no landmarks to guide them. They were wearing electrically heated suits, but the batteries soon died and they found themselves shivering in rain-soaked clothing during their journey, most of which was at night.
On three occasions, Brown had to clear ice from a dipstick to check fuel mixtures. To do this, he had to stand upright in his seat in a 100 mile per hour blast of cold air. On the third attempt, he felt searing pain in his left leg, which had been shattered by a bullet during the war, and was nearly blown out of the cockpit.
73 years after winning the first ‘Top Gun’ contest, black pilots are honored
The next morning, after 16 hours of flying with only a compass and a sexton for direction, the couple spotted land. It was Ireland. Alcock and Brown had planned to fly to London but decided not to risk going any further. They settled in what they thought was a field but turned out to be a bog. The aircraft sank in mud and rolled over, but the pilot and navigator were uninjured.
Newspaper headlines around the world announced their accomplishments, including the first transatlantic mail flight. They had taken with them a small bag of letters to be delivered.
Airmen were taken to Galway for parades and celebrations, where they were treated as triumphant victors. They spent the night at a local hotel, but were groggy when they woke up the next day – possibly the first people to experience what we now call jet lag.
“Yesterday I was in America and I’m the first man in Europe to say that,” Alcock told the cheering crowd.
In London, the couple met Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for War and Air. He presented Alcock and Brown with their £10,000 prize. (They donated 2,000 pounds to the ground crew.)
“I really don’t know what we should admire more in our guests, their audacity or their good fortune,” Churchill said. He announced that the pair were to receive the Knight Commandery of the Order of the British Empire from King George V at Windsor Castle. Knighted airmen would be treated as the equivalent of rock stars – until Lindbergh eclipsed their record.
Both were enjoying the glory of the moment, though Alcock’s reverie would be short-lived. He died six months later from injuries sustained in a plane crash. Brown lived to be 62, although he limped for the rest of his life as a result of his war injury.
The Vickers Vimy was rescued from the Irish bog. It has been restored and is now on display at the Science and Industry Museum in England. The toy mascot Lucky Jim is in the museum’s collection, while Twinkle Toes are in the Royal Air Force Museum.
Although the public may have forgotten their flight, Alcock and Brown’s legacy lives on. Their efforts paved the way for many more aviators, including Lindbergh in 1927, as well as the regular transatlantic commercial flights we enjoy today.
“Their accomplishments rank among the top three or four aeronautical accomplishments,” Harder said. “They proved for the first time that someone could fly 2,000 miles non-stop over water and survive. No one had even come close to that. They spearheaded the advancement aeronautical technology.