Flying into history with aviation festival

On June 15, 1919, Alcock and Brown landed in Connemara, 16 hours and 28 minutes after leaving Newfoundland.

Flying into history with aviation festival

On June 15, 1919, Alcock and Brown landed in Connemara, 16 hours and 28 minutes after leaving Newfoundland. The first non-stop transatlantic flight, it “opened the way to global air travel”, says Robert Hume

Who was the first person to fly across the Atlantic in an aeroplane, nonstop? Charles Lindbergh? The Wright brothers? Answer either and you’d be wrong.

It was two British airmen: Captain John Alcock and navigator, Lieutenant Arthur Whitten-Brown, in a converted, two-seater Vickers-Vimy bomber in 1919. Centenary celebrations of their historic flight begin this week.

Having repaired a broken axle, Alcock (27) and Brown (32) took off from Lester’s Field, St John’s, Newfoundland on Saturday, June 14, 1919.

The experienced flyers wore electrically heated clothing, fur gloves, and fur-lined helmets, because their cockpit was open. They carried sandwiches, coffee, whiskey, beer, and 800 letters in a little white bag — the first transatlantic airmail.

The sky was overcast, the wind so strong that the plane had to be roped down. “With this wind… we shall be in Ireland in twelve hours…” quipped Brown.

“Depressingly slowly”, the Vimy taxied along the bumpy runway, reluctant to leave the ground under the weight of fuel. They took off, only a couple of feet above a fence at the end of the field. “A less-experienced pilot would have crashed,” Brendan Lynch, author of Yesterday We Were in America, says.

Vessels in St. John’s Harbour blew farewell sirens as the plane passed overhead. For a while, the plane flew peacefully in the open sky. The difficult take-off was forgotten.

But within half an hour, the pair’s radio faltered, and after three hours it failed.

Fog banks appeared on the horizon. “We’ve got no choice”, said Alcock. We’ve got to go in”.

They flew blind through dense clouds: “We scarcely saw the sun, or the moon, or the stars”. The fog became so thick, they lost sight of the propeller blades.

Suddenly, a terrifying noise broke the silence: the starboard exhaust pipe and silencer had disintegrated. The engine grew so loud they could only communicate to one another by scribbled notes.

Then, the heating in their flying suits packed up. But they experienced probably their worst moment, says Lynch, when the plane stalled and spiralled down. Alcock levelled out only fifty feet above the waves, “so close, they tasted the salt on their lips”.

The weather grew worse. Hail battered the aircraft and they feared the fabric would tear. As hail turned to snow, the controls froze. Brown had to clear the fuel gauge behind them by standing up in the cockpit, despite the bitterly cold slipstream.

Finally, at half-past-six the next morning, they glimpsed the sun, one of three sightings during the whole flight. They made out Eeshal island and Turbot, off Galway. “We were jolly pleased, I tell you, to see the coast”, said Alcock.

The men spotted the tall masts of the Marconi wireless station at Derrigimlagh.

They circled around Clifden, but, unable to find a suitable landing site, returned to Derrigimlagh, where Marconi technicians frantically waved them away.

Alcock thought they were waving a welcome, and brought the Vimy down on what appeared a green landing strip, but was the dangerous swamp of Derrigimlagh Moor.

The nose of the plane sank into the bog, and fuel began to leak into the cockpit. But the airmen scrambled to safety.

It was 8.40 a.m. on Sunday, June 15, 1919. They had been flying for 16 hours and 28 minutes, and had covered 1,900 miles without stopping. It was the longest distance ever flown.

“I’m Alcock – just come from Newfoundland”, the pilot told the technicians.

Brown joked: “Yesterday, I was in America, and I’m the first man in Europe ever to say that”.

When asked later how he felt about crossing a vast ocean in the dark, Alcock replied: “I do not think that either of us had ever thought of what we were flying over, being merely intent on getting the machine across...” Local people waded through the bog to view the plane, and that evening souvenir pieces of the wings were on sale in the town.

The airmen signed countless autographs on their journey to Galway, and entertained late into the night at the Railway Hotel.

A Galway jeweller presented each airman with a Claddagh ring.

In Dublin, next morning, Trinity students lifted them from the train and carried them shoulder-high to waiting cars.

Alcock thanked the Irish people for the wonderful reception: “It was really a bigger strain on us than the flight”.

Telegrams of congratulation arrived from all over the world.

At London’s Savoy Hotel, Winston Churchill presented them with £10,000 prize money from the Daily Mail, for the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic by a “heavier than air” machine.

A few days later, King George V knighted them at Windsor Castle.

Arthur Brown married soon afterwards and lived until 1948. But six months after the enterprise, John Alcock died whilst flying from Weybridge to the Paris Aircraft Exhibition. Today, a monument to John Alcock and Arthur Brown — a plane’s tail fin — is perched on Errislannan Hill, overlooking Derrigimlagh Bog, where the airmen landed and made aviation history.

For the centenary next June, the History Press is republishing Lynch’s book, with a foreword by John Alcock’s nephew, Group Captain Tony Alcock, who launched Tuesday’s “Alcock and Brown 100 Festival” at Buswells Hotel, Dublin. Their transatlantic flight, says Tony, “opened the pathway to global air travel, and should be given the recognition it deserves”.

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