WHEN THE DARING YOUNG MEN TOOK OFF INTO GLORY FROM A NEWFOUNDLAND PASTURE
THE WAR THEY SAID would end all wars had ended. Over Flanders, white scarves no longer trailed from open cockpits. The Red Baron was dead; the deserted airfields drifted over with long grass and clover. In pubs, in backyard garages and on Surrey chicken farms bought with the demob bonus, the young men of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service dreamed of their days of glory; some tried to relive them stunting at Hendon airdrome on Saturday afternoons. The aircraft industrialists had done well out of the war. Now the orders
The challenge: to be the first to fly the Atlantic. The prize: £10,000. The route: Newfoundland to Ireland. The year: 1919. And there to describe the glorious adventure in florid prose, a diminutive cub reporter named Joe Smallwood
BY RICHARD AND SANDRA GWYN
for Strutters, and Camels and Pups, for Bristol Fighters and Bourges bombers had dried up. To get production lines moving again, planes had to be proved as useful in peace as they had been in war.
For Lord Northcliffe, press baron supreme, the urgency was as immediate. The Daily Mail's ascendancy as the paper most people wanted to buy for a penny was threatened by the arriviste Beaverbrook's Daily Express. Through the golden prewar summers, tens of thousands had craned their necks watching fragile machines scud across the skies in pur-
suit of Daily Mail prizes: London to Manchester. Round Britain, the Aerial Derby Gold Cup and. most daring, Cross-Channel. A wartime ban on civilian flying washed out all aerial contests. With peace the ban was lifted and Northcliffe renewed an offer first made in 1913: £10.000
for the first aviator to cross the Atlantic. Up went the Mail's circulation, the shares of aircraft manufacturers, the spirits of young men in pubs and on farms.
By early 1919. 11 teams had entered the race. The takeoff point would be Newfoundland, the destina-
tion Ireland. 1.890 miles with a westto-east tailwind to help them along.
Most Newfoundlanders accepted the news impassively. Trans-island rail travel was barely 20 years old. and sail still ruled the outports. People were more interested in the newfangled gasoline engines a few enterprising fishermen were trying out in dories and trapboats.
In St. John's, the Evening Telegram's new cub reporter did his best to liven things up. “To be first across the Atlantic." ran an unsigned article, “will place the aviator's name alongside those of such hardy souls as
Columbus, Peary and Scott." A few days later, on March 22. 1919, 18year-old Joe Smallwood (to become in time Newfoundland's flamboyant premier) tried once again to communicate his extravagant enthusiasm: “The men who have given Fmgland her supremacy on the Western Front,” he wrote, “will not be found wanting in the exceptional genius, courage and organizing abilities requisite for this venture.” By way of local color, he added: “The fact that these flights will originate in St. John's will add permanent lustre to the name of / continued on page 38
THE DARING YOUNG MEN continued from page 31
“The engine sounded like 500 drums”
St. John's.” A week later, on March 29. the S.S. Dighy. detoured from the capital because of pack ice, steamed into Placentia harbor. 60 miles away. Two massive iron-bound crates were loaded onto railway flatcars and trundled into St. John's. Also aboard the train were the first of the magnificent men. At 29. Harry Hawker was already a legendary figure. A slim, handsome Australian, with jetblack hair and a flashing smile, he had captured the public's fancy in 1912 by winning the Michelin Trophy with a record duration flight of eight hours and 23 minutes — six weeks after getting his pilot's license. His navigator. Lieutenant-Commander K. Mackenzie-Grieve, RNAS. was a sturdier, stolider figure. Or so he appeared. Before each flight Mackenzie-Grieve was given to ceremoniously sticking a sprig of white heather in his lapel and kissing a lace handkerchief.
Their plane was a Sopwith Atlantic, a tiny two-seater with a single Rolls-Royce Eagle engine. To reduce weight, the undercarriage could be jettisoned after takeoff. The top of the fuselage could be converted into a small boat, complete with oars and emergency rations — a useful adaptation as events proved.
St. John’s at last sat up and took notice. When the Atlantic made her first test flight, April I I, the House of Assembly took the afternoon off to
watch. Even the island governor drove to the airstrip at Glendinning’s Farm six miles outside the city. The day before, the first competition had arrived, and the Evening Telegram's diminutive, disheveled reporter went down to the dock armed with a box camera. From the hold of the S.S. Sachem swung another heavy set of crates. One of them, labeled “Martinsyde TransAtlantic Flight. Aircraft Spares. Handle with Care.” contained a sizable consignment of liquor — word having drifted across t’ ° ocean of the colony's incredible conversion to prohibition.
With such foresight, it took the Martinsyde aviators only five days to make their first test flight. “It was a beautiful rise,” marveled Smallwood, “more graceful than that of a bird. The noise of the engine, sounding like 500 brass drums, could be clearly heard by the people gazing skyward.” According to rumor, the Martinsyde plane, the scarlet and yellow Raymor, was faster than the Atlantic. She also was a two-seater, with a Rolls-Royce Falcon engine.
Both teams hoped to take off with the full moon on April 16. Each morning, armed with fresh coffee and sandwiches, the aviators set off hopefully to their airstrips. Each afternoon, as fog lowered over the city and gales screamed across the ocean, the cold coffee was poured continued on page 40
They searched the
sea for help
on the ground and the sandwiches distributed to gaggles of small boys. Even Smallwood’s spirits flagged at the “apparent enmity of the weather god to the birdmen.”
There were compensations. There were dances at Bally Haly golf club and dinners at Government House. There were visits to the Majestic movie house; Harry Hawker usually telephoned ahead so that the banner, “Welcome to the Brave Aviators” (a brainchild of the theatre’s part-time publicity agent, Joe Smallwood), would be unfurled. The teams were comrades as well as rivals: Freddy Raynham, the baby-faced Martinsyde pilot, the first man to come out of a spinning nosedive alive, had taught Hawker to fly: the Martinsyde navigator, Captain C. W. F. Morgan, knew Mackenzie-Grieve from their days in the RNAS. Everyone was billeted at the Cochrane Hotel and, with the aid of the Martinsyde liquor supply, they launched a series of latenight parties. Waitresses were introduced to the racy ways of London, and the aviators added Newfoundland folksongs to their repertoire of mess ballads. In the best British tradition, the teams reached a sporting agreement to give each other two hours’ warning of takeoff. As for Smallwood’s “weather god,” Newfoundlanders did what they could by calling on a higher power:
St. Michael! Bear thy sword to shield
Our flyers till they proudly land
Triumphant in some Irish field.
Equally anxious for “our flyers” to take off was the irate farmer who complained in the Telegram, “These infernal machines buzzing around are preventing my hens from laying.”
At last St. Michael obliged. Sunday, May 18 dawned clear. Over breakfast, Hawker decided to make a break for it. Over lunch, he tipped off the Martinsyde crew.
By 3.30 p.m., the Atlantic was ready to go, so heavily loaded that it took all Hawker’s skill to get the plane off the ground. At 3.48 they were airborne. Below, they could see Raynham and Morgan readying their craft by the shores of Quidi Vidi Lake. Once beyond the harbor narrows, Hawker pulled a lever and the undercarriage plummeted into the sea.
Back at Quidi Vidi, Freddy Raynham made his final checks and tied his mascot, Emma, a wooden parrot, into the cockpit. One hour after the Atlantic, the Raymor lurched into the air. A huge crowd of onlookers shouted and waved. Barely 200 yards underway, a sudden gust hit the plane. The Raymor flipped sideways, hovered for a second, and smashed into the ground. Furious with frustration. but not seriously hurt, Raynham and Morgan scrambled clear of the wreck.
Alone over the ocean, the Atlantic sped toward the Irish coast at 105 mph. After four hours, she ran headlong into a northern gale and towering black pyramids of cloud. The wireless jammed. Much worse, the engine began to overheat. To cool the scorching metal, time and again through the night Hawker was
forced to switch the engine off, allowing the nlane to glide downward. Just before dawn, as Hawker dived to avoid a sudden squall, the engine cut out completely. Then, barely 20 feet above the sea, it sputtered alive.
With the radiator almost dry, Hawker and Mackenzie-Grieve realized they could go no farther. They were some 12 hours out of St. John’s and 500 miles from Ireland. They swung the Atlantic south toward the shipping lanes and for two hours circled, hoping to sight a ship.
At last, with the fuel indicator angling toward empty and Hawker desperately airsick from the constant buffeting, a funnel loomed out of the murk. Using their last reserves, Hawker headed into the wind and nursed the plane down onto the whitecaps. For another hour the aviators wallowed amid churning seas in their fuselage life raft, while the dumbstruck crew of the Danish freighter Mary launched a lifeboat and made the rescue.
A call from the palace
No word of this reached home, for the Mary carried no wireless. Not until May 25, when the ship reached the Butt of Lewis in Scotland was the rescue known. To a public resigned after four years of casualty lists to its heroes dying young, this was the idealized end to an incredible saga. Hawker and Mackenzie - Grieve were feted up and down the land. From Buckingham Palace came a summons to tell the tale to King George and Queen Mary. From the Daily Mail came a £5,000 consolation prize. By June 1, Hawker was back barnstorming at continued on page 42
Everything was ready. Alcock and Brown began their gamble
Hendon, and taking up passengers at 20 guineas a flip for charity. The world's attention shifted back to St. John’s.
The newest contenders were more substantial venturers. For once, words failed reporter Joe Smallwood. “It is simply wonderful,” he reported of the Handley Page entry, the giant V/1500. This was scarcely exaggeration, for, as Smallwood added once he had a second wind: “It is the biggest biplane in the world and cost $100,000. It is 63 feet long, weighs 16 tons and cannot be handled except by steam tractor. It has four 400 horsepower Rolls-Royce engines.” Equally formidable was the plane’s commander. Admiral Mark Kerr, the first flag officer to win a pilot’s certificate.
For their base, the Handley Page team chose Harbour Grace on the far side of Conception Bay, 60 miles by rail from St. John's. Persuaded it would be good publicity for the town, 100 Harbour Gracians demolished houses and leveled ground for an airstrip.
The difficulty of finding suitable fields in Newfoundland's rocky terrain plagued all the aviators. It almost defeated the last-comers. Jack Alcock and Arthur Whitten (Teddy) Brown, of the Vickers team. With its fuel load of 850 gallons, their 43foot, twin-engine Vimy needed a takeoff run of 500 yards. This was far longer than the strips used by Hawker and Raynham. Admiral Kerr offered to help: Alcock and Brown could use his Harbour Grace field — after the Handley Page had left.
For a fortnight, the pair scoured the countryside in a rented Buick tourer, turning down offers of farmers' land for anything up to $20,000. To their rescue, when the Vimy was already half-assembled, came Rupert Lester, a St. John's haulage contractor. He offered, free of charge, his own tract of grazing land — “a large, moderately level field.” reported Smallwood. “Some 30 men have set to rolling and otherwise preparing it.”
Their work was sped by the inevitable Newfoundland come-all-ye:
O lay hold. Jackie Alcock.
Lay hold. Teddy Brown,
Lay hold of the cordage and dig in the ground.
Lay hold of the how-line and pall all yon can;
The Vimy will fly ere the Handley Page can.
Alcock was a 26-year-old veteran of the RNAS. a bluff rollicking Northcountryman with a DSC to his credit for demolishing Turkish bombers over the eastern Mediterranean. After the war. he steam-rollered a reluctant Vickers management into sponsoring him in the Atlantic race. Brown, the navigator, was a shy introspective engineer who had flown as an observer in the Royal Flying Corps. By coincidence, both men had been prisoners of war: Alcock imprisoned by the Turks. Brown by the Germans.
On Sunday. June 8, the Handley Page made a six-hour test flight and, in a show of strength, flew over St.
John’s. The odds in its favor lengthened. In a series of dispatches from Harbour Grace, which he datelined “Handley Page-on-sea,” Smallwood reported: “Admiral Kerr has been presented with a silk Union Jack by Princess Mary to be flown from the plane on transAtlantic flight.” He added that “a young lady from Bell
Island has made application for a position on the flying staff, offering her services to do washing and scrubbing.”
From Lester’s Field, Alcock and Brown made two less grandiose test flights. They cabled the home office: “Machine absolutely tophole.”
On Saturday, June 14, a high wind
that had gusted all week suddenly abated. The sky was clear, and the Vimy crew decided to take their chance. Teddy Brown carefully donned his naval uniform and Jack Alcock put on a smart blue-serge suit. For the last time, they drove to the bumpy airfield. A messenger from the Cochrane dashed up on a bicycle with coffee and sandwiches, left behind in the excitement. A local doctor presented Alcock with a bottle of whisky. Into his breast pocket, Brown
stuffed his mascot, a toy cat named “Twinkletoes,” which had heen a goodluck present from his fiancée. The postmaster general handed over a white canvas bag crammed with 197 airmail letters. Prime Minister Sir Michael Cashin arrived in his horse and carriage. The Eagle engines were fired, stampeding cattle in nearby meadows.
At 12.58, the Vimy bounced down the strip and soared aloft.
As she flew over the harbor, ships
sounded their sirens. Half jubilant, half apprehensive, St. John’s waved godspeed.
Brown tapped out his first message: “All well and started.” At Harbour Grace, watching a team of Rolls-Royce engineers feverishly overhauling the Handley Page. Joe Smallwood cursed his luck.
Despite the optimistic predictions of fledgling meteorologists, the Vimy was no sooner clear of the coast than she plunged into a dense fog bank.
With no instruments for flying blind. Brown was forced to navigate by dead reckoning. The inevitable breakdowns started. The wireless jammed and part of the starboard exhaust sheared away, leaving the engine to belch flame into the slipstream. At 12.25 a.m. (GMT) the Vimy passed the point of no return — 900 miles from land in cither direction. The skies cleared for a few moments, and Brown discovered he was directly on course. To celebrate.
the aviators laced their coffee with a shot of whisky.
Soon the Vimy’s luck ran out. She flew straight into an electrical storm. Out of control, amid a cacophony of blinding lightning and ear-splitting thunder, the plane looped end over end. stalled and plunged toward the sea. Alcock refired the engines and flew on. Or so he thought. In fact, he had lost all sense of balance. The Vimy continued to plummet down. Sixty feet above the Atlantic, it tumbled out of the clouds. Desperately. Alcock centralized the controls. The plane fluttered, righted itself and went on its way.
Dawn brought fresh trouble. Heavy snow began to fall, drifting into the open cockpit. The engines started to ice over. There was only one way to clear them, and at 8,800 feet Brown crawled onto the fuselage. Clinging to the struts with one hand, he chipped away with a jackknife the ice surrounding the air intakes. Six times he climbed out. painfully dragging a leg lamed by a war wound.
This could only be a stopgap. With 80 miles to go, the radiator froze into a block of ice. Alcock dropped lower to warmer temperatures. For 15 minutes, the Vimy ghosted eerily downward. The ice on the wings and fuselage turned to slush, then slid away. At 500 feet, the engines roared back to life.
Three quarters of an hour later. Brown put away his charts and grinned. Ahead were the mountains of Connemara. In the misty Irish morning. Alcock banked joyously over the town of Clifden. Brown fired off two red Very flares to rouse the
citizenry. Alcock flew on to what he thought was a field. Too late, he realized that the green sheen masked the slimy Derrygimla bog. The Vimy plowed to a halt. It was 8.40 a.m. The flight had lasted 16 hours 12
minutes. As the crowd rushed up, Alcock had only one question: “What news of the Handley Page?” None, came the reply.
A week later, Alcock and Brown were guests of honor at a formal
luncheon at the Savoy, to sample oeufs pochés Alcock and Suprême de sole 11 la Brown and to accept a
£10.000 cheque presented by Lord Northcliffe’s favorite politician. Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for War. The next day, they were knighted at Windsor Castle.
Alcock died six months later in a Normandy orchard, amid the wreckage of a new plane he was taking to a Paris airshow. Teddy Brown never flew again. Until he died in 1948, he visited the London Science Museum each year on June 14, and stood gazing silently at the battered yellow Vimy enshrined among the world’s antiquities.
For all the brave hopes of the plane manufacturers, the men were ahead of their machines. The Alcock and Brown flight was regarded as little more than a brilliant stunt. Even the mighty Handley Page never flew the Atlantic. With the prize won, Admiral Kerr tried for a threestep crossing, from Newfoundland via Long Island, New York. On its first leg. the bomber crash - landed onto a field near Parrsboro, Nova Scotia. ★