They were the first men to fly nonstop across the Atlantic. Here’s the exciting story of the flight that began from Canada and ended by changing the world’s ideas of time and spaceGRAHAM WALLACE September 17 1955
They were the first men to fly nonstop across the Atlantic. Here’s the exciting story of the flight that began from Canada and ended by changing the world’s ideas of time and spaceGRAHAM WALLACE September 17 1955
SHORTLY before midnight on Tuesday, May 13, 1919, two young British aviators stepped from a warm railway carriage onto a cold rainswept station platform in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and stood huddled together in the night, shivering in their thin English clothes and cursing their luck at being sent to such a place. Three days earlier they had disembarked from the Mauretania at Halifax. Since then they had been traveling more or less continuously by boat and train to get to St. John’s.
The journey on the narrow-gauge Reid Railway from Port aux Basques on the southwest coast to St. John’s on the east normally took twenty-seven hours; it had actually taken forty. After England Newfoundland seemed indescribably dull. In places snow was still lying in drifts, and it rained without ceasing. There was no easy companionship with fellow flyers; you couldn’t even buy a legal glass of beer. There was no one to welcome the airmen at the station and they learned from the depot clerk that there was only one hotel of consequence in St. John’s, the Cochrane, and it was always full. “Maybe the Dooleys’ll bed ye down on the floor,” he told them.
Agnes Dooley, the proprietor’s sister-in-law, did the next best thing. She made them a warmed-up meal of leftovers and fixed them up with camp beds in the smoking room.
Before they fell asleep the two flyers tried to tell one another that the future couldn’t be as black as it looked. They had arrived on May 13 and thirteen was a lucky number for both of them, they said. This comforting thought was strangely prophetic.
Thirty-four days after they arrived in St. John’s, John Alcock, a war ace and stunt flyer, and Arthur Whitten Brown, his engineer and navigator, were to become the newest and brightest heroes of the postwar world. They were knighted by the King of England, commended by the U. S. president, praised by Winston Churchill, lionized by all England, and they were richer by thirteen thousand pounds. Far from their makeshift beds at the Cochrane, famous London hotels fought to say that Alcock and Brown slept there, and chefs gave the flyers’ names to their most exotic dishes.
They were not only the greatest names in aviation; they had launched a new age of flight and a new era of transportation. In a lumbering, fragile, twin-engine Vickers Vimy, they were the first men to make a nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean.
Alcock and Brown never doubted their ability to fly the Atlantic, but at the beginning they had only the slimmest hopes of being the first to do it. They were far behind at least three other teams in making their plans and, in spite of their frequent disappointments and their terrible ordeal above the Atlantic, luck rode with them all the way. While they waited miserably for their plane to arrive by ship from England and then assembled it, unbelievably bad weather kept their rivals on the ground for weeks and literally smashed the first two attempts to fly the ocean. When disaster and death twice threatened to end their flight they miraculously came through unharmed.
When the flight was over Winston Churchill, paying tribute to the flyers, commented pointedly: “I do not know what we should admire the most— their audacity, their determination, their skill, their science, their Vickers Vimy airplane, their Rolls-Royce engines, or their good fortune.”
Actually, each of these factors was brought into play in the conquest of the Atlantic. It was Alcock’s audacity and Brown’s determination that brought them together as a flying team. Alcock, trained by the French ace Maurice Ducrocq, had been flying since 1912, when he was nineteen. He was an outstanding young test pilot and, when war broke out, he joined the Royal Naval Air Service. There at first he was a flying instructor, but he escaped from this dull regimen to the Middle East, where he served as a fighter and bomber pilot, won the DSC, was shot down and taken prisoner by the Turks.
Arthur Brown, whose parents were American but who had been brought up in England, was an engineer in South Africa when war was declared. He returned to England to join the army, fought in the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915 and then transferred to the air force as an observer. He was shot down twice: the first time he escaped to his own lines, but the second time he suffered a leg injury that plagued him the rest of his life and he was taken prisoner by the Germans.
When the crushing heartache of captivity wore off, Brown began thinking of a means to keep occupied. He had all the time in the world to make a careful study of aerial navigation. Also Brown recalled the offer of Lord Northcliffe, owner of the wealthy London Daily Mail, of a prize of ten thousand pounds for a transatlantic flight, and he felt that this would offer the greatest challenge to a navigator. At night he lay sleepless with the pain in his leg, dreaming of an Atlantic flight.
To stimulate British aircraft development, which had been lagging far behind imperial Germany’s, Northcliffe’s Daily Mail in April 1913 had made a startling announcement:
We offer £10,000 to the first person who crosses the Atlantic from any point in the United States, Canada, or Newfoundland to any point in Great Britain or Ireland in 72 continuous hours. The flight may be made, of course, either way across the Atlantic. This prize is open to pilots of any nationality and machines of foreign as well as British construction.
When war started the Home Secretary forbade such flights, but on July 17, 1918, the Daily Mail vigorously restated its offer of ten thousand pounds for a nonstop Atlantic flight “to stimulate the production of more powerful engines and more suitable aircraft.”
Plans were made in secret; a number of firms already had aircraft capable of the Atlantic flight, and others were designing machines. It was generally agreed the flight should be made from west to east to take advantage of the prevailing westerly winds, and only one entrant (Short. Bros.) proposed to fly with the sun. To meet the terms of the Daily Mail offer the crossing had to be made in one stage, thus ruling out an intermediate stop in the Azores, and the shortest possible distance was the Great Circle route of 1,880 miles between Newfoundland and Ireland. By the end of 1918 plans were far advanced, if not publicly announced, for at least eleven separate attempts to win the Atlantic prize.
Only four of these, the single-engine Sopwith Atlantic and Martinsyde Raymor, the four-engine Handley-Page V, 1500 and the Vickers Vimy, were to reach Newfoundland complete with their crews. But, in addition, the British and American governments planned a series of flights by flying boat and airship which, for various reasons, were not eligible. One of these, the flight of the American Navy flying boat NC-4, was to be acclaimed as the first-ever crossing of the Atlantic by air.
The favorite among all the entrants was the Sopwith Atlantic, chiefly because the pilot was Harry Hawker, Britain’s most famous pilot, and the navigator was Lieut.-Commander Mackenzie-Grieve, a skilled Royal Navy navigator. As chief test pilot with the Sopwith Company Hawker had logged more hours than most celebrated front-line aces.
Hawker’s old friend and rival of the prewar years, Freddie Raynham, had spent the war as chief test pilot for the Martinsyde Company, so it was natural that he was chosen to pilot their machine, the Raymor. Once again the two friends found themselves as rivals in a competition, to be joined shortly by a third: Jack Alcock.
Both the Atlantic and the Raymor were criticized as being too small for the Atlantic flight. The Handley-Page Company satisfied these critics with their giant bomber, the V 1500. This plane, powered by four Rolls-Royce Eagle engines mounted in tandem, and carrying a crew of six, was the largest British machine flying at the end of the war.
Handley-Page selected a distinguished crew for the flight. In command was Admiral Mark Kerr who had been the first flag officer to obtain a pilot’s certificate. The pilot was Major H. G. Brackley who had been a pupil of Alcock’s at Eastchurch. The navigation and radio officer was the Norwegian Trygve Gran who, in 1914, had flown across the North Sea from Scotland to Norway in just over four hours.
Early in February 1919 the United States also announced an all-out effort to be the first to fly the Atlantic with the big Curtiss flying boats operated by the navy. But the plan was to fly via the Azores, so the Americans admittedly did not qualify for the Daily Mail prize.
Alcock, like Brown, had nursed an ambition to fly the Atlantic throughout the war but now, with the war ended, he couldn’t find a plane. He observed, however, that the Vickers Company, of all the big plane manufacturers, had said nothing about an Atlantic flight. Alcock talked to Vickers executives Charles Knight and Maxwell Muller and convinced them the Vimy could be first across the Atlantic. They agreed to back him.
Brown found himself a member of the transatlantic team almost by accident. He went to Muller looking for a job. Muller, learning that Brown was a navigator, asked him if he could navigate a plane across the Atlantic.
"Yes,” said Brown simply.
"Come and meet the pilot,” said Muller, and thus began the history-making partnership.
Interest in the Atlantic competition grew. On April 13 a wealthy London businessman, Lawrence Phillipps, added a thousand pounds to the stakes. A tobacco company put up two thousand guineas. On April 18 a Captain Wood and his navigator, named Wyllie, took off from Holyhead, Wales, for Ireland in a Short Shamrock they intended to fly to Newfoundland. The plane crashed in the Irish Sea and the first Atlantic try failed.
On May 4 Alcock and Brown left for Halifax. At the boat train Brown kissed his fiancee, Kathleen Kennedy, goodby. Theirs was to be the romance of the year.
The Daily Mail, anticipating that the Atlantic flight might be the biggest story of the year, sent Fred Memory, an ex-RFC officer, to St. John’s as special correspondent. Three other reporters were sent to strategic points in Ireland to await the first landing. For a few months St. John’s became the centre of interest for airmen all over the world, as the Atlantic contestants arrived with their aircraft. Hawker and Mackenzie-Grieve were the first, arriving in Newfoundland on March 29. Only Captain Fenn, the Sopwith manager, who had already spent two weeks in Newfoundland, was at the depot to meet them.
It had not been easy to find a suitable airfield. Captain Morgan of the Martinsyde Company had already leased the best site on the banks of Quidi Vidi Lake. The Handley-Page Company had secured a stretch of land at Harbour Grace, a small town sixty miles from St. John’s, and one hundred men were working there to prepare the land for the giant four-engine bomber. Captain Fenn had scouted all around St. John’s and had arranged for a field at Glendenning’s Farm, six miles out of the city.
Meanwhile, corps of reporters had gathered for the race. Every day a conference was held with Lieutenant Clements, the RAF "met” expert. The days passed in a whirl of activity, drawing nearer and nearer to April 16, the night of the full moon, which Hawker and Lieutenant Clements agreed would be the most favorable time for the flight.
The Postmaster-General of Newfoundland, Dr. J. A. Robinson, decided that each contestant should carry a special bag of mail on the flight. No special airmail stamps then existed, so a limited number of current three-cent Newfoundland stamps were overprinted: "First Transatlantic Air Post, April 1919.”
The Sopwith team had been in St. John’s for only a few days when they were given an unwelcome reminder that they were not alone in the race. Lieut.Commander P. L. N. Bellinger of the squadron of American flying boats sailed from Boston on board the destroyer USS Burnley to survey the harbors of Newfoundland for a base. The U. S. was definitely in the race.
With a test flight of his Atlantic on April 11, Harry Hawker served notice on his rivals that he intended to be first across. No one thought the Martinsyde team, which had just arrived in Newfoundland, had a chance to be ready before Hawker left, but Freddie Raynham was gambling on the weather to stall the Atlantic. By working day and night his mechanics had the Raymor ready for a test flight five days after they arrived in Newfoundland.
Then began the long wait for a break in the weather that was to last for almost two months.
The Americans Arrive
The monotony of waiting was broken on May 4 when a small armada steamed into Trepassey Bay on the south coast: the USS Aroostook, a mine layer, two destroyers and an oil tanker, the advance party for the American flying boats. That was the scene when Alcock and Brown arrived on May 13—the last of the transatlantic teams to reach the starting line.
On the morning following their arrival Alcock and Brown appeared in the dining room, Alcock in riding breeches and a thick tweed coat, Brown in lace-up boots, breeches and a smart Norfolk jacket. When Alcock walked into the room there was a moment of silence, then a great yell of delight as Hawker and Raynham bounded up to greet their old friend.
By the time they had drunk their second cups of coffee Alcock and Brown had heard enough to realize how greatly they had underestimated the difficulties of the project. The news about the weather did not surprise them, but they were not prepared for Hawker’s next bombshell.
He told them that their chief difficulty would be to find a piece of ground for an airfield. He doubted whether there was any land suitable for the Vimy within thirty miles of St. John’s. They asked for news of the Handley-Page. The plane and the crew had arrived in Newfoundland three days before the Vickers party. Admiral Mark Kerr had set up his headquarters in Harbour Grace, a small town sixty miles along the coast northwest of St. John’s.
Breakfast was over. Agnes Dooley came in and gave Hawker and Raynham packets of sandwiches and flasks of coffee. They collected their flying kit, said farewell to Alcock and Brown, and drove off. Alcock and Brown watched them leave with mixed feelings, wondering whether they would see them again that evening, or would there be empty places around the supper table.
Alcock immediately began his search for an airfield for the Vimy, which needed a clear run of five hundred yards. But the land around St. John’s was ill suited—rocky, barren, swampy or covered with forest. Alcock drove around hopelessly in a rented car, and got glummer each day.
Three days after their arrival, the Vickers team and others at the Cochrane heard that the three American flying boats had left for the Azores. The assault on the Atlantic had begun. The flying boats roared out of Trepassey Bay at 7.30 p.m. on May 16, and by nine the next morning the fastest of them, an NC-4, sighted the first island in the Azores. Two hours later the plane landed at Horta, with an easy nine hundred miles to the coast of Europe.
The other two flying boats, however, didn’t reach the Azores in flight; they were forced down at sea, but both the crews were saved.
The news of the arrival of the NC-4 in the Azores reached St. John’s on Saturday May 17. Hawker and Raynham heard it as they were walking into the Cochrane Hotel.
Early on Sunday morning Lieut. Clements visited the Cochrane with good news. All his weather data indicated that the storms over the North Atlantic were abating; a full moon was due that night; the prospects were better than they had ever been during the past three weeks.
By 3.30 p.m. the Sopwith Atlantic stood ready outside the hangar on Glendenning’s Farm. At 3.48 p.m. Hawker and Mackenzie-Grieve raised their hands in a final salute, the throttle was opened wide and the little biplane started rolling across the uneven surface of the field to lurch into the air after a run of three hundred yards.
The noise of the Atlantic flying over St. John’s served to tell everyone that the long-expected race was on. Hundreds more people walked, rode, or motored down to the Quidi Vidi Lake to join the crowd already there. Raynham was not worried by Hawker’s early start. He knew that the Martinsyde was the faster of the two planes.
When the Martinsyde mechanics had finished their work, the trim scarlet-and-yellow Raymor was wheeled out of the hangar to one end of the field. Raynham and his navigator, Morgan, climbed into their flying suits.
Exactly one hour after Hawker and Mackenzie-Grieve had taken off, the chocks were pulled away from the wheels of the Raymor. Everyone cheered as the machine began to roll over the ground with increasing speed. All went well for about two hundred yards; the little plane struggled into the air when a sudden crosscurrent of wind hit it and it buckled into the ground. There was a crash of splintering wood, the machine turned partly over and stopped dead. Raynham and Morgan were badly shaken, but not severely injured.
The flight of Hawker and Mackenzie-Grieve was to become one of the most dramatic incidents in the history of British flying and, although unsuccessful, it attracted almost as much publicity as the flight of Alcock and Brown. Fifteen hours and eleven hundred miles from St. John’s the cooling system in the Sopwith fouled. By one chance in a thousand Hawker picked out a small steamer in the vast expanse of ocean and crash-landed his plane in her path. He and Mackenzie-Grieve were saved, but there was no wireless aboard the steamer and for six days the world thought the two flyers were dead.
Exactly a week after the departure of Hawker and Mackenzie-Grieve, a messenger boy handed Alcock the cable he had waited for so impatiently:
“SS GLENDEVON CARRYING VIMY AIRCRAFT VICKERS MECHANICS EXPECTING TO DOCK ST. JOHN’S MORNING MONDAY MAY 26.”
That evening Fred Memory electrified the Cochrane Hotel when he bounded into the dining room, excitedly waving a cable and shouting: "They’re safe. Harry and Mac landed in Scotland this morning.”
On May 27, two days after Hawker and Mackenzie-Grieve reached Scotland, the first crossing of the Atlantic by air was successfully completed when the American NC-4 landed on the Tagus at Lisbon.
With Hawker out of the race, and Raynham a doubtful starter, the betting odds were limited to the Handley-Page V/1500 and the Vickers Vimy. By the end of May the odds had shortened to 4 to 1 on the Handley-Page. Travelers coming into St. John’s from Harbour Grace brought exaggerated accounts of the preparedness of the four-engine plane, and the St. John’s folk shook their heads over the state of the Vimy.
During the first week in June the weather improved and the Vimy began to look like a real biplane. But Alcock still was worried because the nagging question of an airfield had not been solved. Then, unexpectedly, a hauling contractor named Lester, who had transported the Vimy out to the Martinsyde field at Quidi Vidi, stopped by one day to ask how things were going.
"Jolly well,” said Alcock, "but I still haven’t got a field. What a country!”
Lester asked how much land he would be wanting.
"A good clear run of five hundred yards.”
Lester then announced that he could help Alcock out with some land he owned for grazing horses. Alcock looked dubious. He could not believe that any level land remained within sixty miles of St. John’s which he had not already surveyed. However, Lester persuaded him to have a look at his field.
“We’ll Call It Lester’s Field”
The land was a long rectangular meadow, dotted here and there with young spruce trees and large boulders of granite. One end dropped down to a marsh, while the other rose up over a small hill. A stone dike ran across the middle of the field, with a deep drainage ditch on one side. If the trees and boulders could be cleared the dike removed and the ditch filled in, it would serve. Alcock was startled when Lester offered the field for nothing, and then announced that his men would help clear the ground.
"We’ll call it Lester’s Field,” said Alcock, bubbling with enthusiasm.
The airfield was ready by June 8. "It’ll do, Teddie. It’ll do,” said Alcock to Brown as he stood surveying the results of their labors. "But I hope we only have to use it once!” Alcock made up his mind to fly in the morning.
It was a perfect morning when he awoke; the Vimy stood complete and ready. The tanks were filled with petrol and oil for a short trial flight. With the help of Raynham’s mechanics, the Vimy was trundled to the end of the short runway where, a fortnight before, Raynham and Morgan had their crash.
First one engine, then the other, burst into roaring life, the slipstream sending waves rippling across the lake, scaring the loons and gulls into the air. Both engines were running sweetly. Alcock glanced round at Brown, a broad smile on his face. The take-off was perfect, a short run of three hundred yards and the Vimy was airborne, flying low over the suburbs of St. John’s.
Over Lester’s Field Alcock slowly lost altitude. He made a perfect three-point landing on the new airfield.
That evening Alcock cabled to Vickers: "Machine absolutely top-hole.”
Now the weather steadily deteriorated. A wind of near-gale force blew for forty-eight hours without a break. The Vimy had to be tethered down in the open, and the mechanics stayed on watch day and night listening for the sounds of splintering wood and ripping fabric.
Friday, June 13, dawned grey and cold. Heavy rain clouds hung low over St. John’s, hiding the summit of Signal Hill from the anxious eyes of Alcock and Brown. A gale was gusting in from the Atlantic, whipping up white crests in the harbor and driving the rain against the windows of the Cochrane Hotel.
When Alcock went down to the hotel kitchen he found Agnes Dooley cutting sandwiches and filling thermos flasks with hot coffee. Day after day she had performed a similar service for Harry Hawker and Fred Raynham. Daily she had watched them leave with high hopes for their airfields at Glendenning’s farm and Quidi Vidi, only to return dispiritedly in the evenings, her sandwiches uneaten and coffee undrunk.
The rain had stopped by the time they reached the camp on Lester’s Field, but the gale continued to blow harder than ever. Lieutenant Clements arrived with weather reports from ships in the Atlantic. Alcock pounced on him and tried to wring an admission that the gale would die down. Clements remained adamant: the gale would blow all that day and probably well on into the next. Alcock shook his head in dogged disbelief and calmly gave the order for the Vimy to be fueled up in readiness.
Everyone lent a hand to roll the heavy drums of petrol and oil across the soft ground. The fuel had to be pumped up by hand and passed through filters into the tanks. Alcock watched, eagle-eyed, for a particle of dirt. When fully loaded the Vimy carried 870 gallons of petrol and forty gallons of oil, stored in the regular tanks and in the extra tanks fitted into the bomb bay. There had never been occasion to load the machine fully before; everyone watched anxiously as the fuel was pumped on board. A mechanic was standing with Brown, apprehensively staring at the undercarriage wheels which were sinking into the turf under the load. Suddenly he clutched Brown and cried out: "What’s up with them axles?”
"Good God,” said Brown. A shock absorber mounted on the axle had broken in two. The broken part meant an end to any plans for a take-off that day. There was nothing to be done but off-load all the fuel and water.
The storm continued throughout that night, but shortly before dawn on Saturday, June 14, the wind dropped. The sudden silence woke Alcock. Almost unable to believe his ears he ran to the window and looked out. A gentle breeze was blowing and the sky was clearing. In great excitement he woke Brown. There was no time to waste, no time to collect any food or say farewell. The lull in the weather might only be brief. Both men were in a fever of impatience to be off.
It was shortly after 3.30 a.m. when they reached Lester’s Field. The sun was just rising over Signal Hill. Maxwell Muller and the mechanics had finished their work on the Vimy. The machine stood ready, inert but loaded, complete to the last split pin.
There was little room inside the cockpit for the two men to sit side by side. Brown’s seat was on the port side, Alcock’s on the starboard. Between them lay the bulky electric battery for heating their flying suits. The sextant was clipped on to the dashboard in front of Brown. The course and distance calculators were fastened to the fuselage at his side. The drift indicator, a glass plate through which the motion of the waves could be observed, lay under his seat. The Baker navigating machine, the charts and log lay on the floor. By twisting round in his seat Brown could reach a small locker behind him. Here he kept an electric torch and Very pistol. The torch would be used for inspecting the engine gauges at night. The Very pistol would be used for signaling if they were forced down into the sea.
While Brown was still in the cockpit a boy arrived on a bicycle. He had been sent from the Cochrane by Agnes Dooley with sandwiches and coffee. Brown stowed away the food and coffee, together with some chocolate, whisky and bottles of beer. These were all the rations they intended to carry.
By one o’clock the weather had improved and the wind had dropped to a steady 30 mph. Alcock and Brown finished their lunch and then, quite casually, walked over to the Vimy. The mechanics removed the tethering ropes and the Vimy responded with a giant shudder. Alcock told Brown that if they did not leave then they would probably never leave; Brown agreed.
A few last words to reporters, a minute to pose for photographers, then they climbed into the cockpit. Their bulky flying suits cramped the limited space. Someone handed Brown his walking stick. He ran his eyes over the instruments and strapped the log to his leg. Alcock ran his hands over the flying controls, trying out their movements. Ailerons? Check. Elevators? Check. Rudders? Check. Everything in order.
A small group of people had gathered on the ground under the cockpit to wish their friends bon voyage. Lieut. Clements was there as official starter for the Royal Aero Club, fixing the club’s official seal on the side of the fuselage. This was to ensure that Alcock and Brown did not cheat by flying from Newfoundland in one plane and landing in Ireland in another. Apparently no one had thought out just how the substitution would be made in mid-Atlantic! Postmaster Robinson handed over the little white canvas bag that contained 197 airmail letters.
The time was now 1.24 p.m.
Under the direction of Maxwell Muller some forty volunteers took up positions against the leading edge of the wings and the tail, ready to hold the Vimy back until Alcock gave his signal for release.
The port engine fired. Smoke gushed out from the two exhaust pipes. Alcock warmed the engine up into a deafening roar. The starboard engine started up and the men holding back the Vimy took a firmer grip. Alcock ran the two engines up to their full revolutions and then throttled them back to a subdued roar.
The onlookers saw his hand rise in the signal of release. The engines roared all out. A mechanic whipped away the wheel chocks. The men holding the Vimy dropped on their faces as the wings passed over their heads. Slowly, desperately slowly, the Vimy lumbered into the westerly wind.
Not a sound was heard from the spectators as they watched the great ungainly machine lurch along, gaining speed with every yard. Raynham watched breathlessly, recalling his own unhappy take-off four weeks earlier.
Gradually the Vimy gained speed, the roar of the two Eagle engines echoing back from the hills around Lester’s Field, stampeding the horses in neighboring pastures. Alcock held the Vimy on the ground as long as he dared, until barely a hundred yards of open ground lay ahead. Then, with consummate skill, he slowly raised the Vimy into the air, clearing the boundary dike and woods by inches.
1.45 p.m. (4.13 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time), Alcock and Brown were airborne.
Suddenly there was silence. Clements looked up to see that the Vimy had dropped from sight behind the hill at the end of Lester’s Field. There was a moment of horrified immobility before the crowd started running toward the far end of the field, convinced that the plane had crashed.
"She’s down! She’s down!” cried a mechanic, tears streaming down his face.
Seconds later everyone stopped running. Their ears picked up the heartwarming note of the Vimy’s engines. There in the distance, gaining altitude all the time, flew the Vimy.
The Vimy Leaves Newfoundland
As they crossed the coastline Brown looked at his wrist watch and noted the time: it was 4.28 p.m, (GMT). He looked at the aneroid and saw that it was registering twelve hundred feet. The sun was hidden by clouds and the rocky contours of Newfoundland were becoming obscured by mist.
He then transmitted a wireless message:
VIMY CROSSED COAST OF NEWFOUNDLAND 4.28 GMT.
When the panic had died down and some sort of order restored to the cable office, Lieutenant Clements claimed priority to send off his official cable to the Royal Aero Club:
CAPTAIN ALCOCK AND LIEUTENANT BROWN LEFT ST. JOHN’S NEWFOUNDLAND IN A VICKERS VIMY MACHINE ON A FLIGHT TO ENGLAND TODAY JUNE 14 AT 4.13 GMT.
This was the first news to be received in Britain of the start of the flight . The cable did not reach the Royal Aero Club until late that evening, too late for the story to be spread around London, and many people learned of the safe arrival of the Vimy in Ireland before they had realized that an attempt to fly the Atlantic had been made. After Clements, Fred Memory managed to file an interim dispatch to the Daily Mail which began with the memorable words: "Brown flying to his bride . . .”
By 5 p.m. Alcock and Brown had left the clear coastal weather behind them. Straight ahead lay a great bank of fog cutting off the horizon like a monstrous curtain. Within a few minutes they were enveloped in fog; at first only a few grey wisps of moisture floated past the wing tips, then it grew thicker and thicker until they were unable to see even these. They searched for signs of a break, but there were none to be seen. The noise of the engine echoed back dully from the walls around them.
They had no sense of motion, no feeling of being airborne; they were hanging in space.
There were still no signs of a break in the fog when Brown decided to send a wireless message back to Newfoundland. With the transmitter key balanced on his knee he started to send off another message: "Estimated position of Vimy . . .”
But something was wrong with the transmitter. The needle of the milliammeter failed to kick when the Morse key made contact. His signals were not being sent out. He checked over the connections and terminals within the cockpit, but everything seemed in order. Brown glanced outside the cockpit and realized what had happened. The current for the transmitter was supplied by a small dynamo fixed to one of the wing struts and driven round by a small propeller which spun in the wind. At some time after leaving Newfoundland this propeller had sheared off, leaving the transmitter useless.
Brown leaned over to Alcock and yelled in his ear: "The wireless generator has smashed. The propeller has gone.” Startled by hearing the word "propeller” Alcock looked round. Brown gestured towards the broken dynamo and Alcock smiled with relief beneath his goggles. For a second he had thought . . . but the loss of the wireless transmitter was a small matter.
The Vimy was still heavily overloaded with oil and petrol and Alcock nursed the engines. Slowly he urged the Vimy upward, never forcing the engines unduly but always gaining altitude. Brown had almost despaired of ever seeing the sun again when he sensed a change in the atmosphere. He nudged Alcock excitedly. Was it imagination, or did the fog seem to be thinning out? Now he could see the wing tips quite clearly—and then beyond them. Suddenly the Vimy soared up out of the fog into the clear air above. Brown looked up eagerly for the sun, only to be disappointed. Above them stretched an unbroken bank of cloud reaching to the horizon. They were flying along a corridor of clear air —above them a ceiling of cloud and below a carpet of fog.
It was now close on 6 p.m. The tail wind was holding and Brown estimated that they had covered two hundred miles, but he was still worried about being unable to sight the sun. He urged Alcock upward, feeling that they must make altitude if he was to see the sun before nightfall.
Edging the joystick back a fraction, Alcock took the Vimy up, nearer and nearer to the ceiling of cloud, until once again they were swallowed up in mist. All of a sudden the smooth rhythm of the flight was shattered. A loud clatter like machine-gun fire at close quarters was coming from the starboard engine. Both men glanced at each other in horror. A vivid memory of the engine trouble that had forced Harry Hawker down flashed through Brown’s mind as he craned over Alcock’s shoulder to look at the engine. He saw a frightening sight. A section of the inner exhaust pipe was splitting away from the engine casing and vibrating in the wind. Slowly it turned red, then white-hot and incandescent until finally it melted away, leaving the six inner cylinders exhausting into the slipstream. Flames were belching out and were blown backwards in a long fiery streamer by the wind, but as far as Brown could see after a hurried inspection they were not playing on any part of the Vimy’s fabric.
Hope Returns With the Sun
The noise from the unsilenced engine was deafening, thrumming and drumming through their heads. Speech became impossible and, from then on, Brown could only communicate with Alcock by hastily scribbled notes in the log. After minutes of tense watching and waiting they realized that the starboard engine was still running smoothly and they could relax.
7.40 p.m. They had been flying for I over three hours and had covered an estimated four hundred and fifty miles. They ate some sandwiches and had a drink of the whisky. They were still flying through unbroken cloud at five thousand feet. Brown worked out their position once again, relying on dead reckoning, but two hours had passed since his last sight of the sun; in these clouds he had no means of estimating their drift with the wind, and he was becoming worried. Brown to Alcock: "If you get above clouds we will get a good fix tonight and hope for clear weather tomorrow. Not at any risky expense to engines though.” Alcock nodded and took the Vimy higher, trying to break out of the world of clouds.
Another hour passed by. The Vimy was flying through cloud at six thousand feet. They had almost given up hope of ever seeing the sun again when Brown saw what he had been longing to see. There was a break in the clouds ahead. Alcock noticed it at the same time and headed the Vimy straight for the gap as Brown prepared to take a sun sight. For a brief ten minutes the sun shone on them, warming their backs.
Brown picked up the sextant and, kneeling up in his seat, twisted his body round to sight the sun, which was now shining through the port wings from directly behind the Vimy. This done, he settled down contentedly to work out their position. His estimates based on dead reckoning had been accurate; they were only a few miles to the south of their projected position on the Great Circle course. Brown was human enough to feel rather flattered.
The breakout from the clouds was brief. No sooner had Brown given a slight course correction to Alcock when they were back in the clammy turbulent mists.
9.30 p.m. It began to get dark. Somewhere behind them the sun was setting, hidden by the clouds. It became much colder and the cockpit dripped with moisture.
To add to their misery their electrically heated flying suits began to fail. The battery that supplied the current was not large enough to warm their hands, feet and bodies, and Brown had to switch over from one circuit to another. Soon the battery failed on all circuits, and the two men had only their body warmth as protection against the cold.
Brown to .Alcock: "Can you get through clouds at, say, sixty degrees? We must get stars as soon as poss.” In the darkness Brown was forced to hold his penciled messages in one hand and use the torch with the other so Alcock could read them.
Alcock and Brown flew into Sunday, June 15. The only illumination was the soft greenish glow from the instrument panel which reflected eerily on their faces, and the flicker from the exhaust.
The Vimy was flying at six thousand feet, imprisoned between the endless layers of cloud. For eight hours Alcock had been carefully nursing the engines, flying with them between half and three-quarter throttle and avoiding any sudden strain. By now the long flight was taking effect. Under the raucous clatter of the broken exhaust Alcock’s ears caught a change in the rhythmic beat of the two Eagles. Their rhythm had become more irregular, their sound more harsh.
12.05 a.m. Brown to Alcock: "I must see the stars.”
Gently Alcock eased back on the joystick and opened the throttles a fraction, putting the Vimy into a gradual climb as they passed into yet another layer of cloud.
As the Vimy bored upward through the blanket of the clouds, it seemed to them that the texture of the mass was changing: it was becoming lighter and thinning out. Within a few minutes glimmerings of moonlight were shining through the vapor, casting soft shadows in the cockpit. Then all at once, at a quarter past midnight, they flew into all the wonder of the clear night sky with the moon and stars bright overhead.
Alcock dug his fingers into Brown’s shoulders and pointed upward at the moon, grinning broadly at his navigator’s excitement. There to the northeast shone the star Vega and there, above the port wings, was the Pole Star. At 12.25 Brown reckoned their position to be: latitude 50° 7' N. and longitude 31° W. This proved to be slightly south of his plotted course, but they had covered nearly half the distance. He jubilantly scribbled a course correction for Alcock to see and folded his chart into two.
His calculations showed that they had flown just over eight hundred and fifty miles (nautical) at an average speed of 106 knots. They had covered almost half the Great Circle route between Newfoundland and Ireland without serious mishap. From now on there could be no turning back.
Now that they were sure of their position they felt they could relax. Brown laced a cup of coffee with a generous measure of whisky and passed it over to Alcock. Brown could see Alcock’s mouth opening and closing wordlessly as he sang happily to himself:
She’s like the swallow that flies so high,
She’s like the river that never runs dry.
The wind snatched the words away, to be drowned in the roar of the engines.
3 a.m. They had been airborne for close to eleven hours and all was well. Ireland was barely six hundred miles ahead of them, they had plenty of petrol in reserve, thanks to Alcock’s careful handling of the Rolls-Royce engines, and they were flying steadily eastward at a good average speed of 106 knots. The sun would soon be rising in front of them, the monotony and fatigue of the night would soon be past.
Brown to Alcock: "Immediately you see sun rising point machine straight for it and we’ll get its compass bearing.’’
3.10 a.m. The Vimy was dodging in and out of clouds when quite suddenly, as they emerged into a space of clear air, Alcock and Brown saw a great towering mass of cumulo-nimbus straight ahead, blocking their path like some vast range of black mountains.
There was no time to alter course; the Vimy flew straight into the centre of this storm. A sudden turbulence gripped the machine and tossed it around like a falling leaf in a gale. The wings quivered and vibrated, the rigging wires humming in sympathy. The dreadful suddenness of the storm caused Alcock and Brown to lose all sense of direction and balance. The rain turned to hail which drove into their faces with cruel violence. The Vimy was out of control, plunging like a crazy horse and throwing the two men around in the cockpit with only their safety belts to hold them in place. Alcock fought to regain control and keep the machine on the level, but with no horizon to see and his senses knocked out of balance by the violence of the Vimy’s plunge it was impossible. Their instruments became useless, the bubble of the artificial horizon had long since vanished, and there was only the pressure of their seats against their backs to show that they were not hanging upside down in space.
At this point disaster nearly overtook them and finished their venture. The storm was at its height when the airspeed indicator jammed, showing a reading of ninety knots. Alcock wrestled with the joystick, trying to force the nose of the Vimy up, but they were moving too slowly for this to be effective. For one sickening moment the Vimy hung motionless in the air, then she stalled, tilting over and dropping in a steep spiral dive down toward the Atlantic. Neither man could see anything through the swirling mass of cloud that had swallowed them up.
4,000 . . . 3,000 . . . 2,000 feet . . . the Vimy was plunging downward with both engines roaring and wings threatening to pull away from the fuselage. It was then that Alcock showed what a supremely good pilot he was. He managed to regain control over the engines and throttle them back, but he still could not check the headlong plunge.
2,000 . . . 1,500 . . . 1,000 feet and they were still dropping through the black and savage cloud. For all they knew it might reach down to sea level and there would be only the shock of impact as they hit the water and the crumpling of wood and fabric to tell them of the end.
1.000 ... 500 ... 250 ... 100 feet. The needle of the altimeter was almost resting at zero when they left the storm as quickly as they had entered it. The Vimy fell out of the cloud only sixty feet above the ocean. But to the startled eyes of Alcock and Brown the ocean was not in its customary situation below them: it was standing up sideways, almost vertically to them. Alcock looked up at the waves that seemed to be above him, and at the horizon, and instantaneously regained his sense of balance. Instinctively he centralized the joystick and rudder. The Vimy responded at once. Alcock opened the throttles wide, the Rolls-Royce engines roared out and they regained flying speed, skimming the crests of the waves, at times so close that the spray of the white horses beat on the underside of the wings. The danger was past.
After a few minutes, Brown regained his composure and looked at the compass. He took another look and saw that, instead of pointing east, the lubber’s line was pointing due west. They were heading back to Newfoundland! He nudged Alcock and pointed to the compass. Alcock looked and burst into a roar of laughter, then he swung the Vimy round in a wide turn and back on to course for Ireland.
In the stress of the storm they had missed the sunrise but now, half an hour later, they were flying in daylight with the sun hidden behind banks of storm cloud. Heavy rain started falling, turning to hail, cutting their faces and rebounding like shot from the wings. After a few minutes snow started to fall heavily. The wind drove the snow inside the cockpit and caked over their goggles with a white screen. The wing surfaces and struts became sheathed in ice.
Alcock needed all his strength to move the flying controls, heavy with snow, but he continued to climb, hoping to fly out and over the storm and perhaps to catch a glimpse of the sun. The two engines were laboring, feeling the altitude and the dead weight of the ice that encased the Vimy. The cold became intense, forcing both men to huddle down behind the windscreen for protection.
Altitude . . . 8,800 feet. From his shelter behind the windscreen Brown screwed his head round to look at the engines. It was difficult to see at all clearly through the driving snow but it looked to him as if the fuel intake gauges on the side of each engine were completely iced over and the air intakes on the engines were becoming blocked with snow. Already the two engines were beating irregularly, starved of air by the altitude and snow. Reluctantly Brown straightened up in his seat and looked again, taking off his goggles for a better view. He saw that if he did not act quickly they would be in trouble.
Brown, the cripple, released his safety belt and pulled off his mittens. As he stood up in the cockpit and started climbing back on the fuselage Alcock looked round and realized what he was trying to do. He tried to pull him back, but Brown savagely pushed him away and scrambled up on the centre section of the fuselage. Then he lowered himself inch by inch onto the wing, gripping the wooden strut that braced the port engine. The snow sheathed his body in a shroud of ice as he clung grimly on to the strut and fumbled in his pockets for a jackknife. He had to cling on with all his strength, the wind tore at his face and hands, forcing him backward, his feet were slipping on the icy surface of the wing.
Brown Walks a Wing
Painfully, with short blows of his knife, he chipped the ice off the gauges. The exertion made him pant and gasp for air, his heart pounded with the altitude, and the great gulps of icy air that he breathed in burnt his throat and lungs with cold. Once the gauges were clear he reached up to clear the air intakes. The propeller was only a few inches away from his body and the slipstream became an added force trying to loosen his grip on the Vimy. The exhaust was roaring in his face, but somehow Brown managed to clear the air intakes of the port engine to be rewarded by the noise of all twelve cylinders beating regularly.
Meanwhile, Alcock had to use all his skill as a pilot to keep the Vimy in level flight. One false move, one slight tilt to port or starboard, and Brown would be sent hurtling down to the Atlantic, nine thousand feet below. Brown clung gasping to a strut on the port wing, trying to summon up enough strength to tackle the starboard engine. He had to fight every inch of the way. He clung to the starboard engine, almost defeated, with the flaming exhaust only inches over his head. With his last reserve of strength he cleared the air intakes and worked his way back into the cockpit.
The ordeal of Brown was not finished. The storm continued to rage without a break. Five times more he had to fight his way along the wings.
7.20 a.m. Altitude eleven thousand feet. At last they climbed out of the storm and could see the sun, a pinpoint of light glimmering through the clouds over their heads.
For the last time Brown pulled off his mittens and picked up the sextant. He found that they were still on course and were within reach of Ireland. Brown to Alcock: "We had better go lower down where the air is warmer and where we might pick up a steamer.”
They had been airborne for fifteen hours, had survived two terrible storms and had flown over eighteen hundred miles of ocean. Within another hour they should be sighting Ireland.
All at once the starboard engine began to misfire. They looked at it in alarm. Alcock realized that their only chance lay in shutting off both engines and gliding down through the cloud banks as slowly as possible in the hope that the warmer air near the ocean would thaw the ice and snow.
11,000 . . . 10,000 . . . 9,000 feet; they were gradually dropping, diving to gain flying speed and then leveling out again, then diving as Alcock felt the Vimy reach the point of stalling. All the time they were thrown about by the turbulence of the clouds and they cursed the walls that shut them in.
9,000 . . . 7,000 . . . 5,000 feet; the Vimy was still vol-planing silently through unbroken cloud. As they turned their heads to look back at the machine their hearts quickened, for they could see the effects of warmer air. The ice on the wings and fuselage was thawing, sliding off the fabric surfaces as its grip was loosened. The ice was melting in the hinges of the ailerons and Alcock found they responded when he moved the controls. The snow inside the cockpit was turning into a wet slush which worked through their flying clothes.
5,000 . . . 3,000 . . . 1,000 feet. Fifteen minutes had passed and there were still no signs of the ocean. Brown had a sudden twinge of panic when he glanced at the needle of the altimeter which registered a bare 1,000 feet. He had little faith left in the instrument after the tremendous buffeting of the electric storm.
On this occasion, as once before, their luck held good. They glided out of the clouds into clear air a bare five hundred feet over the restless seas. Alcock immediately opened both throttles. The two Rolls-Royce engines responded without a falter, the starboard one firing perfectly on all twelve cylinders.
The moment of panic was over.
Brown had just turned round in his seat to stow away the empty thermos flask when he felt Alcock grab him by the shoulder and twist him round, pointing ahead excitedly and yelling inaudible words of delight.
There, in line with the nose of the Vimy, were two tiny specks. For the last time Brown opened his charts and searched for two islands off the coast of Ireland. There were hundreds of possible choices. The coastline and the contours did not fit in with Galway Bay, but there, farther to the north, they seemed to fit exactly. The islands must be Inish Eashal and Inish Turbot, the mountains were the peaks of Connemara, and that little town that he could just see on the mainland must be Clifden.
It was 8.15 a.m. when they first sighted land. They crossed the coast of the mainland at 8.25 a.m., flying over the two islands and following a deep sea bay up to the town of Clifden where the Marconi transatlantic wireless station was situated. Alcock brought the Vimy lower, circling over the town until the noise of their engines fetched people running out into the streets. Brown saw their faces looking up, their hands waving, and he fired off two red flares from the Very pistol to celebrate their arrival. Alcock was unable to spot any likely landing ground in the vicinity of the town, but near the Marconi station he had seen what looked from the air like a wide expanse of green grass. He banked away sharply from Clifden and steered for the aerial masts.
The wind whistled softly through the wires, beckoning them on toward the grass. Now they were close enough to distinguish details. Pleasure changed swiftly to horror as the greensward resolved into tufts of marsh grasses and pools of slimy water. There was no time to act. The wheels of the undercarriage ran into the watery mire, sending up a shower of muck. For a few seconds their momentum carried them along before the Vimy came to a sudden stop. The nose dug into the soft ground and the tail jerked skyward. Only their safety belts prevented Alcock and Brown from being catapulted headfirst into the bog.
They had flown across the Atlantic nonstop, a distance of 1,890 miles in sixteen hours and twelve minutes at an average speed of 118 mph.
Brown was the first to move. With his navigator’s instinct he looked at his wrist watch and noted the time: it was precisely 8.40 a.m. Then, moving with exaggerated slowness he unbuckled his safety belt and eased himself out of his seat.
"That’s the best way to cross the Atlantic, eh, Jack?”
By Monday morning the whole world rejoiced in the triumph of Alcock and Brown. The headlines told the story:
Daily Mail £10.000 Atlantic Prize won 1,880 miles flight for a bride British air triumph — Alcock and Brown the heroes Historic ocean dash in 16 hours Alcock annihilates space at 120 mph Ocean flight paves way for commercial planes.
Alcock and Brown had become headline heroes. The Press, fully alive to the fascination of Atlantic flying for the public, gave them a generous treatment of ballyhoo and publicity which became standard procedure for all Atlantic flyers, successful and unsuccessful. It began with the flight of the NC-4 and the drama of Hawker and Mackenzie-Grieve, and it reached its apogee in the hysterical adulation of Lindbergh eight years later.
Congratulations to the two airmen poured into the Royal Aero Club— from U. S. President Wilson and British Prime Minister Lloyd-George, among hundreds of others. One Hollywood producer, Thomas Ince, offered them fifty thousand dollars to fly the Pacific.
On June 20 the Daily Mail held a luncheon at the Savoy Hotel in honor of the Atlantic flight. Alcock and Brown were the guests of honor, and Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for War, was invited to make the presentation of the £10,000 prize. All the leading personalities of the aeronautical world were there.
Churchill concluded his speech with a pleasant surprise:
"I am very happy to be able to tell you that I have received His Majesty’s gracious consent to an immediate award of the Knight Commandership of the Order of the British Empire to both Captain Alcock and Lieutenant Brown.” Their reception in London, the award of the Daily Mail prize and the accolade of knighthood shaped a heroic finale to the story of Alcock and Brown.
For a few weeks they impatiently endured their roles as public figures.
A visit to Windsor Castle was followed by fetes, garden parties and public appearances. By the end of July they were finished with this limelight. At last Brown was free to marry Kathleen Kennedy, who became Lady Brown.
Alcock happily returned to flying for Vickers, testing and delivering new aircraft. His contract as a staff pilot was due to expire at the end of the year, when he planned to use his half of the Atlantic prize money in opening a motor-car business. The Atlantic flight had already faded into memory when he celebrated his twenty-seventh birthday in November 1919. In December the first postwar Aeronautical Exhibition was held in Paris. Vickers entered a new amphibian, the Viking, which Alcock intended to fly from Brooklands to alight on the Seine in front of the exhibition buildings.
December 18 was a blustery, rainswept day. The management of Vickers tried to dissuade him from flying to Paris, but he laughed at the weather.
Flying over Normandy Alcock became enveloped in a dense layer of fog. He was descending to ground level in an attempt to pick up his bearings when the Viking struck a tree and crashed in a field at Côte d’Evrard, near Rouen. A priest. Father Cellpiar, heard the noise of the crash and after a long search through the fog stumbled upon the wreckage. Alcock had been thrown clear; he was lying unconscious on the ground, blood flowing freely from a head injury. With the help of some farm laborers he was carried into a farmhouse. But before a doctor could be summoned, Alcock had died.
Brown was working over his drawing board in his Ealing home when he received a telegram announcing the death of Alcock. The Atlantic flight had forged an intimate kinship between the two men. Now that Alcock was dead some of the meaning of life was lost to Brown. He never flew again. Heartbroken by the loss of his only son in the Battle of Arnhem, Brown died in Swansea in 1948.
Over the years the attendants of the South Kensington Museum learned to recognize the limping bowed figure of Sir Arthur Whitten Brown, who celebrated the anniversaries of the Atlantic flight with a visit to the Vimy, which was preserved after being taken from the bog at Clifden. They remember him well, standing quietly in the Aeronautical Gallery and looking up at the Vimy, reliving in his mind those crowded hours he shared with Alcock, cramped together in that small cockpit on course over the Atlantic. ★
From the book. The Flight of Alcock and Brown (Putnam & Co., London), to be released in Canada soon by McClelland and Stewart.