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The First Non-stop Aerial Crossing of the Atlantic
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New York Times June 16, 1919.
Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown, in a modified Vimy IV, made the first non-stop aerial crossing of the Atlantic. They took off from Lester's Field, near St. Johns, Newfoundland on June 14,1919, and landed June 15,1919, at Clifden in Ireland. The time for the crossing was sixteen hours, twenty-seven minutes.

The news of the adventure spead like wildfire and the two men were received as heroes in London. For their accomplishment, they were presented with Lord Northcliffe's Daily Mail prize of £10,000 by Winston Churchill, who was then Britain's Secretary of State. A few days later, both men were knighted at Buckingham Palace by King George V, for recognition of their pioneering achievment.


The Journey Begins
John Alcock and Arthur Whitten-Brown pushed their way through an excited crowd which had gathered at the entrance of the London Royal Aero Club. Alcock carried a small linen bag in his hand, and after greeting General Holden, Vice-President of the Club, he handed over the bundle of 197 letters that Dr. Robinson, Postmaster in Newfoundland, had entrusted to the fliers. These were then rushed to the nearest post office, where they were franked and forwarded (airmail stamps not yet having been invented). The letters had made the long journey from Lester's Field near St. John's, Newfoundland, to London in record time.
Vickers Vimy being assembled at St. John's, Newfoundland, 1919.
At Lester's Field, Alcock and Brown had climbed into their "Vimy" flying crate, to prove as Alcock put it, "there are possibilities of flying non-stop from the New World to the Old." Like Kohl, Fitzmaurice, and von Hunefeld, who were to fly in the opposite direction nine years later, Alcock and Brown had wanted to take off on a Friday the 13th. But the two Englishmen actually set out in their converted World War I Vickers bomber on June 14.

After three weeks of exhaustive preparation, they had finally made their start. Some of their efforts had been spent in attempting to find a smoother takeoff point than Lester's Field, but after a week of combing the rough terrain, they gave up the search.

The sky was overcast, even though the latest meteorological report from United States Lieutenant Clements had forecast good weather conditions. It was 1:40 p.m. as the Vimy, with the throttle wide open, and both engines at full power, taxied over the bumpy ground at Lester's Field. Alcock headed his aircraft into the west wind. "Depressingly slowly the Vimy taxied toward a dark pine forest at the end of the airfield," Brown reported. "The echo of the roaring motors must have struck quite hard against the hills around St. John's. Almost at the last second Alcock gained height. We were only inches above the top of the trees." Alcock's recollections were rather more brief: "At 1:45 p.m. we were airborne," he said.

1,890 nautical miles of open sea and sixteen hours of flying time lay ahead of the Englishmen. Only fifteen and a half years after the Wright Brothers powered flight, they had now set off on what turned out to be one of the most breathtaking flights in the history of aviation. The sirens of vessels in St. John's Harbor blew a final farewell as the Vimy passed overhead at a height of 1,083 ft. Alcock turned the aircraft eastwards, in the direction of Ireland. The biplane gained height, and the coast of Newfoundland was left behind. The altimeter soon read 1,300 ft.

"At 1:45 p.m. we were airborne."
(Photo courtesy of Cynthia Long)
For four hours, the Vimy flew peacefully in the open sky, and the difficult takeoff was forgotten. For Alcock and Brown it was just one more of the 1,001 takeoffs they had made as Flying Corps pilots. Already anticipating his arrival in England, Brown remarked, "Great Scott, what a banquet we'll have in London. Roast duck, I can just imagine it, green peas. . ."

Few people were even aware of Alcock and Brown's plans. England was enjoying her first post-war summer, and the newspapers were filled with reports of Germany's reaction to President Wilson's Fourteen-Point program. Special editions also carried stories of Bela Kun's revolution in Hungary and the Allies' successes against the Bolsheviks on the Archangel Front. However, there was a five-line story on the back page of one newspaper which mentioned the preparations being made for the Vimy in Newfoundland, but no one paid much attention to it.

As the Vimy flew over the Atlantic, the conversation of the two men seated in the open cockpit turned to the friends who had helped them at Lester's Field: Bob Lyon, Maxwell Muller, Montague and Harry Couch, and they recalled the various attempts that others had made to cross the waste of water, between the old and new worlds. Five years earlier, a British company, Martin and Handasyde Ltd., had set about building a transatlantic aircraft. The scheme had been financed by Edgar MacKay. As with the "White Bird," in which Nungesser and Coli later undertook their ill-fated attempt to fly the Atlantic, the undercarriage of the aircraft was to be released shortly after takeoff. The fuselage was built like a boat, but misfortune seemed to hang over the undertaking. Shortly before the aircraft's completion, Gustav Hamel, the appointed pilot, failed to return from a routine flight in his Morane-Saulnier over the English Channel.

(Photo courtesy of Cynthia Long)

Alcock and Brown's ambition was to fly the Atlantic non-stop. Although they would not be the first to make the crossing, they aimed at being the first to do so, without intermediate stops.

At 5 p.m. fog banks suddenly appeared on the horizon, stretching without a break from north to south. "We've got no choice," Alcock said. "We've got to go in!" Brown made another calculation of their position and recorded the wind speed as zero. The Vimy disappeared into the fog. It was so thick that neither man could make out the blades of the propellers. Even the comforting roar of the Rolls-Royce "Eagle" engines was muffled, and Alcock and Brown continued to fly virtually soundless and blind.

Time went slowly. Brown glanced at his wristwatch. It was six o'clock. "Won't this ruddy fog ever end?" he grumbled. Instead of replying, Alcock slowly took the Vimy higher, hoping to find good visibility above the fog bank. Before dark, Brown might once more be able to take his position by the sun, but after nightfall, it was questionable whether the stars would be bright enough to guide the fliers reliably on their course.

Suddenly a terrifying noise broke the silence; the right-hand engine sounded like a machine gun blazing. The two men were scared stiff. The exhaust pipe of the cylinder facing inwards had split, and the engine was shooting naked flames into the slip-stream. Alcock and Brown remained helpless as the metal turned red hot, melted away and finally started striking the controls in white-hot globules.

On top of this nerve-shattering clatter, a further discomfort developed. The heating in the men's leather flying suits stopped working. The batteries had run out. "We froze like young puppies," Alcock said later, "and in the narrow cockpit we had no room to move about. At any rate," he added somewhat ruefully, "Brown did manage to get some movement later . . . "

Flying above the fog brought them no luck. They had barely broken through the upper level of the bank when they discovered clouds above them, and not a sign of the hoped-for sun. Directly ahead lay mountains of cloud, which were too near to be avoided. The Vimy plunged straight into them, and was thrown like a leaf. The experience that today's supersonic pilots, astronauts, acrobatic and fighter pilots, with their advanced equipment and controls barely notice, represented severe physical discomfort to Alcock and Brown: the up and down of their stomachs caused by the plane's bucking response to controls and gusts of wind. Again and again they had the feeling that the Vimy stood motionless, before plunging down.

Alcock, who had been pressed down into his seat by the violent movement of the plane, glanced at the altimeter. The reading was 4,000 ft. The pointer began to jump about as the instrument recorded 3,200 ft., then 2,900 and down to 1,000 ft. The plane was descending in a spiral. But it occurred to neither pilot nor navigator that their end might have come. Their one thought, according to Alcock, was "However shall we get back on our original course and avoid being lost in the endless waste of the Atlantic?"

The altimeter, at that moment the most important instrument, showed 100 ft. Their chances of survival narrowed, when suddenly, at a mere 65 ft. above the waves, Alcock managed miraculously to regain control of the Vimy. The weather had begun to change. When Brown was later asked how he and his captain reacted to their worst ordeal, he replied, "We grinned!"

Alcock had opened the throttle to the full. He swung the plane through 180 degrees onto its old course, pulled back the joy stick and climbed slowly to a height of 7,200 ft. There was now more to it than just grinning: both men suddenly realized that they felt very hungry. Alcock made his feelings known by pointing his left hand at his mouth while he closed and opened it. Brown got the message. He reached behind him for their frugal meal of sandwiches which had been prepared for them by Miss Agnes Dooley at St. John's. They had also brought some whisky on board as well as a bottle of beer, which they emptied and finally threw overboard.

The long-distance flight routine continued. Checks were made regularly on the revolution rate of both engines, on the cooling system temperature, on the oil pressure, and on the fuel consumption as they switched from an empty tank to the next full one. This gave Brown a task for which he was thankful: it made him warm. Before the tanks which directly fed the engines were empty, they had to be refilled by vigorous pumping from the main tank in the fuselage.

(Photo courtesy of Cynthia Long)

All these experiences and five hours of flying were behind them when they again saw the sun. It was now directly behind them. Brown knelt on his seat, grasped the sextant and calculated their position. It was a small triumph for them that they were only a few miles south of their planned route. Then once again they were swallowed up by cloud. They continued to fly with no visibility, chilled and deafened by the noise of the right-hand engine, until 9 p.m.

Then Brown wrote on a page in the log book: "Can you get above the clouds by 9:30? We need stars as soon as possible." He held up the scribbled lines and focused a pocket flashlight on the page. Alcock nodded his head rather indecisively. They were now flying at 5,400 ft., and climbed even higher, but found no way through the cloud.

Midnight came and went. It was now June 15, but there was no relief for the fliers. At 12:05 a.m. Brown wrote to Alcock: "Must see stars now." Their altitude was 6,500 ft. and they were surrounded by clouds and darkness. The only illumination was the green glow of the control panel lighting and the bursts of flame from the starboard engine. Alcock pulled the joy stick back lightly and opened the throttle. The clouds went on without end.

At 12:15 a.m., Alcock dug his fingers into Brown's shoulder, and pointed above his head. There was the moon, Vega, and the Pole Star, Polaris! Like a shot Brown was up on his seat, operating the sextant with his numbed fingers. In the frozen cockpit, Brown placed the open log book on his knee, spread out the navigation tables on the right-hand side, held them with his elbow and calculated the Vimy's position by the dim light of the flashlight which he held in his left hand.

At 12:25 a.m., their position was 50 deg 7' latitude north, 31 deg longitude west. They were already nearly half way across, but were still flying a little too far to the south. Brown made further calculations. They had already flown 850 nautical miles, which meant that about 1,000 more still lay ahead. Their average speed had been 106 knots.

At 12:30 a.m., the two optimists enjoyed some more sandwiches and coffee. Brown laced his coffee with whisky. "I looked towards Brown, and saw that he was singing," Alcock said, "but I couldn't understand a word." Brown's song about the swallow that flies so high and the river that never dries up was lost on the wind.

Meanwhile, in the newsroom of London's "Daily Mail" discussions about the Vimy and its crew were gloomy. A cable from St. John's had announced the takeoff; since then there had been no news either from Newfoundland or from the fliers. The newspaper staff knew that the Vimy carried a radio transmitter, but after three hours' flight, it had gone dead, a fact neither Alcock nor Brown knew at the time. If all went well, the competitors for the £10,000. prize should reach the Irish coast at 9 a.m., but there was no sign of life from the Vimy. Dispatches piled up on the news editor's table, but not one of them was from Alcock and Brown.

At 3:00 a.m., the fliers thought they saw the first signs of dawn. Suddenly they also saw something else: a new mountain of cumulus cloud ahead, again too close to circumvent. A sudden turbulence seized the machine and flung it out of control. Alcock and Brown felt themselves being pressed down into their seats. They were drenched by rain, which turned into hail. The swirling journey went on and on. At 90 knots, the airspeed indicator jammed. Alcock struggled to regain control, and ended up more by luck than by good judgment in the safety of a nose dive. He cut off the gas and relied heavily on his experience as a night bomber pilot. The plane plummeted from 4,000 ft. to 1000 ft. and, just above the surface of the water, Alcock gained control of the Vimy. For a fraction of a second he could not believe his eyes--he saw the sea lying vertically, and then with a quick automatic reflex action he straightened out the Vimy and opened the throttles to the full.

"The salty taste we noted later on our tongues was foam," Alcock reported. "In any case the altimeter wasn't working at that low height and I think that we were not more than 16 to 20 ft. above the water." Brown's only comment was: "I kept thinking about Lieutenant Clement's weather report." Specifically, he had failed to forecast the snowstorm into which they had flown immediately after their recent narrow escape.

Like a shroud, snow covered the wings, fuselage, the struts, even the engines. Ice formed on the engine parts, and Alcock needed all his strength to move the rudder. Unless something drastic was done, the men knew that the engine would stop and all the controls would go out of action. once again, at an altitude of 8,500 ft., the non-stop fliers fought their way forward. Snow piled up in the cockpit, and both men crouched behind the windshield for protection from the icy wind. Snow on the carburetor air filters made both the engines run irregularly. Brown knelt on his seat and took off his goggles so that he could see more clearly. Ice now began to form on the engine intake connection; at the same time a layer of it was spreading over the inspection windows through which the fuel supply could be observed.

(Photo courtesy of Cynthia Long)
As far as Brown was concerned, the only possible way of avoiding a crash was to make a trip out onto the wings. He grabbed a knife and swung his legs out onto the nose. Seeing what he had in mind, Alcock stood up from his seat and tried to hold his companion back. Brown jerked himself free, and, in the blinding snow, he wriggled forward from strut to strut and from cable to cable, holding on with one hand. His left leg caused him difficulty, because it was still stiff from wounds he had received in the war.

The limping lieutenant gradually removed the ice from the inlet connections and cautiously cleaned the inspection window of the fuel intake. The slip-stream tugged at him, and frost nibbled at the flesh on his hands. Brown cleared the air filters of snow--then he had to go back again, back and over the nose to the other wing and the other engine.

Meanwhile, Alcock had more than enough to do to keep the plane as steady as he could--flying at 8,000 ft. over the Atlantic in a snowstorm! One false move and Brown would have been plunged to his death, and his own number would undoubtedly have been up soon afterwards.

With astonishing bravery, Brown repeated his acrobatics, not once, but four times. Not a single step or a single movement of the hand was free from risk.

At 6:20 a.m. as day broke, the lateral controls were not operating. They too had iced up. An hour later the Vimy was flying approximately 3,800 ft. higher (at 11,800 ft.) when the sun appeared. For the last time the navigator stripped the gloves from his aching fingers and took up the sextant. His calculations showed that they were still on course. But it was obvious that the plane had to be lowered into warmer air if the elevator and other controls were to be prevented from freezing. Alcock moved the joy stick forward; the plane descended and was engulfed in cloud. Again the fliers had no visibility.

Icing presented a problem for which, in those days, there was virtually no practical answer. Even during this latest descent of the Vimy, there was a distinct danger of the elevator's icing up. They were now only 30 minutes away from their longed-for goal. Alcock kept his eyes glued to the altimeter as the plane descended from 9,800 ft. to 6,800 ft. With the reduced throttle settings, the cutout engines were running perceptibly quieter. Then at 3,200 ft. Brown suddenly shouted: "It's melting! The ice is breaking up!"

Both men were soon sitting in a puddle; in the cockpit, too, the snow was melting. At 1,000 ft. above the ominously rough ocean, Alcock reopened the throttles, and the engines responded; both ran smoothly. Twenty minutes later, the men were triumphant: they had sighted land. Brown searched on his map. It was not Galway, for which they had been heading, yet Brown knew that the land must be Ireland. Then he saw the top of Connemara, identified the town of Clifden, and scribbled his observations into the log book which he held up for Alcock to read.

After flying toward the small town at a low height, Alcock circled over the streets and looked for an outlying meadow on which to land. He made a slow curve, found nothing suitable, then headed towards the Clifden radio-station and circled round it. Beyond the transmitter's tower he noticed an invitingly green meadow. The men in the transmitter building waved and gesticulated in vain. Below the deceptive green covering lay the extremely dangerous swamp, Derrygimla Moor. Alcock thought that the people in the tower were waving a welcome, and he brought the Vimy down--into the swamp. The plane ploughed a short, deep four-track furrow and buried its nose far into the mud. After 1,890 miles and 15 hours 57 minutes of flying time the heroes had landed in a bog. They had to remain seated, held fast by their safety belts.

The men who had watched the Vimy land rushed toward the plane, jumping from one grass tuft to another through the swamp. A man by the name of Taylor was the first to reach the fliers and he asked breathlessly:

"Anybody hurt?"

"No."

"Where are you from?"

"America."

The news of the adventure spread like wildfire, and there followed for Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten-Brown a hectic round of greetings, receptions, speeches, galas, and banquets. Brown made his shortest speech in Clifford Street, London. When he appeared with Alcock on the Aero Club balcony, he stopped the cheering and said, "No speech now. You wanted us. Here we are!" At the banquet which followed, the officers were greeted with an unforgettable menu unlikely to be found anywhere else. It consisted of: Oeufs Poches Alcock, Supreme de Sole a la Brown, Poulet de Printemps a la Vickers Vimy, Salade Clifden, Surprise Britannia, Gateau Grand Success.

After the fliers received Lord Northcliffe's £10,000. prize from Winston Churchill, they insisted that the Vickers and Rolls-Royce mechanics who had helped them should receive a £2,000 share of it.

Official recognition of their pioneering achievement came a few days later from King George V. Captain Alcock and Lieutenant Whitten-Brown were received at Buckingham Palace. They left the Palace as Sir John and Sir Arthur.
The Death of Sir John Alcock
(Photo courtesy of Tom Sutton)
After the trans-Atlantic flight, Teddy Brown(by now Sir Arthur Whitten-Brown) got married and headed for the U.S. on his honeymoon in October 1919. Meanwhile......

"Alcock was working full-time again at Brooklands, testing planes. On Saturdays he returned to competitive flying. On December 15, he was present at the Science Museum in London when the Vimy, was hauled from the Irish bog, and when presented to the nation. Three days later, he had to deliver a new Vickers plane, the Viking, to Paris for the first aeronautical exhibition there since the war.

Low cloud, rain, and strong wind made the morning miserable. Alcock's colleagues suggested he delay the flight, but he left - with no navigator.

Over the English Channel, the weather was blustery; when he reached the Normandy coast, the plane was in fog. Alcock must have taken it low in an attempt to see a town or a railway line he could identify.

About one o'clock that afternoon, a farmer named Pelletier was in his fields at Cote d'Everard, near Rouen. He saw a big plane 'become unsteady, make a big sway and fall to earth.' Although it didn't catch fire, the Viking was wrecked. Pelletier found Alcock, 'a terrible mess', unconscious in the cabin. From papers in a pocket of Alcock's civilian suit, and from an engraving on his diamond-studded wristwatch, the farmer identified him.

The farmer and another worker carried Alcock to the farmhouse. The other man was sent to the road, where British Army vehicles often passed, to flag one down. A priest was called. No Army truck went by that afternoon, but eventually contact was made with No. 6 British General Hospital at Rouen, which sent doctors.

By then Sir John Alcock was dead.

Alcock's parents were notified, as was the world. Brown heard about it in San Francisco. His statement was a cliche: 'Alcock's death was a true sacrifice for humanity.'

The coffin, with a military escort, crossed the Channel from Le Havre, was received at London's Waterloo Station by Alcock's parents, and representatives of the Vickers company. The procession reached Manchester on Christmas Day, and the coffin was taken to the parish church of the parents in Fallowfield. Then a service was held in Manchester Cathederal. Among those present were representatives of all the companies which sent planes to Newfoundland.

Notes:
This page adapted from:
1. Heiner Emde and Carlo Demand Conquerors of the Air New York: The Viking Press, Inc., 1968.


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