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The harrowing, forgotten journey of the first transatlantic flight

Capt. John Alcock (Bain News Service/Library of Congress)
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The two engines sputtered, then roared to life, belching white smoke from their stacks. Two large propellers began turning — slowly at first, but gaining speed until they leveled off at more than 2,000 revolutions per minute.

The chocks on the tires of the Vickers Vimy biplane were pulled away while several men struggled to hold the converted bomber from leaping into the air. The pilot, Capt. John Alcock of the Royal Air Force, let the engines run a bit longer to build momentum, then signaled for the ground crew to release the wings.

The men let go, and the World War I aircraft shot forward, rolling and bumping along an inclined farm field as it headed toward a 600-foot cliff. Overladen with extra fuel, the plane bounced on the uneven ground, approaching the edge of the precipice.

Slowly, the Vimy began to rise — only a few yards at first, but it was off the ground. RAF navigator Lt. Arthur “Ted” Brown, sitting beside Alcock, looked on nervously as the pilot battled a stiff head wind to keep the rickety biplane airborne.

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The crowd watching at Lester’s Field in St. John’s, Newfoundland, began to cheer as the aircraft slowly climbed, then gasped in horror as it quickly dropped from view below the cliff. After a few anxious moments, the Vimy reappeared, ascending unhurriedly into the sky. The spectators let out a collective sigh.

On June 14, 1919, Alcock and Brown began a perilous quest to become the first aviators to fly nonstop across the Atlantic. While Charles Lindbergh is remembered for his solo crossing in an enclosed metal monoplane on May 21, 1927, this earlier, far-more-challenging trip in an open-cockpit biplane made of wood and fabric is nearly forgotten today.

In its own right, Lindberg’s accomplishment — achieved 95 years ago Saturday — is an important achievement. However, Alcock and Brown’s flight eight years earlier was nothing short of miraculous. The advances in aviation engineering in the short span of time between the two flights were considerable.

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“The difference in technology, engines, instrumentation and navigation capability between 1919 and 1927 is like night and day,” said Robert O. Harder, author of the new book “First Crossing: The 1919 Trans-Atlantic Flight of Alcock and Brown.” “This is just a few months after the end of World War I, and those airplanes were still really, really rickety.”

A nonstop crossing by air between North America and Europe had been a dream since 1913, when British media magnate Lord Northcliffe offered a 10,000-pound prize — nearly $600,000 today — to the first to accomplish it. Separately, Alcock and Brown schemed to earn the reward while waiting for the end of World War I in prisoner-of-war camps in Switzerland and Turkey. Both had been shot down in combat.

Alcock needed an experienced navigator, while Brown was looking for a pilot to take the controls. After the war, they chanced to meet for the first time at the Vickers manufacturing facility in Surrey, England, only three months before the Vimy would take off from Newfoundland. Both realized immediately that they were of one mind on this mission.

“It was rather serendipitous the way the two men met,” Harder said. “They happened to be at the factory at the same moment and accidentally learned of the other’s plans. Their meeting was really chancy, but it was meant to be.”

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Both were at Vickers because they believed the Vimy, a twin-engine heavy bomber in production for World War I but delivered too late for combat, was the plane they needed to make the crossing. With a wingspan of 68 feet, it was one of the largest aircraft of its era. More importantly, it had a long range: about 2,000 miles. The biplane was modified for this flight to add extra gas tanks so it would have more than enough fuel to cover the 1,900 miles from Canada to Britain.

“This was state-of-the-art technology at the time,” noted Harder, who flew 145 combat missions on B-52 bombers in Vietnam as a U.S. Air Force navigator. “The plane could fly 100 miles an hour, which was a big deal back then.”

In 1919, trying to cross the Atlantic nonstop in an airplane was considered suicidal. Several pilots had attempted to win the prize; all had failed, with a few attempts ending in death.

A month before Alcock and Brown took off, U.S. Navy and Coast Guard aviators managed to make the trip with a 10-day stopover in the Azores for repairs. Of the three NC-4 seaplanes used for the journey, only one survived the ocean crossing. Two crashed in the Atlantic, but the crews were rescued by support ships.

When Alcock and Brown arrived in Newfoundland on May 9 with their disassembled Vimy in boxes, there were already four other teams preparing to breach the Atlantic. One would crash in the sea shortly after takeoff, about three weeks before Alcock and Brown planned to take to the air.

After Vickers mechanics put the bomber together, the pilot and navigator took test flights to make sure their aircraft was ready for this endurance trip. Once assured, they topped off the tanks and packed up their food and beverages — including beer and whiskey for “fortification” — as well as their good-luck mascots: two stuffed toy cats, named Lucky Jim and Twinkle Toes.

The bumpy takeoff on the afternoon of June 14 was a harbinger of what was to come. Alcock and Brown faced numerous challenges on the trip, including dense fog, snow, rain and severe turbulence. Twice, the Vimy would plunge unexpectedly in crash dives toward the waves. Twice, Alcock would pull up on the stick at the last second.

In addition, an electrical generator failed, knocking out power to the radio, intercom and heating. Alcock and Brown were essentially flying blind across a vast ocean with no landmarks for guidance. They wore electrically warmed suits, but the batteries soon died, and they were left shivering in rain-soaked clothes for their journey, most of which occurred at night.

Three times, Brown had to clear ice off a gauge to check fuel mixtures. To do so, he had to stand on his seat in a 100-mile-per-hour blast of cold air. On the third attempt, he felt a searing pain in his left leg, which had been shattered by a bullet in the war, and was nearly blown out of the cockpit.

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The next morning, after 16 hours of flying with only a compass and sextant for direction, the pair spotted land. It was Ireland. Alcock and Brown had planned to fly to London but decided not to risk going farther. They set down in what they thought was a field but turned out to be a bog. The plane sank in the mud and flipped over, but both pilot and navigator were unharmed.

Newspaper headlines around the world heralded their achievements, which included the first transatlantic mail flight. They had carried with them a small sack of letters for delivery.

The aviators were whisked away to Galway for parades and celebrations, where they were treated as triumphant victors. They slept overnight at a local hotel but were groggy when they awoke the next day — perhaps the first people to experience what we now call jet lag.

“Yesterday I was in America, and I am the first man in Europe to say that,” Alcock told the cheering crowds.

In London, the pair met Winston Churchill, who was then secretary of state for war and air. He presented Alcock and Brown with their 10,000-pound prize. (They gave 2,000 pounds to the ground crew.)

“I really do not know what we should admire the most in our guests, their audacity or their good fortune,” Churchill said. He announced that both men were to receive the Knight Commandership of the Order of the British Empire from King George V at Windsor Castle. The knighted fliers would be treated as the equivalent of rock stars — until Lindbergh eclipsed their record.

Both basked in the glory of the moment, though Alcock’s reverie would be short lived. He died six months later from injuries suffered in a plane crash. Brown lived to be 62, though he walked with a limp for the rest of his life as a result of his war wound.

The Vickers Vimy was rescued from the Irish bog. It was restored and is now displayed at the Science and Industry Museum in England. Toy mascot Lucky Jim is in the museum’s collection, while Twinkle Toes is at the Royal Air Force Museum.

Though the public may have forgotten their flight, Alcock and Brown’s legacy endures. Their efforts paved the way for many other aviators, including Lindbergh in 1927, as well as the regular commercial transatlantic flights we enjoy today.

“Their accomplishment ranks in the top three or four of aviation achievements,” Harder said. “They proved for the first time that somebody could fly 2,000 miles nonstop over water and survive. Nobody had even come close to that. They were the point of the spear in advancing aviation technology.”