Sunday, May 4, 2008

Weekend Wings #17: First non-stop trans-Atlantic flight

In the last Weekend Wings we spoke of the first trans-Atlantic flight by a US Navy flying-boat, the NC-4. It flew a five-leg course from Naval Air Station Rockaway, New Jersey, USA to Halifax, Nova Scotia; Trepassey Bay, Newfoundland; the Azores islands, in mid-Atlantic; Lisbon, in Portugal; and finally to Plymouth, England, arriving on May 31st, 1919. It was the only one of three aircraft to complete the journey.

Even as the US Navy's effort was under way, others were preparing to attempt the crossing. They were attracted by the £10,000 prize (about $50,000 at then-current exchange rates, and worth about twenty times that today) offered by Lord Northcliffe, owner of the Daily Mail newspaper in England, for the first trans-Atlantic flight. It would be awarded to the first pilot(s) to cross the Atlantic in either direction between the North American continent and any point in the British Isles (including, at the time, all of Ireland). The flight had to take no longer than 72 consecutive hours, and the pilot had to finish in the same aircraft with which he started. After the end of World War I, the rules were modified to prohibit 'ocean stoppages' and bar 'former enemy aircraft' from entering. This meant that the US Navy's flying-boats were no longer eligible for the prize, and the large German bomber aircraft developed towards the end of World War I were also excluded.

A number of teams were vying to win the Daily Mail prize (one of many aviation prizes awarded by that newspaper). The first attempt was launched from England. The Short Brothers aircraft company had produced the first prototypes of the Short Shirl torpedo-bomber towards the end of World War I.

A Shirl was modified with extended wings and a huge external fuel tank to produce the Short Shamrock, of which only one was built. The underslung fuel tank can be seen in the photograph below.

The Shamrock was powered by a Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII engine, which was one of the most reliable aircraft engines of its day. Carrying a total of 435 gallons of fuel, it had a theoretical range of over 3,000 miles.

On April 18th, 1919, the Shamrock took off from Eastchurch in England to fly across the Irish Sea to The Curragh, Ireland, on the first leg of its trans-Atlantic flight attempt. Unfortunately, the engine failed 12 miles out to sea. The pilot, Major J. C. P. Wood, attempted to glide back to land, but was forced to ditch the aircraft in the sea a mile off Anglesey. The aircraft remained afloat, and was towed to the beach, but could not be repaired quickly. After another team successfully flew the Atlantic, it was dismantled.

An Australian aviator, Harry Hawker, and his navigator, Kenneth Grieve, were the next to try, flying a specially-constructed Sopwith Atlantic biplane. (Hawker was the chief test pilot for Sopwith, which would be succeeded by a company named for him and destined to become world-famous: H. G. Hawker Engineering. This later became Hawker Aircraft, makers of the famous Hurricane, Typhoon and Tempest fighters in World War II.) The Sopwith Atlantic became the first aircraft ever to fly in Newfoundland when it made its first test flight (following reassembly, after being shipped over from England) on April 10th, 1919.

The Atlantic had an interesting feature. For the trans-Atlantic attempt, its tail wheels would be dropped after take-off, thus reducing aerodynamic drag and making the aircraft lighter. It would land on a tail skid. The detachable tail wheels are clearly visible in the photograph above.

Hawker and Grieve took off from Mount Pearl, Newfoundland, on May 18th, 1919, two days after the US Navy flying-boats departed from Trepassey Bay, Newfoundland. They flew for fourteen and a half hours until their engine overheated, forcing them down in mid-Atlantic. Very fortunately for them, they ditched their aircraft near a passing Danish freighter, the Mary. She rescued them, but had no wireless transmitter, so could not advise anyone that they were safe. For six days, until the Mary reached Europe, they were classified as missing. England mourned, and the US aviators (having reached the Azores) were shaken by their supposed loss.

Despite failing to complete their flight, Hawker and Grieve were awarded a £5,000 consolation prize by the Daily Mail. They met the US Navy aviators on their triumphant arrival in England, who were delighted to learn that they were safe. (An interesting memento of Hawker and Grieve's flight survives. A local fisherman recovered the tail wheels they dropped from their aircraft after taking off. They are preserved in the museum at St. Johns, Newfoundland.)

Another team, from the British aircraft manufacturer Handley Page, under the leadership of Admiral Mark Kerr, planned to use a V/1500 'Berlin Bomber' to attempt the crossing.

They intended to leave from Newfoundland, but persistent mechanical difficulties delayed their departure until it was too late to win the Daily Mail prize. Afterwards they tried to achieve a land record instead, and flew their aircraft to the USA. Unfortunately, it crashed near Cleveland, Ohio. The crew survived, but the aircraft was written off, ending the efforts of the Handley-Page team.

The team that beat them across the Atlantic, and won the prize, was sponsored by the Vickers aircraft company. It had designed the Vimy bomber towards the end of World War I, although it did not see operational service during that conflict.

It would eventually be used for three long-distance flights. As well as a trans-Atlantic crossing, it would make the first flight from England to Australia, and cover most of the distance from England to South Africa (although that trip was completed in another aircraft).

Captain John Alcock would be the pilot for the trans-Atlantic attempt. Born in 1892, he had learned to fly before World War I. He saw active service with the Royal Naval Air Service in the Mediterranean during that conflict, shooting down several German aircraft before being shot down himself and taken prisoner in 1917. He also built a unique aircraft, the Alcock Scout, using parts from crashed aircraft.

His navigator was Lieutenant Arthur Brown. Born in 1886, Brown served as an observer with the Royal Flying Corps during World War I. He, too, was shot down and taken prisoner. While in prison camp, he taught himself navigation, but had very little actual experience of the art before the trans-Atlantic attempt.

Vickers engineers modified a newly-built Vimy, replacing its bomb-bay and rear armament with a huge fuel tank. In this view of the aircraft (now in the Science Museum in London), the cotton covering the left side of the fuselage has been cut away, showing the enormous fuel tank. It starts near the front of the wing, just behind the cockpit, and extends far back towards the tail.

The engineers also faired over the observer's cockpit at the front of the fuselage, and enlarged the pilot's cockpit to allow Alcock and Brown to sit side-by-side. The Vimy was then disassembled and crated, to be shipped across the Atlantic to Newfoundland. (The attempt would start from there because the prevailing winds blew from West to East, making a crossing in that direction easier and needing less fuel.)

On arrival in Newfoundland, the aircraft was reassembled at Lesters Field. The photographs below show various stages in the process, which took 14 days.

While this was being done, the field was being prepared for take-off. A surviving receipt from one Charles F. Lester to Captain Alcock shows a total charge of $1,345.10 for the work, including 2,079 hours of labor at 40c per hour and 330 hours at 25c per hour! It's interesting to compare those figures to today's minimum-wage legislation - they're not far off, in terms of relative value.

The field was still very rough, and Brown wasn't sure that the heavily-laden Vimy could take off successfully. In an attempt to save weight and reduce rolling resistance, he removed a nose-wheel that had been attached to the front skid. This was to have interesting consequences on the other side of the Atlantic.

Alcock had a stroke of luck during the reassembly process. The Handley-Page team (see above) were having trouble with what they thought was a defective radiator, which kept clogging. Alcock realized that the real problem was not the radiator, but the local water, which was heavily mineralized and carried a great deal of sediment. He promptly arranged that the water to be used in the cooling system of the Vimy's engines would be filtered several times, then boiled. This removed the sediment and minerals from it. The Handley-Page team were still waiting for their new radiator when Alcock and Brown took off!

The preparations for the flight were marred by poor weather. There was no hangar to protect the Vimy from the elements, and curious sight-seers tried to take pieces of the aircraft as souvenirs. This was not very helpful. The ground crew had to mount constant guard over it, sheltering from the rain and bitter cold in the packing-crates in which it had arrived.

The aircraft was finally ready. Locals gathered around for this photograph before departure on June 14th, 1919. It bears Brown's signature.

Alcock and Brown got into their flying suits. They are shown here before departure.

The Vimy took off on its long journey at 1.45 p.m. local time.

Alcock and Brown carried a radio transmitter, and were supposed to radio their position regularly: but this malfunctioned three hours into the flight. For hours there was uncertainty as to whether or not they were safe, as this New York Times headline shows.

During the flight, engine and wind noise make it almost impossible for Alcock and Brown to hear one another speak. Brown communicated navigation information to Alcock by writing it in his notebook, then showing the page to the pilot (using his flashlight at night to illuminate the page). An example of one such message in his notebook is shown below.

The flight was long, arduous and very hazardous. After a few hours, fog appeared, and they had no choice but to fly into it. The fog was so thick that they couldn't even see their engines, and their sound was muffled. Alcock had no modern blind-flying instruments, as can be seen in this photograph of the Vimy's cockpit.

Alcock had to fly as straight and level as possible, hoping for a patch of clear visibility now and then so that Brown could check their position. None appeared for some time. As darkness fell, the inner exhaust pipe of the right-hand engine split, spitting flames into the slipstream. To make matters worse, the batteries powering the electric heating elements in their flying suits ran down. Alcock later remarked that they "froze like young puppies", even more so because they could not move about in the cramped cockpit.

Alcock tried to climb above the fog to enable Brown to get a sun-sight, but they found cloud above the fog. Entering a thick fog-bank, the plane dropped in a spiral almost to the surface of the sea before Alcock could regain control and climb once more. The fliers refreshed themselves with sandwiches, beer and whisky. At last Brown was able to get a shot of the setting sun, right behind them, so that they were reasonably confident that they were on course. They flew on into the night.

Shortly after midnight Brown was able to get a few star sights, fixing their position again. They had covered 850 nautical miles, and had just over 1,000 still to go. They ate more sandwiches, and drank coffee laced with whisky. Alcock later commented, "I looked towards Brown, and saw that he was singing, but I couldn't understand a word." One presumes the singing was the result of high spirits, rather than the liquid variety!

At about 3 a.m. they hit heavy weather once more, with thick cloud. The Vimy went out of control, falling towards the sea in a vertical dive. Alcock only just managed to level out before they hit the water. He commented, "The salty taste we noted later on our tongues was foam. 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."

Snow began to fall, building up on the wings and fuselage, and ice began to form on the engines, blocking the air intakes and carburetor air filters. According to Brown's later accounts, he made several trips out onto the wings to clear the ice and snow away from the engines. However, others have disputed this, noting that Brown never wrote of such efforts in his hourly log entries, and pointing out that he had a badly injured, partly crippled leg which would have made such movements all but impossible. Since Alcock died soon after the flight, there was no evidence to support or contradict Brown's subsequent claims. The controversy has continued to this day.

Icing continued to bedevil them through the night. Daylight came at 6.20 a.m., by which time the lateral controls had iced solid. Alcock tried to take the Vimy higher, to allow Brown to get a sun sight and fix their position. At 7.20 a.m., at a height of 11,800 feet, he was able to do so, and reported that they were on course. However, it was imperative that they find warmer air to prevent the controls from freezing. Alcock took the Vimy down into the clouds once more. At 1,000 feet, the warmer air melted the ice, making flying easier.

At about 8 a.m. they sighted Ireland, coming in over the town of Clifden near Connemara. They circled the local radio station, with an inviting green meadow nearby. They saw people waving from the radio station, which they thought was a welcome. In reality the waves were an attempt to warn them that the 'meadow' was not a meadow at all, but Derrygimla Bog, far too soft for them to land: but the fliers could not know this.

Alcock brought the Vimy down on the bog at 8.40 a.m. It ran for only a short distance before the front skid (minus its wheel, which Brown had removed in Newfoundland) dug into the bog and flipped the aircraft onto its nose, breaking the lower wings and damaging the front of the fuselage. Brown reportedly turned to Alcock and asked, "What do you think of that for fancy navigating?" Alcock replied, "Very good!", and the two shook hands.

Alcock and Brown became instant heroes. They traveled to England (not in their Vimy, which was retrieved from the bog and repaired), and arrived at the Royal Aero Club in London. There they delivered to General Holden, vice-president of the Club, 197 letters entrusted to them by Dr. Robinson, the Postmaster in Newfoundland. They carried stamps overprinted in Newfoundland to indicate that they were being delivered by air. The letters were rushed to the nearest Post Office, franked and forwarded. Those stamps and covers are today amongst the most valuable philatelic collectors' items, being the first trans-Atlantic air mail. (They're also among the most forged - fakes are rife.)

Alcock and Brown were knighted by His Majesty George V, and received the £10,000 Daily Mail prize, presented to them by the then Secretary of State for War and Air, Winston Churchill.

They also received a prize of 2,000 guineas (equal to £2,100) from the Ardath Tobacco Company, and another of £1,000 from Lawrence R. Phillips for being the first British subjects to fly the Atlantic. They gave £2,000 of their prize money to the Vickers and Rolls-Royce mechanics who had helped to prepare the Vimy for the flight.

Their Vimy aircraft was repaired by Vickers, and donated to the Science Museum in London later that same year. It has been on display there ever since.

One of the original propellers was not returned, however. It is today used as a ceiling fan in Luigi Malone's Restaurant in Cork City, Ireland.

Sir Arthur Brown married soon after the flight, and he and his wife left for the USA on honeymoon. Sir John Alcock did not long survive the flight. He was killed in an aircraft accident at Cottevrard, France, on December 18th, 1919, and was buried in England.

Brown never flew again. He survived World War II, dying in 1948 in Swansea, Wales.

Alcock and Brown inspired those who followed them. Charles Lindbergh, who made the first solo crossing of the Atlantic from New York to Paris in 1927, said when he landed in Paris, "Alcock and Brown showed me the way." Sadly, in the USA, they are almost unknown today. Many Americans assume (or are misinformed) that Lindbergh was the first to fly non-stop across the Atlantic. He certainly made the first solo crossing, and the first between New York and Paris, but not the first non-stop Atlantic crossing.

Alcock's and Brown's flight was re-enacted in 2005, when Steve Fossett and Mark Rebholz flew a replica Vickers Vimy from Newfoundland to Ireland.

It was the third and last of the great Vimy historical flights to be re-enacted by this replica aircraft. Further details may be found on the Web site.

The video clip below shows the replica Vimy in flight earlier this year. If it seems slow to you, remember that the Vimy's top speed was only 100 mph - no faster than many cars on our roads today, and slower than quite a few of them!

Next week we'll look at those who followed Alcock and Brown in challenging the North Atlantic Ocean. You may be surprised by the next Weekend Wings.



Alison said...

Very interesting, thanks!

Anonymous said...

I'm preparing some lectures and found your blog very helpful - many thanks. ian mclachlan.