Saturday, May 17, 2008

Weekend Wings #18: The Struggle To Conquer The Atlantic

We've all read about Charles Lindbergh's successful solo flight across the North Atlantic Ocean in 1927. It's so well-known that I don't propose to say much about it in this, the last of a three-part Weekend Wings series about flying the Atlantic. Instead, I propose to focus on those who tried, and mostly failed - and frequently lost their lives in the process.

(If you'd like to read more about Lindbergh's flight, I recommend the Wikipedia article and the Charles Lindbergh Web site for more details. The latter is run by the Spirit Of St. Louis 2 Project, which hopes to recreate Lindbergh's flight in a replica aircraft in May 2009.)

The attraction for Lindbergh and the others was the Orteig Prize. This was offered in 1919 by a New York hotelier, Raymond Orteig (shown below presenting the prize to Lindbergh. As always, click on this or any picture to enlarge it).

Orteig began life as a shepherd in France. Emigrating to the USA, he worked as a waiter, and by 1919 owned two fashionable hotels in Manhattan. Inspired by the success of the US Navy's NC-4 flying-boat (see Weekend Wings #16) and Alcock's and Brown's flight to Ireland (see Weekend Wings #17), he wrote to the President of the Aero Club of America on May 22nd, 1919:

Gentlemen: As a stimulus to the courageous aviators, I desire to offer, through the auspices and regulations of the Aero Club of America, a prize of twenty-five thousand dollars to the first aviator of any Allied country crossing the Atlantic in one flight, from Paris to New York or New York to Paris, all other details in your care.

Yours very sincerely, (signed) Raymond Orteig.

Orteig was proud of his French ancestry, and openly hoped that his prize offer would be an incentive to French aviators to match the achievements of US and British flyers. He initially set a five-year limit on his prize, but when no-one won it, it was extended for a further five years. The prize was not limited to solo flyers like Lindbergh: the first plane to make the flight would take it, irrespective of number of crew or any other factor.

Orteig's challenge to fly between New York and Paris in a single flight was a significantly more difficult task than those accomplished by the NC-4 flying-boat or Alcock's and Brown's Vimy bomber. The distance was much longer, some 3,700 miles (compared to the approximately 1,900 miles covered by Alcock and Brown between Newfoundland and Ireland). It took some time for aircraft reliability to improve to the point where this was a realistic goal, and for aircraft to be designed that could carry the quantity of fuel required.

The Orteig Prize attracted many competitors, and even after Lindbergh won it, some of them continued to try to cross the Atlantic. Let's look at them in chronological order.


François Coli, a French pilot and navigator, began planning a trans-Atlantic flight from Paris to New York in 1923, together with another French pilot and World War I ace, Paul Tarascon, who is shown below in two wartime photographs.

They selected a Potez 25 biplane for the flight, similar to the one shown below. They planned to drop the wheels once in the air, and land on a golf course in Rye, near New York city, using skids fitted to the belly of the plane.

At the same time another French team was considering an attempt, using a twin-engined Farman Goliath airliner.

Fitted with extra fuel tanks, this aircraft had recently established an endurance record of 40 hours in the air. Perhaps this may have caused Coli and Tarascon to rush their preparations too quickly. Be that as it may, in a test flight during late 1926 their aircraft crashed and burned. Tarascon was badly injured. He subsequently withdrew, offering the pilot's seat to another French aviation hero, Charles Nungesser. The partnership of Nungesser and Coli would make another attempt, of which more later. The team planning to use the Goliath never carried out their attempt.

CUMULATIVE 'SCORE': North Atlantic, 2 injured in 1 attempt; aviators, 0 crossings.


Another French World War I ace, René Fonck, was in the hunt.

In the USA a Captain in the Air Service Reserve, Homer Berry, had got together with a New Hampshire newspaper owner, Robert Jackson. Together they formed the company Argonauts Inc. They signed a contract with Russian émigré Igor Sikorsky to build an aircraft for a trans-Atlantic attempt.

Sikorsky's solution was the S-35 biplane. It was very large for its day, with a wingspan of 101 feet and weighing some 8 tons, fully fuelled (but without passengers or crew, and with no cargo). It was initially powered by two Liberty L-12 engines, but after Fonck had agreed to pilot it, he complained that it was underpowered. It was subsequently fitted with three Gnome-Rhone Jupiter engines. The composite photograph below shows its features very clearly. Note in particular the ornate fittings and furniture inside the cabin.

The cabin would be rearranged for the trans-Atlantic flight. The sketch below, from the New York Times of April 22nd, 1926, shows how it was set up for the journey.

In hindsight, one can only describe the enormous amount of equipment and luxurious preparations of the Argonaut team as extraordinarily foolish. For example, we read in the New York Times of August 16th, 1926:

A hot dinner, cooked in New York, will be eaten in Paris some two days later, it was announced last night, if the plans for the transatlantic non-stop flight of Captain Rene fonck, French war ace, and his associates go through as planned.

The dinner will be prepared by chefs of the Hotel McAlpin. It will be placed in vacuum containers to keep it as hot as when it came off the ranges, and is to be served at the Hotel Crillon to Robert Jackson, American sponsor of the flight, the aviators and others after the plane's arrival. The menu includes Manhattan clam chowder, Baltimore terrapin, roast Long Island duck and Vermont turkey.

There was also conflict about who would go on the flight. Captain Berry expected to go, but Fonck excluded him, leading to a very public wrangle in the newspapers. The final preparations were thus marred by controversy. Nevertheless, they continued. The video clip below shows the S-35 during testing.

The aircraft was grossly overloaded for its flight. Quite apart from a plethora of equipment, gifts for various dignitaries in France were loaded (and, of course, the aforementioned duck dinner!). By the time the aircraft was ready to depart it was estimated (by the co-pilot, as stated in evidence at the subsequent inquiry) to weigh some 28,000 pounds, of which about half was fuel. This was far in excess of its design limit of approximately 16,000 pounds, plus crew. To help it take off with so much extra weight, a temporary landing gear was fitted to support the tail. This proved to be a fatal error.

Early in the morning of September 21st, 1926, the aircraft set off. Fonck was at the controls, with Lieutenant Lawrence W. Curtin, USN, as his co-pilot. Also aboard were Jacob Islamoff, mechanic, and Charles Clavier, radio operator. The latter two crew were at the rear of the cabin, as shown in the diagram above. The aircraft failed to get fully airborne, the temporary landing gear collapsing under the weight, and it crashed into a shallow gully at the far end of the airfield. Fonck and Curtin were able to escape, but Islamoff and Clavier were probably trapped under the huge amount of baggage in the cabin. They were killed, either by the impact of the crash, or the enormous fire which consumed the plane, raging for over an hour until the fuel was burnt up.

CUMULATIVE 'SCORE': North Atlantic, 2 dead, 2 injured in 2 attempts; aviators, 0 crossings.


In October 1926, the famed US Navy officer, then-Commander Richard E. Byrd, who had flown over the North Pole in a Fokker F.VIIa/3M trimotor earlier that year, announced that he would attempt a trans-Atlantic crossing.

He was sponsored by Rodman Wanamaker, who had long been interested in trans-Atlantic flight, and had sponsored Glenn Curtiss' original America flying-boat before World War I (see Weekend Wings #16 for details). Wanamaker provided funds to purchase another Fokker trimotor, which was also named America for the attempt.

To give you a better idea of the aircraft, the one illustrated below is of identical design, a modern replica of that used by Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith to fly from California to Australia (via Hawaii and Suva) in 1928.

Unfortunately, on April 16th, 1927, whilst conducting a test flight at Hasborough, New Jersey, the aircraft crashed on take-off, flipping over its nose onto its back. Byrd fractured his wrist; his co-pilot, Floyd Bennett, broke his leg and his collar-bone; and George Noville suffered internal injuries. Antony Fokker, also on board the plane, escaped uninjured.

Byrd replaced the injured Bennett with Bernt Balchen, a Norwegian test pilot for Fokker, but events concerning Nungesser and Coli (described below) caused Wanamaker and their other backers to insist that they not leave until there was certainty over the French aviators' fate. This delayed their departure until after Lindbergh's successful flight.

CUMULATIVE 'SCORE': North Atlantic, 2 dead, 5 injured in 3 attempts; aviators, 0 crossings.


Another American attempt was planned, this one by Commander Noel Davis and Lieutenant Stanton Wooster of the US Navy.

They selected a Keystone K-47 Pathfinder aircraft, sponsored by (and thus named for) the American Legion.

It had a wing spanning 67 feet, was 45 feet long, and had a claimed range of 4,200 miles. It was originally equipped with three Liberty L-12 engines, but for the trans-Atlantic attempt was re-engined with three Wright Whirlwind J-5's, of approximately half the power of the Liberty units. I don't know why this was done: I can only assume it was in the interests of greater fuel economy. Unfortunately, it left the aircraft dangerously underpowered.

While testing the aircraft, Davis and Wooster took off from Langley Field on April 26th, 1927. As Time magazine reported on May 9th, 1927:

Imagine a gigantic yellow bird, with wingspread of 67 feet, weighing some 6,000 pounds, carrying an additional load of 11,000 pounds.

Imagine that bird losing necessary flying speed a few feet above the ground, trying to land in a marsh at 70 miles per hour.

In such a bird, last week, were Lieut. Commander Noel Davis and Lieut. Stanton Hall Wooster, crack flyers of the U. S. Navy. They were making their last test flight in the trimotored American Legion, preparatory to attempting a non-stop jump from the U. S. to Paris.

Loaded with enough gasoline to cross the Atlantic, their plane roared along the ground at Langley Field, near Hampton, Va. Gradually, almost painfully, it rose to a height of some 50 feet. A row of trees, planted years ago by an industrious pioneer, now rose up to thwart these air pioneers. Lieutenant Wooster turned the beak of the American Legion, slightly, ever so slightly. With that turn, the plane lost flying speed. A landing was now imperative. Marshes, mud flats, duck ponds yawned below.

Upon a small patch of green, Lieutenant Wooster made a perfect landing—an almost unheard-of feat with a plane loaded so heavily. The yellow giant skidded across the green marsh into the muddy waters of a shallow duck pond, wherein the giant's beak stuck. Its tail completed a semicircle. In its cockpit lay Lieutenant Wooster with his neck broken, Commander Davis with his face crushed - both lifeless in a gloomy pool of water and gasoline. Thoughtfully, they had turned off the ignition, so that the giant did not catch fire.

To Noel Davis - Mormon, cowpuncher, high in his class at Annapolis, intrepid minelayer and minesweeper in the North Sea, Harvard law student, with a pretty wife and a little son, Noel Jr.; and to Stanton Hall Wooster - Connecticut Yankee, Yale student and Annapolis graduate, once lost in a wrecked plane in Panama jungles, one of the U. S. Navy's most skilled pilots, with no living relatives except an aunt and an uncle - many a tribute was paid.

Almost certainly, the use of the lower-powered Wright engines was a major contributing factor to the accident that killed Davis and Wooster.

CUMULATIVE 'SCORE': North Atlantic, 4 dead, 5 injured in 4 attempts; aviators, 0 crossings.


As mentioned earlier, after Tarascon and Coli had crashed while testing their aircraft, Tarascon withdrew from their trans-Atlantic attempt in favor of another French war hero, Charles Nungesser. Coli's eyepatch is the result of a wartime injury.

The duo decided to use a Levasseur PL-8 single-engined biplane for their attempt.

It was a modified version of the PL-4 that Pierre Levasseur was building for the French Navy. It had a detachable undercarriage, and the fuselage was watertight, allowing it to float. Nungesser planned to drop the undercarriage after take-off, and land on the water in New York harbor. He painted the plane white and named it L'Oiseau Blanc ('The White Bird').

Nungesser and Coli took off from Le Bourget airfield in Paris on May 8th, 1927. All over France, people prayed, lit candles in churches, and waited for news . . . but it never came. Nungesser and Coli disappeared without trace, and were never found. An initial report of their safe arrival proved false. There were reports that an aircraft had been heard over Newfoundland, and many years later accounts were published of strange unidentified aircraft remains in the far Northern Atlantic coast of the continent, but nothing could be established with any certainty.

Today, France remembers Nungesser and Coli as heroes.

The only physical relic of their flight is the discarded landing gear of the L'Oiseau Blanc, dropped after take-off, and still on display in a French museum.

CUMULATIVE 'SCORE': North Atlantic, 6 dead, 5 injured in 5 attempts; aviators, 0 crossings.


At this point Charles Lindbergh defied the odds and successfully flew from New York to Paris, departing on May 20th, 1927. He was fêted and honored as a hero in France, Belgium, England and the USA, and received the Orteig Prize on June 16th. The video clip below contains newsreel footage of his triumph.

CUMULATIVE 'SCORE': North Atlantic, 6 dead, 5 injured in 5 attempts; aviators, 1 crossing.

In the three years following Lindbergh's triumph, a number of other aviators attempted to make non-stop crossings of the Atlantic. Most failed miserably, and many died. Here are a few of those who tried to follow in Lindbergh's footsteps.


Lindbergh had originally worked with Charles Levine to prepare a Bellanca aircraft for the trans-Atlantic attempt. Unfortunately for Levine, they had a falling-out (some allege because Levine wanted a more famous pilot, with greater publicity value). Lindbergh proceeded to have a Ryan aircraft built to his specifications. Levine hired Clarence Chamberlin to take Lindbergh's place as pilot.

Levine had the Bellanca modified for the attempt. It ended up looking very similar to Lindbergh's aircraft. Levine renamed it the Columbia - by some accounts, the Miss Columbia.

The Columbia's completion and her flight were delayed due to Levine's difficult personality. As one commentator put it, he "fought with his pilots, his designer, his navigator and himself. He was an irascible, pompous, difficult man to work for and he lost his advantage by engaging in trivial arguments on how to equip his plane and who should fly it." He fired his navigator, who filed a lawsuit alleging that Levine's action was illegal. The delays resulting from all these causes proved fatal, and Lindbergh got away before Levine was ready.

Although devastated to lose the Orteig Prize, Levine was determined that the flight should go ahead. So was Chamberlin. He prepared to depart on June 4th, 1927. The situation is described as follows:

Levine was dressed in a regular suit. Unbeknownst to his wife, however, he had his flying clothes stored aboard his plane. Chamberlin climbed into the cockpit and started the plane. Suddenly, Levine broke away from the small crowd of well-wishers, and jumped into the co-pilot's seat as his wife and friends looked on incredulously.

Mrs. Levine screamed "Stop him! Stop him!" It was too late. The engine roared full throttle and Charlie Levine roared into history as the world's first transatlantic passenger.

The flight was harrowing at times because the Bellanca had a tendency to stall and buck. Levine, whose bravery bordered on foolhardiness, was not perturbed by the aircraft's aberrations.

Although he was not a pilot, Levine relieved Chamberlin at the controls a few times during the night, but otherwise enjoyed his passenger status. En route, they flew over the cruise ship Mourclonia, which gave them a spirited welcome. Incredibly enough, they also flew over the U.S. cruiser Memphis, which was returning Lindbergh to America. Some 43 hours after taking-off and travelling a total of 3,905 miles, the adventurous duo finally landed on a small field outside the town of Eisleben in Saxony, now in East Germany.

At Eisleben they refuelled with 20 gallons of fuel brought up by a local farmer and had to use a quart-size coffee pot to fill the gas tank. They were headed for Berlin, but got lost and landed east of the city at the town of Kottbus, where they received a tumultuous welcome. They finally landed at Tempelhof Airport in Berlin the next afternoon to a crowd of more than 100,000 wildly cheering Germans.

CUMULATIVE 'SCORE': North Atlantic, 6 dead, 5 injured in 5 attempts; aviators, 3 crossings in 2 flights.


As mentioned above, Byrd's aircraft was ready to leave, but his financial backers insisted he wait until news of Nungesser and Coli could be received. Byrd generously offered Lindbergh the use of Roosevelt Field on Long Island, as it had a longer runway than the field he was currently using. Lindbergh accepted - and took off for his attempt before Byrd could get clearance from his backers.

Despite his disappointment, Byrd was determined to continue with the flight. On June 29th, 1927, he took off. On board his Fokker were Balchen, Noville, and Bertrand Acosta, an American pilot. There is a possibly apocryphal story that Byrd had to hit Acosta over the head with a fire extinguisher or flashlight, after the latter drank too much and got out of control, but the account was never confirmed.

Byrd's aircraft successfully reached Paris, but thick fog prevented him from landing there (and almost caused him to collide with the Eiffel Tower). Turning back, he proceeded to the coast, and crash-landed his aircraft in the sea just beyond the beach. All four men reached land safely. The photograph below shows them immediately afterwards, wearing borrowed clothing. From left to right: Noville, Byrd, Acosta, Balchen.

Below is shown the wreckage of their aircraft after it was hauled out of the water. Souvenir-hunters stripped it almost bare.

CUMULATIVE 'SCORE': North Atlantic, 6 dead, 5 injured in 5 attempts; aviators, 7 crossings in 3 flights.


Princess Anne Lowenstein-Wertheim sponsored a Fokker F.VIIa aircraft (the original, single-engined version of Byrd's three-engined Fokker F.VIIa/3M), which was christened the St. Raphael. It was similar to that shown below, a F.VIIa of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.

It was piloted by Leslie Hamilton and Fred Minchin, both experienced pilots of the Royal Air Force. At the last moment, Princess Lowenstein-Wertheim (herself an experienced pilot) decided to accompany them as a passenger.

They took off from England on August 31st, 1927, bound for Ottawa in Canada. The aircraft was sighted en route by a tanker, but vanished into the mists of Newfoundland and was never seen again. No trace of it or its three occupants has ever been found.

CUMULATIVE 'SCORE': North Atlantic, 9 dead, 5 injured in 6 attempts; aviators, 7 crossings in 3 flights.


Another Fokker F.VIIa aircraft was sponsored by the famed newspaper proprietor, William Randolph Hearst, to attempt the first non-stop flight between the USA and Rome, Italy. The aircraft was named Old Glory.

It was crewed by Lloyd W. Bertaud and James Dewitt Hill. At the last minute, Hearst ordered Philip Payne, the editor of one of his newspapers, the New York Daily Mirror, to accompany them as a passenger. He was instructed to drop a wreath over the Atlantic Ocean, inscribed: “Nungesser and Coli: You showed the way. We followed. Bertaud and Payne and Hill.”

On September 6th, 1927, the Old Glory took off from Old Orchard Beach, Maine, heading for Rome. The next day a radioed emergency message was received, and rescue ships rushed to the location: but on arrival they found only the aircraft, floating in the sea. There was no sign of the crew.

CUMULATIVE 'SCORE': North Atlantic, 12 dead, 5 injured in 7 attempts; aviators, 7 crossings in 3 flights.


The Carling Brewery in Canada sponsored a trans-Atlantic flight attempt from London, Ontario to London, England. The type of aircraft used is not recorded in the sources I've been able to access. It was piloted by Captain Jerry Tully and Lieutenant James Medcalf, two experienced aviators, and named for the founder of the brewery, Sir John Carling.

After two false starts that had to be abandoned due to weather and mechanical problems, the two set out from London, Ontario, on September 5th, 1927. The following day the Sir John Carling took off from Harbor Grace, Newfoundland, the same day that the Old Glory left Maine (see above). The aircraft and crew vanished without trace, and were never seen again.

CUMULATIVE 'SCORE': North Atlantic, 14 dead, 5 injured in 8 attempts; aviators, 7 crossings in 3 flights.


An aspiring actress, Ruth Elder, was captivated by the news of Lindbergh's flight, and immediately decided that she would do the same. She was ridiculed when she announced her intention, many claiming (probably correctly) that it was only a publicity stunt: but she proved remarkably resilient and courageous, pressing on with her plans. She bought a Stinson Detroiter aircraft for the trip, similar to that shown below, which is a restored example that used to fly sightseers over the Grand Canyon.

Her own aircraft is shown in the two photographs below, mounted on an inclined ramp designed to give it greater initial speed when taking off with its heavy load of fuel.

She plotted her routes carefully and deliberately, but decided to ignore advice not to fly the North Atlantic in winter - a decision she was to regret. She selected Captain George Halderman as her co-pilot.

Together they designed what they called 'unsinkable' suits, to wear in the event of ditching in the North Atlantic.

They took off from Roosevelt Field, New York (the same airfield used by Lindbergh) on October 11th, 1927. They almost made it, but had to ditch in the Atlantic 300 miles short of the Azores after the plane's engine developed an oil leak. Those 'unsinkable' suits came in very handy! Fortunately, Elder had deliberately selected a course near the main shipping lanes. They were rescued by a passing Dutch oil tanker, the Barendrecht, and landed in Lisbon, Portugal. They received a heroes' welcome there, and in Paris and New York.

Elder continued flying, and used her new-found fame to break into more roles as an actress. In 1928 she starred in this movie:

In 1929 she came fifth in the first Women's Air Derby. She then retired from flying to concentrate on her acting career.



Frances Wilson Grayson, a 35-year-old divorcee living in Forest Hills, New York, and a niece of President Wilson, announced that she was going to attempt an Atlantic crossing.

She purchased a Sikorsky S-36 amphibian aircraft, which she named Dawn. It was similar to the aircraft shown in the first double photograph below. Ms. Grayson's own aircraft is shown in the second double picture, the originals of which were unfortunately very poorly preserved.

On December 23rd, 1927, she took off from New York, heading for Harbor Grace, Newfoundland, where fuel was waiting. With her aboard Dawn were Lieutenant Oskar Omdal of the Norwegian Navy, the pilot (although Ms. Grayson might have planned to do some of the flying herself); Brice Goldsborough, the navigator; and Frank Koehler, a radio engineer.

The aircraft never reached Newfoundland, and no trace of it or its crew was ever discovered.

CUMULATIVE 'SCORE': North Atlantic, 18 dead, 5 injured in 9 attempts; aviators, 7 crossings in 3 flights.


The Hon. Elsie Mackay, third daughter of Lord Inchcape and a well-known pilot in England, wanted to be the first woman to cross the Atlantic from East to West. She bought a Stinson Detroiter, being impressed by the good performance of that aircraft during Ruth Elder's flight (see above). She named it Endeavour. She had it shipped from the USA to England, and delivered to the Brooklands motor racing track, which at the time was also used as an airfield.

Her father strongly opposed her wish to fly the Atlantic, so she resorted to secrecy. On March 13th, 1928, she and Captain Walter R. Hinchcliffe, her co-pilot, set off from the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell. Five hours later their aircraft was seen flying over Mizzen Head on the Atlantic coast of County Cork, Ireland. Two ships later reported sighting the aircraft over the Atlantic.

Those were the last sightings. Endeavour never reached Newfoundland, its intended destination, and vanished without trace.

Or did it? In August 1928, five months after Endeavour had disappeared, a bottle washed up on the shores of North Wales. It contained this message: "Goodbye all, Elsie Mackay and Captain Hinchcliffe. Down in fog and storm." It was undated and gave no position, and its authenticity was never proved.

CUMULATIVE 'SCORE': North Atlantic, 20 dead, 5 injured in 10 attempts; aviators, 7 crossings in 3 flights.


Ehrenfried Günther Freiherr von Hünefeld (the aircraft owner), Captain Hermann Koehl (the pilot), both of Germany, and Commander James Fitzmaurice of Ireland (the navigator) attempted the first East-to-West crossing of the Atlantic by aircraft. They are shown below in that order, from left to right.

They flew a Junkers W33b monoplane named Bremen from Ireland to Labrador. Departing on April 12th, 1928, they covered over 2,000 statute miles, landing on a shallow ice-covered reservoir at Greenly Island the following day. The aircraft broke through the ice as it came to a stop, causing significant damage but no casualties. The flyers got wet, but survived. The aircraft is shown after being extracted from the reservoir.

The Bremen could not be repaired on site, so the three flew from Greenly Island to New York aboard a Ford Trimotor flown by Bernt Balchen (who, as you will recall, had crossed the Atlantic with Byrd the previous year). They toured US and European cities for two months, celebrated as 'heroes of the air' and nicknamed 'The Three Musketeers Of The Air'.

The Bremen was subsequently restored. It is currently displayed at Bremen Airport in Germany, and a series of interesting articles about the flight (in German) may be found here.

CUMULATIVE 'SCORE': North Atlantic, 20 dead, 5 injured in 10 attempts: aviators, 10 crossings in 4 flights.


Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic when, on June 17th, 1928, she accompanied pilot Wilmer Stultz and co-pilot/mechanic Louis Gordon aboard a Fokker F.VIIb/3m from Trepassey Harbor, Newfoundland (from where the US Navy's flying-boats had departed in 1919) to Burry Port in Wales, UK. The flight took just under 21 hours. Although a qualified pilot, Earhart was not (at that time) trained to use instruments. Since most of the flight took place at night or in bad weather, she did not share the flying duties. She said afterwards, "Stultz did all the flying - had to. I was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes."

CUMULATIVE 'SCORE': North Atlantic, 20 dead, 5 injured in 10 attempts; aviators, 13 crossings in 5 flights.

(In 1932 Earhart made the first solo flight across the Atlantic by a woman, flying from Newfoundland to Ireland. She was assisted in her preparations by Bernt Balchen, who thus played a part in yet a third trans-Atlantic flight. However, since this was five years after Lindbergh's flight, I haven't counted it towards the cumulative 'score'.)


A Polish officer, Ludwik Idzikowski, made two attempts at an East-West crossing, from Paris to New York.

In April 1926 he was sent to France as a member of a Polish military mission, and began planning his attempt on the Atlantic. Unfortunately, he encountered numerous delays in getting approval for the flight, so much so that Lindbergh had succeeded in his attempt before he could leave. Nevertheless, he persisted in his plans, wanting to become the first to cross from East to West. The Polish government supplied him with a French Amiot 123 biplane bomber, a long-range variant of the Amiot 120 family of aircraft. It was christened the Marszalek Pilsudski, or 'Marshal Pilsudski', after the Polish head of state.

On August 3rd, 1928, accompanied by a navigator, Kazimierz Kubala, Idzikowski took off from Le Bourget airfield in Paris. However, after covering about 2,000 miles, they noticed that engine oil levels were falling. Since the prevailing winds (blowing from West to East) were against them, they decided to turn back to Europe. They didn't quite make it, being forced to ditch after 31 hours in the air. Idzikowski landed next to a German merchant ship, the Samos, only about 40 miles off the coast of Spain. Her crew rescued the aviators and their plane, but the aircraft was too badly damaged to be repaired.

Undaunted, Idzikowski planned a second attempt. Another Amiot 123 was purchased, and he and Kubala took off on July 13th, 1929. After covering some 1,300 miles, they began to have engine problems. Idzikowski made for the Azores, but in an attempt to make an emergency landing in a field on Graciosa Island, the aircraft hit a low stone wall and overturned. Idzikowski was killed, but Kubala escaped with minor injuries.

CUMULATIVE 'SCORE': North Atlantic, 21 dead, 6 injured in 12 attempts; aviators, 13 crossings in 5 flights.


On September 1st, 1930, Dieudonné Costes, pilot, and Maurice Bellonte, navigator, flew their Breguet XIX aircraft, named Le Point d'Interrogation or 'The Question Mark', from Paris to New York. They arrived the following day, having covered almost 3,700 miles in 37 hours and 18 minutes. They thus re-traced Lindbergh's route in the opposite direction for the first time.

CUMULATIVE 'SCORE': North Atlantic, 21 dead, 6 injured in 12 attempts; aviators, 15 crossings in 6 flights.

I think that's enough to give you an idea of how incredibly dangerous the North Atlantic crossing was for early aircraft, and how very, very lucky aviators were to make it across. I haven't listed all the attempts made during those early years. There were at least three more during 1927, and eight more during 1928, that didn't get far enough to even qualify as an attempt, all turning back or being forced down within a few hours of departure. None of them produced further casualties, fortunately. Not for many years, until the dramatic improvements in aircraft spurred by World War II, would it become a routine matter to fly the Atlantic.

However, we can't possibly leave the North Atlantic without a look at one of the most extraordinary people ever to have flown it: Mr. Douglas Corrigan, or, as he's better known to history, "Wrong Way Corrigan".

Corrigan wanted to fly the Atlantic, and for three years he tried to get permission to do so from the US aviation authorities. They turned him down time and time again, saying that his aircraft, a Curtiss Robin J-1 Special, was unsuitable for such a flight. They eventually gave him permission to attempt a non-stop flight from New York to California instead.

Corrigan took off from Floyd Bennett Field on July 17th, 1938, carrying two chocolate bars, two boxes of fig bars, a quart of water, and a US map with the route marked from New York to California. He disappeared into the haze . . . but observers noticed with some alarm that he was still heading East, instead of turning West to cross the US.

Twenty-eight hours later, Corrigan landed in Dublin, Ireland, saying, "I've just got in from New York. Where am I?" He protested that he'd only noticed after 26 hours that he was flying over water, not land, and offered the (not very convincing!) excuse that he "must have been following the wrong end of the compass needle".

He became an instant national hero, both in Ireland and in the USA, and was given a ticker-tape parade through New York. In honor of his accomplishment, the New York Post ran a headline, "Hail Wrong Way Corrigan" - and printed it backwards!

As punishment, Corrigan's pilot's license was suspended - but only for two weeks. His caper caused so much amusement that anything more would doubtless have brought down the wrath of the entire American people upon the authorities! Corrigan stuck to his story of "flying the wrong way" for the rest of his life, and even titled his autobiography, published in December 1938, "That's My Story". He also made money endorsing "wrong way" products, including a watch that ran backwards.

Corrigan's really was an amazing achievement. He was probably more foolhardy than courageous to have attempted it. As a journalist, H. R. Knickerbocker, said of his aircraft:

As I looked over it at the Dublin airdrome I really marveled that anyone should have been rash enough even to go in the air with it, much less try to fly the Atlantic. He built it, or rebuilt it, practically as a boy would build a scooter out of a soapbox and a pair of old roller skates. It looked it. The nose of the engine hood was a mass of patches soldered by Corrigan himself into a crazy-quilt design. The door behind which Corrigan crouched for twenty-eight hours was fastened together with a piece of baling wire. The reserve gasoline tanks put together by Corrigan, left him so little room that he had to sit hunched forward with his knees cramped, and not enough window space to see the ground when landing.

Finally, let's note that Lindbergh's flight also launched (so to speak) the career of another famous personage. In 1928, Walt Disney released the first of what would become many Mickey Mouse cartoons. It was called 'Plane Crazy', and was built around the aviation theme, which Lindbergh had made wildly popular. Lindbergh himself was caricatured in the cartoon.

So there you have it, dear readers. In three episodes we've looked at the conquest of the North Atlantic from the air. Next time you fly across that ocean in a modern jetliner, spare a thought for the pioneers who made it possible - and for the tragically large number who tried, and failed, and all too often died.



Anonymous said...

I really enjoy these stories. As i love history. Thank-You,Rick

Anonymous said...

Nicely written history. Drop by the Wings of Peace forum and website sometime, you'll be in good company.
Sorry to see your YouTube link for the Disney cartoon was disabled.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on a fine website.
I would like to suggest a correction , though.
I think the flyer who was injured with Paul Tarascon on the endurance record attempt in the Potez 25 was not Francois Coli but a pilot named Favreau.


Epic Hall said...

With regard to the flight of Hinchliffe and Mackay, what do you think about the claim that the British Air Ministry sent a letter to Mrs Hinchliffe on 1st March 1929 to the effect that in the previous December part of an aeroplane undercarriage was washed ashore on the coast of Ireland and that it was positively identified by the manufacturers as being part of Hinchliffe's 'plane?

Anonymous said...

Known for
First aerial crossing of the South Atlantic
Ricardo Lima

Ian McLachlan said...

I'm an aviation historian in the UK and am delivering a series of lectures about aviation 1920-30s. This blog has been informative and helpful. Thanks/ Ian McLachlan