Bitter Grounds Magazine

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Alcock and Brown – 1st terrifying Atlantic flight

Written by catpaw

October 05, 2020

The original Alcock and Brown article was published in 2008, when I purchased the Daily Mirror newspaper on display here. After 12 years, and the 100th anniversary of the flight, it was time to overhaul the post with more scans from the paper & links to interesting pages on the historic flight. I’ve also included a new section on stamps celebrating flight.

Alcock and Brown fly into history

In 2008, I acquired a piece of pioneer aviation ephemera that is the centre piece of my modest collection – a June 16, 1919 Daily Mirror newspaper, documenting Alcock and Brown’s flight:

Front page from Alcock and Brown's Atlantic crossing

The Daily Mirror’s account of Alcock and Brown’s flight, full of daring and breathless coverage

101 years ago, pilot Capt. John Alcock and navigator Lt Arthur Brown flew into history with the world’s first non-stop Atlantic flight. In this age of jets, it’s difficult to imagine how awe inspiring this flight was. It was one of those great turning points in history.

Copy of Atlantic crossing competition rules

Daily Mail announcement

In 1913, Daily Mail £10,000 reward for the first successful Atlantic flight

The rules were basic:

  • the competition was open to all nationalities
  • the flight had to be nonstop, any stops between continents could be made on the water only
  • take place between any point in Great Britain or Ireland and Canada, Newfoundland, or the US
  • the trip had to be under 72 hours
  • Entrance fee of £100 must be paid
  • Each entrant could only use one aircraft and it was to be marked prior to take off

WW1 halted attempts, but when the war ended, the race was on. Teams were quickly organized to compete for the prize and honour of being the first. The main contenders were:

  • Australian legend Harry Hawker and Mackenzie-Grieve flying a Sopwith Atlantic
  • Frederick Raynham and C. F. W. Morgan in a Martinsyde Raymor single engine aircraft
  • Maj. Herbert Brackley, Adm. M. Kerr, Maj. T. Gran, F. Wyatt, H. A. Arnold & C C Clements flying a 4-engine converted Handley Page bomber
  • Alcock and Brown in a Vimy Vickers

Hawker and Mackenzie-Grieve who came close to succeeding, crashed into the ocean around the midway point on May 19. Raynham and Morgan set off May 18 and crashed on take off. Raynham was unhurt, but Morgan lost an eye. Their chance was over as well.

The Brackley/Kerr team flew test flights around June 10th. During the test, an engine cooling issue arose, and the team was grounded while they waited on a radiator replacement to be installed.

Photo of Alcock and Brown in front of Vickers airplane 1919

Alcock and Brown in front of Vickers airplane 1919 credit: Library and Archives Canada

Alcock and Brown prepare for take off

Alcock and Brown - preparing the Vickers for flight

Alcock and Brown’s Vickers Vimy being prepared for flight, much to the joy of Newfoundland locals

Alcock and Brown took off from Lester’s Field, St. Johns, Newfoundland June 14. They flew for 16 hours and 12 minutes. Their successful flight ended, with a crash into a bog in Clifden, Ireland June 15.

Clip from the newspaper reading "We’ve had a terrible voyage … the wonder is we are here at all”

“We’ve had a terrible voyage … the wonder is we are here at all”

Put this into perspective, this was long before radar, satellites and in this case, no ship support to pluck them out of the water. If they crashed into the ocean, chances were, they would die. Although equipped with a wireless radio, they were unable to use it when it was damaged in the takeoff. They were alone, in all senses of the word.

A modified Vickers F.B. 27 Vimy was used to fly the 3,041km (1,890 miles) route. The Vimy was originally designed as heavy bomber but repurposed for long distance and civilian flights.

“[the Vimy] was specially built for the Atlantic flight. Its engines were two 3360-h.p. Rolls-Royce Eagles VIII; additional tanks increased its fuel capacity to 865 gallons and gave the aircraft a range of 2,440 miles.” pg. 10 The Vickers F.B.27 Vimy, Profile Publications No. 5.

Photo of Alcock and Brown taking off from Newfoundland

Vickers “Vimy” aircraft of Captain John Alcock and Lieut. A.W. Brown taking off on trans-Atlantic flight, Lester’s Field – photo courtesy Canadian Archives

“We have had a terrible time”

The flight skirted disaster from the start. Shortly after their 1:42pm take-off, the electric generator propeller broke off, depriving them of heating, the cockpit intercom system, and the wireless radio for outside communications. Brown didn’t alert Alcock to the electric failure. Had he, the pilot would have aborted the flight:

 Both Captain Alcock and Lieutenant Brown described their journey as a very trying one – fog clouds rain and wind all the way. Their altitude varied up to 13,000 ft., and they were unable at times to know whether they were flying upside down or not.
They did not sight a ship but ascended hurriedly when on one occasion they saw the green Atlantic some thirty feet below them.

The breaking away of the generator propeller soon after the start prevented them from using their wireless.
When this happened Lieutenant Brown noticed that the propeller carried away with it one of the stay wires, but he did not tell Captain Alcock until after they landed at Clifden. Captain Alcock said, ‘I would have turned back had I know.’ –  June 16, 1919 Daily Mirror

The weather cooperated around midnight, allowing Brown to plot their position with the sextant, enabling them to stay on course. At 3am, the Vimy flew into a snowstorm that caused some instruments and the engine to ice up. Brown, at one point, is said to have climbed out of the cockpit to clear the ice away.

“The wonder we are here at all. We scarcely saw the sun or the moon or the stars. For hours we saw none of them. The fog was very dense, and at times we had to descend to within 300ft of the sea.

“For four hours the machine was covered in a sheet of ice carried by frozen sleet; at another time the fog was so dense that my speed indicator did not work, and for a few seconds it was very alarming.” June 16, 1919 Daily Mirror

At times, they were unsure if they were even flying upright. Alcock was sure they had looped the loop at one point. Despite the conditions, the pair kept flying eastward until they sited the coast of Ireland

We looped the loop, I do believe, and did a very steep spiral. We did some very comic ‘stunts’, for I have had no sense of horizon.

We drank coffee and ale and ate sandwiches and chocolate – June 16, 1919 Daily Mirror

At 9:40 am (British Summer Time), Alcock and Brown landed in Derrygilmlagh Bog, near Clifden in County Galway in Ireland, tipping the nose into the bog.

When making the landing the pylons of the centre section, as well as the main spar of the lower plane, were broken, but the steel construction of the fuselage saved the machine from further damage.
The machine will, however, have to be dismantled in consequence of this damage  – June 16, 1919 Daily Mirror

Photo of the Vimy aircraft after it crashed into the blog

Vickers Vimy, Pilots Alcock and Brown, Clifden 1919-06-15

The landing touched down on what they thought was solid ground. It wasn’t. Alcock landed in a bog, and the plane rolled forward and pitched into the soft soil.

“The machine circled over the town of Clifden, untroubled by the gusty wind prevailing, with the object apparently of seeking a safe landing place, and the roar of the engines created considerable surprise and excitement amongst the inhabitants.

Eventually, the machine turned towards the Marconi wireless station and landed on the soft ground. After running along the ground, the machine stopped and buried both propellers in the soft earth.” – June 16, 1919 Daily Mirror

Alcock and Brown were international heroes. Both were knighted within the month. Unfortunately, Alcock didn’t live long enough to enjoy his knighthood, he was killed in an air accident in Paris, Dec. 18, 1919. Brown died Oct 4, 1948.

Stamps commemorating the flight

Many stamps have been issued over the decades celebrating the Atlantic journey, including Canada’s rather sad little issue from June 13, 1969, the 50th anniversary of the flight.

image of stamp: CanadaTransatlanticflight

Canadian stamp: Alcock and Brown’s transatlantic flight

I wrote about my disappointment with the design of the stamp in 2016, and my sentiments have not changed. The colours are typical of a 1960s design, but it lacks excitement and movement. I’m just not fond of most of the 60s stamp designs overall. Worse, Canada didn’t even issue a stamp for the 100th anniversary.

Newfoundland didn’t disappoint, however.

Newfoundland Covers carried on the Atlantic flights

The postmaster general for Newfoundland approved 2 stamps to be used during the Atlantic crossing attempts. If you’re looking for the stamps in a catalogue, you won’t find them listed under Canada. Newfoundland was still a separate colony and didn’t join Canada until 1949. The first two airmails C1 and C2 were regular issues overprinted with “Trans-Atlantic / AIR POST / 1919 / ONE DOLLAR.” C1 was an overprinted .03c brown caribou stamp and C2 on a .15c red seals stamp.

Newfoundland airmail C1 – the Hawker flight

Scan of first Newfoundland Airmail C1

Newfoundland airmail C1 First Trans- Atlantic Air Post April, 1919 overprint

C1 was issued on April 12, 1919, for use by Harry Hawker. Hawker took off in May, carrying 95 covers, each with the C1 stamp. Four hours into the flight, they ran into dangerous weather and engine trouble, forcing the pilot to turn back. They didn’t make it to land and ditched into the Atlantic on May 19th. Hawker had managed to pilot the single-engine Sopwith Atlantic to the shipping lanes and was picked up by the SS Mary, a Danish ship.

For days the public thought Hawker and Mackenzie-Grieve were lost at sea. The SS Mary didn’t have a wireless radio, so no one knew until they reached port that they survived.

The Sopwith didn’t sink

Newspaper illustration of Hawker and navigator clinging to downed airplane

Newspaper illustration of Hawker’s ocean crash – Illustrated London News, 31 May 1919

Their aircraft bobbed around the ocean until it was plucked out of the water by the SS Lake Charlottesville. The aircraft made its way to England, this time as a passenger and put on display at Selfridges Department store in London. Surprisingly, the mailbag survived and was safely delivered to the postmaster in the UK.

The C1 stamp, known as the Hawker stamp is quite a bit of money. According to the Unitrade catalogue, a single mint stamp is worth $35,000 (unhinged). However, there are likely more forged C1s floating around, than genuine issues. Stampforgeries.com has an excellent page on how to spot fakes.

Newfoundland airmail stamp C2 – Alcock & Brown flight

Scan of Newfoundland airmail stamp C2

Scan of Newfoundland airmail stamp C2

197 covers, with the C2 overprint, were carried by the Alcock and Brown flight. This stamp was also carried by future trans-Atlantic flights. According to my venerable Sanabria Airmail Catalogue, there are variations to look for:

Scan from a page from the Sanabria World Airmail catalogue showing variations in the C2 stamp

C2 variations from the Sanabria World Airmail Catalogue – “In each sheet of 25 stamps there will be found 17 normal surcharges, without comma after “POST”, 1 without period after “1919”.

According to the catalogue, there are 3 variations.

  • C2 – has both a comma after the word “POST” and a period after “1919”
  • C2a – no comma after the word “POST”
  • C2b – missing the period after the date “1919”

The 2019 Scotts catalogue values them in order:

  • C2 – $210 for mint and used
  • C2a – $230 mint and $270 used
  • C2b – $450 for both mint and used.

I’d be very wary of purchasing a used C2a. There will be many forged cancels bouncing around.

There are a number of videos online of Alcock and Brown shortly after their successful landing. I’ve included one for you to enjoy. It covers a bit of the history, I may have glossed over and is good fun to watch.

NOTES:

If you’d like to read more about the flight and the stamps, check out these resources

Meet Margaret Carter, the Newfoundlander who hobnobbed with transatlantic pilots – a great CBC article on a woman who hosted many of the pilots

Airmen recovered in Atlantic ocean 750 miles from Irish coast – RTE Ireland article on Harry Hawker’s rescue

First transatlantic flight ended with a crash-landing in a Galway bog 101 years ago today – Irish Central 100th anniversary of the Alcock & Brown flight

‘A golden memory unique in history’: Unpublished manuscript on N.L. aviation history preserved at MUN – an excellent article, by CBC, about an unpublished book that was a treasure trove of information

‘They were pioneers’: Celebrations mark 100th anniversary of 1st non-stop transatlantic flight – CBC story on the 100th anniversary of the flight

Into the Unknown – The daredevils who flew across an ocean by Dan Box – an extensive BBC article on pioneer aviation and the Alcock and Brown flight

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