The year was 1930. Transoceanic flights in heavier-than-air craft had been undertaken for more than a decade. The Atlantic had been conquered in 1919 by a U.S. Navy flying boat and by a Vickers Vimy that first crossed the ocean nonstop. Two U.S. Army Air Service aircraft had circled the globe in 1924. Hawaii had been reached by air, Charles Lindbergh and others had flown the Atlantic in 1927, and the Pacific was crossed the following year.
Strangely, however, by 1930 no airplane had yet flown to Bermuda, only 650 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., and about 760 miles from New York’s Long Island. The world’s most northerly coral islands, consisting of some 150 coral rocks, islets and islands in the Atlantic, Bermuda has been a mecca for American tourists on holiday cruises since the early 1900s. Author Mark Twain, who once considered living there, quipped that it was ‘the right country for a jaded man to loaf in.’ But it had also been called the ‘Isle of Devils’ because of the many ships wrecked there.
In 1930, many pilots considered navigating by air to those tiny dots in the Atlantic too risky, since there were as yet no radio aids to air navigation. But, as with all challenges of distance during that age of aviation derring-do, it was inevitable that someone would accept the challenge and try to go down in the history books as the first to land there. That someone would be pilot William H. Alexander, accompanied by Captain Lewis A. Yancey, an experienced navigator, and Zeh ‘Jack’ Bouck, a radio operator.
Alexander had learned to fly at a Wright brothers school in 1911. During World War I, he had flown with the Royal Flying Corps in Canada, later transferring to the U.S. Navy and becoming a flying instructor at Pensacola, Fla., when the United States entered the war. In the postwar years he went into commercial flying, concentrating on seaplane operations.
Yancey had served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy submarine service, during which time he became interested in navigation. He transferred to the merchant marine in 1922, earning a master mariner’s license that enabled him to navigate ships of any size anywhere in the world. Yancey also authored several books on navigation.
In 1929 Yancey received much attention from the media when he acted as the navigator for pilot Roger Q. Williams on what the two men hoped would be a nonstop flight from Old Orchard, Maine, to Rome. Departing July 8, Yancey and Williams flew their Bellanca Model J, named Pathfinder, 3,400 miles over the Atlantic to Santander, Spain, where they had to refuel because of unexpected head winds. On July 10, they flew on to Rome, receiving a rousing welcome upon landing. Yancey told the press after his return that he was confident he could navigate a plane to Bermuda if he were teamed up with a good pilot and a good plane and had 48 hours’ notice.
Bouck, crippled since childhood, had long experimented with radio. In addition to building several radio sets for aircraft, he established his own radio station in New York City. He had visited Bermuda by ship many times, and had many friends there. Bouck was anxious to make a flight to the island. He had written to the Bermudan authorities seeking landing permission but had received no reply.
Unlike most of the participants in record-seeking flights of that era, the three intrepid airmen tried to plan their trip secretly, because they wanted to be first. They quietly sought sponsors to finance the flight, but many in whom they confided advised them not to attempt the trip. If they missed the main island and kept on flying east, it was thousands of miles to the nearest land.
Besides the honor of being first, there was at one point a monetary incentive for anyone who would succeed in a flight from the United States. Hoping to stimulate tourism, the Bermuda Trade Development Board offered a $25,000 prize to anyone who would fly from the U.S. mainland and land in the harbor, thereby opening up the British dependency to air travel. But shortly after the prize was offered, it was withdrawn. The board was persuaded that such a reward might result in some ill-prepared, foolhardy pilot’s death in the attempt. As one Bermuda writer put it: ‘How could aviators be certain of finding a 21-mile island 700 miles from the mainland? If they failed, and with their limited fuel capacity there was no allowance for mistakes, they would surely perish.’
Nevertheless, three sponsors did come forward. One was the Pilot Radio Corporation, which donated a Stinson SM-1 Detroiter, a closed-cockpit high-wing monoplane powered by a Wright Whirlwind 300-hp engine, for the flight. The crew immediately named the Stinson Pilot Radio. Since there was no airport in Bermuda, a seaplane was absolutely essential, and the Edo Aircraft Company donated pontoons and suitable undercarriage struts to replace the wheels that were standard equipment on the Detroiter. To finance the trip, Bouck, who was also the editor of Air Mechanics magazine, made an arrangement with The New York Times to provide continuous contact with the Times radio station in New York City during the flight on an exclusive basis. Yancey agreed to prepare narrative reports.
The Stinson Detroiter could carry 258 gallons of fuel, enough for 10 hours of flight at a maximum cruising speed of 105 mph. Its maximum load capacity was 4,700 pounds, but the crew decided to take the calculated risk of raising the payload to 5,200 pounds. Flying a seaplane, they would not have to worry about a takeoff from a short runway. In addition to the maximum fuel load and extra radio equipment, emergency supplies such as flares, spare parts and sea anchors were added. The crew also crammed food aboard in case of a forced landing at sea. Their supplies included roast chicken, chocolate, oranges, crackers and a bottle of scotch.
Word of the attempt leaked out despite their attempts at secrecy, so Alexander announced that they would depart on April 1, 1930. The day before, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle editorialized: ‘Though the flight is comparatively short for an oceanic hop, its navigation problem has been pronounced fully as difficult, if not more so, than the flight from the Pacific Coast to Hawaii. Bermuda occupies scarcely twelve [sic] square miles of area–hardly a pinpoint on the ocean’s expanse. Beyond, bee-line, lies more than 6,000 miles of water to Africa.’
Press pessimism did not discourage Alexander, Yancey and Bouck. Nor did they care that only a small, doubtful-looking crowd appeared along the banks of Flushing Bay near College Point, Long Island, to witness their takeoff. The weather was good but hazy. The wind was so light and the water so calm, however, that Alexander at first could not get the overloaded Detroiter off the surface of the bay. After the fourth unsuccessful try, he offloaded several cans of gas, some rope, a pontoon repair kit and a heavy sea anchor. Then a plane from the Edo Aircraft Company taxied by to make some ripples that allowed Pilot Radio‘s pontoons to break the surface tension and finally get off at 10 a.m., on the fifth takeoff run. Departure was much later than planned because Bouck had been held up in getting a battery charged and was late in arriving at the launch point. That delay would influence what happened later in the day.
The Detroiter climbed laboriously and leveled off at 2,000 feet. Bouck made regular shortwave radio reports to The New York Times and talked with several ships en route, while Yancey took frequent drift readings. The weather remained fair, but they encountered strong head winds as they neared the midpoint of their journey. As the sun was dipping in the west, Bouck reported that they expected to arrive off Bermuda at 6 p.m. At 5:20, however, he radioed a somewhat less optimistic update to the Times: ‘If we don’t see the islands pretty soon, we will set her down for the night. If we have to set her down, don’t let anyone worry about us. The sea is like a lake.’
At 5:34 p.m. Bouck reported: ‘No news yet. We are making a run for the islands, but don’t know what the chances are. We may make it or we may not.’ At 5:50 he announced: ‘Setting her down right now. Position 60 miles north of Bermuda. Tell everyone not to worry. Will continue to Bermuda in the morning.’
Alexander opted to land on the sea because it would have been hazardous to attempt a night landing among the unseen coral reefs that form a barrier around Bermuda’s north shore. It would also have been dangerous for the three airmen to try to land in the unlighted, unfamiliar harbor at Hamilton, Bermuda’s capital.
Meanwhile, Bermuda residents had long been scanning the northern sky. But when eight hours passed from the plane’s expected arrival time in midafternoon, Bermudans were afraid there had been a disaster. Ships in the harbor at Hamilton were asked to turn on their searchlights. Requests were sent out to wireless stations and ships to try to establish radio contact with the aircraft. SS Bermuda, one of the ships that plied the route between New York and the islands, was contacted, as was Lady Somers, a Canadian cruise ship that had left Bermuda for Halifax that afternoon. Bermuda was unable to establish any radio communication with Bouck and continued on her way. Lady Somers circled for some time, looking for flares.
The fliers, meanwhile, did not feel they were in danger. Bouck’s radio log from the following morning tells what they had done the night before: ‘5:50 A.M. (New York time) Please telephone wife and tell her everything O.K. Here is the dope: Set her down at 6 P.M. for the night. Let out a sea anchor and turned in for the night, keeping three watches. At 3 A.M. a ship was sighted and we shot five flares. They hove to, and we asked them to report that all was O.K. with us. They wanted to take us off but we decided to stick to the ship. Just got off now in a bad ground swell; it was a tough job. Also, the landing last night was tough, due to ground swell.
‘6:00 A.M. Here’s another highlight. We lost our flashlight overboard last night when looking over the pontoons and had to rig up an emergency light to signal the boat with. I tapped a piece of wire on the battery cable for a key. We didn’t get the name of the boat, but I can’t understand why they didn’t report us. They seemed surprised to learn that we refused to be taken off. Bill (Alexander) was a little seasick. Yancey and I got through the night O.K. Somewhat cramped though because we all went forward to keep the rear part of the floats out of the water. Had to re-rig floats this A.M. before taking off. The wires were strained in landing last P.M. Please tell Edo that their floats sure showed what’s in them last night.’
The vessel that had stopped to render assistance after seeing the plane’s flares was Lady Somers. Alexander asked the captain to send a message to New York that all was going well, to radio their position, and to explain that they would depart in the morning. Word eventually made its way to Bermuda from New York that the crew had decided to put down in calm seas rather than risk forging ahead in the darkness.
When Alexander took off in heavy swells the next morning, he accomplished an aviation first of which he was then unaware. He had become the first pilot in history to land an aircraft in the open sea, remain overnight and take off successfully during a record-flight attempt. His flying skill, however, could not overcome the simple fact that the aircraft could go only as far as the fuel allowed. The plane’s overloaded condition and head winds had resulted in high fuel consumption. Moreover, the plane’s fuel gauge was faulty, so the men did not have an accurate reading of how much gas remained for the final leg of their flight.
Bouck sent a final message at 6:17 a.m. stating that they had sighted Bermuda dead ahead. Shortly after the trio saw Hamilton’s white buildings glistening in the bright sunlight, however, the fuel factor caught up with them as Pilot Radio‘s engine suddenly sputtered and died. Alexander had to make a forced landing only 10 miles from the north shore. The plane was sighted by a watcher at the marine pilot station on St. David’s Island, who immediately dispatched two members of the station in a motorboat to greet the embarrassed Americans. When they learned that the plane needed gas, they returned with several cans.
A second boat arrived with J. P. Hand, chairman of the Bermuda Trade Development Board and a member of the Bermuda Parliament. Pulling alongside, he extended an official welcome to the three fliers. Curiously, he was the same man who had refused to answer written requests from Bouck for permission to land during the previous two months, as well as the individual who had persuaded the development board to withdraw the $25,000 prize for fear of possible damaging results on the local economy if a contestant lost his life. Now that the plane had arrived safely, however, there was nothing to do but congratulate the fliers who had taken the risk and survived.
Alexander made a final takeoff after adding the gas and landed a few minutes later in Hamilton Harbor before a small, cheering crowd. Before the crewmen could greet anyone, however, they were towed to a wharf on the other side of the harbor, where they were met by the chief of police and a physician who gave them a quick medical examination. Then the plane was pulled up on a ramp and the men were driven to the Inverurie Hotel to wash up and greet the public.
The Bermudans warmly welcomed the fliers and feted them in a series of celebrations over the next several days. The development board members who had withdrawn the $25,000 prize money the year before voted to give $1,000 to each of the three aviators in recognition of their accomplishment.
Alexander radioed The New York Times that they would make the return flight to New York when the weather was favorable. Bouck later defined for the Times what Alexander meant: ‘Conditions would have to be perfect–a calm sea, a cloudless sky, and a following forty-knot wind.’
As they were preparing for the return flight, however, they discovered that one of the plane’s wing struts had been wrenched during the two sea landings, making it too risky for the Stinson to make the return flight. Pilot Radio was hoisted aboard a steamer, and the fliers returned with it by sea to New York. After they left the island, Bermudan J.P. Hand announced he would introduce legislation to prohibit any further such flights until a weather station and a radio beacon could be installed on Bermuda. He added a prediction, however, that the flight was the forerunner of great things to come for commercial air service to the island.
The backers of the flight were jubilant, even though it had been accomplished in only one direction. Richfield Oil Corporation praised the pilot for conserving his fuel by making a safe sea landing instead of blundering on in the dark. The Stinson Company complimented Alexander for his ability to get off the water with the Detroiter’s heavy load at the start and from the treacherous Atlantic swells the next day. Isadore Greenberg, president of the Pilot Radio and Tube Corporation, proudly announced that the plane would be sent on a tour of South America and used as a demonstrator for two-way aircraft communications. Charles H. Colvin, president of the Pioneer Instrument Company, maker of the instruments in the plane, commented that ‘the landing on the sea in the dusk made the flight even more valuable because it served to dispel popular beliefs that sea landings are always disastrous unless saved by unusual strokes of luck.’
While this aviation milestone was still fading from the front pages, Roger Q. Williams, barnstormer, stunt and test pilot, with Canadian World War I veteran Captain J. Errol Boyd as co-pilot and Lieutenant Harry P. Connor, a U.S. Navy-trained navigator, planned to fly Miss Columbia, a Wright-Bellanca WB-2 single-engine monoplane with wheels, on a nonstop, round-trip flight to Bermuda from Long Island in June 1930, nearly three months after Pilot Radio‘s flight. Miss Columbia had already achieved fame as the plane flown by Clarence D. Chamberlin and Bert Acosta when they set a world’s endurance record of more than 51 hours in May 1927. Chamberlin and Charles A. Levine then flew it nonstop 3,910 miles the following month to Eisleben, Germany.
The announced purpose of a round-trip Bermuda flight without landing, according to Williams, was to ascertain if, with the navigation equipment then available, a regular airline service could be established between New York and Bermuda. He said that if a small, single-engine plane such as Miss Columbia could make the round trip and find the island with ordinary navigational methods, scheduled passenger flights to the island would be easily achievable with radio-equipped amphibian planes powered by two or more engines.
The Miss Columbia trio departed from Roosevelt Field on Long Island early in the morning of June 29, 1930, in clear weather. Connor had no problems with the navigation, but since there was no radio on board, he was unable to report their progress as Bouck had done on Pilot Radio. The skies gradually darkened as they flew on, and as they approached Bermuda shortly after noon they ran into a driving tropical storm. ‘Within forty miles of the island, we struck one of the fiercest rain squalls I have ever flown through,’ Williams said in a New York Times interview after the flight. ‘We went down to 200 feet and came in over the city [Hamilton] and circled. It looked like a landing [was inevitable] on a field I couldn’t see, for that water got to the magneto and the engine began to kick up.
‘We circled for twenty minutes, hoping for a place to land or a let-up in the rain, but neither showed up. It looked like a crash to me. Finally, we turned seaward again because there was nothing else to do. A few miles out the rain stopped, the sky cleared and the old motor started doing its old stuff again, so we came home. What pleases me is we struck those little chunks of land, scattered over only eighteen miles of the Atlantic Ocean, right on the nose, without any radio bearings.’
What Williams did not mention was that they had dropped a bag of mail on the Belmont Manor Golf Club grounds, to the rear of the Hotel Bermuda. When a reporter asked him about landing there, Williams said the golf course was the only possible stretch of land where a landing might have been possible, but that a crackup was ‘certainly a possibility.’
The return flight to New York was uneventful. They made a night landing at Curtiss Field instead of Roosevelt Field because of thick haze over their departure airport. The elapsed time for the 1,560-mile flight was 17 hours 8 minutes, and they had enough fuel remaining to fly another 1,000 miles. The trip served as a practice run in the same Bellanca for a transatlantic flight by Boyd and Connor from Newfoundland to England the following October.
The successful round-trip flight to Bermuda had an unpleasant brief aftermath for Williams. The Bermudan government sent a protest to the U.S. State Department because the fliers had not notified the island’s authorities about their plans and had not received permission beforehand. Williams’ pilot license was suspended by the Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce for several weeks as a result.
The Royal Air Force established a station at Bermuda in 1933 and operated Osprey and Seafox floatplanes from the harbor in conjunction with the British fleet. In September 1936, Lufthansa began a series of experimental transatlantic flights via seaplane from Berlin to New York, with the flying boats heading from Lisbon to the Azores and then to the seaplane tender Schwabenland. It was proposed that passengers could then fly direct to New York or via Bermuda.
But Pan American Airways, under Juan T. Trippe’s aggressive leadership, also saw an opportunity there in conjunction with the British. Route inspection flights were made in the spring of 1937 in preparation for air service between Port Washington, N.Y., and Hamilton Harbor, Bermuda. The first scheduled flights began on June 18, 1937, with four-engine flying boats. An Imperial Airways (later BOAC) Short S.23 Cavalier alternated weekly on the route with a Pan American Airways Sikorsky S-42B Bermuda Clipper. Flight time averaged five hours and 30 minutes. In November 1937, the flights were made from a new base at Baltimore.
In the years since those relatively primitive days of ocean flying, before reliable radio aids were available for navigation, Bermuda has become an easily accessible year-round resort for those who want to sample the pleasures of a mild semitropical climate. Bermuda International Airport, the country’s only landing field, is on St. George Island, 10 miles east of Hamilton on the grounds of Kindley Field, which was built during World War II and named for Captain Field E. Kindley, an American World War I ace who had trained with the British before assignment to an American squadron. Yearly, more than 4,000 scheduled flights by seven airlines, plus nonscheduled charters, land there.
But none of their pilots can claim the singular honor of having landed there first. That honor goes to Alexander, Yancey and Bouck, pioneers whose names have nearly been forgotten in the rush of time.
This article was written by C.V. Glines and originally published in the July 2001 issue of Aviation History. For more great articles subscribe to Aviation History magazine today!