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Brown’s Great Adventure: The First Transatlantic Flight

By Chris Fasolino
3/31/2016 • Aviation History Magazine

‘Yesterday I was in America, and I am the first man in Europe to say that,’ said John Alcock after his transatlantic flight with Arthur Whitten Brown.

The real story of the first nonstop transatlantic flight is one that’s surprisingly few people have heard. Like all great aviation stories, it is an adventure: in this case, an adventure that involved snow and ice, fog and mist, hope and courage…not to mention a bottle of whiskey and a pair of toy cats.

The heroes, pilot John Alcock and navigator Arthur Whitten Brown, took off from Newfoundland on June 14, 1919, and ended up in Ireland the following day. But in a way their historic adventure began long before that. Alcock and Brown had been dreaming of making this flight since they were both World War I POWs.

Englishman John Alcock learned to fly at age 20, taught by an instructor who employed a somewhat unusual method: He placed Alcock’s hands on top of his own as they flew, so that his student could feel every movement made in controlling the plane. After just two hours of this “hands-on” instruction, the teacher looked at him and said: “All right. Now you’re ready to try this on your own.” Either Alcock was a particularly apt pupil or he turned out to be a natural, as that first flying lesson would be his last. He immediately made a solo flight in a Farman Longhorn, and just one week later he entered—and won—his first race.

During the next two years, Alcock spent as much time in the air as he could. When WWI began, he joined the Royal Naval Air Service, first serving as a flying instructor at Eastchurch, in Kent. In 1916 he was assigned to No. 2 Wing, RNAS, operating from the Aegean isle of Lemnos.

In the fall of 1917,Alcock cobbled together his own fighter from the components of a wrecked Sopwith Pup and Triplane. Flying a Sopwith Camel on September 30, he attacked three German Rumpler floatplanes and shot down two of them, for which he was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. That same night he took off to bomb Constantinople, piloting the sole twin-engine Handley Page O/100 in the Mediterranean. When engine trouble forced him down in Suvla Bay, he and his crew were taken prisoner.

All prisoners dream of freedom, but during his time in captivity John Alcock also yearned for adventure. It was while he was a POW that he came up with a scheme to fly across the Atlantic. All he needed was a good plane, a good navigator and of course his liberty.

When he was finally released at the end of the war, Alcock returned to England and went to Weybridge, in Surrey, where he strode through the gates of the Vickers aircraft factory and outlined his plans to the management. He hoped Vickers would agree to build a plane capable of such a flight. Alcock clearly had the right mixture of experience and bravado, and his idea captured the imagination of Vickers’ engineers. Meanwhile Arthur Whitten Brown, who had never met Alcock, had been facing his own wartime perils. Brown, nicknamed “Teddy,” was born in Glasgow, Scotland, though his parents were Americans. He worked as an engineer before the war broke out, then joined the Royal Flying Corps. Sent to the Western Front as an observer, he attained the rank of lieutenant before he was shot down behind German lines on November 10, 1915, and taken prisoner. Brown was left permanently lame in one leg.

Like Alcock, Brown spent his time as a POW dreaming of flying across the Atlantic. He borrowed books from the Red Cross, eagerly devouring everything on navigation he could find. He began to make the crossing in his mind, thinking about how he could use his new knowledge to guide a plane across the ocean. Upon his release, Brown too returned to England and went to the Vickers factory—looking for a job as an engineer. There he met John Alcock, and the two airmen quickly discovered they shared a mutual dream. From then on, their course was clear: The navigator had found his pilot, and the pilot now had the navigator he needed.

Planning the Flight

Although the primary motivation for a nonstop transatlantic flight was to make history, there was also a substantial material reward at stake. In 1913 Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe, owner of the London Daily Mail, had offered a prize of £10,000 to any aviator who could fly nonstop across the Atlantic from North America to the British Isles (or vice versa). Today it’s difficult to fully appreciate the controversy generated by this offer. Northcliffe thought of himself as a visionary, but others considered him a lunatic. The reward may have been great, but the task was considered impossible at the time. Some saw Northcliffe as irresponsible or even criminal, encouraging people to throw away their lives on a hopeless quest. The Daily Mail’s rivals took a more satirical approach; some called attention to the (coincidental) fact that the prize had been announced on April Fools’ Day, while others began offering their own tremendous rewards for a successful airplane flight—to Mars.

Of course, WWI made such competitions seem irrelevant for several years. But in July 1918—before the conflict had even ended— Northcliffe renewed his offer. All aviators were eligible, he stipulated, save those whose countries had fought against Great Britain. At war’s end, the Daily Mail contest became a major focus for aviators worldwide. Many aircraft manufacturers also saw it as a great opportunity to promote their designs. So Alcock, Brown and Vickers all had reasons to take on the mission, but they also had a lot of competition.

Alcock and Brown decided their attempt would begin from Newfoundland. The plane they would fly—a Vickers F.B.27A Vimy twin-engine biplane—was modified in England, then disassembled, packed in crates and shipped across the ocean. It had been designed as a bomber during the war, but now extra fuel tanks replaced its weaponry, resulting in an 865 Imperial gallon capacity. The open cockpit had been enlarged slightly, enabling the two men to sit side by side on a thinly cushioned wooden bench. The Vimy was equipped with four-bladed propellers turned by two 360-hp Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII engines. Its wingspan was 68 feet 1 inch and its length 43 feet 7 inches: considerably larger than the planes most of the other aviators would use for their crossing attempts.

On May 13, Alcock and Brown arrived in Newfoundland. Their plane would not get there until May 26, however, and then it would need to be reassembled. The area from which they planned to launch their attempt—the North American location closest to the British Isles—was bleak, and there were no suitable buildings to shelter the aircraft while working on it. The work had to be done in the open, shielded from Newfoundland’s cold spring weather by only a few canvas tarpaulins set up as windbreaks. So many visitors came to see what they were doing that someone from the ground crew had to stay on the site around the clock to make sure nothing was damaged or stolen.

They also had to settle the question of exactly where they could take off. Finding a workable site proved to be a challenge. Alcock found a field owned by a local, James Lester, and obtained permission to use his property. But the field was only 400 yards long, making a takeoff in the fuel-heavy Vimy a likely close call. Moreover, the field would have to be cleared of rocks and trees before it was usable. But here public enthusiasm worked to their advantage: Locals had become excited about the flight, and Alcock found plenty of volunteers to help with the work.

While all this was going on, the competition seemed to be getting far ahead of them. On May 18, as Alcock and Brown waited for their plane to arrive, Australian Harry Hawker took off from a nearby field in St. John’s, flying a Sopwith Atlantic and accompanied by navigator Lt. Cmdr. Kenneth MacKenzie-Grieve. The Sopwith’s engine failed, however, and they went down in the ocean—fortunately near the Danish steamer SS Mary. They had built a dinghy into the plane’s fuselage, which enabled them to reach the ship despite rough seas. Since the vessel lacked a radio, the aviators were presumed dead, and King George V sent letters of condolence to their families. When it finally became known that they had been rescued, the public rejoiced. On hearing about the excitement, Alcock dryly noted, “Their hands are so blistered from clapping Harry Hawker that we’ll be lucky to get even a languid hand.” But Hawker and MacKenzie-Grieve’s misadventures must also have served as a reminder of the dangers they faced.

Frederick Raynham, an earlier—and even less successful—rival, had taken off in a Martinsyde biplane while Alcock and Brown looked on. Raynham’s navigator, Captain C.W. Fairfax Morgan, claimed that one of his ancestors was the pirate Captain Henry Morgan, an appealing qualification for any adventurer. But his illustrious lineage could not keep the Martinsyde aloft; Alcock and Brown watched as it rose from the ground, then immediately fell to earth in a crash-landing.

Eventually the Vimy arrived and Alcock and Brown managed to get it reassembled and finish clearing the field where they would take off. Then the weather turned against them. Storms held them back until the middle of June, and even after the skies cleared, their final preparations involved a close study of weather reports. The two airmen also tried to learn from their competitors’ failures. For example, they boiled the water for their radiator, then filtered it, convinced impurities in the water had caused the engine problems in Hawker’s Sopwith. The day before Alcock and Brown’s planned takeoff, a broken shock absorber further complicated preparations. The ground crew worked through the night to fix it—diligence the aviators would remember.

A Historic Flight Takes Off

At last, on June 14, everything was ready. Alcock and Brown had lunch beneath the wing of their plane, then climbed inside the cockpit. The Vimy had been carefully stocked with navigational equipment, as well as maps, coffee and other provisions—including one bottle of beer and another of whiskey. Also aboard was a linen bag filled with 197 letters bound for the British Isles, in the hope that they would become valuable novelties. The airmen also took along two toy cats as good luck mascots: Alcock’s was named “Lucky Jim” and Brown’s was “Twinkletoes.”

Alcock planned to start the engines, then keep the plane stationary until they could be revved up to full power, thereby increasing his chances of getting the heavily laden Vimy into the air before it reached the edge of the field. He positioned several men in front of the plane, holding onto its wings. Then he started the engines, let them run up and gave the takeoff signal, whereupon the men let go and got out of the way. The Vimy raced forward and lifted off, with little room to spare.

They headed toward the open sea, flying over St. John’s Harbor, where fishermen waved to them from their boats. As the Vimy continued on, the weather remained tranquil, and an optimistic Brown began discussing the welcome celebrations he hoped awaited them in London, exclaiming, “Great Scott, what a banquet we’ll have!” But toward evening the weather changed, dampening their optimism. A vast bank of fog lay before them, all across the horizon.

Clear weather had deserted them, but their pluck had not. “We’ve got no choice—we’ve got to go in,” said Alcock. Brown checked their position just before they entered the fog bank, realizing it might be some time before he had another chance to do so. They were soon in such thick fog that even their propellers disappeared from view.

After an hour of blind flight, Brown fretted, “Won’t this ruddy fog ever end?” But it would be hours before they came out of it, and by that time it was night. Brown relied on celestial navigation to figure their position and course, using the moon and the star Vega. He was pleasantly surprised to find that they seemed to have maintained a straight course during their seemingly endless fogbound hours. They simply had to keep going in the same direction.

The aviators continued to encounter patches of fog. Brown later described this stage of the journey with poetic flair: “An aura of unreality seemed to surround us as we flew onward towards the dawn and Ireland. The distorted ball of the Moon, the weird half-light, the monstrous cloud shapes, the fog, the misty indefiniteness of space, the changeless drone, drone, drone of the motors.” The cold also became trying. They were both wearing battery-powered heated jackets, but the batteries ran low, leaving them shivering in the open cockpit.

Soon they faced a solid mass of cloud, and once again Alcock headed straight into it. They encountered such severe turbulence that Alcock later said the plane “began to perform circus tricks”—plunging toward the ocean while he fought desperately to remain aloft. One moment the altimeter read 1,000 feet, the next only 100. When they were just 65 feet above the waves, he succeeded in regaining control.

Asked later how he and Alcock had responded to that narrow escape, Brown said simply, “We grinned!” They also opened the beer. After a break for beer and sandwiches, they switched fuel tanks, having depleted one of them. Brown pumped fuel from a backup tank into one that led directly to the engines.

As they flew on through the night, they decided it was time for more sandwiches, along with coffee. Brown also opened the whiskey, poured some in his coffee, and started to sing a song about a swallow that flew off into the sky.

When dawn came at last, they were facing a new peril: another huge mass of clouds. Once again they lost control of the Vimy, this time in the midst of a cold rain that soon turned to hail. They plunged into a nose dive, which Alcock finally pulled out of at the last possible second. He later recalled tasting salt on his lips from the foaming waves below them.

The hail turned to snow, which began piling up inside the cockpit. Worse, ice began to form on the Vimy. Knowing that the engines might stop dead, Brown decided his only option was to clean the connections by hand. That meant standing up and leaning out into the face of the howling gale while he painstakingly knocked away the ice.

At long last they emerged from the storm and saw the sun again. Calculating their position, Brown realized they were only about 80 miles from land. Then one of the engines died. Despite Brown’s best efforts, ice had built up on the starboard engine. Now that they were out of the storm, however, Alcock figured they could find warmer air by reducing altitude, which he did. Once the ice began to melt, the balky engine kicked in again.

By that time the cockpit was soaking wet from melted snow, but their journey was nearly over. Twenty minutes after the engine restarted, they sighted land—Ireland’s coast. Soon they were flying over beautiful cliffs, where waves pounded the rocks, then rolling hills where yellow gorse blossomed and sheep grazed. This was not Galway, their expected arrival point, but slightly to its north, in Connemara. Brown realized that the coastal village below them was Clifden, one of the most beautiful villages in the world, its houses painted in hues of blue, yellow and green. To the tired fliers it was a welcoming haven. They decided to land on a green field outside the town.

At the very end of their journey, the aviators faced yet another surprise. As they prepared to land, they saw and heard locals yelling and waving. The weary airmen thought it must simply be an enthusiastic welcome, but in fact the onlookers were actually trying to warn them. The lush green field where they were about to land was not a field but a bog. On touchdown, the Vimy’s wheels sank deep into it and the plane nosed over.

Alcock and Brown’s luck held, however, and the two heroes emerged unhurt from the sodden cockpit. They had made it across the Pond, as had Lucky Jim and Twinkletoes. After all they had endured, Alcock could only comment, “The amazing thing is that we are here at all.”

A Warm Reception

Alcock needn’t have worried that the excitement over Hawker’s rescue would leave him and Brown with only a languid public reception. They traveled from Clifden to London via a procession of banquets and celebrations. In fact, by the time they got to London, Brown had apparently tired of speechmaking. Just before yet another celebratory banquet, he briefly told a cheering crowd: “No speech now. You wanted us. Here we are!” He later recalled having been dazed by the welcome they received. An added distinction was the London banquet’s celebratory menu, featuring dishes dubbed “Poached Eggs Alcock, Sole a la Brown, Spring Chicken a la Vickers Vimy, Salade Clifden, Surprise Brittania, and Gateau Grand Success.”

Winston Churchill presented Lord Northcliffe’s £10,000 prize to Alcock and Brown, after which the two fliers made their own gallant gesture: They insisted that their ground crew, which had worked so doggedly to reassemble and ready the Vimy for its flight, should have a £2,000 share of the award. Then came a reception at Buckingham Palace, where King George V knighted Sir John Alcock and Sir Arthur Whitten Brown.

Sadly, Alcock died after an accident in December of that same year. Flying alone in France, he crashed during a forced landing in heavy fog. His injuries proved fatal.

Brown went back to engineering following his moment in the limelight, working for Vickers. His transatlantic flight with Alcock would be his only great air adventure. He died in 1948.

The Vickers Vimy they flew is on display in the London Science Museum. Memorials at Clifden and London’s Heathrow International Airport also commemorate Alcock and Brown’s achievement.

Chris Fasolino last wrote for Aviation History about “Wrong-Way” Corrigan’s transatlantic flight (see Online Extras, P. 4). For further reading, he recommends The Golden Age, by Ron Dick and Dan Patterson. He also suggests visiting the London Science Museum’s Web site, www.londonsciencemuseum.org.uk.

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