“Yesterday we were in America…”
Robin Evans traces the slipstream of Alcock and Brown’s Vickers Vimy, as they made transatlantic flight history in June 1919
Who first flew the Atlantic non-stop? Most claim it was Charles Lindbergh and many, pilots included, are wrong. After his celebrated 1927 journey from New York to Paris, Lindbergh made a courteous nod to his daring predecessors, declaring: “Alcock and Brown showed me the way.”
Who were these unsung heroes, one of whom was already dead by the time of Lindbergh’s gracious mention, and how did they make such an enormous leap, just ten years after Louis Blériot’s 1909 ‘hop’ of the English Channel?
Blériot was just one winner of The Daily Mail’s grand aviation prizes launched by media tycoon Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe, to spur development in the new activity. Having taken off from Hampstead, London during the misty early hours of April 28, 1910, Frenchman Louis Paulhan landed his Farman biplane in a field outside rural Didsbury on the north bank of the River Mersey, claiming victory in the London to Manchester air race, having covered a distance of around 195 miles (314km). One inspired bystander was 17-year-old John Alcock who went on to gain his own Aviator Certificate (essentially a pilot’s licence), number 368, at Brooklands in Surrey under the instruction of Maurice Ducrocq two years later. In 1919, a chance meeting with Arthur Whitten Brown would make history.
Their differences defined a remarkable partnership. Ruddy-cheeked Alcock was described as hard-headed and a ‘daredevil motorcyclist’. Six years older and born to American parents in Glasgow, Scotland, Brown was said to be reserved and studious. However, their careers displayed their similarities; both became engineering apprentices in Manchester and both were shot down and captured in World War One. Alcock finished the war in captivity, but earned the Distinguished Service Cross. Brown, on the other hand, was repatriated with an injury that left him with a noticeable limp. Meanwhile, both men had invested time considering Northcliffe’s 1913 challenge… to fly the Atlantic non-stop inside 72 hours. The prize was £10,000.
It was June 14, 1919 and Alcock and Brown were in St John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, with their Vickers Vimy having repaired a damaged shock absorber and crushed fuel pipe. Positioned into the wind, the pair loaded a bag of specially franked mail and barely unstuck from the hastily cleared field as jovial cheers rippled through the air… many of the astounded locals having never seen an aeroplane before. With a sleepless night ahead of them, the daring duo set out east, Alcock at the controls and Brown undertaking navigational duties. It was 13:45pm…
The rest of this feature can be read in the current FlyPast, in UK shops now, or available at www.flypast.com