By Dominic Savastano
Today the biggest problem in flying
across the Atlantic seems to be knowing which airport terminal you
have to leave from and getting to the check point on time.
Perhaps we should think for a
moment or two of the first non-stop aerial Transatlantic crossing
and we might realize that, despite occasional delays and lost
luggage, just how lucky we are today. We might even pay homage to
the statue of those two intrepid aviators, Captain John Alcock and
Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown, which stands outside London's
Heathrow Airport and contemplate their fantastic achievement, which
surely ranks only a short way behind that of the fathers of
aviation, Wilbur and Orville Wright.
The first non-stop Transatlantic
crossing was made in 1919, but our story starts six years earlier.
In 1913 the British "Press Baron" and owner of the Daily Mail, Lord
Northcliffe, offered a prize of £10,000 for the first non-stop
flight over the Atlantic by a heavier-than-air aircraft. £10,000
was a vast amount of money in those days, but the prospect of any
machine being able to complete the monumental task just ten years
after the Wright brothers made their historic flight at Kittyhawk
was remote to say the least.
The Great War put an end to any
thought of record breaking flights and for the next four years the
world was torn apart by the most terrible conflict in history to
that time. Of course, enormous strides in the field of aviation
were made during this horrendous time and the powerful, sturdy and
reliable aircraft of 1918 bore little to no resemblance to the
fragile sputtering machines of 1914.
Once peace was declared there was
little need for the thousands of former military aircrafts that now
littered the world. Many daring pioneer flights, which captured the
public's imagination, were made in the United States of America .
Here, the Government organised a sophisticated internal airmail
system to use some of the old military aircrafts in order to
improve delivery times across the massive country.
In England, Northcliffe repeated his Daily Mail challenge with
conditions imposed on would-be competitors by the organisers:
1. The flight had to be between any
point in Great Britain and any point in Canada, Newfoundland or the
2. The flight had to be direct (i.e. non-stop).
3. The flight had to be accomplished within seventy-two hours.
The weather indicated a west-to-east crossing as being the most
favourable and Newfoundland was chosen by most of the teams because
of its proximity to the British Isles. Although one crew, Major
J.C.P. Wood and Captain C.C. Wylie, in their Short Shiel, decided
to try the opposite route. They made a trial flight from Ireland in
April 1919 and crashed into the ocean, putting an end to their
challenge. The £10,000 prize money lured several sets of aviators
with their aircraft, support teams and sponsors (yes, even in
1919!), etc, to Newfoundland and by early 1919 it was clearly going
to be a race to see who could be ready first.
It should, perhaps, be mentioned
now that there was a serious attempt, albeit not in an effort to
win the Daily Mail prize, at an Atlantic crossing by four aircrafts
of the United States Navy. The NC1, NC2 and NC3 all crashed in the
attempt but the NC4, piloted by Lieutenant Commander A.C. Read
actually made the first aerial crossing of the Atlantic in stages,
taking some eleven days. Although it was intended that this flight
would carry an official commemorative mail, it was taken off to
save weight and no official mail was carried, although one letter
was flown unofficially.
The Harry Hawker Attempt
There can be little doubt that the
American involvement spurred on the British aviators in
Newfoundland to get on with the job. Harry Hawker, an Australian by
birth, in his single-engined Sopwith Atlantic aeroplane, with
Lieutenant Commander Kenneth Mackenzie Grieve navigating, finally
had favourable weather conditions on 18 May 1919 and was ready to
begin his assault on the great prize. The idea of carrying mail
across the Atlantic in a matter of hours rather than the many days
that the journey took by boat was clearly of interest to the
Newfoundland Post Office. So, on 5 April 1919 they wrote to the
Sopwith Aviation Company: "…On what terms will you carry a small
official mail, the number of items not to exceed ten, and the
weight not to exceed one pound? As an alternative proposition, and
subject to such limitations as may be agreed upon on what terms
will you carry a general letter mail?"
Mr. Fen, on behalf of Sopwith
Aviation Company, replied on 8th April: "…My Company will be
prepared to accept this on the two following conditions.
(1) That the Sopwith Aviation Co.
Ltd. be allowed to carry a maximum of 100 letters in excess of the
ten mentioned above.
(2) That the Sopwith Aviaction Co.
Ltd. be paid the sum of one dollar, to be paid to them by cheque
made payable to the Company.
It is clearly understood that in
the event of the Sopwith Aeroplane being subsidised by the
Newfoundland Government, it must be the first to attempt the
crossing of the Atlantic by air."
Agreement was reached but as all
the aviators were essentially in a race to be the first across, the
Newfoundland Post Office put a small sting in the tail: "It
is,however, to be understood between us that should the Martinsyde
or any other airship get away before the Sopwith machine you agree
on your part to promptly return the bag of mail to my order, so
that it may be sent by the first airship to leave…"
Two hundred examples of the current
3c brown Caribou stamp were hastily overprinted "FIRST / TRANS- /
ATLANTIC / AIR / POST / APRIL 1919". Eighteen of these proved to be
defective and were destroyed; Ninety-five were used in letters
carried by Hawker and his navigator, Mackenzie Grieve; eleven were
presented to various officials and the remaining 76 sold for $25
each in May 1919.
On 18 May 1919, the Royal Aero Club
in London received a telegram from the official starter of the race
stating: "Mr Hawker and Comm. Mackenzie Grieve in the Sopwith Rolls
Royce Biplane began the transatlantic flight this afternoon at
6:45pm from Mount Pearl flying field, St. John's,
The first attempt on the non-stop
Transatlantic crossing had begun! As Hawker and Grieve passed over
the Newfoundland coastline, the undercarriage of the Sopwith was
jettisoned to decrease weight and improve airspeed. Despite the
unexpected foggy weather that appeared, they were soon cruising at
over 100 miles per hour at around 10,000 feet. The weather was poor
and although the Rolls Royce engine performed well there were still
problems with the cooling system, which became steadily worse. The
two aviators decided to continue flying for as long as they could
along the shipping lane in an effort to find a vessel that they
could ditch close to, but spotted nothing. Finally, as things were
getting to a critical stage, they sighted the Danish ship, Mary.
With great skill, Hawker managed to put down safely on the water
and an hour and a half later the two men were rescued. The Mary was
not equipped with salvage gear so the Sophwith, with its bag of
mail, was left floating in the Atlantic. The ship also had no
wireless communication, so it was not until 25 May 1919 that the
world heard that the intrepid airmen were safe and well.
The Sopwith remained drifting on
the sea until it was located by the S.S. Lake Charlottesville on 23
May. In a telegraph to the Secretary of the Navy, Lieutenant
Commancer A.C. WIlvers reported: "Near the top of the plane was
lashed a brown postage bag which was marked 'Newfoundland G.P.O.'
It contained mail mostly addressed to prominent British Peers, the
Royal Family and one addressed to His Majesty the King. The mail
was very soaked and otherwise damaged." The Lake Charlottesville
arrived at Falmouth on 28 May and the wrecked aircraft was handed
over to the local Customs and Excise officials. The mail was sent
to London and put into the British postal system on 30 May.
Harry Hawker's attempt at the great
prize was over, although Lord Northcliffe's Daily Mail made a
generous donation of £5,000 as a consolation prize. Hawker and
Grieve received an enthusiastic reception in London and King George
V decorated both airmen with the Air Force Cross. The British have
a long tradition of turning noble failure into a reason for
celebration! Sadly Hawker died just three years later, probably as
he would have wished, at the controls of an aircraft. Grieve
survived until September 1942.
The Martinsyde Attempt
The next attempt at a non-stop
Atlantic crossing was made by the single-engine Martinsyde Raynor,
a very similar aircraft to the Sopwith. It was piloted by Major
F.P. Raynham with Major C.W.F. Morgan as navigator. They arrived in
Newfoundland on 10 May, just as negotiations between Sopwith and
the Post Office for the carrying of the first aerial Transatlantic
flight were completed. The Martinsyde made its first trial flight
as the Hawker attempt started. As we have seen, Hawker failed and
it appeard that Raynham and Morgan were favourites to take the
Once again the Newfoundland Post
Office decided to prepare a special stamp to mark the occasion.
This time the current 3c. Caribou stamp was given a manuscript
overprint reading "Aerial / Atlantic / Mail / J.A.R. (the initials
of J. Alex Robinson, the Postmaster General). We do not know
precisely how many were given this overprint, but it probably
amounted to less than fifty.
The weather in Newfoundland was not
favourable. Almost a month passed before the Martinsyde was ready
to make its first attempt on the crossing. However, the aircraft
crashed during take off and was damaged. Both airmen were injured
in the crash and Morgan returned to England on medical advice to be
replaced by Lieutenant C.H. BIddlesbombe on 14 June.
After repairs to the aeroplane were
made, Raynham and Biddlesbombe, along with their small bag of mail
set off to try again. By his time Alcock and Brown had already made
the first successful non--stop flight and it was in an effort to
beat their time of sixteen hours and twelve minutes that Raynham
took off at 3:15pm local time on 17 July. Alas, they flew for only
50 metres before the aircraft plunged to the earth and was wrecked.
Fortunately, the crew was unharmed but the Martinsyde effort was at
Raynham returned to England with the bag of mail, which was
finally posted on 7 January 1920. The two Martinsyde attempts
covered but a few hundred yards and ended in abject failure but has
left behind a legacy of some of the world's rarest and most highly
priced air mail stamps.
Alcock And Brown
Captain John Alcock, Lieutenant
Arthur Whitten Brown and their twin-engined ex-Royal Air Force
Vickers Vimy Bomber arrived in Newfoundland on 24 May 1919, just
after Harry Hawker's Sopwith had been fished out of the sea and
before news of the rescue of Hawker and Grieve had been received.
The Martinsyde had also made its first unsuccessful attempt.
Perhaps it was the news of these
two failures that pushed up the prize money on offer. A further
2,000 guineas was added by the Ardath Tobacco Company and another
£1,000 by Mr. Lawrence R. Phillips. Undeterred by the two previous
attempts, the Newfoundland Post Office once again made arrangements
for mail to be carried on Alcock and Brown's flight, and also that
of Admiral Kerr's four engine Handley Page Bomber which had
recently arrived. In contrast to the severely limited numbers of
special stamps prepared for the two earlier flights, 10,000
examples of the 1897 15c. were surcharged "Trans-Atlantic/AIR
POST/1919/ONE DOLLAR" with 50c. for each stamp sold being donated
to the Permanent Marine Disasters Fund.
The rarity of the Hawker had
Martinsyde issues was already apparent and this time the Post
Office was going to make certain there were enough stamps to go
round. The weight considerations of the earlier attempts were still
very much a problem and Alcock and Brown's post consisted of just
196 letters and one letter packet.
On 9 June the Vickers Vimy was
ready for its trial flight, which apart from radio failure was a
success. Clearly the advantage of the two Rolls Royce Eagle engines
was going to give the aviators a great advantage over the single
engine of the Sopwith and Martinsyde machines used before.
A further trial flight on 12 June
showed everything to be in order and all was set for their attempt,
especially as the Handley Page crew, who had made their first trial
on 12 June showed everything to be in order and all was set for
their attempt, especially as the Handley crew, who had made their
first trial flight on the same day were breathing down their necks;
although there were far more problems with the four-engined machine
than the Vimy. The race was clearly still on!
Two days later, in the afternoon of
14 June, Alcock and Brown took off from Lesters Field, St. John's
on their historic flight. The heavily laden aircraft experienced
difficulty in getting airborne, not aided by an unfriendly wind,
but Alcock managed to drag the aircraft into the sky and soon they
were passing over the coastline of Newfoundland.
After a time the wind changed in
their favour, pushing them towards Ireland, but thick fog did not
help and neither did the failure of their radio after about only
five minutes of flying. For hours the aircraft plunged on blindly
through the fog which only occasionally cleared for long enough for
Brown to make hurried observations as to their position. Later they
went through a sleet storm which froze the airspeed indicator which
added further problems for Brown's dead reckoning. At one stage the
Vickers stalled and Alcock required all his knowledge as a flying
instructor to recover the machine just 50 feet above the
unforgiving Atlantic Ocean.
Another storm was encountered and both aviators had to clear ice
off the instruments. At 6:00 am in the morning on 15th June, Brown
decided that it was necessary to check their position and Alcock
took the aeroplane up to 10,000 feet, resulting in the icing up of
the control surfaces and again the Vimy went out of control.
Finally at 9:25 am they at last
crossed the Irish coastline. Searching for a suitable landing site
they spotted what appeared to be a large green field and decided to
land there. Unfortunately the green field turned out to be an Irish
bog. The Vickers ended up on its nose but the two intrepid airman
emerged after sixteen hours and twelve minutes of flying with
nothing more than their dignity bruised. The race was over and the
prize was won!
A rapturous reception awaited the
two fliers in London and on 21 June both were presented to King
George V and the Prince of Wales and Windsor castle. They then
reappeared as Sir John Alcock K.B.E, D.S.C. and Sir Arthur Whitten
Tragically, Alcock died just six
months later, like Hawker at the controls of an aircraft. Brown
retired into private life an died in 1948. The story of
Newfoundland, it's postage stamps and Transatlantic flights does
not end with Alcock and Brown's historic flight, it is merely the
end of a chapter in a continuing book!
Photo credits: Mr. Peter Motson