Flight of the NC-4
Alcock and Brown
losses across the Atlantic
Charles Lindbergh
Wrong Way Corrigan


Alcock and Brown Take the Atlantic

Back in Newfoundland, two teams worked feverishly to finish assembling their planes and testing their equipment in preparation for what they considered the ultimate prize: the still unclaimed Daily Mail prize of fifty thousand dollars for the first non-stop crossing of the Atlantic. One team had a clear head start: the Handley Page team headed by Admiral Mark Kerr. The Handley Page V/1500 “Berlin Bomber” was the largest aircraft built by the Allies during the war, and was equipped with four powerful Rolls-Royce engines.

The plane and crew were making preparations to fly the Atlantic almost from the beginning. They watched Hawker and Grieve begin their ill-fated trans-Atlantic flight; Alcock and Brown had also heard about the failed attempt of the Shamrock, which had gone down while crossing from England to Ireland in the first stage of an east-to-west crossing; and they had been there when the navy group passed through on their way to the successful crossing (with stops) of the Atlantic. The plane enjoyed the best airfield and the best accommodations, and for some of the time, had the only fuel on the island. Afterward, Handley Page executives would wonder what had kept their plane on the ground.

Alcock and Brown taking on mail on Vickers Vimy, June 13, 1919

By the time the final plane and its crew arrived in Newfoundland on May 26, the Handley Page had been tested and repaired many times. In what might be considered typical of the naval approach, Admiral Kerr seemed determined not to attempt the flight until his plane was in perfect condition. The last plane to arrive was the Vickers Vimy, a night bomber built too late to be used in the war. The Vickers engineers replaced the bombs with fuel tanks, quickly disassembled the plane, and shipped it to Newfoundland. The crew for the flight was headed by Captain John Alcock of the Royal Air Force, and the navigator was Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown of the Royal Flying Service.

Both men had spent the last years of the war in a German prison camp and had very limited flying experience, especially with so large a plane. (Brown, as it turned out, had been an observer when he was shot down, and had taught himself aerial navigation while a prisoner. He had almost no experience as a navigator before the flight of the Vimy.)  The Vimy was assembled in an open field (there was no available hangar big enough) in cold and often rainy weather.

Spectators and Vickers Vimy at Lester's Field, June 1919

Miraculously (and with the help of a gifted local mechanic named Lester), the plane was ready after only fourteen days—Kerr was waiting for a new radiator to replace one on the  Handley Page that “wasn’t quite up to snuff.” What Kerr did not know, but Alcock realized, was that the problem was not with the radiator, but with the water. Using local water, the Handley Page radiator kept clogging—which was exactly what had brought Harry Hawker down—because of the heavy mineral content and sediment. To counter this, Alcock had the water filtered several times and boiled (and then cooled), so that the radiator would not clog. On the morning of June 14, while the Handley Page team was preparing for yet another test, Alcock and Brown took off.

Take off of Alcock and Brown's Vickers Vimy, June 14, 1919

The flight of the Vimy was a difficult one. Brown had to climb out onto the wings six times during the flight to chip off ice that formed there. Several times, Alcock had to fly precariously close to the ocean, hoping that the warmer air of the lower altitude would melt the ice that kept clogging the engine. And on at least two occasions, Brown made what he thought would be a last entry into the flight log and stuffed it into his shirt, hoping his experience would be of use to later aviators if his body were ever found.

 Alcock and Brown’s historic 1919 flight ended ingloriously, as the Vimy ploughed into an Irish bog—its front landing gear had been removed before the flight. The first people to greet the aviators thought they were joking when they claimed they had just flown across the  Atlantic.

Sixteen and a half hours later, on the morning of June 15, the Vimy landed in a bog near the installation at Clifden, in Ireland. People on the ground tried to wave them off from the bog and direct them to a landing field that was prepared for aircraft; Alcock and Brown just waved cheerfully back. Before taking off, Brown had removed a front nose wheel from the plane in the hopes of reducing weight and drag. Now, without the front wheel, the Vimy landed in the bog and simply ploughed its nose into the soft mud. Local people and soldiers ran up to the plane and asked Alcock where he had flown from. When he said they had flown across the Atlantic, the crowd broke out in laughter.

The outgoing John Alcock and the diffident Arthur Whitten Brown—both of Manchester, England—had the right combination of skills to win the Daily Mail prize for the first flight across the Atlantic, outclassing better-funded teams.

England erupted in celebration. Alcock and Brown were knighted by King George V and awarded the Northcliffe prize by the Secretary of State for War and Air, Winston Churchill. Alcock and Brown toured England and were praised from banquet to banquet. But Alcock was killed in a crash in December 1919, and Brown never flew again (though he lived till after World War II).

 Back in Newfoundland, Kerr decided he would attempt some sort of land record instead and flew to the United States. The Handley Page crashed near Cleveland, Ohio, and while the crew survived, the Berlin Bomber was a total loss, marking the end of Admiral Kerr’s brief career in aviation. Alcock and Brown’s crossing of the Atlantic was to have a profound effect on two men who up to this point had not done much flying.

One was a navy lieutenant named Richard E. Byrd, a dashing young flier trained at the navy’s Pensacola Flight School. During the war, Byrd had volunteered to fly bombers built in the United States to England, and when the war ended, before any such ferrying could take place, he formally requested to be part of the crew that would fly a Nancy across the Atlantic. Byrd could not know that such plans were already afoot, so when he was called to Washington he was disappointed to discover that he was not being asked to fly the planes, but to take command of the naval air station in Nova Scotia to scout out a suitable stop for a possible trans-Atlantic flight by the U.S. Navy. Later he discovered that foreign service (even in Canada) disqualified him from being a member of the NC crews.

The other man was a Frenchman who had worked his way up from being a shepherd in France to being a waiter to, by 1919, being the owner of two fashionable Manhattan hotels. His name was Raymond Orteig, and he had no connection to the world of aviation. But watching the prizes of post-war aviation being garnered by England and the United States, and seeing France fall by the wayside, he sent a letter to the president of the Aero Club of America, dated May 22, 1919:

 “Gentlemen: As a stimulus to the courageous aviators, I desire to offer, through the auspices and regulations of the Aero Club of America, a prize of twenty-five thousand dollars to the first aviator of any Allied country crossing the Atlantic in one flight, from Paris to New York or New York to Paris, all other details in your care.

Yours very sincerely, (signed) Raymond Orteig.

Orteig made no secret of his motive: he hoped the prize would prove an incentive to French fliers and would lead to France’s once again being a first-rank nation in aviation. In the original rules, a five-year limit was set (it was later extended), and there was no stipulation that it had to be a solo flight—that was Lindbergh’s idea (as a way of lightening the load).

The year 1919 saw yet a third crossing of the Atlantic, this one in July by a British dirigible, the R.34, a virtual carbon copy of a captured German Zeppelin (called, as it happened, the L.33). The crossing was, in fact, a two- way transatlantic flight, making the R.34 the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic both ways. The flight from Scotland to New York was not without its harrowing moments. The weather was bad the entire trip over, and at one point a crew member had to parachute out of the airship to direct the ground crew. But the airship created a sensation in New York and heralded the beginning of regular airship service over the Atlantic. (The crossing back to Europe took only three days.)