The Race Across The Atlantic
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 United States.
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, Newfoundland."
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 prize.
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 an end.
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 Brown, K.B.E.
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