December 12, 1998


John Alcock became famous and rather wealthy in 1919, as did Arthur Browne. The London Daily Mail had offered a prize worth the pound sterling equivalent of $50,000 for anyone making the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic. Another attempt had recently failed. Two U. S. Navy biplanes, a Martinsyde and a Sopwith, made the attempt the month before. The first crashed on takeoff but the second actually got 1100 miles out, when a choked circulation system forced it down. The aviators were rescued by a nearby Danish ship. There was no wireless aboard and for six days the world had no news of the two men.

On June 14th, at St. John's, Newfoundland, Captain Alcock climbed into the cockpit of a British Vickers-Vimy. Next to him sat his American navigator Lieutenant Browne. They would not have an easy time of it. They ran into thick banks of fog almost from the beginning, fog so dense they could not see the sun during the day or the moon and starts at night. To get any bearings at all they sometimes had to drop to within 300 feet of the water. The speed indicator failed at one point. In Alcock's words, "We looped the loop, I do believe, and did a very steep spiral. We did some very comic stunts, for I had no sense of horizon." During one four-hour period the wings iced up. When they peered over the side freezing sleet dug into their faces. Then, 16 hours and 12 minutes out from Canada, they spotted solid ground. Loosely speaking. It was actually a deserted bog, near Clifden, Ireland. They circled the area once, then Alcock set the plane down. It sat there for the next two days, like some doomed prehistoric beast trapped in a tar pit. There was no one there to see history being made, no one to know of their presence. The two men finally wrestled the aircraft free, took off again and flew to London. The prize was theirs.

Alcock would not have long to enjoy his fame or his share of the money. He was piloting a hydroplane over Collevrard, Normandy, when it crashed to earth; his injuries proved fatal. It was slightly over six months and a day after his triumph.

But no tragedy was going to sidetrack the new technology. 1919 saw great activity in the air. War was extinct. In January British War Secretary Winston Churchill, hungry as always for new adventures, assumed responsibility for the Royal Air Force. Anxious to demobilize, Great Britain did away with air defense observer posts and disbanded most of the Home Defence squadrons. The airplane was rapidly transformed from weaponry to transportation, on both sides of the Atlantic. The first free-fall parachute jump was made in April. In November Tucson, Arizona, opened the first U. S. municipal airport. And, on a less momentous note, on July 30th, Missouri farmer Frederick Hoenemann succeeded in having a court in Kansas City issue a temporary injunction, to prohibit airplanes from flying over his farm.


For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor

©1998 David Minor / Eagles Byte