In these days of instant and starry celebrity being conferred for the ability to eat grubs in a jungle while on national television, it is almost impossible to grasp just how famous was Charles Lindbergh. One minute he was a glorified postman, flying planes for the US Post Office, then he was more famous than Calvin Coolidge. And if you’ve never heard of Calvin Coolidge, well that’s my point. Coolidge was United States President when Lindbergh did something extraordinary, on 21 May 1927. He flew in a single seat, single engine plane named Spirit of St. Louis, from Long Island in New York to Le Bourget Airport in Paris. He flew for almost thirty-six hours, often through ice and fog, and won the $25,000 Orteig prize. He was greeted by a huge crowd when he landed in Paris and fêted as a hero.
Five years later, of course, he was at the centre of an appalling tragedy when his twenty-month-old son, also named Charles, was kidnapped and murdered. Later he achieved further unwanted notoriety as an opponent of US involvement in World War Two, although in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour he joined the US Air Force and flew combat missions in the Pacific.
However, contrary to received wisdom Charles Lindbergh was not the first man to fly an airplane non-stop across the Atlantic. He was beaten to that honour by eight years.
Which brings us to a flight that started in Newfoundland, a century ago today, and ended in a Galway bog. That was the flight of the two British pilots, John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown, in a modified WW1 Vickers Vimy bomber. Their object was to fly from the landmass of North America (Newfoundland qualified) to the European landmass (Ireland qualified) in less than seventy-two hours, in order to win the Daily Mail prize. In 1913 the London newspaper had offered £10,000 to the first pilots to make this landmark flight successfully. Alcock and Brown ticked all the boxes. So they got there well before the Spirit of St. Louis.
Lindbergh captured the popular imagination, however, in a fashion that Alcock and Brown never quite managed. It didn’t help that John Alcock was killed in a plane crash within six months of his spectacular joint achievement. Neither did it help that, unlike Lindbergh—who was greeted on landing in Paris by more than 100,000 people—one of the few people around to welcome Alcock and Brown was the intrepid Tom Kenny, then a reporter and scion of the famous Galway bookshop-owning family. While Alcock and Brown would, doubtless, have been happy to meet him he was no substitute for a hundred thousand hero-worshipping Parisians.
So, were Alcock and Brown the first transatlantic aviators? As a matter of fact they weren’t. They were merely the first to fly across the Atlantic non-stop, in the same plane, in less than three days.
Transatlantic flight became a possibility, theoretically at least, well before the Wright brothers took off in their heavier than air machine in 1903 near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Pioneers like the French Montgolfier brothers in the late eighteenth century had ushered in the era of the hot air balloon. In 1859 a man with the rather unfortunate name of John Wise built a balloon which he tempted fate by calling Atlantic. His attempt to use the jet stream to help him on his way from the USA to Europe lasted barely a day. He crash landed near Henderson, New York. It took a little while to get balloon technology just right and enable one to make the trip. Actually, it was quite a bit more that ‘a little while’. The first successful transatlantic journey by hot air balloon didn’t finally happen until 1978. So much for hot air.
The problem with the first actual flight across the Atlantic is that it lacks any of the romantic narrative of Lindbergh, Alcock or Brown, and took more than half as long as your average ocean liner. It was a Curtiss NC-4 that took off from the US mainland on 8 May 1919, stopped off in Newfoundland, then flew to the Azores, on to Portugal, before finally making it to the UK. Six stops and twenty-three days! It was also aided in its navigation by a small flotilla of ships, to make sure it didn’t end up in the Falklands. The Daily Mail’s money was safe, by almost three weeks!
However, eminently forgettable as that plodding journey was, it means if anyone tells you that Charles Lindbergh, John Alcock or Arthur Whitten Brown were the first airborne transatlantic pioneers, it’s fake history.
You must be logged in to post a comment.