In April 1913, the Daily Mail offered £10,000 (about €500,000 today )
‘to the first person who crosses the Atlantic from any point in the United States, Canada or Newfoundland to any point in Great Britain
or Ireland in 72 continuous hours.’
Although this generous offer was open to all pilots of any nationality, it was made partly in recognition of Britain’s lagging behind Germany’s huge military aviation budget, and in the belief that the French were far ahead in aeroplane development. The proprietor of the Mail, Lord Northcliffe, intended that the reward would stimulate a wave of enthusiasm for aeronautics, now moving fast forward since the first powered flight by the Wright brothers, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, merely a decade before.
World War I intervened, but once it ended a new breed of pilot, and a range of more sophisticated aircraft, emerged, capable of flying long distances. Some 6,000 of the Royal Flying Corps pilots were killed in the war, as well more than 5,000 Germans. Flying warplanes, a whole new form of combat, had taught the survivors a certain degree of fearlessness, and confidence. ‘War had inured them to danger. The Atlantic race provided a rare opportunity for adventure in an unfamiliar and uneasy postwar world. They were eager for the challenge.’*
Also eager to prove their
commercial viability were aeroplane manufactors who had thrived during the war, but now faced a very uncertain peacetime future.
While there was an initial flurry of entrants, only four serious contenders, each with its own team of engineers, arrived in St John’s Newfoundland in the early summer of 1919.**
-The popular Harry Hawker (pilot ) and Mackenzie Grieve (navigator ) in a Sopwith B1 single engine plane called Atlantic.
-Freddy Raynham (pilot ) and Charles Morgan in a British Martin-Handasyde single- engine biplane, called Raymore.
-George Brackley (pilot ), Mark Kere and Norwegian Tryggve Gran in a converted Handley-Page four-engine bomber, also called Atlantic.
-John Alcock (pilot ) and Arthur Whitten Brown (navigator ) in their Vickers- Vimy, a converted two-seater bomber, who were the last to arrive, and the last to assemble their aircraft which arrived some weeks after them in crates. They carried two toy cat mascots. Brown had ‘Twinkletoes’, while Alcock had ‘Lucky Jim’. They were the least favoured to win.
Surprisingly none of the above was the first to fly the Atlantic. That honour went to US navy commander Albert C Read, who with a crew of five on board an NC-4 flying boat leisurely flew the Atlantic in six stages,
landing at Newfoundland, the Azores, and Portugal before finishing at Plymouth, England. Read began his odyssey on May 8 1919. It took him 23 days, way outside the Daily Mail’s specifications, but his mission was to prove the capability of the seaplane as a transoceanic weapon. The challenge to fly the Atlantic within 72 hours was still on.
The pilots lined up near St John’s Newfoundland had caught the world’s attention. On May 18, to cheering crowds, the first away were Harry Hawker and Mackenzie Grieve in their single-engine Sopwith. The world media held its breath, and excited readers with sensational headlines wondering if ‘Flying the oceans was man’s last frontier’.
It was a difficult take-off due to the weight of fuel and the bumpy field. But just avoiding a ditch and a fence, the Sopwith slowly climbed into the sky, and headed for the coast. Freddy Raynham and Charles Morgan were not so lucky. A few hours after Hawker set off, and despite successful earlier test flights, their plane found it impossible to gain sufficient lift. They rose into the air only to come down with a crash, destroying the Raymore’s undercarriage and ending their hopes of collecting the prize money.
Hawker and Grieve initially made impressive progress. But half way across the Atlantic, just past the point of no return,
Harry Hawker and Mackenzie Grieve ditch their plane into the Atlantic, and await rescue from the SS Mary. (Source: Harry Hawker, One of Aviation’s Greatest Names, by L K Blackmore, published 1990 by David Bateman and Co ).
days after take-off the worst was feared. King George V sent a message of condolence to Hawker’s wife who was waiting anxiously for news in London.
The next day the miracle happened. The SS Mary came into view of the signal station on the Butt of Lewis, the most northerly point of the Outer Hebrides. It flashed a signal that Hawker and Grieve were safely on board. The news went viral. Special editions of newspapers announced that ‘Hawker was saved’. In the middle of a concert at London’s Albert Hall, the performance was interrupted when the news was announced from the stage. The audience stood and cheered.
Now all eyes were on the final two teams. Brackley, Kerr and Gran were testing their massive four-engine bomber, while Alcock and Brown were unpacking their crates, and slowly putting their Vickers- Vimy together. Atlantic flying fever was in the air!
Next week: ‘I am steering a straight line for Galway Bay.....’
everything went wrong. Their radiator began to seriously over heat. Hawker made several power-off dives to give the radiator a chance to cool, but once the engine was switched on again the heat soared. Climbing into colder atmospheres, actually iced the radiator.
Finally, with little room to manoeuvre, they hit a severe storm. They both realised the race was lost. Brilliantly, and with great skill, the Sopwith
descended almost to sea level until Hawker spotted a small steamer, SS Mary. Firing flares into the sky, the Sopwith landed on the waves, and managed to keep afloat until he and Grieve were picked up.
The ship however, had no radio. No one on land knew the men were safe. As the days went by rumour reported that they had perished; while others believed they had crash-landed on a small island off the Irish coast. On Saturday May 24, six
NOTES: *Yesterday We Were in America, by Brendan Lynch, published by Haynes Ltd in 2009, on sale at Charlie Byrnes €15.
**Newfoundland was the preferred taking-off point as the prevailing winds favoured a west to east flight.