On Sunday morning June 15 1919, shortly after 8.30am, Captain John Alcock and Lieut Arthur Whitton Brown roared over Clifden in their two-seater Vickers-Vimy. It had lost its exhaust pipe on the gruelling 1,800 miles from Newfoundland, which had taken more than 16 hours. The sound from its engines could wake the dead.
They circled what appeared to be a deserted town, not knowing that both churches were full with well attended Sunday services. Alcock (26 ) and Brown (32 ) were exhausted but elated. They had broken a major psychological barrier, and proved that oceans could be crossed in one continuous journey. They had also won the race to be the first to cross the Atlantic within the time specified by the Daily Mail to win £10,000 prize, a small fortune at the time. The world suddenly seemed a smaller place, transcontinental travel must surely follow.
They circled the town for a second time at only 200ft, with Brown firing two red flares from the Very pistol which they carried in case they ended up in the sea, and needed to alert shipping. Two eight-year old boys, Harry Sullivan and Albert Miller heard the commotion and rushed out into the street. “I looked up and saw this thing flying very low between the houses. The pilot was waving down.”
The Rev O’Shea was not a bit pleased at the sudden invasion of noise and a low flying aircraft. He was on his way to conduct a prayer service for the Marconi staff at the nearby Derrygimla station. The Vimy swooped over his motorcycle, and almost caused him to lose control on the narrow track. ‘The noisy machine also drew reproachful braying from the donkeys that carted turf to the station.’ *
Alcock and Brown needed to get the word out that they had successfully crossed the ocean to win the prize, and flew towards the Marconi station. Thinking the flat grassland was a smooth field, they landed only to tip forward into the wet bog. The nose of their plane embedded in the turf. It was an ignoble ending to an historic flight. As they clambered out of their seats, bruised but with nothing broken, people began to run over. “Where are you from?”
“America!” Alcock called back. “Yesterday we were in America.”
It was not good luck, or easy flying conditions that brought Alcock and Brown to Clifden that Sunday morning, 100 years ago, but exceptional flying and navigation skills. Both young men were Mancunians (although Brown was born in Glasgow before moving to Manchester at the age of seven ). Both men had an engineering education, both joined the Royal Flying Corps at the outbreak of World War I, and both were shot down over enemy lines. Although they had never met each other at this stage, both men dreamed and planned, in their separate POW camps, to take up the Daily Mail challenge after it was reinstated in 1918. They met testing Vicker’s aircraft at Brooklands, in Surrey, a popular motor racing circuit and aerodrome which attracted men and women who wanted to drive and fly fast. Vickers, who were also developing airborne wireless communications with Marconi, recognised their individual talents, and agreed to back their trans-Atlantic attempt.
Letter to Elsie
Leaving behind Kerr, Brackley and Gran still working on their four-engine Handley Page bomber, Alcock and Brown took off at 1.45pm from their make-shift runway at Lester’s Field, St John’s, Newfoundland, on June 14 1919. Because of the weight of fuel, it barely missed the tops of trees. A crowd cheered them away, and messages flew from the Marconi station at Grace Bay that the latest flyers to take up the challenge were on their way. Brown the navigator, had said they would head for Galway Bay, but in the event missed his target by some 20 miles.
They had major mechanical problems. Their radio failed almost on take-off, the exhaust pipe burst making conversation difficult over the noise. Twice Alcock lost control of the aircraft, and nearly hit the sea after a spiral dive. At one stage Brown shouted that they had circled back in the direction of Newfoundland. Most of the 16 hour journey was undertaken blind, flying through thick fog, low cloud, and at one stage their carburettors iced up, and snow filled their open cockpits. Their electric heating suits had failed They were wet and cold. They were, however, experienced night-time flyers. There was no going back.
At midnight Brown got a glimpse of the stars and could use his sextant. He shouted that they were on course. They only caught a glimpse of the sea six times, and saw the sun two hours before landing. Flasks of coffee, sandwiches and chocolate kept spirits up, but it was a total relief when in the grey dawn, Brown grabbed Alcock’s shoulder and pointed down to the Turbot and other islands off the west coast of Galway and Mayo.
Before they left St John’s it was agreed that a small amount of mail should be carried to inaugurate the first transatlantic postal service. Local stamps were over printed with the inscription: ‘Transatlantic air post 1919’. Alcock rushed off a letter to his sister Elsie: My dear Elsie, Just a hurried line before I start. This letter will travel with me in the official mail bag, the first mail to be carried over the Atlantic. Love to all, Your loving brother, Jack.
In March 19 2017 the letter was presented for valuation on the Antiques Roadshow, by a granddaughter of Elsie. It was valued between £1,000 and £1,200. Surely it was grossly undervalued.
Next week: The Galway welcome.
NOTES: From Yesterday We Were in America, by Brendan Lynch, published by Haynes Publishing in 2009. I am also leaning on the Guardian History of the Century, Google, and Beyond the Twelve Bens - A History of Clifden and District, by Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill, published 1986.