As the unfolding 20th century began to wind its dramatic way through assassinations, persecutions, wars and peace, Europe’s link with America became imperative for commercial, military and diplomatic reasons. With the arrival of Marconi’s radio telegraph system, trans-continental communications had far outpaced travel, which, after trial and error, had come down in favour of the aeroplane.
In June 1919 Alcock and Brown flying from Newfoundland to Clifden with little more than a wing and a prayer, had shown the way.
Things had somewhat improved eight years later when Charles Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris, but even allowing for these men’s exceptional flying abilities, aircraft engines hardly had the reliability for such long journeys in unpredictable weather conditions. They barely had the power to lift the required fuel, not to mind the added weight of passengers.
One month before Alcock and Brown’s historic flight, the US navy, led by Commander Albert C Read, flew the Atlantic in a series of stops. Using a team of Curtiss flying boats, Read flew from New York to Newfoundland, from there to the Azores, and from there to Portugal and Plymouth.The entire trip took 24 days. The objective, however, was not to prove how quickly the journey could be done, but to show the reliability and advantages of the flying boat. Its bulky size could accommodate passengers in some comfort. Its large storage tanks could make the distance.
Scratchin’ Irish coffees
In the 1930s it was clear that Ireland would play a vital part in transatlantic air travel. Fuelling capacity made an Irish stop a necessity, and the Irish government was not slow at jumping at the opportunity. In the autumn of 1933 Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow (both still reeling from the kidnapping and murder of their baby son Charles jr ), accepted a commission from Juan Trippe, the visionary creator of Pan American World Airways, to survey possible landing sites in Ireland for the flying boats that Trippe planned to use on the airline’s first transatlantic flights. The Lindberghs inspected the sites at Foynes and at Rineanna in Co Clare, that the Government had recommended, and gave their enthusiastic support.*
In July 1939 Pan Am’s ‘Yankee Clipper’ made the airline’s first round trip from the US to Foynes. The Boeing flying boats were massive with a wing span not far short of today’s jumbo jets. They were slow, maximum speed 200mph, but carried 22 passengers in spacious cabins paying a one-way fare $375, well over $6,000 today.
After a debilitating 15 hour trip, passengers were often cold and exhausted when they arrived at Foynes. They were revived with scratchin’ hot Irish coffees invented on the spot to revive spirits. Despite the length and cost, a secure and permanent air bridge between North America and Europe was established.
During the war the flying boat was gradually replaced by the faster propeller-powered airliners, using the air strips at Rineanna/Shannon. It became a key landfall for pilots taking the north Atlantic route via Newfoundland - the very same route that Alcock and Brown had pioneered. Flying time was reduced to eight hours. US built bombers, and transport planes carrying vast amounts of war material, later to be ferried to bases in Britain, touched down at Shannon.
By the late 1950s these too were replaced by the first generation of jets which could safely fly for 3,500 miles or more, and reduced travel time even further. But now it became possible to fly directly between New York, London or Paris, and further afield. It could have been the death knell for Shannon, instead it responded by offering real physical and shopping comforts to passengers, which still thrive today. In 1951 it opened the first duty-free shopping in the world, which was originally just for tobacco and alcohol, but soon extended to a wide range of merchandise.
Special legislation allows embarking passengers and their goods to be exempt from normal customs procedures. This established Shannon as an industrial distribution centre, and stimulated further traffic growth. Its so called Shannon Free Zone has attracted more than 110 overseas companies, and is Ireland’s largest cluster of North American investments.
Shannon Town, a unique new town experiment, emerged close to the airport, which has attracted residents and workers from all over the world. And, a personal favourite, Shannon is the first airport outside America, to offer full preclearance facilities for travellers to the USA. Having been inspected at Shannon, once you arrive in the US, you just sail past the gigantic queues at immigration, and get a taxi to your hotel.
Last but not least, the airport stimulated the growth in tourism for Ireland’s mid-west, with such attractions as Bunratty castle and folk park, the Cliffs of Moher, and King John’s Castle in Limerick. Boosted by summer flights from Boston, Chicago, New York, Newark and Philadelphia, the airport is now handling 1.7 million passengers a year.
An amazing success story.
Next week: (finally ) The Lindberghs in Galway
NOTES*: Two Irish civil servants, H W O’Sullivan and FG Handcock had already surveyed the site at Foynes, and the adjoining flatlands at Rineanna which would soon become Shannon Airport. The Government accepted their recommendation. Work began developing the sites in 1935. The Lindberghs were happy to stay some time in Ireland, probably reluctant to return to the enormous publicity that followed the kidnapping. They flew to Galway, and refused any kind of civic reception, but enjoyed a private dinner with the McDonoghs. I will tell that story next week. They returned to Ireland on several occasions.
Sources included Shannon Airport information, Wikipedia, essay: ‘Ireland Was the Home of Flight’s Lost Golden Age by Clive Irving, Irish Times letters, March 1 1977.