St. John’s, Newfoundland is ramping up to celebrate an aviation milestone this week – the centennial of the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic.
John Alcock and Arthur Brown made history June 14, 1919 as their modified Vickers Vimy bomber departed St. John’s en route non-stop to Ireland, a feat no one had yet accomplished.
Storm force winds belted the Newfoundland coast, potentially delaying their departure. But around 1:45 in the afternoon, their heavily laden Vickers – with more than 900 gallons of fuel on board in the place of bombs – departed from a field not far above downtown St. John’s.
They braved fog, ice, freezing temperatures, electrical failures, and a snowstorm in their open-cockpit converted bomber, landing more than 16 hours later in a boggy field outside the coastal town of Clifden. The weather was against them, offering up only three sightings of the sun over the entire journey, making navigation difficult, as they made their way only using a sextant and compass.
“The first time they flew out over St. John’s, they returned again,” said Michael Burke, an Irish man who witnessed the departure. His recollections were featured in a recent RTE audio archive programme.
“They went out secondly and returned. But the third time they flew out, and I didn’t know any more about them, until we got the message.”
Those who witnessed the departure didn’t know where the pair would land, or even if they’d survive the adventure.
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Brendan Lynch has written a book titled Yesterday We Were in America. He said Alcock and Brown’s accomplished a feat “which seemed to belong to the realms of fantasy at that time.”
Their daring paved the way for the eventual development of rapid, comfortable, and frequent air travel across the ocean we know today.
A five-day festival kicks off Wednesday in downtown St. John’s to commemorate the feat, complete with an outdoor concert, a play, and even an Alcock and Brown craft beer.
Other events to come include an aviator’s ball hosted by Aviation History Newfoundland and Labrador, a musical play to mark the occasion put on by Spirit of Newfoundland Productions, a sculpture unveiling, and a commemorative flight by Newfoundland-based independent carrier PAL Airlines.
100yrs ago, @Shell_Aviation provided Alcock & Brown with the fuel that flew them across the Atlantic. On June 14, 2019 a commemorative flight on a @PALairlines plane fueled by Shell Aviation will be circling around St. John’s @12 pm #AlcockandBrown100 @Shell_Canada @PALaerospace pic.twitter.com/XeRw6d1nHl— Aviation History Newfoundland and Labrador (@AviationHistNL) June 11, 2019
Commemorations are also planned in Ireland to make the occasion, with, among others, a science fair, concerts, a documentary, a stamp and a coin to be unveiled.
“To us, of course, an aeroplane was one of the seven wonders of the world,” John Dowd, who witnessed the landing, told RTE. He was a young boy out tending to the cows when Alcock and Brown flew overhead.
“We searched around, and seen the plane coming. So the plane went, circled over, went straight for Clifden. It circled around twice, then went slowly toward Marconi’s Mount. Then next thing we seen it land.”
Alcock and Brown didn’t so much land, as crash-land in a boggy field outside Clifden. They survived, and their names live on in aviation history.
The centennial festivities wrap up on June 14, 2020 with the unveiling of a sculpture at St. John’s International Airport.