Flights between Europe and North America are now such a part of everyday life—carried out thousands of times a day, with modern conveniences as standard—that it's easy to forget we've only been crossing the Atlantic by air since 1919.
But how was the first flight achieved, and by whom?
After the First World War, aviators and aircraft companies turned their attention to flying the 1,880 miles across the vast Atlantic Ocean. This was only 16 years after the Wright brothers had made the first ever flight in a powered aeroplane, covering just 36 metres in 12 seconds.
However, aircraft navigation was in its infancy and still largely relied on following maps of the ground below. Furthermore, flying at night without being able to see where you were going was dangerous, and weather forecasts for the ocean were unreliable.
There were also engineering concerns. Were aeroplanes developed enough to fly that far for that long? Could they carry enough fuel for the journey? How would they find their way without landmarks to follow? Would aircraft made of wood and fabric withstand the Atlantic storms?
In 1913, when the Daily Mail first offered a prize of £10,000 for the first non-stop transatlantic flight, success was unimaginable. However, after the incredible developments in aviation brought about by the First World War, the Daily Mail's renewed offer in 1918 seemed like it might just be within reach. This was just one of the many aviation prizes offered by the newspaper in order to encourage progress in aviation.
The brave aviators
There were a number of teams vying to be the first to fly non-stop across the Atlantic, but it was John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown who made the first successful flight.
Captain Sir John Alcock
John Alcock, better known as Jack, piloted the Vickers Vimy aircraft on the treacherous flight across the ocean.
Alcock was born in Trafford in 1892. He was an outgoing man with a ruddy complexion and tousled ginger hair. The eldest of five children, he had a reputation among his siblings for making excellent toffee and parkin.
Interested in engines and flight from an early age, Alcock became an apprentice mechanic at Empress Motor Works. From cars to aircraft, he later worked on an engine for pioneer aviator Maurice Ducrocq.
When Alcock delivered the engine to Ducrocq at Brooklands in Surrey, he persuaded Ducrocq to take him on as a mechanic. It was while working for Ducrocq at Brooklands that Alcock learnt to fly, earning his pilot's licence in November 1912.
When the First World War broke out, Alcock joined the Royal Naval Air Service to put his flying skill to good use. After two frustrating years teaching others to fly at Eastchurch in Kent, he was finally sent on active service to Mudros in Greece.
Flying both fighter and bomber missions, Alcock was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. However, on 30 September 1917, his Handley-Page bomber was shot down over the sea and he and his crew were captured by Turkish forces. He remained a prisoner for the rest of the war, writing many letters to his relatives, several of which are in our archive. It was during this time that Alcock became determined to fly across the Atlantic.
Lieutenant Sir Arthur Whitten Brown
A self-taught navigator, Arthur Whitten Brown guided Alcock and their Vickers Vimy aircraft on the difficult, 1,880-mile journey across the Atlantic.
Born in Glasgow in 1886, Brown moved to Manchester as a small boy with his American parents. His father was helping to set up the British Westinghouse factory at the newly created Trafford Park industrial estate.
Brown began his career as an engineering apprentice at British Westinghouse alongside studying at the Manchester Municipal Technical School. At the outbreak of the First World War, he gave up his American citizenship to become a British subject and joined the Universities and Public Schools Battalion. He initially served with the Manchester regiment in the trenches at Ypres and on the Somme before transferring to the Royal Flying Corps and training as an observer.
He was shot down over enemy lines and spent almost two years as a prisoner of war. During this time, he studied the emerging field of aircraft navigation. Like Alcock, this was when the desire to fly the Atlantic took hold.
Returning to the UK in 1917, Brown was not allowed to return to active service by the Air Ministry because of the serious leg injury he had sustained on crashing (he used a walking aid for the rest of his life). Brown persuaded the Air Ministry to send him to the Ministry of Munitions where he aided in the production of aero engines and met his future wife Kathleen.
When the First World War ended, both men were out of a job. Alcock left the Royal Naval Air Service and immediately went to Brooklands to persuade Vickers to enter an aeroplane into the race to fly the Atlantic non-stop—with him as pilot, of course.
Brown, too, tried to convince aviation companies to take him on as the navigator for a transatlantic attempt, but with less luck. He largely gave up on the idea and focused instead on finding a job so he could get married. It was during an interview at Vickers that Brown's interest in aerial navigation came up and he was introduced to Alcock and Vickers' plan to fly the Atlantic. Suitably impressed, they took Brown on as the navigator for the attempt.
The Vickers Vimy aircraft type was designed during the First World War by Rex Pierson as a bombing aircraft that could carry heavy loads. Unfortunately, the aircraft went into production too late to see action in the war. However, its ability to carry heavy loads made it ideal for adaptation for long distance flying, allowing it to carry huge amounts of fuel.
Preparing to fly
Newfoundland photographer Elizabeth Mary 'Elsie' Holloway captured the preparations of the Vickers team in Newfoundland as they raced to get the Vimy aircraft ready for the gruelling flight across the Atlantic. The Vimy had been built and tested at Brooklands then dismantled and shipped over to Newfoundland, where it was rebuilt and tested again.
Who was Elsie Holloway?
Born in St John's, Newfoundland in 1882, Elsie Holloway was a renowned Newfoundland photographer. Her parents, Henrietta and Robert Holloway, fostered a creative and curious environment at home. Elsie's father taught her photography and in 1901 she travelled to England to continue her training.
She set up a photography studio in St John's with her brother Bert and became well-known for her portrait photography. At the outbreak of the First World War, the studio had lots of work photographing the newly enlisted soldiers who were about to set off for the Front. When Bert enlisted, Elsie managed the business on her own. Unfortunately, like so many others, Bert did not return.
In 1919, Elsie was there in St John's to record the preparations for Alcock and Brown's flight. Later, in 1932, she photographed Amelia Earhart at Harbour Grace before she set off on the first female transatlantic solo flight.
She continued running the studio until 1946 when she sold it and retired. She died aged 89 in 1971. Many of her photographs are now in the collection at The Rooms in St John's, Newfoundland.
On 14 June 1919 at 16.12 GMT, the wheels of Alcock and Brown's Vickers Vimy left the ground. The aircraft, heavily laden with 865 gallons of fuel for the long flight, struggled into the sky and narrowly avoided the tops of the trees and houses of St John's, Newfoundland.
Their makeshift runway was a field 500 yards long, the minimum the Vimy needed to take off fully loaded. It had been prepared by removing fences and walls to give the full run, and by blasting boulders in an attempt to level and clear it. It was the only suitable take-off site in the whole of St John's, the furthest east point in North America, which would make for the shortest flight.
By the time Alcock and Brown's historic flight began, three other teams had attempted and failed. A team from the US Navy had successfully crossed via partway stops in the Azores, but it remained to be seen if it could be done in one go.
For such a potentially dangerous flight, Alcock and Brown needed all the luck they could get. Alongside Lucky Jim, Alcock's toy mascot cat, was Twinkletoes (Brown's toy mascot cat, now at the RAF Museum), as well as lucky white heather and a horseshoe underneath Alcock's seat in the aircraft.
Weather forecasting was a developing science at the time. The reports given to Alcock and Brown before they took off promised clear weather out over the ocean; however, the opposite was true and they quickly flew into thick fog and cloud. This posed problems for both flying and navigating.
Finding their way by following landmarks on a map was not an option in a flight over the featureless ocean. Brown adopted navigation methods used on ships, making observations of the sun and stars, as well as the ocean below.
By studying the ocean surface using an instrument called a drift indicator, Brown could work out the speed and direction of the air currents that might push them off course. He could also discover the aircraft's actual speed and thus plot a course that should take them to their destination. By observing the sun and stars and measuring their angle from the horizon, Brown could compare his observations and the time they were taken against charts and so find the aircraft's location.
However, both of these methods required Brown to be able to see the sky and sea. With thick cloud above and below, this was not possible for much of the flight and Brown had to rely on the few observations he could make through gaps in the cloud to adjust the path of the aircraft.
The bad weather also caused problems for Alcock. As the sun rose on 15 June, the Vimy flew into a bank of fog so thick that they could not see the ends of the wings. This caused the men to lose their sense of balance, preventing Alcock from keeping the aircraft flat using the controls. The Vimy began to dive so Alcock pulled up the nose, but with unreliable instruments and no visible horizon, the aircraft climbed too steeply and stalled.
The aeroplane began to fall out of the sky in a steep, spinning dive. Unable to tell which way up they were and in what direction they were spinning, Alcock struggled to regain control, until the aircraft suddenly emerged from the cloud 100 feet (30 metres) above the water. The Vimy had changed angle during its fall and came out of the fog at right angles to the sea. Luckily, Alcock's experience quickly kicked in and he righted the aircraft just 50 feet (15 metres) above the waves.
Land in sight
It was a very near miss, but there was no time to reflect on what had just happened—they still had around five hours of flying ahead of them. At 08.15, they spotted land: the small islands of Turbot and Eeshal off the west coast of Ireland. After 15 hours and 58 minutes of flying over water, Alcock and Brown crossed the coast of Ireland.
Brown was initially unsure where they were, but the masts of the Marconi wireless station soon helped him identify their location as Clifden in County Galway. Firing flares to alert the locals, Alcock chose a smooth-looking green field to land in and, at 08.40 after 16 hours and 28 minutes in the air, the Vimy touched down. Unfortunately, the field was actually a bog and the nose quickly sank, throwing the tail into the air.
Aftermath and legacy
Alcock and Brown were soon celebrated as heroes. They were met by huge crowds wherever they went, dinners were held in their honour and they were knighted at Windsor Castle only a few days later. They were also awarded the £10,000 prize by the Daily Mail.
Tragically, Alcock died six months later when his aircraft crashed at Rouen on the way to the Paris Air Show. He was 27 years old, and is buried in Southern Cemetery, Manchester. Brown married Kathleen and went to work for Vickers and then Metropolitan-Vickers (formerly British Westinghouse). He died at home in Swansea in 1948 aged 62.
Alcock and Brown's pioneering flight had shown what was possible, and was an important step in bringing Europe and North America closer together. However, the first commercial non-stop transatlantic passenger flights did not begin until 1928, using airships to cross the ocean. Although aeroplanes were used for mail flights between South America and Africa across the South Atlantic in the 1930s, it was not until the end of the decade that aeroplanes were reliable enough for passenger flights across the North Atlantic.
Commemorative items in our collection
The ground-breaking flight captured the public imagination. People were desperate to congratulate Alcock and Brown on their achievement with the award of medals and trophies. Mementos were created and the Vimy had to be guarded against souvenir hunters while it lay in the bog.
Suggestions for further research
- Visit the Flight gallery at the Science Museum to see the actual Vickers Vimy aircraft that made that first non-stop transatlantic flight.
- Discover more about some major milestones in transatlantic flight at Brooklands Museum's The First to the Fastest exhibition.
- Take a trip to the RAF Museum Cosford to meet Twinkletoes, Arthur Whitten Brown's black cat toy lucky mascot.
- Learn more about how the Vimy came into the Science Museum Group's collection in this blog.