Thursday, 13 June 2019

The water jump


A hundred years ago today, a large biplane lumbered into the air at St John’s, Newfoundland. Sixteen hours later, the Old and the New World were much closer

It wasn’t a great year. The First World War had stopped, but no peace treaty had yet been signed; meanwhile fighting continued in much of Europe as new countries were born and quarrelled with each other. Finland was recovering from a terrible civil war; that in Russia was at its height. In Hungary, the Soviet regime of Béla Kun would hold power for five months, during which it managed to fight two of its neighbours before being destroyed by a third. In Ireland the War of Independence began. In India, British troops killed hundreds of demonstrators in the Amritsar massacre. Even if you dodged all these, you weren’t safe; a global flu pandemic was in progress. It reached every country on earth, and is thought to have killed up to 5% of the world’s population. In fact, 1919 was a bit shit.

But even in a year like that, good things can happen. Just before 4pm on Saturday, June 14, a Vickers Vimy biplane bomber taxied out for takeoff in a field at St John’s, Newfoundland.


Named after Vimy, the site of a major battle in France, the type was big for 1919 – 43ft long with a 68ft wingspan, and a takeoff weight of some 11,000lb (about 5,000 kg). It had two 20-litre V12 Rolls-Royce engines, rated at 360 HP each, and they must have made a noise to awaken the dead. They would need every one of those 720 HP, for they were taking off into a fierce wind, the direction of which was forcing them to take off uphill; moreover they were laden with extra fuel, as the journey ahead would be nearly 2,000 miles, over twice the type’s normal range, and the bomb racks had been replaced with extra fuel tanks. A large crowd was watching. What happened next would be described much later and with, one suspects, some embellishment, by American journalist Chelsea Fraser in his book Heroes of the Air (1937):

For 100, 200, 300, 400, 500 feet the plane taxied along, and as the watchers saw the obstacles in front drawing alarmingly near a look of greatest anxiety filled their eyes, and, indeed, two or three feminine shrieks could be heard. ...Twenty-five feet more and the daylight showed under the four wheels. The aviators heard a cheer from the crowd, and their own hearts lightened.

One doubts if the two men heard anything of the sort above the racket from the twin V12s; in fact they couldn’t hear each other, and would communicate in writing in the air, despite sitting right beside each other. Author David Beaty describes the moment with less hyperbole in his wonderful book The Water Jump (1976):

A crowd had assembled expecting to see them kill themselves. ...The Vimy lumbered up the hill in a strong crosswind, skidded round some rocks, and lurched unsteadily into the uneven air. Once airborne, the bomber immediately dropped into a valley, our of sight of the spectators who were convinced it had crashed.

But it hadn’t. The plane continued westwards, it being too dangerous to turn the heavily-laden aircraft at low altitude over land; but once out over Conception Bay, it turned onto a new course of 124o magnetic – into the open Atlantic. Alcock and Brown were on their way.

*

There were very good reasons for bridging the “water jump”. The First World War had seen unrestricted submarine warfare, a quite new phenomenon; at its height in 1917, it had posed a real threat to Britain’s food supplies. The British were not the only country to be aware of the strategic implications. On August 25 1917, the U.S. Navy’s Chief Constructor, Rear Admiral David W. Taylor, wrote to a colleague that the airplane was the means by which “the submarine menace can be abated ...The ideal solution would be big flying-boats which would [save] the valuable time now lost in delivering aircraft to European waters by means of ocean-going freighters.”

Admiral Taylor himself had encouraged the development of just such a flying-boat, the Curtiss NC (for ‘Navy Curtiss’). In early 1919 four NCs were readied for a crossing attempt at their base in Far Rockaway on the edge of New York City. One was quickly cannibalised for spares, but the remaining three headed to Newfoundland, arriving there on May 15 1919. Their plan was to fly from Newfoundland to Plymouth in England via the Azores and Lisbon. One plane landed on the water and foundered when taken in tow, while another suffered mechanical difficulties and taxied the last 200 miles to the Azores. But the third plane, the NC-4, reached the Azores, and went on via Lisbon to Plymouth.

The NC-4

This was not a non-stop transatlantic flight, and besides, this operation was a very different proposition from Alcock and Brown’s; the Navy had no less than 60 destroyers strung out across the Atlantic to aid the flying-boats if they came down on the water, as two of them did. There were also two support ships with fuel and spares. Even so, the achievement should not be underestimated. Far from being overkill, the expedition demonstrated the American genius for technology and organization that, 50 years later, would take them to the moon. Moreover, the huge support operation cannot negate the fact that the NC-4 had completed a 1,200-mile nonstop leg over water, much of it in darkness. Its commander, Lieutenant Commander Albert Cushing Read, an Annapolis graduate and career naval officer, and his crew later received the Congressional Gold Medal. NC-4 can be seen to this day in the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida.

*

For all its skill and courage, the US Navy’s expedition hadn’t been a proper, continuous crossing and had not demonstrated the viability of transatlantic air travel. But it would clearly not be long before someone did. The US Navy thought the British would pull out all the stops to get across the Atlantic first, and as Beaty points out in The Water Jump, this was a reasonable supposition – especially as it was not the US but the Brits who had the world’s largest flying-boat (the five-engined Felixstowe Fury). But the British government did nothing, apart from – as Beaty says – “rather grudgingly” providing meteorological support in Newfoundland. (This was then still a British colony; it did not federate with Canada until 1948.) Everything was left to the private sector.

But there was an incentive. In 1913, the Daily Mail had offered £10,000 (then about $50,000) for the first non-stop crossing of the Atlantic. The war over, it had renewed its offer. By May 1919 – the month the NC-4 crossed via the Azores – Newfoundland was a hive of aeronautical activity. In mid-May, Australian pilot Harry Hawker and his navigator Kenneth Mackenzie Grieve had made a determined attempt at the Atlantic crossing in a purpose-built aircraft, the Sopwith Atlantic. The latter’s single engine proved its downfall; its failure brought the Atlantic down in the Atlantic. Hawker and Grieve were rescued by a passing Danish steamer. But they had got within 750 miles of Ireland, and while their courageous attempt did not succeed, it was clearly proof of concept. Sadly, Hawker himself would be killed n a crash only two years later, though not before co-founding what became Hawker Aircraft.

Meanwhile, a team from the Handley Page company had arrived with a disassembled Handley Page V/1500, a massive bomber with a maximum take-off weight of some 30,000 lb – three times that of the Vimy – and four, instead of two, Rolls-Royce Eagle engines rated at 375HP each. The Handley Page team was led by Admiral Mark Kerr, a distinguished naval officer who had been at the Battle of Omdurman. He had a long-standing interest in aviation, and had been a wartime proponent of a large bomber fleet. The massive V/1500 was conceived as part of such a force, but it was too late. In November 1918 three of them set out on their first mission, to bomb Berlin – only to be flagged down as they taxied out, and told of the Armistice. Only about 40 V/1500s were ever completed.

Massive: A Handley Page V/1500

Still, at the turn of the year a V/1500 had made the first through flight to the Indian Empire, landing in what is now Pakistan in January 1919 after a month-long journey. Now there was another V/1500 in Newfoundland, ready to scoop the Mail’s coveted prize. The Handley Page team searched for a suitable landing strip, a more difficult task than it might seem; even with four huge V12 engines, the V/1500 would need plenty of space to get its mighty 33,000lb bulk off the ground. But in due course a suitable place was found at Harbor Grace, some way from St John’s, and the team set about assembling the aircraft.

Unfortunately for Handley Page, Kerr, ever the naval officer, was a perfectionist. Every nut and bolt must be perfect. And by the time the V/1500 neared readiness, a small team had arrived from Vickers; they had travelled with the team on the Mauretania, docking at Halifax. The team included John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown.

*

Alcock was 27, Brown 31. Both were British – Alcock had been born in Manchester, Brown in Glasgow – although Brown’s parents had been American. Both had flown in the war, Alcock as a pilot and Brown as an observer. Both had been shot down and taken prisoner, Brown by the Germans and Alcock by the Turks. After the war Alcock had approached Vickers with a proposal to fly the Atlantic, and the company had been impressed with his enthusiasm. When Brown also came looking for a job, his knowledge of navigation prompted Vickers to assign him as Alcock’s navigator.

The two men were different in aspect. As Beaty puts it: “Alcock looked like a big and smiling farmer’s boy, while the navigator Brown was studious and solemn – again, the extrovert pilot and the introvert navigator, typical temperaments for these two professions throughout the years ahead.” Beaty’s book includes a picture that bears this out. It shows them in their flying gear just before takeoff. Alcock looks bluff and cheerful, while Brown, a little smaller, looks apprehensive. Oddly, they both look a little like Michael Palin.

Brown may have been right to look worried. They had done little testing, anxious to get in the air before the Handley Page team, whose plans were well advanced. Not least of their problems had been finding flat ground from which to take off. A proposal to Admiral Kerr that they use the aerodrome he had prepared was fruitless; Kerr demanded half the cost of its construction, and insisted that they not use it until the V/1500 had taken off on its crossing attempt. He was, perhaps, within his rights; Handley Page had a lot invested, and according to a 1955 article by Graham Wallace in the Canadian magazine Maclean’s, it had taken 100 men to clear the Harbor Grace ground. But it was a blow for the Vickers team. Wallace recounts how Alcock “immediately began his search for an airfield for the Vimy, which needed a clear run of five hundred yards. But the land around St. John’s was ill suited—rocky, barren, swampy or covered with forest. Alcock drove around hopelessly in a rented car, and got glummer each day.”

Brown (left) and Alcock in Newfoundland, May 28 1919

Alcock had to make do with a site at Quidi Vidi on the edge of St John’s itself. Even this would not suffice; they could assemble and test the aircraft there, but it was not suitable for taking off with a full load (which would include 870 gallons of petrol). Eventually a contractor offered them the use, for free, of a large stretch of land – what Beaty calls “a large meadow balanced on the side of a hill with a swamp at the bottom”. Meanwhile the US Navy team had departed for the Azores from nearby Trepassey Bay.

Still, in due course the Vimy, disassembled and in crates, arrived at St John’s on the SS Glendevon, and the Vickers team assembled it as quickly as they could and made their first test flight, according to Chelsea Fraser’s account, on June 9. It was not unsuccessful, but Alcock landed with a long list of minor things that needed to be attended to. His mood will not have been improved when, the following day (according to Fraser), the huge V/1500 flew over Quidi Vidi and soared off above St John’s.

June 14 dawned blustery. Fraser (who may have been exaggerating) says there was a “40-knot half-gale”. It was not propitious. However, Alcock was convinced the V/1500 was about to go. In fact, it is not clear that it was; Admiral Kerr was fussing over every detail. But the Mail’s prize, and the glory that went with it, were too big to risk. At 3.50pm the Vimy’s port engine was run up; the starboard followed 12 minutes later, and at 4.10 the Vimy began its takeoff run. One of the great flights of history was under way.

*

One problem appeared very quickly. The Vimy was carrying radio equipment, and would need it both to report its position and to obtain weather reports from ships ahead of them. The latter was crucial, as weather forecasting was far poorer than it is now, and little data would be available in advance. As the aircraft swung over Conception Bay and picked up its course for Ireland, Brown tapped out the message: All well and started. Not long afterwards he became aware that the transmitter was not working. Its power came from a small propeller that rotated in the slipstream and drove a generator. This was not visible from inside the aircraft, but Brown knew it could be seen from the wing. If Chelsea Fraser is to be believed, Brown climbed out on the wing to have a look, grasping one of the struts between the engine and the wing. He found the generator propeller to have lost three of its four blades. This also disabled the headphone system the two men used to talk to each other, so they would now have to communicate with scribbled notes. (One can guess the first one was from Brown and read, “It’s f***ed” – or the 1919 equivalent.)

Neither was this to be the only problem. Both men had electrically-heated flying suits, a necessity in an open cockpit in the North Atlantic, but the accumulator used to provide them with power was insufficient, and some way into the flight the power failed. To add joy, part of an exhaust pipe fractured, spitting flames back over the rigging; there was little to be done about this, and Alcock decided they were not in immediate danger. But there was one big piece of good news; the wind was on their side. The Vimy had a top speed of 120 mph, but Alcock had decided to throttle back and fly at 90 mph, to save the engines; after all they would have to run continuously for 18 hours, far longer than would normally be expected. However, a tailwind gave them a cruising speed near the Vimy’s maximum. In this they were lucky; an early aviator could find themselves flying into a headwind and standing nearly still. If this happened when they were too far from land to turn back, they would have no choice but to ditch in the sea.

As in all early long-distance flights, navigation was a major problem. A small error could take the aircraft a long way adrift over such a long distance; if unlucky, they could pass north of Ireland and not make landfall. Brown carried a sextant with a spirit-level, knowing that he would rarely see the horizon. But he would need star shots every now and then. A few hours after nightfall, finding themselves in dense fog, and needing to know where they were, they were forced to climb to 12,000 ft so that Brown could fix their position. This was way above the normal service ceiling for the Vimy. Brown got his fix, but found that they were north of their planned route, suggesting that the wind had blown them off track; it became urgent to know by how much, but for that they would need to see the sea so the whitecaps would give them some idea of the wind speed and direction, enabling Brown to calculate the drift. So from 12,000 ft they came down nearly to sea level, but found themselves in fog almost until zero feet and narrowly missed flying into the ocean.

Later in the night they flew into a hailstorm that lasted four hours. Poor visibility continued, making it hard for Alcock to know the angle at which he was flying. This is fatal in the air, and a pilot who is thus disoriented may not know whether they are flying straight and level. They may dive steeply, or pull back so far on the stick that the aircraft stalls. In our own time, a faulty attitude direction indicator caused the crash of a Panamanian airliner in 1992, while inadequate information on the angle of attack contributed to the Air France disaster in 2009. In 1919, a pilot had little to tell him what the aircraft was doing in zero visibility. Towards the end of the night Alcock flew into a dense bank of fog, and got the impression that he was diving; the corrective action he took put the aircraft into a spin. Beaty explains what happened next:

And then they left the cloud as abruptly as they had entered it. A hundred feet from the wave crests, Alcock caught sight of the horizon. Immediately he regained his sense of balance and brought the Vimy out of the spin. At full throttle, the bomber skimmed straight and level just above the sea – now pointing westwards back to Newfoundland.

Alcock turned back towards Ireland and climbed to 6,500 ft. But their problems were not over; the weather worsened again, and Brown was forced to wing-walk once more in order to clear ice from the instruments.

Every now and then Alcock would take a break. In common with some other large early aircraft, the Vimy had a steering wheel rather than a joystick, and he had equipped this with rubber clamps so that he could fasten it in place and use his hands for something else. Brown would then pass him sandwiches and, according to Fraser, ale (Wallace says it was whisky, either neat or in coffee). As day broke, they realised that they must be nearing Ireland. Then, as Brown would write later:

Alcock grabbed my shoulder, twisted me round, beamed excitedly and pointed ahead and below. ...I followed ...his outstretched forefinger, and barely visible through the mist, it showed me two tiny specks of – land. This happened at 8.15 am on June 15.

They had made landfall pretty much where they had intended to, near Clifden in Connemara. Brown’s navigation had been spot-on. They had flown 1,980 miles in 16 hours and 12 minutes.

Damn.

Alcock put the aircraft down in what looked like a meadow, realising too late that it was actually a bog. The aircraft sank into its axles and tipped over its nose, causing some damage. Alcock and Brown were saved by their belts, and clambered out, dazed and deafened but unhurt. The Mail prize was theirs. King George V, told of their arrival as he left church in London, promptly wired his congratulations; these were followed, very soon afterwards, by a pair of knighthoods. The V/1500 crew, still in Newfoundland, realised they were beaten; there would be no knighthoods for them. Kerr’s navigator, Trygve Gran, whose English was not perfect, cabled to his new wife, an actress: “Sorry you aren’t a lady”.

*

Sir John Alcock did not enjoy his fame for long. He remained with Vickers as a test pilot. Less than six months later, in December 1919, he took off for Paris in a new type of amphibian, the Vickers Viking, which he intended to land on the Seine as part of an international air show. Caught in fog, he crashed attempting to land near Rouen; he survived the crash but died before he could be taken to hospital. He was buried in the Southern Cemetery in Manchester, the city of his birth. Sir Arthur Whitten Brown joined an industrial and electrical engineering company. In World War Two he served in the RAF’s Training Command, but his health deteriorated, and he was forced to resign his commission. He was further affected by the loss of his son, who was killed when his Mosquito aircraft crashed in the Netherlands in 1944. Brown’s health never recovered and he died in October 1948, aged 62. But they had shrunk the world. 

And the Vimy? It was repaired, and donated to the nation. In December 1919, three days before his death, Alcock attended its unveiling at its new home, the Science Museum in South Kensington. If one wants, one may see it there still, and marvel at the day, 100 years ago, when two young men defied a dreadful year to play their part in the human adventure.


Mike Robbins is the author of a number of fiction and non-fiction books. They can be ordered from bookshops, or as paperbacks or e-books from Amazon and other on-line retailers.