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"Leaving on a Jet Plane"

For the week of Monday June 9, 2008

On June 14, 1919, at 12:58 p.m. Newfoundland time, John Alcock and Arthur Whitten-Brown took off from St. John’s, Newfoundland, in a Vickers Vimy biplane. The two men were hoping to complete the first non-stop trans-Atlantic flight in history. Sixteen hours and twelve minutes later, they did.

The Vickers Vimy and spectators before take-off on June 14, 1919
The Vickers Vimy and spectators before take-off on June 14, 1919. The photo has been signed by Arthur Brown.
© Courtesy of the Canada Aviation Museum
In 1913, the London Daily Mail newspaper had announced a £10,000 prize for the first aviators to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. The challenge inspired a flurry of attempted trans-Atlantic flights, the most notable of which was the journey of a United States Navy flying boat from Trepassey Bay, Newfoundland, to Lisbon. Lieutenant Commander A.C. Read and the crew of the Curtiss NC-4 flying boat took over 10 days to complete the trip, stopping on islands to refuel. Although the Daily Mail did not require that the winning flight be non-stop, the U.S. navy refused to accept the prize money.

Alcock had started planning his attempt at the prize before he had even met Brown. The men became a team shortly after an interview at Vickers, where Alcock was chief test-pilot. After hearing Brown speak about the problems of navigation over the Atlantic, Alcock asked Brown to accompany him on the flight. Their aircraft, the Vimy, had been a rush project during the First World War. Although it had taken only four months for Vickers to develop and test the bomber, it had not been ready in time to see action. To make the Vimy suitable for a trans-Atlantic flight, the crew at Vickers removed its military fittings and increased its fuel-tank capacity.

A model of the Vickers Vimy biplane
A model of the Vickers Vimy biplane
© Courtesy of the Canada Aviation Museum
Alcock and Brown faced many challenges during the flight. Not long after take-off, they encountered fog that made it impossible to navigate. On several occasions, the plane went out of control, spiraling downward and, not once but four times, Brown climbed onto the plane’s wings in order to remove snow and ice, which threatened to damage the controls and engine. By the time the Vimy landed near Clifden, Ireland, the plane was badly damaged. The two men were exhausted, but safe.

Great celebration followed. In addition to receiving the £10,000 prize, Alcock and Brown were both knighted. At a reception hosted by the Royal Aero Club in London, the aviators were served Oeufs Pochés Alcock, Suprême de Sole à la Brown, Poulet de Printemps à la Vickers Vimy, Salade Clifden and, of course, Gâteau Grand Succès.

Alcock-Brown Trans-Atlantic Flight is a National Historic Event.

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