1919: “The shape of things to come” (H G Wells)

The period 1919 to 1922 is considered to be the years between which ATC evolved to form the foundation of the modern ATC service. Both the UK and France developed ideas independently to support the post war growth on the Croydon – le Bourget. By 1922 a compatible set of procedures had been developed, that by then also incorporated ideas from Belgium and the Netherlands as additional routes developed into Brussels and Amsterdam.

Also in 1919 Alcock and Brown completed the first non stop flight across the Atlantic. Marconi had already demonstrated trans Atlantic wireless communications in 1901 so the eventual growth of commercial trans Atlantic could be predicted.

If you are in the UK you can access the Alcock and Brown story here

Pete Clark has provided a brief history of North Atlantic Flight

The 20th century dawned with man attempting to master the art of powered flight. At long last the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, made their historic first powered flight on 17th December 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

[12hp biplane, “Flyer 1”, – a series of 4 flights totalling 97secs. The final flight, with Orville as pilot, lasted 59secs and covered 852ft(260m)]

Within 6 years the first sea crossing was made – across the English Channel – on 25th July 1909, when Louis Blériot flew the 23 miles (37Km) from Calais to Dover in 36½ minutes at an average speed of 40mph.

The big challenge, however, was the North Atlantic Ocean, linking the old world with the new.

The greatest difficulty in attempting to cross the North Atlantic, even by the shortest route from Newfoundland to Ireland, was that aircraft engines were neither powerful enough nor reliable. They also needed an enormous amount of fuel. Some attempts did not even get off the ground due to the weight of the fuel.

2 alternative routes were available which entailed hopping across in stages. A long hop south via the Azores, or the relatively safer route to the north via Greenland and Iceland.

By 1910 the first direct crossings were attempted. Walter Wellman, an American writer, gave up his search for the North Pole in an airship and turned his sights towards the Atlantic. His trip did not last long as his airship plunged into the ocean and he had to be rescued by a passing steamer.

Not long after, another American, Melvin Vaniman, made an attempt also by an airship which was filled with highly inflammable hydrogen. He was less fortunate. His airship exploded in the air off the coast of New Jersey.

To create a greater incentive to these attempts the British newspaper the Daily Mail offered a £10,000 prize for the first successful direct flight. They must have thought that their money would be safe for many years, but they had not accounted for the outbreak of the 1st World War. For all its senseless brutality it must be credited with a number of technical advances. In 1914 aircraft reliability was poor and pilots flew “on a wing and a prayer”. By 1918 aircraft were more sophisticated and reliable enough for regular and continuous operation.

In 1919 talk of flying across the North Atlantic was not so far fetched. Lord Northcliffe of the Daily Mail revived his offer of £10,000 as an encouragement and set a time limit for the direct crossing of 72 hours.

The first attempt was east to west but engine failure off the coast of Ireland caused the crew of 2 to ditch and be rescued by ship.

With the prevailing winds over the North Atlantic from west to east most attempts would be made in this direction. Newfoundland became the most popular take-off site and no fewer than 12 different aircraft were being prepared, but bad weather delayed them all.

On the 16th May 1919 3 United State Navy Curtiss flying boats departed Trepassey Bay. Only 1, commanded by Lt. Cdr. Read, arrived at Horta in the Azores after a flight of 15hrs 8mins. – The others had to set down on the sea. Lt. Cdr. Read then continued on to Lisbon, arriving on 27th May, and finally Plymouth on the 31st August. This flight did not qualify for the prize because it was not non-stop.

Following delays due to bad weather and radio trouble, H. G. Hawker and navigator K. Mackenzie Grieve left St. Johns, Newfoundland, on the 18th May in a single-engined Sopwith. After many anxious hours a wireless message was received stating they were 400 miles off the Irish coast and making good progress. Unfortunately the situation soon changed. An easterly gale suddenly sprang up. The aircraft’s speed was reduced from 100mph to 40mph and the engine began to consume fuel at a considerable rate. Hawker realised that he would not be able reach land so he headed for the shipping lanes and put down in the sea. Fortunately the Sopwith had been designed to jettison its undercarriage after take-off to reduce weight and wind resistance. In addition, Hawker and Grieve carried a boat and wore life-saving suits. They were rescued from the sea only 40 miles from the Irish coast.


Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown.

At 4.13 on the afternoon of 14th June 1919 a Vickers Vimy, piloted by Captain John Alcock and navigated by Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown, clawed its way into the skies above St. Johns with 840 gallons of fuel in its tanks. It crossed the coast at 4.28 at 1,200ft. Brown transmitted the first and last message – giving position and time. Shortly after, the propeller blades of the generator sheared off leaving them without electrical power and heating. Alcock and Brown sat and shivered side by side in an open cockpit, their flying suits the only protection against appalling weather.

At 3.10 in the morning at about 4,000ft the Vickers Vimy pierced a veil of fog. Alcock started to climb towards clearer air above the fog when suddenly the starboard exhaust split along its seam. When, finally, the exhaust broke away completely the roar of the engine became a deafening blast which made conversation impossible. With the aid of a small torch communication was carried out by passing notes torn from the navigator’s pocket book, or by hand signals.

Brown had to wait until after midnight the next day before he finally caught a brief glimpse of 2 stars enabling him to take a position fix. The Vimy was past the half-way point as dawn broke.

They flew again into clear air only to be confronted by a mass of cumulus clouds with no way around. Alcock descended into the warmer air and cloud. The turbulence in the cloud was dramatic. The Vimy was pushed upwards only to stall and spiral towards the ocean below. The air-speed indicator jammed at 90kts, the compass spun wildly, and the only information the altimeter could impart with any certainty was that they were loosing height rapidly. This situation was too much even for Alcock’s highly developed skills. He could do nothing, having almost inverted in his straps until he was free of the fog and could re-establish his equilibrium.

But what if the fog extended to sea level?!

At last the air cleared – but the aircraft was almost inverted. Fortunately, the Vimy was very responsive and Alcock promptly regained control barely 60ft above the water and climbed steeply to 7,000ft.

The ocean spray turned to ice on the wings. Snow, hale and sleet obscured the fuel gauge so Brown had to climb out of the cockpit onto the top of the fuselage to wipe it away.

  • Scarcely any danger, he remarked, so long as Alcock kept the machine level!At 8.15 a.m. they passed over 2 tiny islands at 250ft.The clouds were still very low and there was a danger of flying into hills, so Alcock decided to land. A field was chosen. It turned out, however, to be a peat bog and the aircraft tipped onto its nose. Fortunately the 2 men were not injured.Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown were taken to London for a heroes welcome, receiving the £10,000 Daily Mail prize from Winston Churchill, and later being knighted by King George V. At 01.24 on the 2nd July 1919 the airship R34, owned by the Royal Navy but attached to the Air Ministry for this voyage, set off from East Fortune, near Edinburgh. Her crew of 30, led by Major G. H. Scott, recorded an uneventful trip, apart from the fact that pitching and rolling of the airship, plus the roar of the engines, had made it almost impossible to sleep! After a flight of 108hrs 12mins, (an endurance record), R34 arrived at Roosevelt Field, Long Island, New York where 1 of her officers parachuted to the ground before mooring in order to direct the ground crew.  Pioneering flights were one thing but it was not very long, however, before attention turned to linking the centres of population in America and Europe. In 1920 a prize of $25,000 was offered for the first non-stop flight between New York and Paris.Charles Lindbergh was, in fact, the 67th man to make a non-stop flight over the Atlantic Ocean.The 1 failing with the German airships was that they had to use highly inflammable hydrogen to obtain lift. American airships used non-inflammable helium. Hydrogen can be produced anywhere in the World, but helium cannot, – some being available in Russia, plenty in Texas, and none in Europe. The United States, mindful of Adolph Hitler’s threats of war, refused to export helium to the Germans.Bad weather during the crossing delayed the arrival at Lakehurst, New Jersey, by several hours. In the late afternoon of the 6th May the Hindenburg came in to land. Suddenly, 200ft up, flames burst from the rear of the hull. The fire spread rapidly, engulfing the entire airship within 32 seconds. 13 passengers and 22 crew died, – 61 people survived.The age of the airship had died.In the 1930s commercial aviation over the North Atlantic was still a long way off. It was not until 1935 that a conference was held in Ottawa to explore the possibilities of trans-Atlantic air services. Flying boats were the most suitable type of aircraft as the large landplanes had still not been designed with sufficient range between refuelling stops. A joint venture was agreed between Pan-Am of America and Imperial Airways of Britain.  A second short-lived idea was to use a large flying boat to lift a smaller seaplane into the air. Once at cruising height the smaller craft would be detached to continue its journey. By not having to consume gallons of fuel during take-off the range of the smaller seaplane was vastly increased allowing it to fly from Shannon to Montreal non-stop. This method was devised by R. H. Mayo of Imperial Airways using the Empire flying boat “Maia” and the seaplane “Mercury”. Although successful as an airmail service the British Government and Imperial Airways decided to abandon the idea. In 1940 America agreed to supply military aircraft to Britain. Ferry pilots were signed up to fly Liberator and Hudson bombers from Gander to Belfast, thus the Air Ferry Service came into being. Having delivered the aircraft the ferry pilots had to return to North America for another consignment. A return trip by sea was not only time consuming but also too dangerous with the Battle of the Atlantic raging. A Return Ferry Service was therefore established using aircrew from the newly formed BOAC (British Overseas Aircraft Corporation). This was the first regular air service over the North Atlantic. The ferry service delivered about 400 aircraft a year and BOAC had shown that a regular 2-way scheduled service was now a possibility using land-based aircraft.QQQQQTo bring the story up to date more milestones should be noted, -As transatlantic travel became more available to people larger capacity aircraft were built. The first of the “jumbos” – the B747 – entered service on 22nd January 1970, followed 2 years later by the 3-engined DC10 and then the L1011, Tristar.However, although concorde is the fastest commercial aircraft to cross the North Atlantic faster crossings have been made. The United States Air Force SR71 Blackbird spy plane was capable of flying at Mach 3, or 3,100ft per second, – faster than a rifle bullet. A record crossing was made over an official distance of 3,490 miles between New York and Brighton on the south coast of England. The aircraft had to reduce speed twice en-route to refuel. Having shot past the finish point at Brighton the SR71 reached Amsterdam before it had slowed enough to turn back for a landing at the Farnborough air show. The point-to-point time was 1 hour 55 minutes 42 seconds.
  • At the other end of the spectrum the first successful balloon crossing was made in August 1978 by the balloon “Double Eagle”. One month earlier the British balloonist Don Cameron had ditched just 100 miles from the coast.
  • To the international businessman time in the air was time wasted. So it was with great excitement that the BAC/Aerospatial Concorde entered service on 29th September 1973. Washington to Paris took 3 hours 33 minutes at a speed of Mach 2 – twice the speed of sound.
  • On 4th October 1958 a Comet 4 flew from Heathrow to New York. The jet age had arrived, and halved the journey time to 7 hours. Soon after the Comet, the Americans introduced the Boeing 707 – one of the most successful aircraft to fly the Atlantic.
  • On 1st July 1946 a Lockheed Constellation left London for New York flying BOAC livery. – Civil airlines were now in business over the North Atlantic.
  • Just as with the First World War, the Second caused major leaps forward for North Atlantic flight.
  • Many attempts were made to increase the range of the flying boats. One of these was air-to-air refuelling. A pair of Harrow bombers were converted for the purpose. A flying boat would take-off from Foynes and climb to 1,000ft where it would rendezvous with a tanker. A grapnel was wound out from the flying boat’s tail by the 1st officer and radio officer. A rocket with cable attached was fired from the Harrow to wind around the grapnel. A hosepipe was then fed out and once securely in place, the Harrow climbed above the flying boat to transfer fuel by gravity. 800 gallons of fuel could be transferred in 20 minutes after which the aircraft separated with the flying boat heading westward and the Harrow returning to base.
  • Crossings were still very hazardous as often westbound flights would meet strong headwinds and may have to remain as low as 1,200ft to avoid the worst of the weather. Flights could take more than 15 hours and only enough fuel for 19 hours flying was carried.
  • The inaugural flights took place on the 5th July 1937 when Pan-Am’s “Clipper III” departed from Botwood, Newfoundland, for Foynes, Ireland, and then Southampton, and Imperial Airway’s “Caledonia” left Southampton for the same stops before continuing on to Montreal and New York.
  • The real cause of the Hindenburg disaster will never been known, although many theories have been proposed. The effects were immediate. Graf Zeppelin was grounded at Frankfurt on its return from Rio de Jenero. A new airship, “Graf Zeppelin II” had just been completed, and work had started on what might have been “Hindenburg II”. – It was abandoned.
  • So it was in May 1937 that the Hindenburg prepared for her first voyage of the year to New York filled with the dangerous hydrogen. There was an uneasy atmosphere. – In Vienna a clairvoyant had told an officer’s wife her husband would die in a burning airship. – The German ambassador in Washington had received a warning that a time bomb would be planted on board. – Just as the airship was about to depart from Frankfurt one of the officers begged to be allowed to say “goodbye” to his wife for a second time. The airship had been searched but nothing was found.
  • Between the Wars trans-Atlantic air travel was primarily by the great rigid airships. The Germans were the leaders in this field with such famous airships as the “Graf Zeppelin” – which made her maiden flight to New York in 1929 – and the “Hindenburg” – a huge airship, 811ft long and powered by 4 Mercedes Benz diesel engines. Accommodation for passengers was sumptuous – on a par with first-class steamship fares.
  • In 1927 several lives were lost in the attempts before the 25 year old airmail pilot, Charles Lindbergh, arrived in Paris on 21st May at the end of a 33½hr, 3,610 miles flight. This was the first non-stop solo flight and the longest trans-Atlantic flight to that date.
  • Charles Lindbergh.
  • The next successful crossing was also by airship – the “Los Angeles” – built by the Germans for the United States Navy.
  • The return flight left New York on 10th July. During the flight a radio message instructed them to divert to Pulham, Norfolk due to adverse weather conditions. They arrived after a flight of 75hrs 3 mins with only enough fuel left for 2 more hours of cruising.
  • In the month following Alcock and Brown’s successful flight the first East-West return flight took place, – by airship. Aviators still considered that the future of North Atlantic air travel would have to be undertaken by rigid airships.
  • The North Atlantic had been conquered!
  • They had landed at 8.40 a.m. after being in the air for 16hrs 27mins at an average speed of just over 121mph, over a distance of 1,890 miles.
  • At 8.26 Brown made his final communication with Alcock, – “Crossed coast, probably Northern Ireland. Can you carry on and go further south? Follow railway.”
  • For nearly all the 2,000 miles and 16 hours of the flight the navigation had to be by dead-reckoning as the sun and sea were obscured by cloud and fog, and only occasionally could they climb above the clouds to get star fixes.


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