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Where Eagles dare

The first ever transatlantic flight was a heroic mix of courage, audacity, skill, and no small measure of Rolls-Royce engineering brilliance. By Michael Moran

Centenary celebrations are moments for historical reflection and contemporary assessment. No exploit could offer more fertile ground to explore the nature of heroism and technological development than the immortal first non-stop flight across the Atlantic in June 1919 from Lester’s Field in St John’s, Newfoundland to Derrigimlagh, Clifden in County Galway, Ireland.

This is the story of two airmen of complementary temperaments – John Alcock and Arthur Whitten-Brown – and their Vickers Vimy. This aircraft was powered by two Eagle VIII engines, the first aero engine designed by Sir Henry Royce. The flying machine’s open cockpit was to be their home for 16 and a half hours during an adventure that, at the time, was given scarcely any chance of success.

Joseph Campbell, the eminent American Professor of Literature, described the nature of the hero. “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder,” he wrote in The Hero With A Thousand Faces. “Fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” There is no finer general description of Alcock and Brown’s achievement.

John Alcock (1892–1919) – known to all as “Jack” – was born in Manchester, the same city where in 1884 Henry Royce initially manufactured dynamos and electric cranes. He was a rather rough-and-tumble young man with ginger hair and a robust sense of humour; a calculated risk taker who had harboured a passion for aircraft from his youth. In adult life he was blissfully happy only in the air. Before and during the Great War, he accumulated thousands of flying hours, distinguishing himself as an air ace in Sopwith Camel fighters. Unfortunately, on 30 September 1917, he was shot down over Turkey piloting a Handley Page O/100 bomber and taken captive. He languished for over a year as a bored prisoner of war, dreaming of “big stunts” until demobilization took him to the Vickers Flying School and works at Brooklands near Weybridge in Surrey. The lure was the pre-war offer from Lord Northcliffe, owner of the Daily Mail newspaper, of a fabulous £10,000 (nearly half a million in today’s money) for an adventurous but seemingly “impossible” solo flight across the 2,000 miles of Atlantic Ocean.

Arthur Whitten-Brown (1886–1948) was born in Glasgow to American parents. He was that uniquely British character, a well-read, well-bred man of action. He trained as an engineer but at the outbreak of the Great War signed on as an “observer” with the Royal Flying Corps. Shot down in flames over Hulluch in northern France in an undesirable Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2C reconnaissance biplane and again over Valenciennes, he was left with crippling injuries and a permanent limp. Yet the two years spent as a POW gave him unexpected time to study the new science of aerial navigation from books sent by the Red Cross. After the war he hoped these studies would give him an entry point into various aircraft companies, none of which showed interest until a hopeful visit to Vickers.

The meeting between Alcock and Brown occurred purely by chance over a cup of tea in the office of Percy Muller, the Works Manager at Vickers. Alcock was in search of an aerial navigator. He realized Brown knew a great deal about navigation. “I was struck with him right away and asked him if he would care to fly the Atlantic, and he said he would be delighted to,” Alcock told a journalist. “A splendid chap altogether.”

An entire generation had been erased during the Great War. Almost every family had been cruelly bereaved through the senseless military and civilian deaths of some 21 million people. Massive unemployment meant there was a pressing need for distraction. The Atlantic race would provide some welcome nationalist regeneration with its British aircraft, pilot and navigator.

The Royal Air Force Vickers Vimy was named after the Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge near Arras in 1917. The aircraft was a sturdy British long-range bomber designed to alter the stalemate of trench warfare by striking deep within Germany on the Western Front. It was the largest aircraft designed by Vickers up to that date. The model chosen for the Atlantic race was a modified F.B.27 Mk IV prototype (F.9569) with enlarged rudders and powered by two reliable, 20.3 litre, water-cooled, V12 350 hp (268 kW) Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII engines, the first aero engine designed by Henry Royce.

The Daimler Mercedes DF 80 played a prominent part in its design. The author Cecil Lewis, an authority on the Royal Flying Corps, wrote: “The Vimy was a good choice for such a flight. She was fast, as such machines went then, compact, could carry the necessary petrol, and was fitted with Rolls-Royce engines. Probably she was the only machine in existence at that time to make the crossing.” They faced competition from the teams of Martinsyde, Handley Page and Sopwith, who had arrived a month earlier. Many dramatic events would ensue from competitive attempts by these rival teams.

Alcock and Brown were considered hopeless outsiders in the race, on “a suicide mission” as the New York Times called it when they reached America aboard the RMS Mauretania from Southampton. Their aeroplane, disassembled and packed in crates, would arrive later. They arrived at inaccessible St John’s, Newfoundland, late at night. The weather was deplorably foggy and the rocky ground had to be prepared for take-off, as no level feature such as an airstrip existed prior to the race. The functional cockpit was tiny, which meant they would be sitting on a thin bench with shoulders overlapping uncomfortably. Unable to stretch their legs, they would need to squash into the restricted space a sextant, maps, thermos flask, sandwiches and a bulky, subsequently useless, wireless set. They brought toy cat mascots with them – Alcock had “Lucky Jim”, which Brown popped in his pocket. His own red-ribboned “Twinkletoes” he tied to a strut behind the cockpit.

Early Saturday morning 14 June. The test flights had gone perfectly. The Vimy had been prepared meticulously, mail loaded, heavily laden with fuel, and seals attached by the Royal Aero Club to prevent cheating. They were ready to go, apart from unexpected hitches with fuel lines. They would be challenged by unpredictable weather and capricious winds, as well as the rough uphill gradient for take-off presented by Lester’s Field.

“What beautiful music those two Rolls-Royce Eagle engines were playing!” reminisced their mechanic Bob Dicker. But Brown later wrote of the imminent dangers. “I am convinced that only Alcock’s clever piloting saved us from an early disaster,” he wrote. Skimming trees, fences and houses, sometimes disappearing from view, they crossed the Newfoundland coast at 1.57pm on one of the most astounding aerial adventures in the history of flight.

In an open cockpit, the roaring engine exhausts made speech almost impossible – scrawled notes and gestures had to suffice. The freezing wind was partially deflected over a shallow “windscreen”, worrying the cloth of their confining Burberry flying suits, fur-lined helmets and electrically heated Gieves waistcoats, gloves and boots. For navigation, Brown wisely took early observations of the sea, horizon and sun whenever gaps in the clouds permitted, which became increasingly rare as the flight progressed. For direction, he relied on traditional dead reckoning, a drift indicator, the sun and celestial navigation.

A little over an hour had passed when Brown jotted a note and held it up to Alcock: “Wireless generator smashed – the propeller has gone.” The wireless was now out and their heated suits inexorably began to chill. The fog and cloud increased until the sky and sea disappeared into a haunted, wraith-like world of suspended animation. Alcock remained unperturbed until the engine hum changed note when a section of exhaust pipe shattered and fell away. However, the engine continued to perform perfectly as they slowly accustomed themselves to the intolerable bellowing. Time for a sandwich, some chocolate and tea from the thermos.

Climbing to an icy 4,300 ft did not release them from the all-enveloping cloud, except for momentary observations taken by the increasingly concerned Brown. The cloud continued to thicken as night enveloped them. “Dense cloud below and above,” Brown wrote in his notes by torchlight. “Unable to get sun shots… I can’t get any obs in this fog. Will estimate that same wind holds and work on D.R [dead reckoning].” He realized he was off course and scribbled to Alcock: “Can you get above these clouds at, say, 60? We must get stars as soon as possible.” It is staggering to consider that Brown was doing spherical trigonometry in an open cockpit. Around midnight the clouds suddenly broke to give a 10-minute window of clear sky in which he was able to get a fix on Vega and the Pole Star. He marked this spot on his chart. He discovered, after flying blind, that he was basically on course. He scrawled emotionally: “Air Speed 106 ½ way !!! alter onto 110,” Brown wrote later. “An aura of unreality seemed to surround us as we flew onward, towards the dawn and Ireland.”

Dense cloud again began to suffocate them once more as they lost sight of the wingtips and parts of the fuselage. Disorientated, Alcock lost the horizon and the air speed indicator jammed. Instruments in 1919 could not be trusted. The Vimy stalled and went into a possibly terminal spiral from 3,500 ft. Out of control, falling at an unknown angle, the engines accelerated alarmingly. The sea suddenly appeared 100 feet from them but vertical owing to the aircraft’s abnormal attitude. Alcock instantly corrected. “Opened up the throttles and the Rolls-Royce Eagles came back to life in an instant.” At 3.30am they somehow recovered at 50 ft above the water and tasted salty foam on their lips. Brown wrote Alcock a phlegmatic and ironic note: “This is a great trip. No ships or stars or anything. Have a sandwich?”

Still trying for clear gaps to take sightings, they climbed to 7,000 ft. Suddenly torrential rain, which turned to hail, then to sleet and snow, tore at their faces and threatened to tear off the wings. Brown was forced to swivel painfully in his seat to clear the glass of the vital petrol-overflow gauge. Still climbing, by 7am they had reached 11,000 feet at a glaciating zero degrees Fahrenheit. Fingers frostbitten. The Vimy began to ice up, jamming the ailerons, but the rudders functioned. The starboard engine began misfiring. However, conditions improved as they descended into warmer air.

At 8.15am on 15 June, after another sandwich and some more chocolate, Alcock suddenly grabbed Brown’s shoulder and excitedly pointed to two specks of land – Ireland! They prepared to touch down at foggy Connemara and circled the tall aerials of the Marconi transmitting station around which appeared to be suitable fields. People were running about like ants, not waving but warning. “I made a perfect approach,” Alcock later wrote to Bob Dicker, “but, on touching down, I soon discovered there was something wrong. I realized we were in a bog and the machine was sinking slowly. Bob, I could have cried.” In an anticlimactic conclusion to this legendary and heroic adventure, the Vimy buried its nose ignominiously in the sodden earth with a violent squelch. They had completed the first Atlantic crossing by air – 1,880 miles in 15 hours and 57 minutes at an average speed of 118.5 mph.

Alcock and Brown were honoured with a reception at Windsor Castle, with King George V investing them with their insignias as Knights Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Six months later, on 15 December 1919, the recovered Vimy aircraft was presented to the Science Museum in London. Alcock was present at this ceremony. Tragically, only four days later, the mist claimed Jack Alcock near Rouen, when he crashed a Vickers Viking Mk 1 amphibian biplane en route to an aeronautical exhibition in Paris. He was only 27. Sir Jack Alcock is buried in the Southern Cemetery in his home town of Manchester.

On the shores of Lake Como at the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este, 24–26 May 2019, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars unveiled its Collection Car, the Wraith Eagle VIII. Created by the Bespoke Collective, a collection of just 50 Wraith Eagle VIII motor cars celebrates this epic tale. This remarkably detailed, superb creation was conceived and overseen by Kalle Keituri, the Principal Designer for the project and Gavin Hartley, Head of Bespoke Design.

Externally, the black grille vanes draw immediate reference to the Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII engine cowling on the Vimy aircraft. The car engine is a Twin Turbo V-12 of 6.6 litres developing 624 hp. The brass sextant Brown used inspired the brass exterior and interior details. The fascia represents an abstract interpretation of the ground from aloft. Smoked eucalyptus wood, metalized in gold, is inlaid with silver and copper, and depicts night-time images of the Earth below.

The aviators referred to a green glimmer from the control panel and a glow from the broken exhaust on the starboard engine. In reminiscence, Rolls-Royce fabricated an extraordinary clock with an iced background effect which glows faint green at night. The red hour hand sits atop compass-inspired lines on the clock’s fascia, while the landing location coordinates are engraved below. The most alluring feature of the car is the inspiring starlight headliner in which 1,183 starlight fibres show the celestial arrangement at the time of the flight in 1919. The flight path and constellations are embroidered in brass thread, while the exact moment the pair left the clouds to navigate by the stars is indicated by a red fibre-optic light. Clouds are embroidered and a plaque reading: “The celestial arrangement at the halfway point 00:17am June 15th 1919, 50” 07” Latitude North – 31” Longitude West” shows the mid-point of the momentous journey.

It was a pioneering flight that staggered the world. Even Sir Winston Churchill paid tribute, in his role as Secretary of State for War and Secretary of State for Air. “I do not know what we should most admire – their audacity, determination, skill, science, their aeroplane, their Rolls-Royce engines – or their good fortune,” he said. It is a quotation that you’ll find engraved on a brass plaque on the driver’s door of the Rolls-Royce Wraith Eagle VIII. In a voyage where nearly everything that could have gone wrong did, it was the Rolls-Royce engines that never let Alcock and Brown down.