Nfld. & Labrador

For Tony Alcock, nephew of the first transatlantic pilot, flight is a family affair

It was nearly 100 years ago that the first plane to make it across the Atlantic Ocean in one go took off in St. John's, and the pilot's nephew is here to mark the anniversary.

John Alcock and Arthur Brown were the first to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, leaving from Newfoundland

Tony Alcock stands by the Narrows, where his uncle John Alcock flew through after taking off from Blackmarsh Road. (Stephen Miller/CBC)

Tony Alcock grew up hearing stories of the first transatlantic flight, but they weren't just tales told to a young boy interested in aviation — they were part of his family's history.

Tony's uncle John Alcock, along with navigator Arthur Brown, made the first non-stop transatlantic flight in June 1919, flying from St. John's to Clifden, Ireland. A century later, Tony Alcock is in St. John's to mark the anniversary of his uncle's achievement, making him the first Alcock to return to Newfoundland since his uncle passed through the Narrows 100 years ago.

"The flight was an incredible feat of courage, skill and determination and one of the most significant turning points in aviation history," Alcock said.

"John lived and breathed flying, and were it not for his tragic death so soon after his transatlantic flight, he would have achieved other milestones in aviation."

Tony Alcock stands by a photograph of his uncle, John Alcock. (Stephen Miller/CBC)

The significant milestone he did achieve, becoming the first pilot to cross the Atlantic Ocean, is being marked at the Admiralty House Communications Museum in Mount Pearl through its Field to Flight exhibit, which opened May 13.

Fascinated by flight

Tony Alcock's father watched his older brother John, born in Manchester in 1892, grow up as a boy inspired by the Wright brothers and fascinated by flight.

"He used to make hot air balloons and kites as big as 12 feet," Alcock said of his famous uncle, who left school at 16 to become a mechanic, and began working on building aircraft not long afterward.

John Alcock and Arthur Brown made the first successful transatlantic flight, from St. John's to Ireland, in 1919. (CBC)

By the time John Alcock was 18, he was a chief mechanic building a strong reputation for his work, and at 20 he began to take flying lessons. Alcock differed from his aviation peers in one significant way, his nephew said — he was from a working-class background, as opposed to the wealthier one of many others working with aircraft at the time. 

At the same time that Tony Alcock's uncle was developing as a pilot, the dream of transatlantic flight was gaining elevation.

When London newspaper the Daily Mail offered a prize of £10,000 in 1913 (nearly $2 million Canadian in today's value) to the first to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, the general belief among young pilots was that aircraft were not yet reliable enough to reach that goal.

"But like so often happens," Tony Alcock said in Newfoundland a century later, "along comes a war."

Military service

The First World War sped up aircraft development because the military recognized the importance of air power for the war effort, Alcock said. 

Sarah Wade, the museum manager at Admiralty House Communications Museum, discusses an exhibit with Tony Alcock during his visit. (Stephen Miller/CBC)

John Alcock signed up to fight in the First World War, and was flagged to be a military pilot thanks to his strong aviation skills and significant number of flight hours, his nephew said. Even before the war, Alcock was one of the top pilots in the United Kingdom and competed regularly in flight challenges.

"He wanted to go and fight, but of course the air ministry decided that because of his vast experience, he needed to train people," Tony Alcock said.

After joining the Royal Naval Air Squadron, John Alcock persuaded the ministry to send him to the operational front on long-range bombing missions, and he set long-distance flying records during his military service, his nephew said. He was taken prisoner in Turkey during the war, and it was during that time that he resolved to complete a transatlantic flight.

"He was well equipped to think about the dream about crossing the Atlantic," Tony Alcock said, thanks in part to his military experiences.

His own future in flight

After the war he began to work on his goal, and Arthur Brown — who had also served in the war — came on board as navigator.

John Alcock and Arthur Brown arrived in Newfoundland on May 13 and began to prepare for their flight.

This regular visitor to the Admiralty House Communications Museum, named Myrtle, is a fitting echo of the stuffed cats John Alcock and Arthur Brown had in the cockpit for good luck. (Stephen Miller/CBC)

They took off in their Vickers Vimy biplane from Lester's Field in St. John's on June 14, with two good luck charms — the stuffed cats Twinkle Toes and Lucky Jim — in the cockpit. The pair left from what is now Blackmarsh Road, passing through the Narrows in the St. John's harbour on their way to the open Atlantic.

The transatlantic flight was ultimately successful, but it was not easy. After a difficult takeoff, Alcock and Brown battled a failed generator, a burst exhaust pipe, thick fog and a snowstorm over about 16 hours in the air before making a rough landfall in an Irish bog the next day.

Already I have received the welcome that Alcock and Brown received when they came here.- Tony Alcock

For their feat, Winston Churchill — then the UK's secretary of state for air — awarded the two men with the Daily Mail prize, which was relaunched in 1918 after a pause during wartime. One week later, Alcock and Brown were knighted by King George V.

Group Captain Anthony J. Hamilton Alcock, the nephew of John Alcock, in uniform. (Provided by Tony Alcock)

John Alcock died later that same year on Dec. 18 when his plane crashed on its way to the Paris Air Show. Brown died Oct. 4, 1948. Tony Alcock never knew his uncle, but grew up hearing about what he accomplished. He was inspired by those accomplishments, just as John Alcock had been by the Wright brothers.

"I was brought up as a pilot's boy and I dreamt about flying, and that's what I did," said Alcock, whose father joined the UK's Royal Air Force the year after his brother's famous flight. Like his uncle, Tony Alcock also began his career in flight as a teenager. He joined the Royal Air Force at 19, serving around the world for 35 years.

Alcock hopes the upcoming centenary of his uncle's famous flight will rekindle interest in the accomplishment and make the general public more aware of what Alcock and Brown achieved in 1919.

Despite being an ardent student of his uncle, Alcock said he had already learned things about him and the flight that he did not know before arriving in Newfoundland.

"I find it very exciting because I've always though about coming here," he said, "and already I have received the welcome that Alcock and Brown received when they came here."

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