Nfld. & Labrador

The 1st successful transatlantic flight, 100 years ago, set to be celebrated in St. John's

Back in 1919, aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown "were young and feisty and looking for some adventure."

Aviators Alcock and Brown 'were young and feisty and looking for some adventure'

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

Flying across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe from St. John's is about a five-hour journey: you watch a movie, take a nap and arrive no worse for wear.

But that comfort wouldn't be possible without an adventurous pair of aviators one hundred years ago: John Alcock and Arthur Brown.

June 14, 2019 marks the centennial of the British duo's first successful transatlantic flight, as they crashed down on dry land in Connemara, Ireland in an open cockpit airplane, 16 hours after leaving St. John's. 

"They were young and feisty and looking for some adventure and a chance to make their name," aviation history buff Gary Hebbard says of Alcock and Brown.

He was literally standing on the wing, holding on with one hand and pounding at the ice with the other.- Gary Hebbard

The two seasoned airmen flew across the ocean in a modified First World War Vickers Vimy bomber — a very different type of plane than the Airbuses and Boeings of today.

"The plane was made of wood and canvas and wire. It had two engines, but the internal combustion engine itself was only about 20 years old at the time so the technology was, by today's standards, very, very suspect, to say the least," said Hebbard.

"The technology, by today's standards, was very primitive … but they put it all on the line and said, we're gonna give this a try."

With no designated St. John's airport in 1919, teams had to clear a patch of land near what is now the Royal Canadian Legion on Blackmarsh Road, so Alcock and Brown could attempt to takeoff.

The duo flew across the Atlantic in an open-cockpit plane made of wood, canvas and wire. (CBC)

"It was uphill, it was rough and it was bumpy," said Hebbard.

"There were trees at the end of the runway and they were overloaded with fuel … there was genuinely some question as to whether or not they would get off [the ground]."

Even after managing to get aloft, the challenges kept coming.

Alcock and Brown's radio died almost immediately after takeoff, said Hebbard, so they were flying without a way to communicate to anyone, besides each other.

And with the bare minimum of meteorology forecasts, the duo had no idea what weather they were flying toward. 

"They ran into fog, they ran into icing. One of the engines almost quit because it got stogged up with ice and at one point they found themselves upside down, spinning towards the ocean," Hebbard said.

At another point, Brown, the flight's navigator, was forced out onto one of the plane wings to get rid of ice buildup that was blocking one of the engines.

"If something wasn't done about it the engine would quit, and on one engine, with that much fuel aboard, they wouldn't have been able to stay in the air, so Brown climbed out over the side of the cockpit and braced himself as best he could and set to work to knock off that ice and get it out of the way," Hebbard said.

"He was literally standing on the wing, holding on with one hand and pounding at the ice with the other. Over the Atlantic Ocean, probably a couple of thousand of feet up."

After their safe arrival, Alcock and Brown were knighted and, of course, remain in history books to this day.

St. John's celebrations

A memorial plaque has been stationed outside the Legion on Blackmarsh Road commemorating Alcock and Brown's accomplishment.

In this 100th anniversary year, a statue is now being commissioned to be put up somewhere in the city, marking this slice of aviation history.

There are plenty of memorial statues to the men in Europe, said Hebbard, and it's time for St. John's to flaunt its role in the flight.

"The flight originated here, this is where all the history started, was right here," he said.

Gary Hebbard, an aviation historian, and Paul Snow, a member of the Alcock and Brown 100th Anniversary Committee. (Paula Gale/CBC)

"I think it's very appropriate that we're gonna have a proper statue to mark that accomplishment."

Paul Snow, a member of the Alcock and Brown 100th Anniversary Committee, said there are a number of events planned for this summer, during the centennial week.

The committee will have speakers starting around June 12, an open air concert and an aviator's ball on June 14 — plus a number of other events Snow said he can't spill the details on just yet. 

The Rooms will also have an exhibit this summer, detailing the province's aviation history and Alcock and Brown's contributions.

And for commercial pilots like Phil Hadfield, this year is an important one for both history, and his industry.

"It set the stage for a hundred years of flying," said Hadfield, a pilot with Air Canada.

"I've been across the Atlantic probably 500 times myself, but it set the stage for the commercial operation … and it also set the stage for the success of the [world] wars as well, moving people and troops across the Atlantic."

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Jeremy Eaton and the St. John's Morning Show

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