Nfld. & Labrador

'They were pioneers': Celebrations mark 100th anniversary of 1st non-stop transatlantic flight

Exactly 100 years after Capt. John Alcock and Lt. Arthur Whitten Brown "literally risked their lives" to cross from Newfoundland to Ireland in 1919, they're being celebrating for changing the world of aviation.

Capt. John Alcock, Lt. Arthur Whitten Brown 'literally risked their lives'

Capt. John Alcock, left, and Lt. Arthur Whitten Brown stand beside a Vickers Vimy at Lester's Field in June 1919. (The Rooms Provincial Archives Division, A 47-15)

Aviation worldwide was forever changed a century ago when British pilots Capt. John Alcock and Lt. Arthur Whitten Brown boarded their modified First World War Vickers Vimy bomber in Newfoundland and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Ireland, making the first-ever successful non-stop transatlantic flight.

The historic journey is being celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic on June 14, exactly 100 years after that record-setting trip.

Alcock and Brown took off from Lester's Field in St. John's — a plot of land that had to be cleared of trees and rocks to serve as a runway — and 16 hours, 12 minutes later, they crash-landed in Clifden, Ireland.

"They became the first two people on the planet to be ever able to say, 'Yesterday I was in North America,' " says Jim Burton, a pilot and co-chair of Aviation History of Newfoundland and Labrador.

"It's very cool."

These guys literally risked their lives — they risked everything.- Vincent Killowry

Burton is one of the organizers of celebrations Friday in St. John's, including a commemorative flight with Provincial Airlines to mark the centennial. The flight will be followed by a week of events, including an aviators ball at St. John's City Hall.

For Burton and his fellow aviation enthusiasts, understanding the amount of work that Alcock and Brown put into their flight is essential to appreciating the aviation industry in its present form.

Alcock receives final instructions before lifting off from St. John's for the world's first non-stop transatlantic flight. (Memorial University Archives and Special Collections)

"This aircraft was made of wood, fabric. Two Rolls-Royce engines, 360 horse power engines, and it was overloaded with fuel — they needed a lot of fuel because it was a 16-hour flight," he said.

"It was something accomplished that other pilots only ever dreamed about. It was an incredible feat."

About a month before the Alcock and Brown flight, other crews had made the first successful transatlantic flight with stops. American crews took off from Trepassey, N.L., and leap-frogged across the Atlantic, setting down in the Azores on the way to Portugal. 

It took 10 days, with more than 26 hours of flight time.

Flying across the Atlantic in 1919 was nothing like a modern journey in a pressurized cabin with Wi-Fi and movies at your seat, Burton said.

"They flew at night, they were in an open cockpit with goggles, scarves.

Brown, left, and Alcock take a break from making history. (Memorial University Archives and Special Collections)

"It was an example of courage, and preparation, discovery, being curious and being passionate. I look back at all that as a pilot today, I look at it and I think, it's so inspiring."

Burton said the Alcock and Brown flight, which was only about 16 years after the Wright brothers' first-ever successful flight, was just another monumental step in modern technology.

"When you think of mankind, where it's come in a hundred years — it was 50 years after they made that crossing that we put the first man on the moon," Burton said.

"They were explorers. Pioneers."

Re-enacting the moment

In St. John's Friday afternoon, a modern aircraft emulated the pair's takeoff.

"This is going to be a re-enactment, as near as we can make it in modern times, of the Alcock and Brown takeoff in St. John's," said Gary Hebbard, an aviation historian who helped organize the short flight, just before boarding.

The commemoration, Hebbard said, tipped a hat to the men who paved the way for modern air travel.

"We're going to fly the same route that Alcock and Brown flew as they gained altitude, stabilized their speed and decided which way they were going to turn," he said. 

There was a difference, though.

"We're going to take off from St. John's International Airport, instead of Blackmarsh Road."

'We take it for granted'

Alcock and Brown are heroes across the ocean, as well.

In Ireland, the central bank issued a €15 collector coin inscribed with a biplane and map of Ireland.

The achievement "represented an innovation that made the world smaller for us," said Derville Rowland, one of the bank's directors.

A new commemorative coin has been launched by Ireland's central bank to mark 100 years since the first non-stop transatlantic flight, which landed in Clifden. (Andrew Downes/Xposure)

Meanwhile, Ireland's AN Post — the Irish equivalent to Canada Post — commissioned a commemorative stamp featuring a painting of the Vickers Vimy aircraft Alcock and Brown would have piloted.

That stamp was designed by Vincent Killowry and Oonagh Young, and was launched in Clifden, where Alcock and Brown landed, on Thursday, with Tony Alcock, Alcock's nephew, attending.

Tony Alcock, left, and Vincent Killowry at the launch of the commemorative stamp on Thursday. (Submitted by Vincent Killowry)

A painter with a private pilot's licence, Killowry said he was always interested in aviation history and was honoured to be asked to mark Alcock and Brown's crossing.

"Since my childhood, I've been a huge fan of the aviation pioneers," he told CBC's On The Go.

"I think it's because of the people, it's the people who made these remarkable journeys, they were literally taking their lives in their own hands.

"We take it for granted now. We jump on a plane and we're in New York in five hours. These guys literally risked their lives — they risked everything."

A few historical facts about Alcock and Brown. (CBC Graphics)

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Jacob Barker and CBC's On The Go