It’s hard to imagine, as we fly from the US or Canada to Ireland, cosseted in comfort during an approximate 6.5 hour (east coast) flight, that we’re only a couple of generations removed from the first pioneers of aviation to achieve this feat. In fact, it was one hundred and three years ago today, June 15th 1919, that the first Transatlantic flight landed in the West of Ireland
It was a race which saw four aircraft and their crews competing for a prize of £10,000. This included a crew with an Irish connection – Norwegian Tryggve Gran, who had been a fellow polar explorer of Kerryman Tom Crean, on Scott’s famous Antarctic expedition. Another plane came from the manfacturer of the famous Sopwith Camel (preferred aircraft of comic and cartoon characters Biggles and Snoopy!). The enterprising aircrews would explore every possible angle to give them a competitive advantage. One even stripped the paint from the wing bracing wires – calculating it would gain them an extra half mile per hour. But ultimately, the names to become synonymous with the first successful flight from North America to Ireland, were John Alcock and his navigator Arthur Whitten Brown,
Both men had been prisoners of war during WWI – Alcock having been shot down over Turkey and Brown captured in Germany.
Getting to Ireland from Canada as never before
Ireland wasn’t intended to be their final destination – though Alcock was confident that Brown’s navigational skills would take them to the Galway coast, boasting “we shall hang our hats on the aerials of Clifden wireless station”. It was meant to be a simple overnight stop before flying onwards to England. Heading towards challenging and little known weather conditions, they lifted off from Lester’s Field, St. John’s Newfoundland, at 1.41pm on 14th June 1919, to fly the wild Atlantic in their open cockpit Vickers Vimy.
Within five hours they had managed to climb to 4,500 ft but were continously enveloped in heavy fog and cloud. Suddenly, they burst through the cloud – but it was to be shortlived exaltation – a ten minute window with Brown using just the sun to get bearings but no visible horizon to enable sextant use.
How did Brown navigate to Ireland?
At the core of his equipment was a standard sextant – having had the engravings etched deeper to allow him better view against the vibrations of the aircraft. He had ancillary equipment adapted to help him measure drift, ground speed and horizon. It was also more challenging with the speed and drift of the plane compared to shipping. However, the heavy fog which they encountered not long after take-off was to linger for some hours. Further hampering their efforts, a faulty wireless meant they could only receive messages.
By 8pm they were in darkness and hoping for some glimpse of the stars to aid navigation. But they remained cocooned in the cloud. Eventually, after eight hours in flight and managing to gradually climb to 6,000ft, Brown spotted the Pole star through a gap in the clouds. He calculated they were over halfway between Canada and Ireland and close enough to their original planned course. Despite the challenging navigation conditions, the following wind was proving stronger than anticipated and propelling them (excuse the pun) towards Ireland three to four hours sooner than expected.
As Alcock skilfully took the aeroplane to 4,000ft he must have envied Brown, who was able to move about his cockpit while tending to his instruments and checking gauges. Alcock was virtually welded to his seat, feeding constant manual inputs into the controls to keep them on course. Suddenly, they were struck by turbulence in the middle of thick fog. The plane went into a spin with pilot and navigator unable to tell the dive angle, praying that they would exit the fog before they hit the Ocean. Then, as suddenly as the turbulence had hit, they were free of cloud. But a new danger immediately presented itself. They were still descending, and the swell was at right angles to them, less than 100 feet below. Using all his skill and experience, Alcock managed to right the Vimy and ascend, opening up the engines again. On checking the compass, the aviators discovered the spin had put them facing back in the direction from whence they had come.
Pushing on to the West Coast of Ireland
Estimating they had more than enough fuel, Alcock now had no compunction about burning it to again gain height. Yet, despite being at 7,000ft, there was still no dawn greeting them. They were now flying for almost twelve hours and Brown estimated they were no more than 450 miles from the west of Ireland. But, more gauntlets were about to slap their faces – heavy rain turned to sleet and snow. Brown, forced to kneel on his seat, steadied himself against the fuselage to clear snow off the petrol overflow gauge – a vital instrument.
Having nursed the engines for hours, Alcock now pushed them, reckoning on finding clearer weather somewhere above. He eventually got to 11,000ft – finally allowing Brown a glimpse of the sun and a reading to check their course. But that same altitude that was now assisting them, was to throw up one final challenge – ice. Alcock began to descend again, until at about 500ft they caught sight of the seas below. Brown gave him a new reading and they began to approach Ireland. After almost 16 hours of flying they crossed the Irish coast, zooming low over the town of Clifden. Despite all the challenges and travails, they found themselves just 20 miles north of the course Brown had originally plotted.
From Fog to Irish Bog
It was time to land. They spied the massive aerials of Marconi’s wireless station at Derrygimla and amongst the granite rocks and pools of Connemara’s ‘savage beauty’, spied what in Alcock’s own words – ‘… looked like a lovely field’. They touched down, Alcock killing the engines, but to their horror discovered that the lovely field was sphagnum moss-coated bog. The nose dug in and they tiltled, as we might say in Ireland, ‘arse over head’! Uninjured, they were helped by soldiers and workers from the nearby station. When the puzzled soldiers asked from whence they had come, Alcock uttered the immortal words, that no man or woman had ever before spoken: “Yesterday we were in America”.
After the Ireland Adventure
Having made history by becoming the first airmen to fly across the Atlantic, both were knighted shortly afterwards. But Captain Sir John Alcock would not live to reflect on his achievements. Just six months later, while delivering an airplane to the Paris air show he was killed when he crashed into a field near Rouen, France.
Arthur Brown died in 1948, at the age of 62, and was said never to have recovered from the death of his RAF pilot son shot down over Holland in 1944. He had objected to a proposed monument in Clifden in 1939, citing his belief that it was too soon and that in any case, monuments should be presevered for the dead.
And of the venerable Vickers Vimy? Having managed to prevent the locals totally scavenging the canvas to cover their cocks of hay, she was restored shortly afterwards and presented to the British Science Museum.
It was to be another twenty years before transatlantic flights became a commercial reality. And it was to be on water, rather than land. Foynes, Co. Limerick on the River Shannon estuary became the regular landing spot for flying boats – the preserve of the rich and famous.
Maureen O’Hara’s husband, Charles Blair flew the first Foynes to New York direct flight. And the first Irish Coffee was made at Foynes. Ireland also claims the first east-west flight. Capt. James Fitmaurice of the fledgling Irish Aer Corps being amongst the crew who flew from Baldonnel military airfield in Dublin. This was also where the famous ‘wrong-way around Corrigan’ landed.
More on Anam Croí Ireland Small Group Tours
Hear this story and more and even visit the landing site or cross the estuary that once served as a runway for the flying boats on our small group (max 14) tours. Did you know we also love collaborating with our customers to help build bespoke itineraries for family and friends on private customised tours? Here’s an example from TripAdvisor of our customer servie:
“Anam Croi ireland tours was a great experience….helped us plan our trip down to every last detail, and also helped us with other trip plans we had made before we joined the tours and also helped us to catch our flight home!”
So now you know why our ethos is: “We put our heart and soul into helping you discover the Heart and Soul of Ireland”
When researching this story, we naturally visited Derrygimla and used information gleaned from many sources over the years. But we found the book ‘Yesterday we were in America’, by Brendan Lynch, (Haynes Publishing 2012), an especially good read.