Category Archives: Aviation Pioneers

Books : Our Transatlantic Flight.

Our transatlantic flight, by Sir John Alcock and Sir Arthur Whitten Brown
Our transatlantic flight, by Sir John Alcock and Sir Arthur Whitten Brown


Before 1949, Newfoundland was called Dominion of Newfoundland   and was part of the British Commonwealth . In 1949, it became a Canadian province.

The first non-stop flight eastward across the Atlantic.

The book « Our transatlantic flight » tells the story of the historic flight that was made in 1919, just after the First World War, from Newfoundland to Ireland. There was a 10,000 £ prize offered by Lord Northcliffe   from Great Britain for whoever would succeed on the first non-stop flight eastward across the Atlantic.

A triumph for British aviation

Sir John Alcock and Sir Arthur Whitten Brown , respectively pilot and navigator, wrote the story of their successful flight in this book which was published in 1969. The followings are pilot quotes from the book : « For the first time in the history of aviation the Atlantic had been crossed in direct, non-stop flight in the record time of 15 hours, 57 minutes. » (p.13) « The flight was a triumph for British aviation; the pilot and navigator were both British, the aircraft was a Vickers-Vimy   and the twin engines were made by Rolls-Royce. » (p.13)

Sir John Alcock and Sir Arthur Whitten Brown
Sir John Alcock and Sir Arthur Whitten Brown

As with all great human achievements, a very good flight planning and some luck was needed to make this flight a success. If there was an engine failure during the flight, even if the planning was excellent, there was only one outcome : downward.

In order to make the flight, Alcock and Brown boarded a ship from England bound to Halifax. They then headed to Port aux Basques and finally arrived in St.John’s. There, they joined a small group of British aviators who had arrived a few days before and who were also preparing for the competition. « The evenings were mostly spent in playing cards with the other competitors at the Cochrane Hotel, or in visits to the neighbouring film theatres. St.John’s itself showed us every kindness. » (p.60)

Maritime transport was used to carry the Vickers-Vimy biplane to Newfoundland on May 4th. It was assembled in Newfoundland. « The reporters representing the Daily Mail, the New York Times, and the New York World were often of assistance when extra manpower was required. » (p.61).

While the aircraft was being built, there were more and more visiters coming to the site. Brown says : « Although we remained unworried so long as the crowd contented itself with just watching, we had to guard against petty damage. The testing of the fabric’s firmness with the point of an umbrella was a favourite pastime of the spectators […]. » (p.61)

The Vickers-Vimy is being reassembled at Quidi Vidi in Newfoundland.
The Vickers-Vimy is being reassembled at Quidi Vidi in Newfoundland.

It was difficult to find a field that could be improvised into an aerodrome : « Newfoundland is a hospitable place, but its best friends cannot claim that it is ideal for aviation. The whole of the island has no ground that might be made into a first-class aerodrome. The district around St.John’s is  especially difficult. Some of the country is wooded, but for the most part it shows a rolling, switchback surface, across which aeroplanes cannot taxi with any degree of smoothness. The soil is soft and dotted with boulders, as only a light layer covers the rock stratum. Another handicap is the prevalence of thick fogs, which roll westward from the sea. » (p.59)

They flight tested the airplane on June 9th at Quidi Vidi. During the short flight, the crew could see icebergs near the coast. They did a second trial on June 12th and found that the transmitter constantly caused problems. But, at least, the engines seemed to be reliable…

The departure

The two men left Newfoundland on June 14th 1919. In order to fight the cold air in flight, they wore electrically heated clothing. A battery located between two seats provided for the necessary energy.

The Vickers-Vimy departs from Newfoundland in 1919
The Vickers-Vimy departs from Newfoundland in 1919

The short take-off was very difficult due to the wind and the rough surface of the aerodrome. Brown writes : « Several times I held my breath, from fear that our under-carriage would hit a roof or a tree-top. I am convinced that only Alcock’s clever piloting saved us from such an early disaster. » (p.73)

It took them 8 minutes to reach 1000 ft. Barely one hour after departure and once over the ocean, the generator broke and the flight crew was cut off from all means of communication.

As the airplane consumed petrol, the centre of gravity changed and since there was no trim on the machine, the pilot had to exert a permanent backward pressure on the joystick.

Flying in clouds, fog and turbulence.

During the flight with much clouds and fog, Brown, having almost no navigation aid,  had real problems to estimate the aircraft’s position and limit the flying errors. He had to wait for a higher altitude and for the night to come to improve his calculations : « I waited impatiently for the first sight of the moon, the Pole Star and other old friends of every navigator. » (p.84). The fog and clouds were so thick that at times they « cut off from view parts of the Vickers-Vimy. » (p.95)

Without proper instruments to fly in clouds, they were relying on a « revolution-counter » to establish the climbing or the falling rate. That is pretty scary. « A sudden increase in revolutions would indicate that the plane was diving; a sudden loss of revs  would show that she was climbing dangerously steeply. » (p.176)

But that was not enough. They also had to deal with turbulence that rocked the plane while they could not see anything outside. They became desoriented : « The airspeed indicator failed to register, and bad bumps prevented me from holding to our course. From side to side rocked the machine, and it was hard to know in what position we really were. A spin was the inevitable result. From an altitude of 4,000 feet we twirled rapidly downward.[…]. « Apart from the changing levels marked by aneroid, only the fact that our bodies were pressed tightly against the seats indicated that we were falling. How and at what angle we were falling, we knew not. Alcock tried to centralise the controls, but failed because we had lost all sense of what was central. I searched in every direction for an external sign, and saw nothing but opaque nebulousness. » (p.88)

« It was a tense moment for us, and when at last we emerged from the fog we were close down over the water at an extremely dangerous angle. The white-capped waves were rolling along too close to be comfortable, but a quick glimpse of the horizon enabled me to regain control of the machine. » (p.40).

De-icing a gauge installed outside of the cockpit.

Snow and sleet were falling. They didn’t realize how lucky they were to continue flying in such a weather. Nowadays, there are many ways to dislodge ice from a wing while the aircraft is in flight. Here is what Brown says about their situation : « […] The top sides of the plane were covered completely by a crusting of frozen sleet. The sleet imbedded itself in the hinges of the ailerons and jammed them, so that for about an hour the machine had scarcely any lateral control. Fortunately, the Vickers-Vimy possesses plenty of inherent lateral stability; and, as the rudder controls were never clogged by sleet, we were able to hold to the right direction. » (p.95)

After twelve hours of flying, the glass of a gauge outside the cockpit became obscured by clotted snow. Brown had to deal with it, while Alcock was flying. «  The only way to reach it was by climbing out of the cockpit and kneeling on top of the fuselage, while holding a strut for the maintenance of balance. […] The violent rush of air, which tended to push me backward, was another discomfort. […] Until the storm ended, a repetition of this performance, at fairly frequent intervals, continued to be necessary. » (p.94)

In order to save themselves, they executed a descent from 11,000 to 1000 feet and in the warmer air the ailerons started to operate again. As they continued their descent below 1000 feet over the ocean, they were still surrounded by fog. They had to do some serious low altitude flying : « Alcock was feeling his way downward gently and alertly, not knowing whether the cloud extended to the ocean, nor at what moment the machine’s undercarriage might touch the waves. He had loosened his safety belt, and was ready to abandon ship if we hit the water […]. » (p.96)

The arrival.

They saw Ireland at 8.15 am on June 15th and crossed the coast ten minutes later. They did not expect a very challenging landing as the field looked solid enough to support an aircraft. They landed at 8 :40 am at Clifden on top of what happened to be a bog; the aircraft rolled on its nose and suffered serious material damages. The first non-stop transatlantic flight ended in a crash. Both both crewmen were alive and well, although they were dealing with fatigue

The transatlantic flight ends up in Ireland in a soft field
The transatlantic flight ends up in Ireland in a soft field

Initially, nobody in Ireland believed that the plane arrived from North America. But when they saw mail-bags from Newfoundland, there were « cheers and painful hand-shakes » (p.102).

First page of the Sunday Evening Telegraph in 1919.
First page of the Sunday Evening Telegraph in 1919.

They were cheered by the crowds in Ireland and England and received their prize from Winston Churchill.

John Alcock chaired by the crowd
John Alcock chaired by the crowd
Winston Churchill is presenting the Daily Mail Check to the two pilots.
Winston Churchill is presenting the Daily Mail Check to the two pilots.

Their record stood unchallenged for eight years until Lindbergh’s flight in 1927.

The future of transatlantic flight.

Towards the end of the book, the authors risk a prediction on the future of transatlantic flight. But aviation made such a progress in a very short time that, inevitably, their thoughts on the subject was obsolete in a matter of a few years. Here are some examples :

« Nothwithstanding that the first two flights across the Atlantic were made respectively by a flying boat and an aeroplane, it is evident that the future of transatlantic flight belongs to the airship. » (p.121)

« […] The heavy type of aeroplane necessary to carry an economical load for long distances would not be capable of much more than 85 to 90 miles an hour. The difference between this and the present airship speed of 60 miles an hour would be reduced by the fact that an aeroplane must land at intermediate stations for fuel replenishment. » (p.123)

« It is undesirable to fly at great heights owing to the low temperature; but with suitable provision for heating there is no reason why flying at 10,000 feet should not be common. » (p.136)

The Air Age.

There is a short section in the book on the « Air Age ». I chose two small excerpts on Germany and Canada :

On Germany’s excellent Zeppelins : « The new type of Zeppelin – the Bodensee –  is so efficient that no weather conditions, except a strong cross-hangar wind, prevents it from making its daily flight of 390 miles between Friedrichshafen and Staalsen, thirteen miles from Berlin. » (p.140)

On Canada’s use of aeroplanes : « Canada has found a highly successful use for aeroplanes in prospecting the Labrador timber country. A group of machines returned from an exploration with valuable photographs and maps of hundreds of thousands of pound’s worth of forest land. Aerial fire patrols, also, are sent out over forests.» (p.142) and « Already, the Canadian Northwest Mounted Police [today the RCMP] have captured criminals by means of aeroplane patrols. » (p.146)


The Manchester Guardian stated, on June 16th 1919 : « […] As far as can be foreseen, the future of air transport over the Atlantic is not for the aeroplane. It may be used many times for personal feats of daring. But to make the aeroplane safe enough for business use on such sea routes we should have to have all the cyclones of the Atlantic marked on the chart, and their progress marked in from hour to hour. »(p.169)

Title : Our Transatlantic Flight

Authors : Sir John Alcock and Sir Arthur Whitten Brown

Edition : William Kimber

© 1969

SBN : 7183-0221-4

For other articles on that theme on my website: Aviation pioneers.

Aviation pioneers: the Hindenburg on its first flight by Québec on July 1st 1936

The Hindenburg airship over Quebec in 1936. The Quebec bridge is visible in the background.
The Hindenburg airship over Quebec in 1936. The Quebec bridge is visible in the background.

The particularly rare picture above shows the LZ129 Hindenburg airship just after it completed its flight over Québec, Canada on its fourth crossing of the Atlantic from Germany to Lakehurst, United States, on July 1st 1936. This fly-by had not been announced since the trip was normally done directly between Germany and United States.

The Hindenburg was the biggest airship in the world and it was destroyed in 1937 on the arrival to Lakehurst. The explosion of the hydrogen on board the airship caused the death of 34 passengers and crew members.

Far away, we can see the Quebec bridge, the longest cantilever bridge in the world, while it was the sole link between the two shores of the St-Lawrence seaway.

An excellent source of information (in French) can be found on the internet link included below. It recalls the citizen’s comments while the airship was approaching, the trajectory followed by the airship over Quebec City and how the citizens learned of the Hindenburg’s approach:

Le dirigeable Von Hindenburg au-dessus de Québec [1er juillet 1936]

Tales of a Dakota Pilot

Tales of a Dakota pilot

(The way it was 1929 – 1937)

Tales of a Dakota Pilot - The way it was 1929 - 1937
Tales of a Dakota Pilot – The way it was 1929 – 1937

This is a simple and charming little book retelling the life stories of the pilot Fred Max Roberts Jr when he was flying his airplanes in the Bismark region, North Dakota, between 1929 and 1937. The book was written by his son, Fred Marke Roberts, so that some of his father’s stories do not fall in oblivion. You will find here a good idea of how things were done in the early years of aviation.

An original and easy way of refueling

When came the time to refuel, the pilots would regularly land on a farmer’s field. They knew that somebody had noticed the landing and, most of the time, a fuel truck would be sent without any previous arrangements. The pilot had nonetheless the duty to make sure he landed close to an easy access for the fuel truck. Sometimes, to simplify the refueling process a bit, the pilot landed directly on the road, outside of the city.

This habit did not seem to have change fifty years later when I did a 2650 kilometers cross-country flight with a Cessna 170B, between St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, and Edmonton, Alberta. During the trip, I had to land in a field near Lundar, Manitoba, a Canadian province which is bounded to the south by North Dakota and Minnesota. Soon after the landing, a pick-up truck carrying fuel approached the plane. I had not made any arrangements for fuel. In my case, a precautionary landing was needed as the fuel gauges had started to give false indications. Since fuel was readily available, the tanks were topped before the next takeoff.

Landing in a field with a Cessna C170B in Lundar, Manitoba in 1981.
Landing in a field with a Cessna C170B in Lundar, Manitoba in 1981.

Killing coyotes against the county bounty

Coyotes where frequently attacking farmer’s livestock. When the situation was getting out of control, the farmers would phone Fred Max. The latter would take off with his Curtiss Junior Pusher, accompanied by an experienced shooter and they would spot and kill coyotes. Winter was the best season for hunting from the air since the coyote’s dark colored fur contrasted  against the white snow.

The farmers, on their horses, were following the aircraft’s manoeuvers to spot where the coyotes had been shot. They then brought the dead animals back to their farm. Few minutes later, the aircraft would land as close to the farm as possible and the pilots picked up the coyotes, bringing them back to the county’s bureau in order to receive the published bounty for each killed coyote.

Super Cub and wolves shot from the air in Northern Ontario, Canada, on an aviation postcard dating from the sixties.
Super Cub and wolves shot from the air in Northern Ontario, Canada, on an aviation postcard dating from the sixties.

The American Midwest farmer’s hospitality

When a pilot landed in a farmer’s field, as a stopover on a long cross-country flight, he would often be offered a meal with the farmer’s family. If darkness was an obstacle for the continuation of the flight, the pilot was often offered a bed for the night. The next morning, after breakfast, and as a thank you gesture, the pilot would offer the farmer a courtesy flight.

A practical way to lower the costs associated with a long cross-country flight

An easy way to reduce the costs associated with a long cross-country flight was to offer airplane rides to villagers who had come to meet the pilot once at the destination. The pilot landed, waited a bit and knew that, soon, few people would come to him to ask for a ride.

The pilot Fred Max Roberts Jr hanging to the wing of his monoplane

A major concern for any pilot landing in a field was to find a fence to tie the plane as soon as possible to protect it from the strong winds blowing over the Midwest plains. But really strong gusts would sometimes break the ropes.

The pilot tells the reader that he was once immobilized in the middle of a field while a storm was quickly approaching. He got under the wing of his monoplane and hanged to it in order to add some weight. But that was not enough. A strong gust lifted the plane, broke the two tie-downs and sent pilot and plane flying at about ten feet in the air. Fearing that his plane would continue to climb without him at the controls, the pilot let go. The plane maintained a level flight while backing until it suddenly rolled and crashed.

Pilot and passengers are caught in flight by a tornado

Flying and meteorology manuals teach every pilot the necessity to avoid thunderstorms because, among other reasons, of the extreme ascending and descending air currents that are present in a well-developed cell. The pilot Fred Max Roberts Jr not only went through a thunderstorm but survived a tornado while he was in flight. His story was published in many newspapers at the time. Some of the articles are reproduced in the book.

As the pilot tells it, meteorological forecasts and weather observations were not as easily accessible as they are today. During a flight with passengers in his Waco 90 biplane, the sky suddenly darkened and the weather degraded rapidly. The pilot tried his best to fly between two important cloud formations. He could hardly see his instruments due to the lack of light, even if the flight was made during the day. He was fighting to avoid being disoriented.

Suddenly, the plane started to gain altitude rapidly by itself. The pilot nosed his ship downward and applied full power. This was useless. The aircraft was still rapidly climbing, tail first. Then the ascent abruptly stopped and a dive ensued. He pulled on the stick to bring his Waco to a level flight, but the rapid descent continued. Having no other choice, he applied full throttle and set his plane for a normal climb. Again, the descent continued until the Waco was at about 500 feet above ground level.

Eventually, they got out of the storm and landed at White Rock. Fred Max then realized that his passengers, sitting in the open cockpit Waco during the storm, had not fasten their seat belts and were hanging for dear life to a brace running across the front of the passenger cockpit.

Those are some of the tales a reader can find in “Tales of a Dakota Pilot”, an unpretentious book but nonetheless a publication that might very well surprise many young pilots, as the 1930’s way of flying so differed from what a young pilot lives when he integrates today’s world of aviation.

Author : Fred Marke Roberts
Published by : fmRoberts Enterprises
© 1991
ISBN : 0-912746-09-2