I've lost count of the number of times I've flown across the Atlantic between the USA and Europe, but it has to be more than 20 return trips. Going east across the ocean takes between seven and eight hours these days and coming back a little longer, due to the rotation of the earth. I actually enjoy flying and, apart from the boredom of the long flight, airline food and the fact I just can't sleep on airplanes, I don't mind making the trip. It certainly beats long days spent on a ship. Not so very long ago that was the only way I could have crossed the ocean, of course, but that all changed 100 years ago this month thanks to two men who came from northwest England.
John Alcock was born into a working class family near the city of Manchester late in 1892 and he was 11 years old when news came from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, that the Wright brothers had succeeded in making the world's first powered flight. It's not clear whether it was this that kindled his interest in flying, but he was certainly making huge kites and balloons shortly afterwards. By 1910 he decided to become a pilot after he saw a Frenchman, Louis Poulhan, land after making the first flight from London to Manchester.
The second man was Arthur Brown, who was known as "Teddy." His background was very different to Alcock's. Brown's parents were well off Americans. His father worked for the Westinghouse company of Pennsylvania and the family was in Britain looking for a new factory site when Arthur was born. He grew up shy and serious but, just like Alcock, he was fascinated by flight and flying, he watched birds, and he, too, made large kites and balloons.
John Alcock left school and got a job at a motor factory in Manchester. Here he was lucky enough to work for two men who were interested in flying and he got to meet Maurice Ducrocq, a pilot and salesman for aircraft engines.
Ducrocq took Alcock on as a mechanic and taught him to fly. He gained his pilot's license by the time he was 20 and spent the next two years taking part in air races.
Brown was five years younger than Alcock and he was an apprentice at British Westinghouse in Manchester when, in 1914, the First World War broke out. He immediately took out British citizenship and then enlisted in the army, where he was given a commission as a second lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment. He served on the front line in France and then transferred to the Royal Flying Corps as an observer.
John Alcock was already flying by then. At the outbreak of war, he'd volunteered for the Royal Naval Air Service and, after a time spent as an instructor, he received a commission as a flight sub-lieutenant in December 1915. He requested a transfer to a combat unit and, in 1916 he was posted to a squadron operating from the island of Lemnos. Here he not only designed and built a fighter plane out of odd bits of old and crashed planes, he also won the Distinguished Service Cross for an attack on three enemy planes that resulted in two of them crashing.
Unfortunately he did not get time to build on this success, he took part in a bombing raid over Constantinople but was forced to ditch after his engines failed. He was picked up by the Turks and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner.
By coincidence, Arthur Brown was also a prisoner of war. He'd been shot down by anti-aircraft fire on the western front, survived and returned to his unit only to be shot down again, this time over German territory. He remained a prisoner until repatriated by the Swiss.
Shortly before the war, the British newspaper, the Daily Mail, had announced a prize of 10,000 pounds (around $600,000 today) for the first non-stop crossing of the Atlantic. The prize was offered again when the war ended and John Alcock decided to try to win it. He approached the Vickers Aviation Company and, by coincidence, they were already considering entering the competition with their Vickers Vimy bomber. They asked Alcock to be their pilot and, shortly after Arthur Brown asked them for a job. He was an expert on long distance navigating and they took him on as Alcock's partner.
Several other companies were after the prize money too, and when Alcock and Brown arrived in Newfoundland they discovered the Handley Page company was already flight testing their aircraft. Hastily the Vimy was assembled, the tanks were filled and, just before 2 o'clock on June 14, 1919 the overloaded aircraft waddled into the air, barely missing the trees at the edge of the rough, grassy field.
It wasn't an easy flight. About three hours after they took off the propeller-driven generator failed. This meant they had no radio, no intercom and no heating in the open cockpit as they struck out across the freezing North Atlantic. Next, one of the exhaust mufflers burst and the engines made such a noise that they couldn't talk to each other.
A little later they found themselves flying through thick fog. This had a twofold effect: Firstly, Brown could not see the stars to navigate, and secondly, Alcock became disorientated and twice they found themselves falling in a spiral toward the ocean. They recovered and continued, despite a trim control breaking and making the airplane nose heavy.
Their final trial came in the early hours when they flew into a huge snowstorm. The plane's instruments froze but more importantly the wings and the carburetors began to ice up. There is a story that Brown climbed out onto the wings to clear the ice but this may just be a rumor. Brown himself didn't say anything about it.
Finally, nearly seventeen hours after taking off they looked ahead and saw a small island and then a coastline. They had reached Ireland and, seeing a flat, lush, green field, Alcock prepared to set the plane down. Unluckily the field wasn't a meadow but was in fact Derrygimla Peat Bog.
The wheels sank in, the tail came up and the plane ended up on its nose but neither Alcock nor Brown were hurt.
They'd succeeded in crossing the Atlantic in a flimsy wood and canvas biplane and suddenly the world was a much smaller place. They were both knighted by the King for their efforts. Alcock died in an air crash later that same year but Brown went on to serve in World War II. Memorials were erected on both sides of the ocean, but their names are mainly forgotten today. Perhaps they should be remembered by people like me who sit back watching a movie as we cross the Atlantic on a route they pioneered.
Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at email@example.com.