Alcock and Brown – Transatlantic Flight

Silver Spitfire - the longest flight

As we make our way out of a dark, dreary January and get stuck into 2019, the key summer milestones for the Silver Spitfire expedition and a busy schedule of summer flying begins to creep into focus.

It’s during these lethargic winter months that it’s imperative to keep motivation high within the team, because before we know it, our beautiful Spitfire build will be complete, and then it’ll be time to crack on with the task at hand.

During the Christmas break, Matt happened to stumble across an aviation story of particular interest for the team, which nicely dovetails into our own ambitions.

It’s a story of two British aviators with a can-do attitude who overcame great adversity in their lives to pursue a dream. They harnessed the risks, trepidation and doubts to complete a world first – successfully completing a non-stop transatlantic flight in June 1919, taking the ‘Daily Mail Prize for the first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by aeroplane in less than 72 consecutive hours’ – as presented by a certain Winston Churchill.

The two flyers in question? John Alcock and Arthur Brown. Both were experienced airmen, who had returned – despite some serious setbacks – from the horrors of the First World War, where they each had served with the Royal Flying Corps, the precursor to the RAF.

John Alcock and Arthur Brown - transatlantic flight - Silver Spitfire the longest flight

Despite being part of this modern, swashbuckling fighting force, the two men would not escape the bloody, mechanised, industrial warfare they had witnessed from the skies above. Indeed, the fledgling pursuit of airborne conflict would be just as dangerous, if not more so, than the attritional tug of war across smashed trench lines, barbed wire and lunar landscapes that their compatriots were experiencing below.

Alcock – the pilot of the transatlantic flight – was a regular competition flyer at Hendon in 1913–14. Not letting the outbreak of war ground his flying ambitions, he quickly found himself behind the stick of Sopwith Camels and Handley Page bombers, flying sorties over the Middle Eastern theatre of war before engine failure north of the frightfully contested Gallipoli Peninsula ended his war prematurely. Notably, Alcock – who had already been awarded a DFC – managed to fly his stranded cumbersome bomber 60 miles back towards allied lines on one engine before ditching near Sulva Bay.

Brown – the navigator and engineer – was fighting his war over the skies of Northern Europe. He too would have his Royal Flying Corps career cut short, when he was shot down not once, but twice over France. The first, during artillery observation duties, where he came down on British lines. The second, with a punctured fuel tank over Bapaume in a B.E.2c. This time he was not so lucky and his bird came down on the German side of the lines. Brown, like Alcock, became a prisoner of war.

It was during the long, monotonous weeks, months and years as a POW that Alcock dreamed up the plan of a transatlantic flight. Vowing that he would one day take to the skies and become an aviator in the name of peace and progress. Luck would be on his side.

Once he was shipped back to England, Alcock needed to find a plane and so approached Vickers Engineering, who by chance were themselves looking for a suitable pilot to tackle a transatlantic attempt. The experienced and enthusiastic Alcock was hired. Brown too would soon be part of the team. He’d approached Vickers shortly after Alcock, boasting an impressive war record and a knowledge of long-distance navigation. The two-man team was set. Now all efforts turned to their machine.

100 years later, Gerry Jones and the rest of the Silver Spitfire crew are experiencing exactly the same engineering problems as those faced by Vickers in 1919. Converting an old warbird into a machine capable of flying far longer than it was ever designed to do. That means extra fuel tanks, preparing and fine-tuning Rolls-Royce engines, stripping out any unnecessary weight and armament, along with ensuring pilot comfort, warmth and safety remain a priority.

As was the way with aviation adventure in the early 20th century, preparations were rushed, due to the fact that rival teams were in on the transatlantic fun too, with Handley Page preparing a plane to take on the challenge with haste. It was imperative then that Vickers, Alcock and Brown took to the air as soon as possible. Thankfully, this added pressure is something we don’t have to worry about!

With corners cut, and time running out, Alcock and Brown fired up the two Rolls-Royce Eagle engines in a cloud of blue smoke and flame at St. John’s Newfoundland 1.45pm on the 14th of June 1919. Their plane, charts and hearts set for Clifden, County Galway, Ireland. This was it.

Incredibly, the flight was nearly over before they cleared the airfield, with the cumbersome heavy bomber, loaded with fuel, barely clearing the perimeter trees. The rest of the flight would be just as unpredictable. The two experienced airmen would face thick fog banks mid-Atlantic. Snow storms. Broken trim controls. Iced-up carburettors and instruments. They even suffered an electrical failure, meaning both Alcock and Brown were flying without their intercom, radio contact or heating. A potent cocktail of issues which made Alcock lose total control of the aircraft over the vast ocean, pulling out of two spiral dives. Reports from the time even suggest Brown climbed out to the wings in a desperate effort to remove ice, although Brown himself never mentioned his apparent heroics.

Mercifully, the struggling Vimy and her two freezing airmen made landfall at 8:40 a.m. on 15th, after only 16 hours flying time. Alcock boasted they could have made London if the weather was more forgiving, but better judgement prevailed and he opted to land. Even the final act of the flight would throw up one more surprise, with Alcock and Brown tipping the Vimy onto her nose after mistaking an Irish bog for what they thought was a firm landing area. Thankfully, they both walked away unscathed and victorious.

Alcock Brown landing

It’s a inspiring story, and an awesome feat of aviation adventure that acts both as a motivation for the Silver Spitfire team, and a reminder of the seriousness of the task as our own go-date approaches. We’ll certainly be raising a glass to Alcock and Brown on their 100th anniversary, and will be sure to tip the Silver Spitfire’s wings in their honour as we blat across that same ocean, 100 years later in our very own Rolls-Royce powered warbird.