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The Atlantic air crossing

Picture of Antonio Rodríguez-Laiz

Antonio Rodríguez-Laiz

AERTEC / Marketing & Communication


At the dawn of the aviation, any air route – however short it may seem to us now – truly involved a challenge. Numerous sponsors put large prizes on the table at the beginning of the 20th century for whoever dared to beat new records. Each route, each altitude, each speed or each innovation were treated as real feats. And they actually were.

The Atlantic Ocean has linked Western cultures for centuries and communicating both shores had always been the great challenge to overcome. Crossing it became an obsession for many when the first flying machines appeared. However, the state of technology made it impossible until the First World War had just come to an end.

A few of the most important feats in the early days of aviation that took place over the Atlantic.

Now then, who was the first pilot to cross the Atlantic? There are several answers to this question, and all of them have their own nuances.

In 1919, the prestigious newspaper the London Daily Mail offered a prize of 10,000 pounds sterling to the first aviator who managed to link both continents without any stopovers. Several teams tried to overcome this challenge. One of them was made up of two RAF officers, Captain John William Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown, who was of Scottish origin. They were respectively 26 and 32 years of age.

Alcock chose a modified Vickers Wimy bomber. This was a 13-metre-long biplane with a wingspan of 21 m. It was manufactured by Vickers Limited, the company for which Brown worked (the main reason why Alcock chose him as the co-pilot).

Logic suggested that the best route had to be between Ireland and Terranova, the shortest distance between both continents. Since the prevailing winds in this area of the Atlantic blow from West to East, they decided to fly from Terranova after the accident suffered by one of the teams that had flown from Ireland. They weren’t the first. Another two teams had previously attempted to fly from the same place, though they failed.

Once they were in Terranova waiting for a window of good weather that would ensure they had a good flight, they received news about an American Army seaplane that had crossed the Atlantic, though it was forced to make a stopover in the Azores, which ruled it out for the prize. However, Alcock then took the decision that it was necessary to take off as soon as possible to avoid any further surprises.

Alcock and Brown’s aircraft before take-off on June 14th 1919
Alcock and Brown’s aircraft before take-off on June 14th 1919

June 14 wasn’t an ideal day to attempt it, not even the air currents were especially favourable. Nonetheless, there was a sudden change of wind direction, which veered favourably at a speed of 60 km/h. They took an immediate decision.

After a hesitant take-off over a very bumpy field (heading image), they headed East. An hour later, when they were already over the open sea, they were shrouded in dense fog, in the middle of which an essential part of the radio generator fell off. From that moment on, they could receive messages but not transmit them. Nobody would know anything about them until they arrived at their destination.

A little later, the exhaust pipe of one of the 350 horsepower Rolls Royce Eagle VIII engines also fell off, making the aircraft veer to starboard. The noise became deafening. The aviators could hardly communicate with each other, except by making hand signals.

After an endless night, they found themselves in thick clouds at dawn, which prevented them from seeing the aeroplane’s wingtips. They even lost their horizontal bearings and sense of direction. When they finally exited the clouds, they found themselves in an embarrassing situation: they were flying scarcely 15 metres above the waves in the wrong direction. Just after they had got back on their route to Europe, they were beset by a terrible snow and hail storm, which obstructed some basic indicators and ducts needed for the flight. They were then forced to crawl out of the cabin onto the fuselage and wings to clear these elements (fuel gauge, carburators, wind-speed indicator, etc.) with a wind chill factor of 20 degrees below zero. They had some sandwiches, chocolate and coffee to warm themselves up.

At about 8.30 on June 15, they finally reached the Irish shoreline and then went on to land in a boggy area located four kilometres from Clifden in County Galway, where the nose of the Vickers Wimy sank into the mud. Both pilots were unharmed. They had achieved it. They had just crossed the Atlantic Ocean for the very first time without making any stopovers on a 3,124 km trip that had lasted a little over 16 hours.

Three years later, two Portuguese aviators, Gago Coutinho and Artur de Sacadura, made the first non-stop flight over the Southern Atlantic on board the Lusitania, a single-engined Fairey IIID especially designed for this trip. This was originally a British reconnaissance aeroplane which measured 11 metres in length with a wingspan of 14 m.

Take-off of the Lusitania from Lisbon on March 30th 1922.
Take-off of the Lusitania from Lisbon on March 30th 1922.

The flight took off from Lisbon and several legs were planned. The longest leg took them from Praia in Cape Verde to the Sao Pedro and Sao Paulo archipelago in Brazil, which meant they would definitively cross the Atlantic. On this 1,700 km leg, they lost one of the seaplane’s two floats while landing on the sea as a result of huge waves.

After several more legs, forced landings on the sea, drifting, more waves and two other Fairey IIID replacement aviators, they finally reached Rio de Janeiro.

This flight also had another merit. Gago Coutinho, who was the navigator, had the idea of adapting an artificial horizon to a sextant, which allowed him to make the first flight in history that only used the help of astronomical navigation. This was undoubtedly an extraordinary advance for aviation.

But going back now to the Atlantic, if one were to name someone who really became the most popular among those who flew over the ocean, it has to be Charles Lindbergh.

He also had the incentive of a 25,000 dollar prize (offered by the New York businessman Raymond Orteig) for whoever flew between both continents, not islands as in the case of Alcock’s flight. From that moment, several aviators attempted to fly from New York to Paris, all of whom failed.

Charles Lindbergh.
Charles Lindbergh.

Charles Lindbergh proposed to make a solo flight on a single-engined aeroplane. It seemed rather rash, taking into account the attempts that had preceded it.

On 20 May 1927, Lindberg took off from Long Island in New York on a high-winged monoplane built especially for this flight by the Ryan Co. of San Diego. It only had a single 9-cylinder Whirlwind engine which allowed it to maintain an average speed of 173 km/h. The premises behind the aeroplane’s design were clear: increase range, reduce weight and optimise aerodynamics.

Once he was immersed in preparing for the flight, Lindbergh’s priority and great challenge was to stay awake during many hours. His training involved spending 55 hours in a row without sleep. Moreover, he flew as low as he possibly could during the flight, so that the spray from the waves would help him stay awake. This was his greatest challenge.

Unlike Alcock’s flight, when only a few locals approached the recently landed aircraft to help out and paid little heed when they heard that that biplane had just arrived from America, around a hundred thousand people were waiting for Lindbergh at the Le Bourget aerodrome in the outskirts of Paris. The pilot’s name went down in history and the direction of aviation changed forever at precisely that moment.

In all those years, one new aviation milestone connected to the Atlantic followed another which added names, at times little known, to the list of pioneers mentioned above, including: Dieudonné Costes, Joseph Le Brix, Amelia Earhart, Mariano Barberán, Joaquín Collar… The first airlines which crossed the ocean with passengers were founded just a few years after Lindbergh’s flight.

But all that is another story.



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