On May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh (1902-1974) touched down at Le Bourget Field in Paris, completing the first solo, nonstop transatlantic flight. Just 33 and a half hours before, his single-engine monoplane, the Spirit of St Louis, had taken off from Roosevelt Field, traveling an ambitious 3,600-miles (5,800-kilometers).
Touted as the most astounding achievement of its day, Robert Ripley featured Lindbergh in Believe It or Not!, his popular syndicated New York Evening Post cartoon, a few months later. Instead of celebrating the flier, however, Ripley pointed out that Lindbergh, far from being the first person to make the crossing, was the 67th!
Ripley soon faced a public outcry, receiving angry telegrams and letters from irate readers who called him a liar. Yet, Ripley knew his facts. Keep reading to learn more about the real first transatlantic crossing by Captain Alcock and Lieutenant Brown as well as the subsequent trips that preceded Lindbergh.
A Groundbreaking Aviation Duo
Today, few people remember the groundbreaking flight of Captain John Alcock (1892-1919) of England and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown (1886-1948) of Scotland in 1919. Yet, these men achieved a milestone in aviation that some experts list on a par with the 1969 moon landing.
Both men honed their flying skills during World War I. Alcock became a prisoner of war after his aircraft’s engine failed over the Gulf of Xeros in Turkey. Brown got shot down and captured over Germany. Yet, despite these war-related aviation traumas, they enthusiastically took on the challenge of completing the first nonstop transatlantic flight.
The London newspaper the Daily Mail had initially offered a £10,000 prize (more than $1.1 million today) to the “aviator who shall cross the Atlantic in an aeroplane in flight” back in 1913. But World War I intervened in 1914, suspending the competition until 1918.
The Race to the First Nonstop Transatlantic Flight
This delay worked out for the best. It took WWI to develop the type of equipment necessary for such a crossing. What’s more, the timeframe suited Alcock and Brown. Both found themselves unemployed and ready for something new at the end of the Great War. Of course, the competition meant that they were also in a race against time.
On June 14th, 1919, at 1:45 pm, they began their bold journey across the ocean in a modified Vickers Vimy twin-engine biplane. They departed St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, where several other teams were also preparing to take up the challenge. While the rest assembled their planes and ran tests, Alcock and Brown hastily set out, barely clearing the trees standing near the end of the runway. To bring them luck, each man carried a toy cat mascot. Alcock called his “Lucky Jim,” and Brown named his “Twinkletoes.”
1919: The First Transatlantic Flight
During a 16-hour-long flight fraught with nearly unnavigable weather, failing equipment, and countless mishaps, the British duo flew nonstop to Ireland. The flight itself proved a disaster from start to finish.
Following the treacherous and bumpy takeoff from St. John’s, their radio failed. Fog soon inundated the pilots. At this early stage in aviation, the men relied on a sextant, an instrument that measured celestial objects in relation to the horizon, for navigation.
But clouds and fog obscured their view of the stars and moon for hours at a time, rendering the sextant useless. To overcome this hurdle, they climbed above the cloud cover to get a good glimpse of the sky, yet this solution brought new obstacles.
Just When It Couldn’t Get Worse
Higher elevations meant freezing temperatures, which covered the plane in ice and snow. The men had to frequently stand up and clear the white stuff from the plane’s instrument sensors outside the cockpit. At one point, ice covered the air intake of one engine, spelling disaster. Alcock had to turn it off so that it wouldn’t backfire and cause damage.
They survived on coffee, whiskey, and sandwiches and passed the time by singing. They also conversed anxiously about the weather and if it would damage their fuel tanks.
At one point, they faced a near-fatal stall. The overloaded aircraft’s exhaust pipe blew, making communication above the roar impossible. Then, the plane’s wind-driven generator failed, leaving the two without heat. Alcock and Brown froze in their open cockpit. Just when it seemed nothing else could go wrong, they descended to 500 feet in an attempt to give the aircraft a chance to thaw. The engine restarted, they broke into clear skies, and a patch of emerald land lay before them.
A Historic Landing
On June 15th, 1919, at 8:40 am, their aircraft touched down in an Irish bog near Clifden, County Galway. They had mistaken a relatively flat swathe of green for marshland and severely damaged their plane in the aftermath. While the landing proved unceremonious, Alcock and Brown had achieved the impossible.
Up to this point, the only way to cross the Atlantic was by ship. The crossing took between 116 and 137 hours or 4.8 to 5.7 days. In comparison, a 16-hour flight was an exciting development. A century later, millions of people fly across the Atlantic every year thanks to commercial aviation. Yet, such advancements would have been inconceivable were it not for Alcock and Brown’s historic flight.
To celebrate their monumental achievement, the Secretary of State for Air, Winston Churchill, presented Alcock and Brown with the Daily Mail prize for their nonstop crossing in less than 72 consecutive hours. A week later, the aviation duo received the honor of Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (KBE) by King George V at Windsor Castle.
Unfortunately, their triumph proved short-lived. On December 18th, 1919, Alcock died in a crash over France on his way to the Paris Airshow.
His sudden and tragic end proved a reminder of just how dangerous aviation was in its infancy. Brown survived to the ripe old age of 62, a miracle considering his daredevil lifestyle. He died on October 4th, 1948.
History’s Poor Memory
Many people mistakenly associate Charles Lindbergh with the first nonstop transatlantic crossing by plane, but Alcock and Brown hold the record. Lindbergh did, however, make the first solo crossing. But what about the 64 other people that Ripley claimed came before Lindbergh?
In 1919, following Alcock and Brown’s successful transatlantic crossing, a dirigible carrying 31 men crossed from Scotland to the United States. Then, five years later, a second dirigible traveled from Germany to Lakehurst, New Jersey, with 33 passengers on board. The official tally comes to 66 individuals who made the nonstop trip before Lindbergh.
The Customer Is Never Right
It was this type of shocking, yet truthful, storytelling that endeared audiences to Ripley in the first place. From stories of a chicken who lived 17 days after its head was cut off to tales of a German strong woman who juggled cannonballs, Ripley’s cartoons always proved true. No matter how improbable they appeared on the page.
By 1936, fans had forgotten their outrage about Lindbergh, and Ripley was one of the most famous men in the United States. He ranked as more popular than President Roosevelt, Jack Dempsey, James Cagney, and even Charles Lindbergh. As Ripley sagely noted, “I think mine is the only business in which the customer is never right.”
By Engrid Barnett, contributor for Ripleys.com