John Alcock (1892-1919)

In 1927, when Charles Lindbergh finally became the first to fly solo across the Atlantic, the 19th person to do so, he said, “Alcock and Brown showed me the way”

Issue: 5 / 2017By Joseph Noronha

At about 3:00 a.m. on June 15, 1919, somewhere over the North Atlantic, aviator John William Alcock and navigator Arthur Whitten Brown feared that their end was finally near. They were attempting the first non-stop transatlantic flight from Newfoundland to Ireland and their World War I Vickers Vimy bomber had twice come terrifyingly close to crashing.

Now trapped in a heavy snowstorm, drenched by freezing rain that poured into the open cockpit, with the rudimentary instruments misbehaving and icing rapidly accumulating on the wings, the aircraft was very difficult to fly. Even the carburettors of the twin 2-cylinder 360-hp Rolls-Royce engines were icing up. As Alcock struggled to control the stricken machine, Brown climbed out onto the long wings that spanned 68 feet. With nothing but a knife in hand, in blinding snow, he crawled from point to point trying to clear the plane of icing, till they descended to a level where the ice began to melt. His heroics saved the day and enabled them to continue towards the Irish coast.

John Alcock was born on November 6, 1892, in Manchester, England. Jack, as he was popularly called, was attracted to flying as a teenager. He worked as a mechanic in a flying school at the Brooklands aerodrome and gained his pilot’s licence in November 1912. After a year or so he joined the air racing circuit where he mostly favoured the Farman biplane. When World War I began in July 1914, he volunteered to join the Royal Naval Air Service as a Warrant Officer. But thanks to his flying experience he was commissioned as an officer in December 1915 and posted to a fighter squadron. He acquitted himself with distinction, once managing to shoot down two enemy aircraft while flying a single-seat Sopwith Camel.

However, the same day, as he was piloting a Handley Page bomber on a raid against the Turkish capital Constantinople, one engine failed. The aircraft managed to limp on for more than 100 kilometres before the other engine quit and it had to be ditched in the sea. The three crew members swam for about an hour to reach the coast, only to be promptly captured. This ended Alcock’s participation in the War. He spent the next 14 months as a prisoner of war in Turkey. During his time in captivity Alcock recalled that in April 1913 the Daily Mail had instituted a prize of £10,000 for “the aviator who shall first cross the Atlantic in an aeroplane in flight from any point in the United States, Canada or Newfoundland to any point in Great Britain or Ireland in 72 continuous hours.” And he resolved to try and win the prize.

In March 1919, Alcock retired from the Royal Air Force and joined Vickers Limited as a test pilot. He soon approached them with his proposal to fly across the Atlantic. Impressed with his spirit, Vickers began the process of converting a Vimy for the marathon flight by replacing its bomb racks with additional petrol tanks of total capacity 3,375 litres. Meanwhile Alcock took on Arthur Brown as his navigator. The Vimy would have to be disassembled and shipped to Newfoundland before being reassembled and time was running out if they wanted to be the first to make the perilous flight. Already several rival teams had gathered there and were either making feverish preparations or waiting for the weather to improve.

Alcock and Brown finally took off from St John’s, Newfoundland, at 1:45 p.m. on June 14, 1919. They had on board 196 letters and one parcel, making this the first time mail was carried by air over the ocean. Apart from essential supplies, they had a few sandwiches and a bottle of beer aboard. Their woes began almost immediately as the heavy plane just about cleared the tops of the trees at the end of the makeshift field they had been allotted. A few hours later their sole electrical generator failed, snapping radio and intercom contact as well as essential heating. Next, one engine’s exhaust pipe gave way, making sparks fly backwards and producing a terrifying sound. For most of that evening and night they were in clouds or fog, making it almost impossible for Brown to navigate. But a brief glimpse of the stars after midnight helped him estimate their position.

Alcock was an excellent pilot, but was untrained for flying for hours through thick fog and turbulent weather. He twice became disoriented and lost control of the aircraft, managing to recover only just above the waves. When they had survived the severe icing episode that almost brought the Vimy down they celebrated with sandwiches and coffee spiked with whiskey. At 8:40 a.m. they finally spotted land. Alcock selected what seemed to be a smooth green field and put the plane down. It turned out to be a bog near Clifden, Ireland. The wheels sank into the marshy ground and the bomber was severely damaged. Fortunately neither man was hurt. Estimates vary but they had flown approximately 3,040 km in about 16 hours at an average speed of 190 kmph.

They were both treated as heroes and knighted by King George V. But Alcock’s triumph was sadly short-lived. On December 18, 1919, he was delivering a new amphibious Vickers Viking aircraft to Paris when he crashed in fog at a remote location. He was rescued from the wreckage, but never regained consciousness.

John Alcock and Arthur Brown are practically forgotten today. However, in 1927, when Charles Lindbergh finally became the first to fly solo across the Atlantic, the 19th person to do so, he said, “Alcock and Brown showed me the way.”