Monumental days

Honouring pilots past

In a perfect world – the one where my employers lets me work on airscape whenever I feel like it, but keeps paying me regardless – I’ve long planned to move toward a monthly theme. In this perfect world, in fact, I’d already be doing just that.

A month to remember

I ‘committed’ (it’s a relative term) to the first couple of themes more than a year ago, and started preparing posts. But a major B-24 Liberator story ran into a bit of a wall in terms of research, so that kind of foundered. And I haven’t even started working on the other main subjects yet, beyond making notes in my head.

A trio of 458th Bomb Group Liberators, based out of Horsham St. Faith including the Group’s flight assembly ship B-24H-10-DT “Spotted Ape” (or “Spotted Ass Ape”, depending who was asking) #41-28697. (IWM FRE 6711)

The reality is that I’m too busy right now to offer the required focus. So, because I’m never going to run out of subject matter, on a monthly basis or otherwise, I’m better off bringing what I’ve got into the light of day and continuing to write up whatever else catches my eye or takes my fancy as I go along. 

75 years on

The full (10-man) ‘Burns Crew’ of Heavenly Body II. Only 9 of the men were aboard for their short, second raid of June 19th.

That said, this IS the month that Mitch Peeke and the people he’s rallied to the cause will unveil their memorial to the crews of B-17s Heavenly Body and #44-6133. So there may be more than one WW2 bomber article in the coming weeks. 

And if you’re lucky enough to be in Kent, England on Saturday June 22nd, do make your way to Haven Allhallows Leisure Holiday Park to support the ceremony. With all the work Mitch has put in, I’m sure it will be a wonderful and moving occasion. 

I will be joining the festivities in spirit …by going flying. 

Wisdom from history

In amongst everything else, I am maintaining my spirits and proficiency with regular hops in the SportCub. As the more wintry weather permits, that means alternating sessions of circuits with short navigation flights. When the weather clears up a bit, I’m hoping the SportCub will have completed its work and I’ll be ready for a more complex beast with bigger ±G ratings and inverted fuel and oil systems. 

Last week I was reminded how glamorous flying is …for those on the ground!

No-one who flies regularly would believe the glamour myth for long. It doesn’t matter how many gold bars you have on your sleeve, getting up at 3.30am is always a triumph of willpower over instinct. Shuffling through security with your shoes in your hands and the personal contents of your suitcase on public display isn’t much better.

The Observer of an RFC Sopwith 1½ Strutter is handed extra Lewis Gun magazines as he and his pilot get ready for a patrol. France, 1917 (IWM Q 65429)

And while plenty of films about World War One’s Knights of the Sky confront death, I’m yet to see one that convincingly takes on the mind-numbing cold, the equally disabling hypoxia or the literal pucker-factor that comes from inhaling castor oil smoke for several hours a day.

My point is, I found myself falling back on what might be the oldest fighter pilot trick of them all the other day. No, not the volplane or the Immelmann Turn… Wearing pyjama pants under your flight gear to keep warm!

The Cub is pretty draughty on a cold winter’s morning, and flying is very glamorous.

(Only one of those statements is actually true.) 

Alcock and Brown

Alcock and Brown’s Vickers Vimy is hastily assembled on Newfoundland, ready for Alcock and Brown’s attempt on the Atlantic. (John Halbrook | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Finally, depending where you are in the world, today or tomorrow marks 100 years since Captain (RNAS) John William Alcock and Lieutenant (RFC) Arthur Whitten Brown clawed their way into a brooding sky over St.John’s, Newfoundland, and set course for Ireland.

The next 16 hours were far from easy. Having barely coaxed their heavily loaded Vickers Vimy into the air (and over the trees by the field) in the first place, the flight ranged from wave-top height to around 12,000 feet. Their generator failed, depriving them of radio contact, intercom communication and power for their heated flights suits. 

Deafened, drenched but determined

Alcock and Brown taking off from St.Johns, Newfoundland, on the afternoon of June 14th, 1919. ( | CC By 2.0)

Next an exhaust pipe, metres from their heads in a Vimy, burst and they were exposed to the full bellow of a Rolls-Royce Eagle engine; the trim control was broken so Alcock had to fight the aircraft all the way to Ireland; and they were forced to fly through fog with their basic VMC instruments. Predictably, Alcock twice ended up in spiral dives that he only managed to recover when they broke clear above the hungry grey Atlantic waves. 

And after 9 hours of all that it started snowing heavily – icing up the wings, the instruments and the carburettors, Not to mention the two deafened, drenched but determined aviators.

A hazy newspaper photo, from June 15th, 1919, shows soldiers guarding the crumpled wreck of Alcock & Brown’s ‘arrival’ in Europe. (wikipedia)

Who could blame them when, at 8.40 am the following morning, they flopped into a bog in County Galway, Ireland and crawled out of the wreckage, unhurt and immensely grateful just to be back on terra semi-firma. 

It wasn’t the most elegant arrival… but on a par with Louis Blèriot’s arrival in England 10 years earlier, and every bit as monumental. 

Still, the large cash awards, civic receptions and knighthoods from the King that followed must have stood in stark contrast to the “glamour” of crossing the Atlantic by air! 

I wonder if they could hear a single thing anyone said to or about them? 

First across the Atlantic?

Of course, Alcock and Brown weren’t actually first to fly across the Atlantic. The US Navy had snatched that title less than two weeks earlier, when Lieutenant Commander Albert Cushing Read and his crew had arrived in Lisbon, Portugal from Newfoundland in the Curtiss NC-4. 

Designed by flying boat maestro Glenn Curtiss, the ingeniously four-engined NC-4 photographed on its triumphant tour of the US East Coast, having been shipped home from Portsmouth, England, after the Atlantic flight. (US Navy | Wikipedia)

Admittedly, their flight had taken 19 days (26 hours, 46 minutes flight time) from NAS Rockaway beach, NY; island-hopped via Newfoundland and the Azores; and followed a line of 53 handily laid on Navy picket ships. But it was still the first aircraft to fly across that – or any – ocean. The crew was duly fêted in London, Paris and the USA.

On the other hand, Alcock and Brown had made the flight non stop, the first to achieve such a monumental feat. That gave them the edge in the patriotic PR frenzy that followed and England’s dented prestige was duly restored. 

Courage and sacrifice

Some time after their flight, Alcock (left) and Brown pose with the recovered and repaired Vickers Vimy. The aircraft is now displayed in the Science Museum, London. ( | CC By 2.0)

Incredibly – almost inevitably – Sir John Alcock was dead within months. Having survived air combat over the Mediterranean, a double engine failure and ditching in the sea off Gallipoli, a year’s imprisonment by the Turks, and that epic trans-Atlantic flight, he crashed in fog near Rouen, France, on December 18th, 1919, while flying to an air exposition in Paris. 

Also a survivor of air combat and being a POW, Arthur Brown survived his flying partner by a further 20 years – long enough to endure another World War and the death of his only son, in action, flying a de Havilland Mosquito.

Brown served the first half of World War 2 as a Lieutenant Colonel in the British Home Guard and then as a navigation instructor with RAF Training Command. In failing health and broken hearted, he died from an accidental sleeping pill overdose in October 1948. 

On the shoulders of giants

There are still memorials to Alcock and Brown’s crazy-brave flight of 15/16 June 1919 at Galway, Manchester City airport and London-Heathrow; and it’s surprising how many people believe they were first to fly across the Atlantic, full stop (rather than non-stop).

The substantial (at 12 feet in height) monument marking the site of Alcock & Brown’s ‘arrival’ some 500 metres away, in Derrygimlagh Bog, Co. Galway. (Smb1001 | wikipedia CC-BY-SA 3.0)

 One hundred years later – whether you’re growling at your 3.30 alarm, putting your shoes back on for the sprint to the gate, or wearing pyjamas under your pants to stay warm, take a minute to salute Alcock and Brown.

They endured far more than any of us.

For aviation, not for glamour.

10 thoughts on “Monumental days

  1. “It doesn’t matter how many gold bars you have on your sleeve, getting up at 3.30am is always a triumph of willpower over instinct.”

    I’ve rarely heard it stated better than that.

    Flying is all-encompassing in more ways than one. If you’re doing it right, defying gravity takes all your time, all your money, all your attention, and all your effort. Or at least that’s how it feels. And if you’re a professional it does it at the most random times around the clock.

    What a life!

    1. A guy I met once said to me, about owning horses, that it wasn’t like having a hobby or even having pets; it was a lifestyle.
      Any parallel between ponies and planes is a good thing as far as I’m concerned and you’re right – flying is a life.
      At least, once you’re out of bed, it can be gloriously rewarding. Better views than a corner office in downtown Sydney or Manhattan, for starters…

  2. Your comment about the perils of Castor Oil in WWI reminded me that even in WWII you weren’t immune from that problem. While flying & fighting P-40 Kittyhawks from Milne Bay, pilots of 75 & 76 squadrons RAAF flew without trousers because they were suffering from diarrhoea!

    1. Without pants?! Aside from everything else, that approach must have made bailing out ‘interesting’.
      That SWAPO theatre must truly have been a hell on earth. I’m a committed cold climate animal, and the combination of heat, humidity, mud, bugs and tropical diseases would be my worst nightmare. Oh, and let’s not forget the bullets, bombs and occasional naval shelling. They were tough, dedicated men.

      1. At Milne Bay I doubt that there was much baling out. It was all low level strafing and at one point they were getting airborne and beginning to fire almost as soon as the gear came up, use your ammunition, back to landing, re-arm, repeat. If you were hit you were committed to remaining with the aircraft and if you couldn’t make the airfield, the only place to put down was in the shallows close to the coast; the rest was jungle or palm (copra) plantations.

  3. Whilst we are on the subject of that pioneering spirit, bringing this post bang up to date undoubtedly are two Englishmen, Steve Boultbee-Brooks and Matt Jones. Next Monday, they take off from Goodwood in a bright silver fully restored Mk IX Spitfire, MJ 271, taking turns to fly it around the world. MJ 271 is a WW2 combat veteran that was until very recently, in a museum. I for one wish them the very best of British luck and a safe and enjoyable time of it!

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