Alcock and Brown: the first aviators to fly across the Atlantic

The British aviators were the first to make the journey non-stop in a plane. BBC History Revealed shares everything you need to know about their pioneering flight…

A biplane takes off from Newfoundland

It was the kind of prize to turn heads. In 1913, the Daily Mail offered the not-insignificant lure of £10,000 to “the aviator who shall first cross the Atlantic in an aeroplane in flight from any point in the United States of America, Canada or Newfoundland to any point in Great Britain or Ireland in 72 continuous hours”.

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By the time World War I broke out the following year, the prize was still unclaimed, but the quest resumed after the war ended in 1918. It particularly piqued the interest of John Alcock, a young pilot who, having retired from the RAF, had taken employment as a test pilot for aircraft manufacturer Vickers. After signalling his intention to take up the challenge, the company chose Arthur Brown as his navigator.

On 14 June 1919, the duo took to the skies of Newfoundland in their modified Vickers Vimy bomber, but it was to be no easy journey. Within an hour of being airborne, the plane’s wind-powered electrical generator broke. It was their sole source of heating in the open cockpit, and they had to do without it for the remainder of the flight. Radio contact was also lost as a result, along with the cockpit intercom. The latter became even more problematic when an exhaust pipe burst: the racket became so great that conversation without the intercom was rendered impossible.

The weather also conspired against them. In thick fog, Alcock nearly flew into the sea on a couple of occasions, while a snowstorm welcomed them in the darkness of 3am. On reaching the Irish coastline, the pair mistook a green bog near Clifden in County Galway for a firm grassy field, which made for a decidedly inelegant landing. No matter. Alcock and Brown had just completed the first non-stop transatlantic flight. And in good time, too: 16 hours and 12 minutes, less than a quarter of that stipulated by the competition rules.

Aside from the cash prize, the duo’s success saw them both knighted within a few days. But tragedy would soon strike. Alcock was flying a new Vickers amphibian plane to the Paris Air Show later that year, when he crashed in heavy fog near Rouen and suffered fatal injuries. He was just 27 years old.

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This article was first published in the May 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed