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Inside the Harrowing Journey of the First Nonstop Transatlantic Flight

June 13, 2019 in History

By Erin Blakemore

When it was all over, Captain John Alcock, an English pilot, telegraphed his story to newspaper reporters around the world. He was exhausted by a recent in-air ordeal that had culminated in a risky plane crash in Ireland along with his navigator and flying partner, Arthur Whitten Brown. “We have had a terrible journey,” wrote Alcock. “The wonder is that we are here at all. We scarcely saw the sun or the moon or the stars. For hours we saw none of them.”

If you’d have stopped reading there, you might think that Alcock and Brown’s journey had ended in failure. For 16 fraught hours, they’d been trapped in a rudimentary airplane in abysmal weather, their only means of navigation a sextant, an instrument that measured celestial objects in relation to the horizon. Their journey had been beset with blunders, and more often than not, fog and clouds had covered the stars, making it nearly impossible for Brown to determine their location.

John Alcock (center) holds a model of their biplane alongside Arthur Whitten Brown (center right), who is holding a mailbag after completing the first nonstop transatlantic flight. They carried several items of mail with them and in doing so, effectively transported the first transatlantic airmail to Britain.

Yet their journey was a triumph. Despite their graceless landing in a bog on June 15, 1919, Alcock and Brown were the first people ever to fly nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean. Nearly a decade before Charles Lindbergh caught the world’s attention with his own transatlantic flight, the flying duo made history. Their adventure paid off: The pair not only became pioneering aviators, but beat out a group of other pilots vying for a huge cash prize in a cut-throat competition to be the first transatlantic aviators.

The prize was the brainchild of Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe, a British newspaper tycoon who owned The Daily Mail, one of England’s most influential newspapers. Like many magnates of his day, Lord Northcliffe was fascinated by new modes of transportation. Air flight was still a novelty, and a group of pioneering aviators, funded by rich patrons like Northcliffe, wanted to know just how far the technology could be pushed.

Northcliffe was a founding member of England’s Aero Club, a group of aviation enthusiasts interested in expanding and popularizing air flight. In 1906, he offered a 10,000-pound purse …read more


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