Taking Off From the Rock

By: Nick Travis

A century ago, a pair of bold Brits travelled to Newfoundland with a boxed-up airplane and a dream. The fearless duo would change the course of aviation history forever


On June 14, 100 years ago, aviation history was made. In search of fame and fortune, John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown made their way to Newfoundland determined to be the first to complete a nonstop transatlantic trip by airplane. 

Their journey would prove that it is indeed possible to make it over the Atlantic in a fraction of a day, and open up the possibility of a world that was interconnected in ways it had never been before. That journey, however, started six years previous to their famed 1919 flight.

£10,000 Award

In April of 1913, the Daily Mail offered a prize 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.”

This challenge would be postponed with the outbreak of World War I, but re-issued after the armistice in 1918. 

Both Alcock and Brown served in World War I, during which they had both been taken as prisoners of war.  During his time as a war-time prisoner in Turkey, Alcock resolved to one day take up the challenge put forth by the Daily Mail and fly over the Atlantic ocean. 

After the war, four hopeful teams arrived in Newfoundland — the closest place in North America to Europe — in hopes of traversing the Atlantic, winning the prize, and earning a place in the history books. 

The last team to arrive in Newfoundland was John Alcock and his engineer, Arthur Whitten Brown. The teams before them had all suffered issues over the last few weeks, leaving two of the four teams unable to compete in the contest. Alcock and Brown arrived with a modified Vickers Vimy — a WWI bomber fitted with extra fuel tanks and two Rolls Royce engines. 

‘Good clear run’

They were both experienced, and had confidence in their aircraft. The one thing they were missing was a runway, as the location where they assembled their plane near Quidi Vidi lake had proven unsuitable for takeoff.

This is where Newfoundland local Charles F. Lester came in.

Lester was a hauling contractor from St. John’s who had transported Alcock and Brown’s Vimy to Quidi Vidi previously. Lester had asked Alcock about their progress, to which Alcock lamented their lack of adequate take off space for test flights of their modified WWI bomber. Lester asked Alcock how much space they needed, to which he replied, “A good clear run of 500 yards.”

Turns out Lester had an adequate space. The Lester family owned a lot of land in the St. John’s area, including what is till known today as “Lester’s Farm.” Dubbed “Lester’s Field” by Alcock, the land was a small meadow used for grazing Lester’s horses. 

‘Lester’s Field’

At the time it was filled with trees and boulders, as well as a dike that needed to be cleared and a ditch that needed to be filled. For a nominal fee, Lester offered to hire help in order to make the land suitable for take off.

This area known as “Lester’s Field” would become part of Blackmarsh Road in St. John’s, located close to Branch 1 of the Royal Canadian Legion. 

After some delay due to the famous Newfoundland winds, there was a relative calm on Saturday, June 14, 1919. Alcock and Brown knew there was no time to waste on goodbyes to the residents of their temporary island home. 

Around 3:30 in the morning, the intrepid aviators arrived in Lester’s Field. They spent the day filling the plane with 870 gallon of fuel and making last minute preparations. By around 1:00 in the afternoon, Alcock and Brown agreed it was now or never. Taking one final moment to pose for pictures, the team entered the Vickers Vimy to prepare for the journey of a lifetime.

Crammed into a small cockpit with only their navigation equipment, a flare gun, sandwiches, coffee, chocolate, whiskey and a few bottles of beer, Alcock fired up the engines and started to pick up speed. They stayed aground from where the Legion resides today to the current intersection of Albany Street and Blackmarsh Road before taking off over The Narrows.

By 1:45 p.m. Alcock and Brown were airborne, and 15 minutes later they had crossed the Newfoundland coastline. A harrowing 16 hours of failing instruments, frozen wings, and low visibility later, the adventurous duo would land in Clifden, Connemara, County Galway, Ireland. They were the first men to do so, and were awarded £10,000 pounds by then Secretary of State Winston Churchill. 

Both of the men were knighted by King George V for their transatlantic journey on the same day they landed.

Sir John Alcock would not live long enough to experience his fame. On December 18, 1919 while flying a new plane made by Vickers to an aeronautical exhibition in France, Alcock crash landed in Normandy. He was unable to receive medical attention in time. He was 27 at the time.

Sir Arthur Whitten Brown later became the manager of the Vickers Company in Swansea, Wales, U.K. He later passed on October 4, 1948 after accidentally overdosing on the sleeping aid Veronal. He was 62 years old.

‘The Aviator’s Ball’

To celebrate the life and accomplishments of these two adventurers, and the many men like them, there will be many events celebrating aviation in St. John’s over the month of June.

Throughout June, The Rooms will be displaying memorabilia from the duo’s journey across the ocean. From June 12-16, there will be a downtown festival in honour of Alcock and Brown held by the George Street Association. On the 16th, the festivities will cap off with a dramatic retelling of the Alcock and Brown story by local theatre company Spirit of Newfoundland Productions. The play will run throughout August.

On the anniversary of Alcock and Brown’s flight, “The Aviator’s Ball” will be held in Bannerman Park. According to the organizers, this black-tie celebration will host national and local industry leaders, aviation enthusiasts and business leaders.

Looking to the future, in June of 2020, a monument will be unveiled at St. John’s International Airport to commemorate this historic aviation event and it’s Newfoundland roots. 

More events and information can be found on aviationhistorynl.com.

One thought on “Taking Off From the Rock

  1. Megan
    June 25, 2019

    What a great read! Wonderful writing, Nick!!

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