Singular achievement vs. awesome tragedy

Paul Sparkes
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Fame was one of the prizes of early flight — so were collector stamps and envelopes

“What happened to Amelia Earhart Putnam? Searchers with the kind of adventurous spirit that would cause them to spend millions on expeditions to find Noah’s ark or the Titanic have been trying to find the answer to that question for years. Perhaps some day their painstaking search will pay off and we will finally know what did happen to the most famous aviatrix the world has ever known.”
— From “The Challenge of the Atlantic” (a photo-illustrated history of early aviation in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland,” Parsons and Bowman, 1983)

The extract above combines something of two opposed emotions which early flight generated: spontaneous outpouring of celebration and few words or silence as people anticipated tragedy and loss.

Some “side stories” have come my way since my column in August on the doubts about flying which were surfacing in the summer of 1919. One newspaper commentary, for example, posed this question: “If a man sees a machine in the air and is certain that it is over his land, how can he have the pilot arrested?”

That column also encapsulated the story of Alcock and Brown as their history-making flight had taken place that summer.

I have been shown a beautiful photo of Alcock and Brown’s Vickers Vimy aircraft at St. John’s (we have no record of who the photographer was). A leftover bomber from the war just ended, the craft was “snapped” not long before its agonizingly slow take-off from Lester’s Field on June 14, 1919. Sixteen hours and 12 minutes later it touched Europe in the form of an Irish bog.

I have also learned something of the scramble to include letters on that flight. Affixed to the envelopes were Newfoundland 15-cent stamps depicting seals on ice (these were an 1897 issue in honour of Cabot’s 400th.) and overprinted with the words, Trans Atlantic Air Post 1919 One Dollar.

The story of the mail placed on that flight, and of the stamps and mail prepared for competing flights — those of Harry Hawker and

K. Mackenzie Grieve on May 18, 1919 from Mount Pearl, unsuccessful; and of F.P. Raynham and C.W.F. Morgan, from Pleasantville, June 14, 1919, also unsuccessful — are fascinating and complex. Whole books have been written about it all.

Apart from our part in early flight, there is a whole other story about those stamps, letters and envelopes which scrambled for passage. Flimsy, noisy air machines attempting to span the vast Atlantic (it is 2,050 miles from St. John’s to Dublin) could ill afford to carry anything “extra.” They did, however, manage a little mail. Very little.

It is a story that includes line-ups to purchase souvenir stamps at the General Post Office on Water Street. And it is a story of attempts to pass off bogus over-printed stamps in order to cash in on the value and rarity of the real things.

Lure of danger

Part of the fascination with all of this, I suspect, was the vicarious nature of these events which thumbed their noses at winds and storms, at gravity itself and the deep maw of oceans. The escapades were followed closely with the kind of fascination one reserves for watching a circus acrobat without a safety net.

What young person did not want to be an aviator?

When a replica of the Alcock and Brown plane was flown here eight years ago, it brought with it yet another player in the drama of flight, albeit at a time when flight was sophisticated, safe and commonplace. Piloting the replica was Steve Fossett, described by Men’s Journal as “one of history’s most accomplished aviators.”

That he should ultimately have been lost in his own small plane over difficult terrain seemed to show us that we will never conclusively achieve the upper hand over the skies.

Fossett, well to do and highly adventuresome, went down two years after his visit here while on a flight from a private airstrip in Nevada (to which he intended to return that same day). He was piloting his single-engine plane. Despite a huge and intensive search, nothing was found of Fossett until more than a year had passed. Human remains, proving to be his, and plane wreckage were discovered in the Sierra Nevada in late 2008. The mystery remains as to how it could have happened.

Going back to the 1920s — it was some eight years after Alcock and Brown’s flight — the loss of one particular party created what was described as “a terrific outcry in Canada … that this gambling with death should be stopped.” Many lives had been cut short. The drive to set flight records was fuelled by lust for fame and by prize money.

The one event which prompted Canadians to call for legislation against it all was the disappearance of a plane which took off from the Harbour Grace airstrip on Sept. 7, 1927, bearing two Canadians, F.B. Tully and J.V. Metcalf. They were bound for Croydon, England. And they were never heard from again.

Of those lost men, editor Jim Mollison wrote (c. 1938), “if the two had heeded the omen on the eve of their departure they might be alive today. When their petrol tanks were being filled, a kerosene lantern held too close caused an explosion. The machine, however, was not damaged.”

Mollison, by the way, was a noted early flyer and the husband of Amy Johnson, a renowned pilot. She died in 1941 while ferrying an aircraft for war purposes.

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email:  psparkes@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Trans Atlantic Air Post 1919, General Post Office

Geographic location: Europe, Mount Pearl, Pleasantville Dublin Water Street Nevada Canada Croydon England Newfoundland and Labrador

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