The age of flight brought many questions

Paul Sparkes
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Flying around in airplanes is all very well, but what if …?

John Alcock (left) and Arthur Brown, several weeks after their historic Transatlantic flight.
— Photo credited to “Topical”/reproduced from J.A. Cochrane’s “The Story of Newfoundland” (1938)

We would soon be flying across the Atlantic Ocean at will and hopping over one country and another as if there were no such things as borders. Clearly we needed to inject some law and order into all this.

In mid-June 1919, as the world focused its attention on Capt. John Alcock and Lt. Arthur Whitten Brown — who had actually managed to cross the great gulf of the Atlantic in their biplane — The Evening Telegram in St. John’s dedicated a fair measure of space in one issue to an article of warnings, questions and “what-ifs” on the subject of manned flight.

Reading the article today (it was sourced from American newspapers), you cannot help but think of the mix of  implications and challenges which breakthrough technology brings. The Internet comes to mind.

As you read the following, remember that the war had ended not eight months before and war mentality was still intact:

‰    If an aviator is flying high and commits a crime, how can we decide what country or state has jurisdiction over him?

‰    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?

‰    What system of examination and licensing of pilots could be rigid enough to prevent danger to person and property due to accidents resulting from over-confidence and carelessness of pilots?

‰    If the air police are inadequate or helpless to apprehend trespassers or marauders, shall landowners be allowed to have the protection of a cannon or machine gun and thus take the law into their own hands as in the practice on land?

‰    What rules and regulations can be devised to make air traffic safe? What signals will be necessary? If certain air “highways” are not designated and followed, who is to prevent collisions in mid-air when planes become numerous?

‰    If a man had a grudge against another, what is to prevent him making a night flight and dropping dynamite on his enemy’s property, demolishing it and probably killing the occupants?

‰    Shall hunting and shooting from airplanes of shorebirds and animals that roam the open be forbidden?

                              • • •

Peace conference, air contest

compete for headlines

The loose threads at the end of the Great War were being sewn together as airmen and would-be airmen, mechanics, friends, newspapermen and others descended on St. John’s from both sides of the Atlantic.

It was all because our geographical position. If, in earlier times, we were strategic for the business of fish plunder, then our position was fortuitous again when it came to manned flight. Mind you, we did not gain a lot from this new technology at first. It would take the next war to bring us gainful flight-related work.

Through the first half of 1919, newspapers were peppered daily with headlines about how the peace conference was proceeding at Versailles. Hostilities had officially ended on the morning of Nov. 11, 1918, but the business of actually winding up 4 1/2 years of blood letting dragged on.

Amidst all this, the great ten-thousand-pound prize was still up for grabs for anyone who could fly the Atlantic.

It had been announced some years before, but put on hold when war intervened. Given the cost of travel, finding, disassembling and reassembling an aeroplane, waiting in hotels for favourable weather and more, the winners would likely have realized little take-home from the prize.

And there was plenty of nail-biting competition. In St. John’s, John Alcock and Arthur Brown watched in mid-May as Hawker and Mackenzie-Grieve left here and turned their Sopwith towards Ireland. In a few hours, they would ditch in the ocean where they would be rescued by a Danish ship. But they would be out of touch with the world for eight days as they sailed east towards a Marconi station.

A month later, Alcock and Brown lifted off. When, after some 16 hours of flying they came down nose-first into an Irish bog, it was an ignominious, if historic, landing for two men whom The Evening Telegram then hailed as “LORDS OF THE AIR!”

Capt. Alcock and Lt. Brown were still the focus of celebrations when official notification of the signing of the treaty of peace grabbed headlines later that month.

The following was received by the governor of Newfoundland at 11 p.m. Saturday, June 28, 1919. It was from King George V, in London:

“The signing of the treaty of peace will be received with deep thankfulness throughout the British Empire. This formal act brings to its concluding stages the terrible war which has devastated Europe and distracted the world. It manifests the victory of the ideals of freedom and liberty for which we have made untold sacrifices. I share my people’s joy and thanksgiving and earnestly pray that the coming years of peace may bring to them ever increasing happiness and prosperity.”

• • •

‘No greater feat’

Editors and typesetters at The Evening Telegram must have been up all night waiting for word — or no word; either would have been news.

Whatever the duration, whatever the time difference, there would not have been much time in which to learn all the essentials and write a thoughtful editorial.

We do not know the newspaper’s deadlines back then, but all seems to have come together. Here is the salient portion of The Telegram’s editorial — on the streets the evening after departure:

 

Accomplished

“The great flight so long projected and prepared for has been accomplished at last and to Capt. Alcock and Lieut. Brown with their Vickers Vimy biplane have fallen the high honour of being the first aviators to make the non-stop journey, by air, over the Atlantic and of ushering in a new epoch in aerial navigation.

“The news of the safe arrival of the conquerors of the air at Clifden, Ireland, received yesterday forenoon, spread like wildfire through the city and many and hearty were the expressions of joy and gratulation.

“The consummation of the hope of ages has been realized, and of all the history-making events since creation began, this voyage through the air from continent to continent by human beings is the greatest and most magnificent of them all for its daring and courage. No greater feat has been witnessed.”

• • •

Why not ‘One giant step for mankind’?

Every little detail of the Alcock and Brown flight was being digested by the hungry public from the day of success through the summer of 1919.

One of the first detailed reports (and quite possibly the first here) was published in The Evening Telegram five days after the Vickers Vimy came to land.

In many respects, John Alcock and Arthur Brown were “our boys.” We had hosted them, followed their every move, photographed them, fed them and likely ran their errands before the days were accomplished when they could take to the air. We had held our collective breath as their air machine (a modified bomber — leftover war materiel) struggled with its payload of men and fuel to become safely airborne.

And then the speed! Amazing. You can sense the awe in one simple Evening Telegram headline: “Speed Reached Nearly 150 MPH.”

The following dispatch from London, dated June 15-16, was published by The Evening Telegram on June 21:

“When the Vickers Vimy biplane driven by  Capt. John Alcock was first sighted crossing the Irish coast, says a dispatch to The Daily Mail from Clifden, an aeroplane flew out from the Oranmore airdrome to render assistance. This machine landed near the Vimy but unfortunately was wrecked owing to the softness of the ground.  When the Vickers Vimy machine landed, Lieut. Arthur W. Brown, the navigator, said to Capt. Alcock, ‘What do you think of that for fancy navigating?’ And the pilot of the machine responded, ‘Very good.’ The two men who had just completed an epoch-making voyage, then shook hands.

“When assistance reached the machine, the two aviators were helped to the ground and it was found that Lieut. Brown was slightly injured on the nose and mouth by the jolt given on the machine when it struck the ground. Both men were deaf and dazed and were unable to walk steadily for several minutes. They were escorted to the wireless station in triumph being given the best hospitality available. They distributed cigarettes as souvenirs and gave away the small dog and cat which were mascots during the trip. The altitude of the machine varied from a few feet from the water up to 13,000 feet and the flyers never sighted a single ship. ‘I did not know once during the night whether I was upside down or not,’ said Capt. Alcock.  ‘Once we ascended hurriedly when we saw the green Atlantic only thirty feet below.’

“The breaking away of the propeller generating current for the wireless apparatus soon after the start prevented the men from communicating with the shore. When it happened, Lieut. Brown noticed that the propeller had carried away with it one of the stay wires but he did not tell Capt. Alcock until after they had landed at Clifden. When Alcock learned of the accident, he said ‘I would have turned back had I known.’”

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

Organizations: British Empire, Daily Mail

Geographic location: Atlantic Ocean, Ireland, Newfoundland and Labrador London Clifden Europe Vimy

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