Letter: Honouring Alcock and Brown

Published on January 3, 2017

On Saturday, June 14, 1919 British Royal Air Force officers Arthur Whitten Brown and John Alcock took off from a bumpy field in St. John’s, Newfoundland and soared into history as the first to fly the Atlantic Ocean non-stop. The takeoff site was christened “Lester’s Field” by Brown for the family that owned the property.

The Alcock and Brown Monument at the Legion on Blackmarsh Road in St. John’s.
— Photo by Rhonda Hayward/The Telegram

The Vickers Vimy biplane, a product of the just concluded First World War and heavily loaded with fuel, began its take off run on what is today Blackmarsh Road near the site of Branch 1 of the Royal Canadian Legion.

It gathered speed and staggered into the air near what is today the intersection of Blackmarsh Road and Hamilton Avenue Extension.

In a flight that took just over 16 hours, the duo arrived safely, if somewhat spectacularly, at Clifden, Ireland. The landing was routine until the plane entered a boggy area and nosed over, causing some damage but leaving Alcock and Brown uninjured. Today, the same flight can be made in 5.5 or 6 hours in relative comfort — real comfort if you care to pay more. Chances of nosing over in a bog on landing are greatly reduced.

It is no exaggeration to say that the flight of Alcock and Brown led directly to today’s safe, high-speed air transport that connects virtually every place on earth. The flight proved that flying long distances over water, and land, could be safe and a time saving way to travel. Until the beginning of the Second World War most long-distance flying was done within North America and Europe, the Atlantic and Pacific remaining mostly the preserve of daredevils out to make a name for themselves or the manufacturers of their aircraft and a few flying boats. But with the coming of the global conflict and the rapid improvements in aircraft technology, over ocean flying came into its own when thousands of war planes built in the United States and Canada were flown directly to the theatres of war rather than shipped in slow ships at risk from extreme weather and German submarine attack.

Again, Newfoundland played a major role when Gander Airport, then the largest in the world, was built as a refueling base for aircraft headed both east and west across the Atlantic. After the war, with many paved runways built during the conflict made available for civilian use, land-based planes quickly established safe, scheduled flights. Gander remained one of the most important airports in the world until the advent of modern, fuel efficient, jet engines precluded the need for stopping to refuel before making the crossing.

It is my intent that the world changing accomplishment of Alcock and Brown be recognized and widely celebrated in this province in 2019, just 18 months from now. I intend to contact the city council of St. John’s, the Newfoundland government and other interested parties for support, both financial and moral. And I am asking anyone with an interest in aviation and this historic event to help mark this major milestone in our province’s history.

I may be contacted at garyhebbard1@gmail.com by anyone interested in helping out.

Gary Hebbard

St. John’s