John Alcock - the Lancastrian who piloted the first non-stop trans-Atlantic flight

PUBLISHED: 00:00 06 November 2019

John Alcock and Arthur Brown

John Alcock and Arthur Brown

not Archant

A fearless aviator from Manchester achieved a major landmark a hundred years ago

John Alcock and Arthur Brown preparing for take offJohn Alcock and Arthur Brown preparing for take off

A century ago John Alcock and Arthur Brown went down in history as the first people to fly non-stop across the Atlantic.

John William Alcock was born in Manchester on November 6th 1892. 'Jack' went on to fly for the Royal Navy and fledgling RAF, earning the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) during the First World War

Our story begins, however, in Stretford. Alcock was born in Stretford and is said to have become interested in flying as a teenager. His first job was at Manchester's Empress Motor Works; an engineering environment for a young man who found his vocation with machines. By 1910, he was an assistant to Works Manager Charles Fletcher, who was an early Mancunian aviator, and Norman Crossland, a motor engineer, and a founder member of Manchester Aero Club.

Two years later, in November 1912, Alcock secured his flying licence and by the summer of 1914 he flew a 'Farman' bi-plane in a Hendon-Birmingham-Manchester return air race.

John Alcock and Arthur Brown leave Newfoundland in a converted World War One Vickers Vimy bomberJohn Alcock and Arthur Brown leave Newfoundland in a converted World War One Vickers Vimy bomber

When the Great War began, 21-year-old Alcock joined the Royal Naval Air Service as an instructor (the RAF not being formed until towards war's end). Alcock's war was eventful once he began operational duties. He attacked three enemy aircraft on the Turkish Front in September 1917, forcing two to ditch in the sea, earning him the Distinguished Service Cross.

On a subsequent mission he was in the water himself after his engine failed and he spent the rest of the war as a POW. With the war over, Alcock retired from the RAF in March 1919.

The next role for Alcock was as a Vickers test pilot, as he took up the challenge of attempting to be the first to fly the Atlantic. Alcock's partner, Arthur Whitten Brown (1886-1948), was his senior by just over six years. He was born in Glasgow of American parents and fulfilled the role of navigator. Their gallantry can be readily understood as it was only 15½ years since the Wright brothers achieved the first, albeit brief, powered flight.

John Alcock and Arthur Brown crash landed in County Galway after more than 16 hours in the airJohn Alcock and Arthur Brown crash landed in County Galway after more than 16 hours in the air

The famous non-stop flight commenced a century ago on Saturday 14th June 1919, taking off from Newfoundland at 1.45pm local time, in overcast conditions, in a converted World War One Vickers Vimy bomber. There was a cacophony of sound from ships in St John's Harbour, in an emotional send-off.

They only had a flask of coffee, sandwiches, beer and whisky to sustain them. They achieved landfall the following day, just before 6am, after some 16 hours in the air. The relief for everyone must have been palpable; the plane's radio transmitter had failed three hours in, so no-one knew whether they were alive. They came down at Clifden, Connemara, County Galway, Ireland, after almost 2,000 miles, in bad weather, and navigating blind most of the way.

They got lost in sleet that forced them to drop to just 300 feet above the water, and in darkness. The fog became so dense neither man could see the propellers. They suffered uncontrolled spins, as well as flying upside down. At one time Alcock reckoned they'd been 16-20 feet above the water and could taste salt. They were afflicted by turbulence, instrument failure, problems with one engine, a failure of their heated flying suits, which meant they resembled snowmen, and ice on the wings (Brown climbed out of the cockpit four times to remove ice).

In spite of everything, they made it, landing in a marshy bog. Judging from Pathé footage it wasn't that smooth a landing. The nose is to the ground and the tail up in the air but the longest flight undertaken by man, at the time, was over. Alcock's pithy summation was, 'We have had a terrible voyage. The wonder is we are here at all.'

The plaque on John Alcock's former house in ManchesterThe plaque on John Alcock's former house in Manchester

Alcock and Brown were knighted by King George V. They were also in the money; the Daily Mail had offered a £10,000 prize for the first successful crossing and the money was handed over by Winston Churchill.

Alcock died doing what he loved on December 18th 1919. He was piloting a Vickers Viking flying boat from Weybridge, Surrey, to the Paris Aircraft Exhibition, the first post-war aeronautical exhibition. He crashed in fog, suffered a fractured skull, and never recovered consciousness, after being transferred to a hospital in Rouen. He was 27.

Alcock's coffin was given a military escort from France and was met at London's Waterloo by his parents. The procession reached Manchester on Christmas Day 1919, with the coffin heading to his parents' parish church in Fallowfield. A service was also held in Manchester Cathedral.

John Alcock lies buried in Manchester's Southern Cemetery. Given his service to King and country, Alcock was granted a military funeral. His imposing headstone is in the form of a large Saxon cross, with an aeroplane propeller at its foot.

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