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Alcock and Brown
First Non-stop Trans Atlantic Crossing
(from Lester's Field, SW of Mundy Pond)
St. John's, Newfoundland


The New York Times - June 16, 1919

The New York Times – June 16, 1919

Alcock and Brown make history – and Jean Clinton (McWilliam)
is there to celebrate during takeoff!

Shortly after World War I, Captain John William Alcock (pilot) and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown (navigator) became the first pilots to successfully complete a non-stop transatlantic flight. Their journey was inspired by a contest organized by the owner of the London Daily Mail, Lord Northcliffe, who offered a 10,000 pound sterling prize to the first pilots who successfully made the journey. Winston Churchill, who was then Britain's Secretary of State, personally awarded Alcock and Brown the prize after their successful flight. A few days later both men were knighted at Buckingham Palace by King George V for recognition of their pioneering achievement. It would take another 8 years before Charles Lindberg’s solo flight in the “Spirit of St. Louis” across the Atlantic on May 20, 1927. Female aviator Amelia Earhart also gained her fame from Atlantic crossings. In 1928 she was the first woman to cross the Atlantic by air, as a passenger on a flight from Trepassey Bay, Newfoundland to Burry Port, Wales. And on May 20, 1932 she became the first woman to pilot a plane across the Atlantic, leaving from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland and arriving at Culmore, Northern Ireland.

About to make history!

About to make history!
Copyright Vickers PLC

Alcock and Brown’s aircraft was built mainly of wood with a fabric covering, by the Vickers factory in Weybridge, Surrey, England. The price of the aircraft was £3,000. The twin-engined Vickers Vimy plane, named after a famous WWI battle, had two 360 horse power Rolls-Royce Eagles VIII engines. Additional tanks increased its fuel capacity to 865 gallons and gave the aircraft a range of 2,440 miles. The nose cockpit was faired over, and the pilot and navigator sat side-by-side in the main cockpit. In place of the nose skid, a wheel was fitted, but it and the tailplane skids were removed for the Atlantic flight.

Alcock and Brown took off from Lester’s Field in St. John's Newfoundland on June 14, 1919 and crash landed in a bog at Clifden, Ireland on June 15, 1919.

The plane under construction in England

The plane under construction in England
Copyright Vickers PLC

Ready to transport!

Ready to transport!
Copyright Vickers PLC

Assembling the plane on Lester’s Field

Assembling the plane on Lester’s Field
Copyright Vickers PLC

Assembling the plane on Lester’s Field

Assembling the plane on Lester’s Field

It cost a great deal of money to prepare the field, as a receipt recently discovered in Newfoundland demonstrates…..

Receipt dated June 10, 1919 from Charles F. Lester made out to Capt. Alcock

The charges are for labour to clear Lester’s field in preparation for take off.
The charges are as follows;

2079 Hours @ .40 per hour = $831.60
330 Hours extra @ .25 per hour = 82.50
Pussages Allowance 30 men @ $1.20 = $36.00
Horse Labour = $165.00
Expenses for Securing Labour = $20.00
Coal for Shack = $10.00
Sub-Total: $1,145.10
Commission on Work = $150.00
Monday & Tuesdays Work on Field = $50.00
Total: $1,345.10



This photo, later signed by Arthur Brown himself, was taken at Lester's Field on June 14th, 1919. In this photo there are many local people from St. John's gathered around the Vickers Vimy before takeoff. The McWilliam family can claim a unique connection to this historical event, for Jean Clinton (McWilliam) is one of the little girls seated in front of the plane! From left to right the girls in the photo are Sarah Andrews, Ethel Johnston, our maternal Grandmother, Jean Clinton (McWilliam), Stella White, and Jean’s sister Mollie Clinton (Lush/Gaulton).

Note: Anyone who knows the names of others present in the above photo please contact NGB, so that those individuals can be identified as well?


Alcock and Broiwn-Vimy


Because Alcock and Brown started from Newfoundland it helped to focus a great deal of interest on Newfoundland and its geographic position as the closest in North America to Europe . Prior to this, only British dirigibles had traveled between the United Kingdom and the United States , including the R-34 that crossed earlier than Alcock and Brown's flight.

In 1919 the news of their adventure spread like wildfire, and the two men were received as heroes in London. The following account was found at aviation;

John Alcock and Arthur Whitten-Brown pushed their way through an excited crowd which had gathered at the entrance of the London Royal Aero Club. Alcock carried a small linen bag in his hand, and after greeting General Holden, Vice-President of the Club, he handed over the bundle of 197 letters that Dr. Robinson, Postmaster in Newfoundland, had entrusted to the fliers. These were then rushed to the nearest post office, where they were franked and forwarded (airmail stamps not yet having been invented). The letters had made the long journey from Lester's Field near St. John's , Newfoundland , to London in record time.


Personally delivering the mail

Personally delivering the mail


At Lester's Field, Alcock and Brown had climbed into their “Vimy” flying machine to prove, as Alcock put it, that "there are possibilities of flying non-stop from the New World to the Old." Like Kohl, Fitzmaurice, and von Hunefeld, who were to fly in the opposite direction nine years later, Alcock and Brown had wanted to take off on a Friday the 13th. But the two Englishmen actually set out in their converted World War I Vickers plane on June 14.

After three weeks of exhaustive preparation, they had finally made their start. Some of their efforts had been spent in attempting to find a smoother takeoff point than Lester's Field, but after a week of combing the rough terrain, they gave up the search.

The sky was overcast, even though the latest meteorological report from United States Lieutenant Clements had forecast good weather conditions. It was 1:40 p.m. as the "Vimy," with the throttle wide open, and both engines at full power, taxied over the bumpy ground at Lester's Field. Alcock headed his aircraft into the west wind. "Depressingly slowly the 'Vimy' taxied toward a dark pine forest at the end of the airfield," Brown reported. "The echo of the roaring motors must have struck quite hard against the hills around St. John's . Almost at the last second Alcock gained height. We were only inches above the top of the trees." Alcock's recollections were rather more brief: "At 1:45 PM we were airborne," he said.


we were airborne

At 1:45 PM we were airborne

1,890 nautical miles of open sea and almost sixteen hours of flying time lay ahead. Only fifteen and a half years after the Wright brothers powered flight, they had now set off on what turned out to be one of the most breathtaking flights in the history of aviation. The sirens of vessels in St. John's Harbor blew a final farewell as the "Vimy" passed overhead at a height of 1,083 ft. Alcock turned the aircraft eastwards, in the direction of Ireland. The biplane gained height, and the coast of Newfoundland was left behind. The altimeter soon read 1,300 feet.

For four hours, the plane flew peacefully in the open sky, and the difficult takeoff was forgotten. For Alcock and Brown it was just one more of the 1,001 takeoffs they had made as Flying Corps pilots. Already anticipating his arrival in England , Brown remarked, "Great Scott, what a banquet we'll have in London . Roast duck, I can just imagine it, green peas."

At 5 p.m. fog banks suddenly appeared on the horizon, stretching without a break from north to south. "We've got no choice," Alcock said. "We've got to go in!" Brown made another calculation of their position and recorded the wind speed as zero. The "Vimy" disappeared into the fog. It was so thick that neither man could make out the blades of the propellers. Even the comforting roar of the Rolls-Royce engines were muffled, and Alcock and Brown continued to fly virtually soundless and blind.

Time went slowly. Brown glanced at his wristwatch. It was six o'clock.

"Won't this ruddy fog ever end?" he grumbled. Instead of replying, Alcock slowly took the "Vimy" higher, hoping to find good visibility above the fog bank. Before dark Brown might once more be able to take his position by the sun; but after nightfall it was questionable whether the stars would be bright enough to guide the fliers reliably on their course.

Suddenly a terrifying noise broke the silence; the right-hand engine sounded like a machine gun blazing. The two men were scared stiff. The exhaust pipe of the cylinder facing inwards had split, and the engine was shooting naked flames into the slip-stream. Alcock and Brown remained helpless as the metal turned red hot, melted away and finally started striking the controls in white-hot globules.

On top of this nerve-shattering clatter, a further discomfort developed. The heating in the men's leather flying suits stopped working. The batteries had run out. "We froze like young puppies," Alcock said later, "and in the narrow cockpit we had no room to move about. At any rate," he added somewhat ruefully, "Brown did manage to get some movement later . . . "

Flying above the fog brought them no luck. They had barely broken through the upper level of the bank when they discovered clouds above them, and not a sign of the hoped-for sun. And directly ahead lay mountains of cloud which were too near to be avoided. The "Vimy" plunged straight into them, and was thrown like a leaf. Alcock, who had been pressed down into his seat by the violent movement of the plane, glanced at the altimeter. The reading was 4,000 ft. The pointer began to jump about as the instrument recorded 3,200 ft., then 2,900 and down to 1,000 ft. The plane was descending in a spiral. But it occurred to neither pilot nor navigator that their end might have come. Their one thought, according to Alcock, was "However shall we get back on our original course and avoid being lost in the endless waste of the Atlantic ?"

The altimeter, at that moment the most important instrument, showed 100 ft. Their chances of survival narrowed, when suddenly, at a mere 65 ft. above the waves, Alcock managed miraculously to regain control of the "Vimy." The weather had begun to change. When Brown was later asked how he and his captain reacted to their worst ordeal, he replied, "We grinned!"

Alcock had opened the throttle to the full. He swung the plane through 180 degrees onto its old course, pulled back the joy stick and climbed slowly to a height of 7,200 ft. There was now more to it than just grinning: both men suddenly realized that they felt very hungry. The pilots shared a frugal meal of sandwiches and coffee, which had been prepared for them by Miss Agnes Dooley in St. John's . They had also brought some whisky on board as well as a bottle of beer which they emptied and threw overboard.

The long-distance flight routine continued. Checks were made regularly on the revolution rate of both engines, on the cooling system temperature, on the oil pressure, and on the fuel consumption as they switched from an empty tank to the next full one. This gave Brown a task for which he was thankful: it made him warm. Before the tanks which directly fed the engines were empty, they had to be refilled by vigorous pumping from the main tank in the fuselage.

All these experiences and five hours of flying were behind them when they again saw the sun. It was now directly behind them. Brown knelt on his seat, grasped the sextant and calculated their position. It was a small triumph for them that they were only a few miles south of their planned route. Then once again they were swallowed up by cloud. They continued to fly with no visibility, cold and deafened by the noise of the right engine, until 9 p.m.

Then Brown wrote on a page in the log book: "Can you get above the clouds by 9:30 ? We need stars as soon as possible." He held up the scribbled lines and focused a pocket flashlight on the page.


A page from Brown’s notebook

A page from Brown’s notebook
Copyright Brown Estate/Vickers PLC

Midnight came and went. It was now June 15, but there was no relief for the fliers. At 12:05 a.m. Brown wrote to Alcock: "Must see stars now." Their altitude was 6,500 ft. and they were surrounded by clouds and darkness. The only illumination was the green glow of the control panel lighting and the bursts of flame from the starboard engine. Alcock pulled the joy stick back lightly and opened the throttle. The clouds went on without end.

At 12:15 a.m. Alcock dug his fingers into Brown's shoulder, and pointed above his head. There was the moon, Vega, and the Pole Star, Polaris! Like a shot Brown was up on his seat, operating the sextant with his numbed fingers. In the frozen cockpit, Brown placed the open log book on his knee, spread out the navigation tables on the right-hand side, held them with his elbow and calculated the "Vimy's" position by the dim light of the flashlight which he held in his left hand.

At 12:25 a.m. their position was 50 deg 7' latitude north, 31 deg longitude west. They were already nearly half way across, but were still flying a little too far to the south. Brown made further calculations. They had already flown 850 nautical miles, which meant that about 1,000 more still lay ahead. Their average speed had been 106 knots.

At 12:30 a.m. the two optimists enjoyed some more sandwiches and coffee. Brown laced his coffee with whisky. "I looked towards Brown, and saw that he was singing," Alcock said, "but I couldn't understand a word." Brown's song about the swallow that flies so high and the river that never dries up was lost on the wind.

Meanwhile, in the newsroom of London 's "Daily Mail" discussions about the "Vimy" and its crew were gloomy. A cable from St. John's had announced the takeoff; since then there had been no news either from Newfoundland or from the fliers. The newspaper staff knew that the "Vimy" carried a radio transmitter, but after three hours' flight it had gone dead, a fact neither Alcock nor Brown knew at the time. If all went well, the competitors for the 10,000 lb. prize should reach the Irish coast at 9 a.m. , but there was no sign of life from the "Vimy." Dispatches piled up on the news editor's table, but not one of them was from Alcock and Brown.

At 3 A.M. the fliers thought they saw the first signs of dawn. Suddenly they also saw something else: a new mountain of cumulus cloud ahead, again too close to circumvent. A sudden turbulence seized the machine and flung it out of control. Alcock and Brown felt themselves being pressed down into their seats. They were drenched by rain, which turned into hail. The swirling journey went on and on. At 90 knots the speedometer jammed. Alcock struggled to regain control and ended up more by luck than by good judgment in the safety of a nose dive. He cut off the gas and relied heavily on his experience as a night bomber pilot. The plane plummeted from 4,000 ft. to 1000 ft. and, just above the surface of the water, Alcock gained control of the "Vimy." For a fraction of a second he could not believe his eyes--he saw the sea lying vertically, and then with a quick automatic reflex action he straightened out the "Vimy" and opened the throttles to the full.

"The salty taste we noted later on our tongues was foam," Alcock reported. "In any case the altimeter wasn't working at that low height and I think that we were not more than 16 to 20 ft. above the water." Brown's only comment was: "I kept thinking about Lieutenant Clement's weather report." Specifically, he had failed to forecast the snowstorm into which they had flown immediately after their recent narrow escape.

Like a shroud, snow covered the wings, fuselage, the struts, even the engines. Ice formed on the engine parts and Alcock needed all his strength to move the rudder. Unless something drastic was done, the men knew that the engine would stop and all the controls would go out of action. Snow piled up in the cockpit, and both men crouched behind the windshield for protection from the icy wind. Snow on the carburetor air filters made both the engines run irregularly. Brown knelt on his seat and took off his goggles so that he could see more clearly. Ice now began to form on the engine intake connection; at the same time a layer of it was spreading over the inspection windows through which the fuel supply could be observed.

As far as Brown was concerned, the only possible way of avoiding a crash was to make a trip out onto the wings. He grabbed a knife and swung his legs out onto the nose. Seeing what he had in mind, Alcock stood up from his seat and tried to hold his companion back. Brown jerked himself free, and, in the blinding snow, he wriggled forward from strut to strut and from cable to cable, holding on with one hand. His left leg caused him difficulty because it was still stiff from wounds he had received in the war.

The limping lieutenant gradually removed the ice from the inlet connections and cautiously cleaned the inspection window of the fuel intake. The slip-stream tugged at him, and frost nibbled at the flesh on his hands. Brown cleared the air filters of snow, then he had to go back again, back and over the nose to the other wing and the other engine. (Many believe this story to be a fabrication, as the logbook, in which Brown wrote in every hour during the journey, never mentioned walking on the wing.)

Meanwhile, Alcock had more than enough to do to keep the plane as steady as he could, flying at 8,000 ft. over the Atlantic in a snowstorm! One false move and Brown would have been plunged to his death, and his own number would undoubtedly have been up soon afterwards.

At 6:20 as day broke, the lateral controls were not operating. They too had iced up. An hour later the "Vimy" was flying approximately 3,800 ft. higher (at 11,800 ft.) when the sun appeared. For the last time the navigator stripped the gloves from his aching fingers and took up the sextant. His calculations showed that they were still on course. But it was obvious that the plane had to be lowered into warmer air if the controls were to be prevented from freezing. Alcock moved the joy stick forward; the plane descended and was engulfed in cloud. Again the fliers had no visibility.

Icing presented a problem for which, in those days, there was virtually no practical answer. Even during this latest descent of the "Vimy" there was a distinct danger of the elevator's icing up. They were now only 30 minutes away from their longed-for goal. Alcock kept his eyes glued to the altimeter as the plane descended from 9,800 ft. to 6,800 ft. With the reduced throttle settings, the cutout engines were running perceptibly quieter. Then at 3,200 ft. Brown suddenly shouted: "It's melting! The ice is breaking up!"

Both men were soon sitting in a puddle; in the cockpit, too, the snow was melting. At 1,000 ft. above the ominously rough ocean, Alcock reopened the throttles, and the engines responded; both ran smoothly. Twenty minutes later the men were triumphant: they had sighted land. Brown searched on his map. It was not Galway , for which they had been heading, yet Brown knew that the land must be Ireland . Then he saw the top of Connemara , identified the town of Clifden , and scribbled his observations into the log book which he held up for Alcock to read.

After flying toward the small town at a low height, Alcock circled over the streets and looked for an outlying meadow on which to land. He made a slow curve, found nothing suitable, then headed towards the Clifden radio-station and circled round it. Beyond the transmitter's tower he noticed an invitingly green meadow. The men in the transmitter building waved and gesticulated in vain. Below the deceptive green covering lay the extremely dangerous swamp, Derrygimla Bog.

Alcock thought that the people in the tower were waving a welcome. At 8:40 a.m. (G.M.T.) Alcock landed the plane, ploughing into the mud and damaging the lower wings and the forepart of the fuselage. After 1,890 miles, 15 hours 57 minutes of flying time, the heroes had landed in a bog. They had to remain seated, held fast by their safety belts. On landing Brown reportedly said to Alcock: "What do you think of that for fancy navigating?" "Very good," was the reply, and they both shook hands!

Stuck in the bog

Stuck in the bog
Copyright Daily Mail Newspapers/Hulton Getty Picture Collection

Men who had watched the "Vimy" land rushed toward the plane, jumping from one grass tuft to another through the swamp. A man by the name of Taylor was the first to reach the fliers and he asked breathlessly:

"Anybody hurt?" "No." came the reply.

"Where are you from?"

" America ."

The news of the adventure spread like wildfire, and there followed for Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten-Brown a hectic round of greetings, receptions, speeches, galas, and banquets. Brown made his shortest speech in Clifford Street , London . When he appeared with Alcock on the Aero Club balcony he stopped the cheering and said: "No speech now. You wanted us. Here we are!" At the banquet which followed the officers were greeted with an unforgettable menu unlikely to be found anywhere else. It consisted of: Oeufs Poches Alcock, Supreme de Sole a la Brown, Poulet de Printemps a la Vickers Vimy, Salade Clifden, Surprise Britannia, Gateau Grand Success.

After the fliers received Lord Northcliffe's 10,000 pound prize from Winston Churchill, they insisted that the Vickers and Rolls-Royce mechanics who had helped them should receive a 2,000 pound share.


(photo attributed to Cynthia Long -

Official recognition of their pioneering achievement came a few days later from King George V. Captain Alcock and Lieutenant Whitten-Brown were received at Buckingham Palace . They left as Sir John and Sir Arthur.

After the trans-Atlantic flight, Sir Arthur Whitten-Brown got married and headed for the U.S. on his honeymoon. Meanwhile...... Alcock was working full-time at Brooklands, testing planes. On December 15 he attended the Science Museum in London when the Vimy, hauled from the Irish bog, was presented to the nation. Three days later, he had to deliver a new plane, the Viking, to Paris , for the first aeronautical exhibition there since the war.

Low cloud, rain, and strong wind made the morning miserable. Alcock's colleagues suggested he delay the flight, but he left - with no navigator. Over the English Channel , the weather was blustery; when he reached the Normandy coast, the plane was in fog. Alcock must have taken it low in an attempt to see a town or a railway line he could identify.

About one o'clock that afternoon, a farmer was in his fields at Cote d'Everard and saw a big plane “become unsteady, make a big sway and fall to earth.” Although it didn't catch fire, the Viking was wrecked. Alcock was, “a terrible mess”, unconscious in the cabin. The farmer and another worker carried Alcock to the farmhouse. Eventually contact was made with No.6 British General Hospital at Rouen , which sent doctors.

By then Sir John Alcock was dead.


Photo Credit: Tom Sutton

A memorial statue commemorating Alcock and Brown’s flight was erected at Heathrow Airport in 1954. There is also a memorial plaque on the grounds of the Conception Bay Museum in Newfoundland . The plane itself is still on display at the Science Museum in London England .



The Vickers Vimy on display at the ScienceMuseum in London, England
Copyright Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Sir John William Alcock was born in November 6, 1892 in Manchester , England . He first became interested in flying at the age of seventeen, when the science of aviation was still a new subject. He received his pilot’s certificate in 1912 and joined the Royal Naval Air Service as an instructor. During World War One, Alcock gained experience as a pilot, though he was eventually shot down during a bombing raid, and taken prisoner in Turkey . After the war, Alcock wanted to continue his flying career and took up the challenge of attempting to be the first to fly directly across the Atlantic . Sir John died on December 18, 1919 in Cottevrard , France .

Sir Arthur Whitten Brown was born July 23, 1886 in Glasgow , Scotland . He began his career in engineering before the outbreak of the First World War. Like Alcock, Brown also became a prisoner of war, after being shot down over Germany . Once released and back in Britain , Brown continued to develop his aerial navigation skills. While visiting the engineering firm of Vickers, he was asked to be the navigator for the proposed transatlantic flight, partnering Alcock, who had already been chosen as pilot. Sir Arthur died on Oct. 4, 1948 in Swansea , Glamorgan, Wales.

Photos and information for this article were found at the following locations:

The Canada Aviation Museum (
The Aviation History Online Museum (
The Franklin Institute Science Museum Online (

This information was compiled by Denise Burton Barrett and Sonja Harding, the granddaughters of Jean Clinton (McWilliam), one of the young girls seated in front of the plane before take-off..



Contributed by Sonja Harding (April 2004)

Page Revised by Craig Peterman (Wednesday March 06, 2013)
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