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Six objects telling the story of the first non-stop transatlantic flight

a black and white photo of a crash landed biplane with police and people stood about

Alcock and Brown’s Vickers Vimy after crash landing in Ireland 1919. © Public Domain

On the hundredth anniversary of the first non-stop transatlantic flight these six museum objects tell the story of Alcock and Brown’s amazing achievement in 1919

On the morning of June 15 1919, employees of the Marconi wireless station at Clifden, County Galway ran to the aid of a plane that had crashed into a nearby bog. When they asked the pilot and navigator where they had come from they answered, ‘America!’.

This was the rather unceremonious end to what was the very first non-stop transatlantic flight and the two men in the plane were John ‘Jack’ Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown. They had indeed taken off from North America – more precisely a field in Newfoundland – just 16 hours before and had won a Daily Mail competition with a prize of £10,000, but more importantly they had shown that with the right plane, the right navigation, and more than a little luck, travelling across the Atlantic by air was possible.

Objects and archives from the flight are now held in several places around the world, including here at the Science and Industry Museum, Manchester. Our collection stems from Alcock and Brown being local residents but there are more items in the Science Museum in London, RAF Hendon and RAF Cosford, Brooklands Museum and The Rooms in St. John’s, Newfoundland. These objects not only give an insight into the flight but also Jack and Arthur themselves as two men whose dream was to fly across the Atlantic.

Distinguished Service Cross

a [photo of a cross styled medal and ribbon bar

Distinguished Service Cross awarded to Jack Alcock. Courtesy Science and Industry Museum

The Distinguished Service Cross is awarded to military personnel for gallantry during active operations against the enemy at sea. John William “Jack” Alcock was awarded this medal for his service as a pilot in the Royal Naval Air Service during the First World War. He was based at Mudros in Greece and flew bombing, fighting and scout missions against Turkish and German forces.

Later, on 30 September 1917, his Handley-Page bomber was shot down over the sea and he and his crew were captured by Turkish forces. He remained a prisoner for the rest of the war, writing many letters to his relatives, several of which are in the Science and Industry Museum archive. It was during his time as a PoW that Alcock became determined to fly across the Atlantic.

Vickers Vimy

a photo of a large biplane suspended in a museum gallery

Alcock and Brown’s Vickers Vimy at the Science and Industry Museum. © Science Museum

Alcock and Brown flew this Vickers Vimy/Rolls-Royce Biplane constructed mainly of wood covered by a layer of fabric and powered by two Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII V-12 engines. It had a fuel capacity of 3932 litres (865 gal) and a cruising speed of 144 km/h (90 mph).

The Vimy was originally designed as a heavy bomber to attack Germany during the First World War and went from sketch design to the production of three prototypes in just four months. However, despite this rapid development, it came too late for active service in the war.

Nevertheless, it was the perfect aircraft for Vickers to attempt the Atlantic crossing. The company set to work modifying one of the models with extra fuel tanks and converting one to act as a flotation device in case of landing at sea.

Twinkletoes and Lucky Jim

a photo of two stuffed toy cats

Courtesy RAF Cosford and Science and Industry Museum.

Superstitions and good luck charms played quite a part in Alcock and Brown’s pre-flight preparation. The number 13 was seen as a lucky omen – the Vimy began construction on 13 February, it was the 13th of its class, Alcock and Brown arrived in Newfoundland on 13 May, the disassembled Vimy arrived on 26 May (two times 13) and they even wanted to set off on 13 June.

Alcock also had a horseshoe screwed to the underside of his seat but probably the cutest charms were these two black cats. Twinkletoes (left), now at RAF Cosford, was given to Arthur Brown by his fiancé, Kathleen Kennedy. Lucky Jim may have been given to Jack Alcock by Kathleen too but other reports say he bought the cat himself. One account said that during the flight, Brown strapped Lucky Jim onto a strut behind Alcock’s head and tucked Twinkletoes down the front of his own flying suit.

However, their own descriptions of the flight say the cats were put in the emergency rations cupboard in the tail. Either way, both cats made it successfully across the Atlantic with their owners.

Flight Map

a photo of a large map showing a line between two continents

Courtesy IWM Duxford

Arthur Whitten Brown started as an engineering apprentice at the British Westinghouse plant in Trafford Park but he was also interested in navigation. When World War One erupted, he joined up, first for the Manchester regiment in the trenches at Ypres and on the Somme before transferring to the Royal Flying Corps and training as an observer.

Like Alcock, he was shot down over enemy lines and spent almost two years as a prisoner of war. During this time, he studied the emerging field of aircraft navigation and, again like Alcock, this was when the desire to fly the Atlantic took hold.

Completely self-taught, Brown used observations of the sun, stars and ocean to calculate their position, speed and route. However, the fog and low cloud made this impossible for much of the flight so he used Dead Reckoning to navigate. This involves calculating your speed and any drift caused by the wind and making predictions about what the wind will do along the route then making adjustments to the aircraft’s direction along the route accordingly.

Souvenir

a photo of a lump of rock on a wooden plinth

Souvenir lump of rock. Courtesy Science and Industry Museum

Arthur Whitten Brown started as an engineering apprentice at the British Westinghouse plant in Trafford Park but he was also interested in navigation. When World War One erupted he joined up, first for the Manchester regiment in the trenches at Ypres and on the Somme before transferring to the Royal Flying Corps and training as an observer.

Like Alcock, he was shot down over enemy lines and spent almost two years as a prisoner of war. During this time, he studied the emerging field of aircraft navigation and, again like Alcock, this was when the desire to fly the Atlantic took hold.

Completely self-taught, Brown used observations of the sun, stars and ocean to calculate their position, speed and route. However, the fog and low cloud made this impossible for much of the flight so he used Dead Reckoning to navigate. This involves calculating your speed and any drift caused by the wind and making predictions about what the wind will do along the route then making adjustments to the aircraft’s direction along the route accordingly.

Alcock and Brown’s Gold Medal

a photo of a gold medal with image of two men on its front

Courtesy Science and Industry Museum.

This 18ct gold medal was presented to John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown by the City of Manchester later in 1919. As Alcock had been born in Manchester and both had grown up here, the city not only presented them with these medals but also gave them a civic reception.

The Science and Industry Museum also hold two more awards given to commemorate Alcock and Brown’s achievement – a silver cup from the people of St John’s where the flight had started from and a medal from The Royal Aero Club. The pair were met by huge crowds wherever they went, dinners were held in their honour and they were knighted at Windsor Castle. Tragically, Alcock died just six months later when his aircraft crashed at Rouen on the way to the Paris Air Show. He was 27 years old, and is buried in Southern Cemetery, Manchester. Brown married Kathleen and went to work for Vickers and then Metropolitan-Vickers (formerly British Westinghouse). He died at home in Swansea in 1948 aged 62.

Despite Alcock and Brown’s 1919 journey, the first commercial non-stop transatlantic passenger flights did not begin until 1928 and they used airships to cross the ocean. Although aeroplanes were used for mail flights between South America and Africa across the South Atlantic in the 1930s, it was not until the end of the decade that aeroplanes were reliable enough for passenger flights across the North Atlantic. However, Alcock and Brown’s legacy remains with us and the fact they crossed the Atlantic just 16 years after the first powered flight is a testament to all those magnificent men (and women) in their flying machines.

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Science and Industry Museum

Manchester, Greater Manchester

Uncover Manchester's industrial past and learn about the fascinating stories of the people who contributed to the history and science of a city that helped shape the modern world. Located on the site of the world's oldest surviving passenger railway station and only minutes from Manchester's City Centre, the Museum's…

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