Monday 25 September 2017

Flashback 1927: Fitzmaurice attempt to fly across Atlantic

This week 88 years ago, Irish pilot James Fitzmaurice embarked on the first attempted east-to-west flight crossing the Atlantic

James Fitzmaurice made his first attempt at the east to west crossing, as co-pilot in the Princess Xenia with the English pilot Captain Robert Henry McIntosh, who had the financial backing of the American millionaire William B Leeds.
James Fitzmaurice made his first attempt at the east to west crossing, as co-pilot in the Princess Xenia with the English pilot Captain Robert Henry McIntosh, who had the financial backing of the American millionaire William B Leeds.

Ger Siggins

In the early years of the Irish state, aviator James Fitzmaurice was one of the most colourful characters in public life. It was an era when Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart were celebrities for their pioneering flights and in 'Flying Fitz' Ireland had one of its own.

Born in Dublin and raised in Maryborough, now Portlaoise, Fitzmaurice joined up to fight in World War I and saw action at the Somme. He applied to join the Royal Flying Corps but he was not posted to France until November 11, 1918, the day the war ended.

After some years travelling the world with the RAF, he returned to sign up with the new Irish Army Air Service. His duties during the Civil War included reconnaissance and "light-bombing" of the Irregulars and once came under fire while dropping leaflets over Killarney.

In 1926, Fitzmaurice proposed that the Air Corps attempt the first east-to-west crossing of the Atlantic, but there was little money for fripperies in the new state, and the government rejected the plan. But he got his chance to chase his dream thanks to some overseas aviators.

An Englishman, Captain Robert Henry McIntosh, wrote to Fitz about his plan to fly to North America and seeking permission to use Baldonnel (now Casement Aerodrome). McIntosh, who had the backing of a millionaire American, eventually invited Fitzmaurice to join him and arrived in Ireland in August 1927.

The pair began to prepare for the flight in their Fokker monoplane, Princess Xenia, and they flew up and down the west coast testing the plane and making plans. Weather would be a key factor as the prevailing winds made it a far harder challenge than Alcock and Brown's trip across west-to-east.

The weather forecasters reported storms and fog across the ocean which caused the flight to be delayed several times, but on September 16, 1927 the weather was predicted to be fine in the Atlantic once they got over the storm that hung up to 200 miles off the coast.

McIntosh and Fitzmaurice decided to take the chance and a large crowd, including a photographer from the Irish Independent, gathered at Baldonnel that afternoon to wave off the Princess Xenia, the two fliers and co-pilot Maurice Piercey.

However, as soon as they passed the Galway coast they hit turbulence and the weather began to worsen. They gamely battled on for 300 miles but with visibility measured in inches and Fitzmaurice temporarily blinded by a fuel leak, they turned back and landed on Beale Strand near Ballybunion, Co Kerry. Their flight had lasted just over five-and-a-half hours.

Fitzmaurice got another chance just six months later when he joined two Germans on the Bremen which made it all the way to Canada from Baldonnel. In 1929 he left the Air Corps and moved to New York and later London but never settled and returned to Dublin. There he lived in reduced circumstances until his death in 1965, when he received a state funeral.

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