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Tuesday 16 July 2019

How pioneering aviators put us on the map

Amelia Earhart
Amelia Earhart
Famous transatlantic aviators John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown

Ken Sweeney Entertainment Editor

WHEN the two men crashed their large biplane into a bog in Galway in 1919 they became international celebrities.

Locals were stunned -- not only had they never seen a plane, but the aviators who emerged from the flying machine in Derrygimlagh Moor, near Clifden, Co Galway, on June 15 claimed they had just crossed the vast Atlantic Ocean after they landed in their flimsy aircraft.

John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown had just won the race to fly across the Atlantic using a modified Vickers Vimy bomber.

Much to the annoyance of Britain's 'Daily Mail', which had sponsored the race, the first newspaper reports came not from it but from an enterprising Irish journalist, Tom Kenny, who worked for 'The Connacht Tribune'.

Some 16 hours and 3,000km after the two men had taken off from a field in St John's, Mr Kenny reported Mr Alcock's first official confirmation of his and Mr Brown's achievement: "I'm Alcock -- just come from Newfoundland," he said.

The role Ireland played in the story of transatlantic aviation is now explored in a new book 'The Great Atlantic Air Race'.

Reaching Ireland -- a bridge between America and mainland Europe -- was the goal of every pioneer aviator who attempted to cross the Atlantic from 1919.

"Alcock and Brown were so brave. This book is a testament to them and all the early transatlantic flyers," author Gavin Will told the Irish Independent. And Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic when she landed in fields outside Derry on May 21, 1932.

"She had intended to land in Paris but a severe lightning storm drove her off course, to the north.

"With no navigational assistance, during her 15-hour flight she had to battle ice forming on the wings of her plane, and a fuel leak which covered her in fuel.

"Ms Earhart became only the second person, besides Charles Lindbergh, to fly solo across the Atlantic, and the first woman to do so," added Mr Will. All the first transatlantic flights were made in the west-east direction as flying from Europe to North America was far more dangerous due to prevailing winds. However, it was an Irish Air Corps pilot who made the first flight westward in 1928.

Captain James Fitzmaurice was a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps -- the precursor of the RAF -- in World War One and joined the Irish Air Corps in 1922, rising to become its commandant.

He took off with two German companions from Baldonnel Airfield on April 12, 1928, and nothing was heard from the flyers for a full two days until a telegraph message was sent from an isolated island off Newfoundland.

"When Fitzmaurice and the Germans arrived in New York, they were given a hero's welcome with a ticker tape parade attended by hundreds of thousands of people," said Mr Will.

'The Great Atlantic Air Race' by Gavin Will, published by O'Brien Press, is on sale for €24.99.

Irish Independent

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