Sunday 25 February 2018

Flashback 1934: an unexpected stop in Clare by cross-Atlantic aviators

This weekend 82 years ago, two aviators attempted the first flight from the US to Italy but made an unscheduled stop in Co Clare en route

Flying visit: Cesare Sabelli (in cravat) and George Pond (wearing goggles) with locals In Lahinch. Photo: NPA/Independent Newspapers Collection -
Flying visit: Cesare Sabelli (in cravat) and George Pond (wearing goggles) with locals In Lahinch. Photo: NPA/Independent Newspapers Collection -

Ger Siggins

Nowadays, it takes less than 10 hours, costs less than €1,000 return, and thousands of people do it every day. But 80 years ago, it was still a feat that had only been completed in the dreams of aviation pioneers. Transatlantic flight was in its infancy, and the journey from New York to Rome was still to be made.

In May 1934, two men from either end of that itinerary teamed up to attempt the flight and they ended up not in the Eternal City but in Hennessy's farm near Lahinch in Co Clare.

The pair, Lieutenant Cesare Sabelli from Italy and American Captain George Pond had left Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York at 7.24am on May 14. They were on board a Bellanca CH-300 Pacemaker monoplane named the Leonardo da Vinci.

All went well for the first 30 hours or so but they suffered fuelling troubles 400 miles off the west coast and made a forced landing at Cloneyogan. Despite failing in their main objective, the men still made what was considered the eighth full-flight across the Atlantic. The locals saw the plane coming in low and rushed to where it had landed. The men were helped out of the Leonardo da Vinci and found to be uninjured but exhausted after almost a day-and-a-half in the air.

The papers reported: "A neighbour, Mr S Hennessy, soon had hot tea, boiled eggs and homemade cake brought to the field; it was the flyers' first real meal since they left New York 32 hours before. Both are keenly appreciative of the hospitality that has been shown them.

"Lt Sabelli said: 'We have often heard of the ­hospitality of the Irish people, but all the kindly actions of the people since we landed clearly proves that their reputation for hospitality to all is well deserved'."

A cyclist was sent to Lahinch to fetch the gardaí, and Supt Keenan arrived to escort them to Lahinch.

'Transatlantic flyers land in Co Clare' ran the headline in the Irish Independent over a report which related how the men had been forced down after a flight bedevilled by technical problems which saw them fly 'blind' for most of the way.

"They walked into Lahinch almost unobserved and, going to the Commercial Hotel there, booked rooms and went off to bed."

The Irish Army Air Corps, founded just a decade before, sent a mechanic down from Baldonnel and they spent a week getting the Leonardo da Vinci back to condition. Before they left, the aviators dropped into Séamus Hennessy to say thank you and to have tea with him and his family.

The plane took off once more, but had a bumpy start, skimming the hedge before it rose into the sky en route to Baldonnel.

After further checks and refuelling there, the men set off for Rome. The flight was again 'bedevilled' however, and they needed further stops in Cardiff and London for repairs.

The pair arrived in Rome on June 12, a month after leaving New York, but their feat was still lauded with a public reception with Benito Mussolini.

George Pond, a member of the wealthy Pond's creams and cosmetics family, died 17 months later in a bid to set a record flight from England to Australia. He and his co-pilot Charles Kingsford Smith hit a monsoon over the Bay of Bengal, lost control and spun into the water.

Their bodies were never found.

Cesare Sabelli, who history remembers as the first pilot to send a radio transmission from an aircraft, later became a US citizen and ran an art-and-antiques reproduction business. He died, aged 86, in 1984.

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