Mary Kenny: 'Those magnificent men'
Clifden, capital of Connemara, plays host next month to a pioneering feat of transatlantic aviation 100 years ago
As a youngster, whenever I'd visit that jewel of Connemara, Clifden, my Galway uncle would proudly point out the historic spot when the pioneer aviators Alcock and Brown landed in 1919. As Uncle Jim was a boy when this occurred, it always remained for him a source of awe and wonder that these men had been the first to fly the Atlantic non-stop. They crossed in 16 hours and 28 minutes in a fragile two-seater open-cockpit airplane - then the longest flight ever taken - and landing in a bog just by Clifden.
Brown's first words were: "Yesterday, we were in America." For the people of Connemara, who had known America as a far destiny of emigration, it was truly extraordinary. Jack Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown were soon global aviation celebrities.
Clifden will be en fête from June 11-16 to mark the Alcock and Brown centenary, and many celebratory events are taking place in the town, including a re-enactment of the landing itself, displays of artefacts from the flight, a national school science fair, photography exhibitions (there are good photographs of the Vimy Vickers aircraft in which they flew), and gatherings of friends and associates of the aviators.
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An Post is issuing a commemorative stamp, and there will be a €15 commemorative coin too. On May 15, the London Heathrow statue of the duo, especially transported, will be unveiled at the Abbeyglen Hotel in Clifden.
Because they flew together, Jack Alcock and Arthur (known to his family as Ted) Whitten Brown are forever paired in aviation history, yet they had only known each other for a few months when they conceived of the plan to fly the little aircraft from Newfoundland to Ireland.
Alcock was a Manchester lad - always into mechanics and engineering - while Brown's family were Americans who had settled in Scotland. Both were veterans of the First World War - Brown, who had been through the Somme, suffered from a shattered leg and walked with a stick.
As Brendan Lynch relates in his superb book, Yesterday We Were In America, they were very different characters. Jack (27) was the eldest in a family of five, essentially quite shy, very focused on the mechanics of flight and engineering, not into writing letters and didn't care for publicity. Arthur (33) was an only child, but more sociable, interested in literature, read Yeats, and was much in love with his pretty fiancée Kathleen Kennedy. But when they met at a Vickers training station, their common interest in extending the boundaries of flight struck a chord, and soon they were planning the daring crossing of the Atlantic. (Lord Northcliffe, the aviation-mad press baron, was offering prize money of £100,000 - about half a million today.)
It was a dangerous mission. The fatalities involved in early flight - first pioneered by the Wright brothers in 1899 - were tremendous, and would touch both their lives after Clifden.
They set off from a gusty St John's in Newfoundland on Saturday morning, June 14, lifting the fragile two-seater into the sky, using marine instruments of compass and sextant to guide them. They were carrying a colossal tank of 865 gallons of fuel and two bags of mail, making the flight the first ever airmail postal service too.
The Atlantic is 3,000ft deep in parts, and there were terrifying moments, as when the Vimy stalled and dropped down to 500ft amidst swirling fog and rocking turbulence. Their radio conked out and an exhaust pipe broke in the fuselage. It was fog, sleet, wind, cloud, darkness and even ice. The noise from the engine precluded conversation, so the two had to communicate in notes - some still preserved (one says "Have a sandwich?").
Then imagine the sight of Ireland's west coast hoving into view in the morning light! Hallelujah!
In a sign of the times, the denizens of Clifden were all at church at 8.40 in the morning - at a Catholic mass or Church of Ireland service - and the first witness was a little boy, Harry Sullivan, kept at home for fear of contacting the fearful Spanish flu, then raging. Word soon got around and the Vimy, damaged as it came down, became a celebrity in itself, while the aviators were hailed as harbingers of a new, wonderful age of aviation.
Sadly, Jack was killed later that year, flying from London to Paris in bad weather conditions. Arthur was very upset by the loss; but he was happily married to Kathleen and had a son. He also passionately believed aviation would be a bridge to world peace, bringing peoples together. He was to be greatly disillusioned by this as he witnessed aerial bombing develop and his only child, Arthur Junior, was killed in aerial combat during World War II. He died at 62 from an apparent accidental painkiller overdose.
But Brown and Alcock did open a century of flight, and some of us have always retained a sense of the glamour of flying. I still find it an amazing moment, when an aircraft takes off, and I think of those early aviation pioneers who were so daring. It's surely fitting that Clifden on the Wild Atlantic Way should be the host to their historic achievement. For more, see alcockandbrown100.com.