ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — The city of St. John's, known for its seafaring roots, is commemorating its aviation history today, 100 years to the day after two young British war veterans took off from Newfoundland in a Vickers Vimy airplane headed across the Atlantic.
When they landed in Ireland 16 hours later, John Alcock and Arthur Brown entered the history books as the first people to fly non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean. Gary Hebbard, a retired journalist who writes on aviation history, said the June 14, 1919 flight represents a turning point that shaped the development of modern aviation as we know it. "Alcock and Brown did it in one hop," Hebbard said. "The significance of that really can't be overstated. That's kind of the genesis of the aviation industry we have today." The journey began from a field that's now part of the coastal city of St. John's. The two had to scout an appropriate takeoff point, given there were no airstrips in the city at the time. In honour of the centennial, aviation enthusiasts in Newfoundland and Labrador arranged a series of celebrations that started in late May, with guest speakers, aircraft displays, re-enactments and museum exhibits. A statue of Alcock and Brown has been commissioned, and a commemorative flight with 50 guests will retrace the June 14 flight path over St. John's. Hebbard said the grave danger the men flew directly into, all in the spirit of exploration, stands out when considering their story. Modern international flights, with movie screens, climate control and flight attendants, are a far cry from the 16-hour marathon Alcock and Brown undertook in a machine they had to assemble from parts shipped to St. John's. A newspaper's reward of 10,000 British pounds — the equivalent of more than 500,000 pounds today, according to a Bank of England calculator — had teams racing to be the first to fly across the Atlantic, but the end goal came with life-threatening risks. The team's radio cut out shortly after takeoff, leaving the two alone in the air together, with Alcock flying and Brown navigating as they battled the harsh weather the North Atlantic is known for. Brown, who walked with a cane after a war injury, at one point had to stand up midflight to clear snow from a fuel gauge. "It's the kind of thing that your average person today would hesitate to get off the ground in, never mind fly the Atlantic," Hebbard said. "They made this flight knowing full well that they could just disappear in the ocean and never be seen again. I think that says a lot about the character of the people involved." Both men were knighted for their feat, though Alcock did not live much longer to enjoy his fortune. He was killed in a plane crash in December of 1919, six months after he made history. Alcock's nephew, Tony Alcock, visited St. John's in May. A retired Royal Air Force pilot himself, Tony delivered public remarks about the timeless lessons that can be drawn from Alcock and Brown's story. "They both demonstrated extraordinary courage, skill, physical strength and resourcefulness to overcome the problems that occurred," Alcock said in his prepared remarks. "It was an unparalleled example of how teamwork can achieve success. A great lesson for our younger generation to follow." Hebbard hopes the commemorative events will introduce young people to Newfoundland and Labrador's role in the event, opening new chapters in the province's aviation history. Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, also starting from Newfoundland in 1928. A year earlier Charles Lindbergh had piloted the first solo non-stop trans-Atlantic flight, flying the Spirit of St. Louis from New York to Paris.
Jim Burton, an organizer of the commemorative events in St. John's this year, said Alcock and Brown's flight kicked off a century that changed international travel, with a story he says has all the elements of a classic Hollywood movie. "It was the passion of these two young men that really were in that discovery mode," Burton said. "They led the way for what we have today."