When it was all over, Captain John Alcock, an English pilot, telegraphed his story to newspaper reporters around the world. He was exhausted by a recent in-air ordeal that had culminated in a risky plane crash in Ireland along with his navigator and flying partner, Arthur Whitten Brown. “We have had a terrible journey,” wrote Alcock. “The wonder is that we are here at all. We scarcely saw the sun or the moon or the stars. For hours we saw none of them.”
If you’d have stopped reading there, you might think that Alcock and Brown’s journey had ended in failure. For 16 fraught hours, they’d been trapped in a rudimentary airplane in abysmal weather, their only means of navigation a sextant, an instrument that measured celestial objects in relation to the horizon. Their journey had been beset with blunders, and more often than not, fog and clouds had covered the stars, making it nearly impossible for Brown to determine their location.
Yet their journey was a triumph. Despite their graceless landing in a bog on June 15, 1919, Alcock and Brown were the first people ever to fly nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean. Nearly a decade before Charles Lindbergh caught the world’s attention with his own transatlantic flight, the flying duo made history. Their adventure paid off: The pair not only became pioneering aviators, but beat out a group of other pilots vying for a huge cash prize in a cut-throat competition to be the first transatlantic aviators.
The prize was the brainchild of Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe, a British newspaper tycoon who owned The Daily Mail, one of England’s most influential newspapers. Like many magnates of his day, Lord Northcliffe was fascinated by new modes of transportation. Air flight was still a novelty, and a group of pioneering aviators, funded by rich patrons like Northcliffe, wanted to know just how far the technology could be pushed.
Northcliffe was a founding member of England’s Aero Club, a group of aviation enthusiasts interested in expanding and popularizing air flight. In 1906, he offered a 10,000-pound purse to the first balloonist to fly from London to Manchester. Ten thousand pounds was an enormous amount of money at the time—worth over 600,000 dollars today.
Northcliffe continued offering prizes for aviation accomplishments, which brought attention to his newspaper as well as stimulated competition among aviators. The prize purses were also part of a larger trend of widely publicized technological competitions that rewarded people who adopted new technologies like air flight.
The public followed along as intrepid motorists, cyclists and pilots set new milestones in their fields, slowly pushing the new technology to its limits. Air prizes were handed out to pilots who broke records in everything from speed to distance, and those who competed and won became celebrities.
Northcliffe’s most ambitious prize offering was for a transatlantic flight. The prize offered 10,000 pounds to a pilot who not only crossed the Atlantic from somewhere in North America to Great Britain or Ireland—a feat that had yet to be accomplished—but who did it within 72 hours.
The planes of the 1910s were so primitive that the prize seemed almost impossible to win. World War I changed that. The Great War put a temporary stop to the competition, but it also pushed plane technology to new heights, as air flight became a tool of war. In turn, the aviation industry grew and the technology behind flight improved dramatically. By the end of the war, a group of war-hardened pilots—and planes that had been weapons of war—were ready to vie for the prize.
Among them were Alcock and Brown, both military pilots and prisoners of war during World War I. During his imprisonment, Alcock dreamed of crossing the Atlantic via plane. Once the war ended, he set about making his dream come true.
His aspiration was shared by other aviators. Multiple teams of pilots and aircraft manufacturers vied for the prize, and failed again and again. In May 1919, a group of Navy and Coast Guard airmen flew across the Atlantic in the NC-4, a seaplane that took three weeks, and multiple stops, to get across the ocean. But since Northcliffe’s contest was only open to non-military flyers, and required the journey be completed in 72 hours with no stops, the NC-4 made history but didn’t win the prize.
Another team backed by British aircraft company Handley Page wanted to beat Alcock and Brown, and shipped a plane to Newfoundland in preparation for the flight. Alcock and Brown were there, too, with a Vickers Vimy bomber that had been modified for transatlantic flight. On June 14, 1919, while the Handley Page team languished as its leaders conducted flight tests, Alcock and Brown started their flight attempt.
It was a disaster. The takeoff was bumpy and treacherous. Then the radio failed. Fog overwhelmed the pilots, making navigation—conducted by sextant—next to impossible. Soon, the plane was covered in ice. Sitting in an open cockpit, the men began to freeze. At times, Alcock lost control of the plane entirely, plunging toward the sea. At another, their engine stopped working, choked by ice.
“We looped the loop,” Alcock recalled. “We did some very comic stunts, for I had no sense of the horizon.”
Blinded by the weather and uncertain of their exact location, the men flew and flew. Fueled by sandwiches, coffee and whisky, they passed the time by singing and worrying about whether the punishing weather would destroy their fuel tanks.
Finally, improbably, they realized they were over land. But it wasn’t a smooth landing. Rather, they nosedived the plane into a bog in Ireland. The men were dazed, but elated. They may have crashed, but they had just made history.
They had hoped the press could find out about their landing via a wireless radio, but the radio had gone out so early in the flight that they couldn’t inform them of their victory. Instead, they telegraphed the Aero Club. Later, Alcock sent a cable to the Daily Mail about the journey. “The flight has shown that the Atlantic flight is practicable,” he wrote.
It was a monumental feat. Alcock and Brown were front-page news, and their feat pointed to a future in which crossing an ocean was a commonplace affair. After winning the prize money, which was presented by British aviation secretary Winston Churchill, the duo were knighted by George V.
Alcock did not live to enjoy knighthood: He died later in 1919 when the plane he was piloting, another Vickers aircraft, crashed in France. But Brown, who had navigated the flight through such tough conditions, continued flying. During World War II, he worked for the British Home Guard and Royal Air Force. He died a few years after his son, Arthur Brown, was killed in a plane crash.
So what did the navigator think of the pioneering flight that had been such a challenge? Despite the fear, the cold, and the lack of stars by which to navigate, the flight had been a triumph of man and machine. After crash-landing, Alcock and Brown were picked up by wireless radio operators who fed them breakfast and helped them telegraph their success. “This is the best way to cross the Atlantic,” Brown said…after finishing his food.