First To Fly The Atlantic

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Half a century ago, heavier-than-air flight was less than sixteen years old, but men were already usine their frail new wings for nothing less ambitious than leaping an ocean. In 1919, the Atlantic was vaulted three times in three consecutive months, first by a team of American naval airmen in a flying boat, then by two Englishmen in a conventional bomber, and finally by the crewmen and officers of a British dirigible. The exploits of the aerial adventurers provided hope in an otherwise uneasy postwar springtime. The American public followed every mile of the transoceanic hops in the headlines, it was so enthralled by the drama that it scarcely noticed the abrupt passing of one of the basic certainties of its national identity—physical remoteness from the Old World. Nor did one in a hundred grasp the full import of the flights vis-à-vis the cherished ideal of individualism. As one designer of the American planes involved pointed out, the achievement was essentially collective and technical; success was due to “organized engineering, which takes the place of invention and makes use of the special knowledge of many people.”

From the beginning, aviation had had two faces. It was both scientific advance and adventure. It was brought to birth by a strange alliance of meticulous engineers, rich sportsmen, thrill seekers, daydreamers, cranks. Its growth was a miracle. In December of 1903 the Wright brothers’ plane barely cleared the ground and wobbled 120 feet in twelve seconds, pushed into a twenty-five-mile-aii-hour wind by a twelve horsepower engine. Less than six years later, Voisin, Farman, and Curtiss biplanes were flying for an hour or more, climbing as high as a thousand feet, and achieving ground speeds of forty miles an hour. By 1914 specially souped-up models had, astonishingly, attained an altitude of 25,755 feet a speed of 128 miles an hour, and a nonstop distance of over 1,100 miles. Trophywinning superplanes were built one by one, primarily with private funds, in shops that were no more than glorified garages. Aviation still belonged to enthusiasts sustained by their own time and money.

World War I changed that. All of the major combatants poured into the laps of aeronautical engineers enough money to build whatever their imaginations conceived, provided it was deadly. The fundamental wartime revolution in aeronautics was the shift to mass production of planes designed by committees of military and technical experts. The United States alone produced forty-three aircraft in 1914 and more than 14,000 in 1918. The romantic, mile-high tournaments-in-the-clouds of the combat pilots—the Guynemers, Foncks, Boelckes, Bishops, Richthofens, and Rickenbackers, costumed in riding breeches, scarves, and goggles—obscured the fact that the aces were less important to the future than were their machines. Each year the fighting craft grew in muscle and sophistication. The state’s quest for killing power had been an effective stimulant to aeronautic ingenuity.

In the spring of 1919 aviation’s leaders were anxious to prove that the precocious adolescent could do man’s work in peacetime, too. Veterans of the prewar sporting years of aeronautics yearned to try powerful new machines against fresh obstacles of distance and time. In the first five months of 1919, French aviators easily hopped from southern France to Algeria, took seventeen passengers on a round trip from Paris to Brussels and back in half a day, and began airmail service from Paris to Bordeaux and Marseilles. A British blimp cruised for four days in an uninterrupted patrol over the North Sea. Four American army planes made a four-thousand-mile transcontinental mapping and pathfinding tour, and another sped from California to Georgia and back in forty-four hours’ flying time. Winged shadows darted across Alpine peaks as the Italians risked airmail deliveries from Padua to Vienna. Even the Germans, their wings clipped by the armistice agreements, set a record with a nonstop flight between Berlin and Stockholm—about 570 miles in seven hours.

But of all the tests of the airplane’s new-found strength, the most challenging was the North Atlantic. Winston Churchill, Britain’s Secretary for War and Air in 1919, called it a “terrible waste of desolate waters, tossing in tumult in repeated and almost ceaseless storms, and shrouded with an unbroken canopy of mist.” So it was, but it was also the most vital highway of nineteenth and early twentieth-century Western civilization, most of whose capitals were located relatively near its shores. To span the Atlantic was a minimum requirement of aviation if it was to play any significant role in transportation. But the fliers who first tried it would be at every moment, in Churchill’s words, threatened with “destruction from a drop of water in the carburetor, or a spot of oil on their plugs, or a tiny grain of dirt in their feed pipe, or from any of the other hundred and one indirect causes” which, in those days, “might drag an aeroplane to its fate.”