Alcock and Brown conquer the Atlantic
By 1919, with aircraft capable of flying further and staying airborne for longer, a new challenge loomed large in the sights of aviation’s pioneers – the first non-stop transatlantic crossing.
British aviators, John Alcock and Arthur Brown set off from Lester’s Field, St Johns on the tip of Newfoundland, at around 1.45pm on 15 June, determined to be the first to make the crossing. Their Vickers Vimy aircraft, a First World War bomber powered by two Rolls-Royce Eagle 360hp engines, had its bomb racks replaced with extra fuel tanks for the record-breaking attempt. They took to the air with 865 gallons of fuel, supplied by Shell, as part of its on-going support for the early pioneers of aviation, which has seen its fuel power a number of record breaking flights, including Louis Blériot’s first crossing of the English Channel, ten years earlier. Australian brothers Ross and Keith Smith would also complete the first flight to Australia in December of 1919, again aboard a Vickers Vimy, powered by Rolls-Royce engines and fuelled by Shell.
Alcock and Brown’s challenges started at take-off, with the overloaded aircraft having difficulty getting airborne from the rough field and barely missing the treetops as it struggled to get aloft. The aircraft’s wind-driven electrical generator failed just four hours into the attempt, depriving the crew of radio contact, intercom and heating. During the flight, bad weather made navigation and control of the Vimy extremely hazardous, with thick fog preventing navigator, Brown, from using his sextant to navigate.
However, as dawn broke the west of Ireland came into sight and the pair made landfall in County Galway at 8.40am. The aircraft went nose-over on landing because what was apparently a green field turned out to be a bog, but neither airman was hurt. As the headline on 16 June in The New York Times proclaimed: “Alcock and Brown fly across Atlantic: make 1,890 miles in 16 hours, 12 minutes; sometimes upside down in dense, icy fog.” This first transatlantic flight made instant heroes of the pair, and they received an award from the London Daily Mail of £10,000 for the feat and both were knighted a few days later by King George V.
Shell’s support for aviation’s pioneers continued and in 1976, just 57 years later, it worked closely with Rolls-Royce to supply fuel and lubricants for the first flight of Concorde from London to Bahrain. In the same year, the supersonic airliner went into service flying passengers across the Atlantic in just three and half hours.1
Website Aviation History: Airmen – Alcock and Brown, http://www.aviation-history.com/airmen/alcock.htm
Website Waymarking: First non-stop transatlantic flight - Clifden, Ireland: http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM77T3_First_non_stop_transatlantic_flight_Clifden_Ireland_EU
Website University of Cambridge: ‘The first non-stop transatlantic air crossing - 100 years on’, https://www.cam.ac.uk/Transatlantic100
R. van Egmond and A. Westra, Shell and aviation. The story of more than a century of collaboration. Shell International B.V., 2019, p. 42-43, 80-81
Shell historical archives.