On a rainy and boisterous night in the spring of 1919, two courageous men dared the North Atlantic in an airplane. They were not completely successful in their venture, but their attempt laid the foundation for today’s commonplace ferrying of military planes across the oceans. They were a whole eight years ahead of Lindbergh, and better than twenty years ahead of the first regular airplane passenger and mail service between North America and Europe.
Closely coupled with the record of this pioneer flight is a story of rescue, and a stranger sequel of salvage, mid-ocean salvage of an immensely valuable bag of mail.
At the end of World War I in 1918, the London Daily Mail renewed its pre-war offer of £10,000 for the crew of the first airplane to fly nonstop across the Atlantic. The offer permitted a flight from any point in North America, including Newfoundland, to any point in Europe, including the British Isles.
The Daily Mail had pioneered in promoting record flights. In July, 1909, it rewarded Louis Bleriot with £1,000 for his hop across the English Channel. The next year it gave a substantial prize to another Frenchman, Louis Paulhan, for his 183-mile flight from London to Manchester. Then the war itself produced some flights which astounded the world. Hand- ley-Page bombing planes were credited with 500-mile trips over battle lines and at the end of the conflict the British had perfected flying boats capable of remaining in the air for an incredible seven hours.
In the minds of most fliers, however, was the supreme goal, the ultimate in flying attainment—the spanning of the North Atlantic.
One of the first to interest himself in this greater goal was T. O. M. Sopwith, the same Thomas Octave Murdock Sopwith who twice in more recent years followed Sir Thomas Lipton in challenging for the greatest prize in yachting, the America’s Cup. The head of the Sopwith Aviation & Engineering Corp., Ltd., at Kingston-on-Thames, Surrey, was interested because his war-time plant had produced an airplane which he believed had a fair chance to complete the crossing.
Allied with Sopwith was a young and skillful test pilot, Harry G. Hawker, who was anxious to attempt the trip. And for the projected flight, the Royal Navy loaned the services of a navigator. Lieutenant Commander Kenneth Mackenzie- Grieve, R.N., a veteran specialist in navigation for surface craft, had during part of the war obtained much experience with aircraft through his duty as second in command of H.M.S. Campania, a seaplane carrier.
The machine built by Sopwith for this flight was an open cockpit biplane, powered with one 360-horsepower Rolls- Royce “Eagle VIII” motor, capable of attaining a maximum speed of 105 miles an hour. It had a wing spread of 46 feet and a length of 31 feet, 6 inches. With a crew of two, and gasoline and water aboard, the craft had a total weight of 6,150 pounds. An upper section of the fuselage was fashioned in the form of a thin-planked wooden boat, inverted, and made detachable for use in an emergency landing in the water. The undercarriage with its braces, axle, and wheels was arranged so that it might be dropped off.
Hawker and Mackenzie-Grieve tested their ship carefully in flights over England. They decided, as did the pilots of many subsequent flights, that the best way to cross the Atlantic was from west to east. With their plane they crossed by steamer to Newfoundland.
After selecting a farm near Mount Pearl, 7 miles out from St. John’s, as their airdrome, the two fliers set April 16, 1919, as the tentative date for their take-off. This would give them the advantage of a full moon, for they estimated that a departure made from Newfoundland at 10:00 p.m. (Greenwich time) would enable them to land in- Ireland late in the following afternoon.
Hardly had the plane been moved out to its airdrome when heavy rains and snow began to fall. The field became a veritable quagmire. For days, and even weeks, all plans for test flights had to be abandoned.
On April 11, Sir C. Alexander Harris, governor of the Dominion of Newfoundland, with several of his ministers and other officials, drove out to the farm to make an inspection of the Sopwith plane and to pay their respects to Lieutenant Commander Mackenzie-Grieve and Mr. Hawker. They expressed their faith in the venture by entrusting a specially prepared bag of mail to the fliers. That bag of mail, taken more or less as a friendly gesture or even as a mere stunt at the time, was to make philatelic history.
The April 16 date for take-off passed as bad weather continued.
Waiting for more favorable conditions was not made easier by the knowledge that rival airmen were on the scene. A Martynside plane, manned by the Englishmen Rayham and Morgan, had arrived by steamer and was established on an improvised field close by St. John’s. And a few days later came word that three seaplanes of the United States Navy had landed in Trepassey Bay, Newfoundland. On May 16 these seaplanes made their departure and two days later the four British fliers in Newfoundland learned that two of the American Navy craft were in the Azores. One more hop to the coast of Portugal, and the honor of being first to fly the Atlantic would be in the laps of the Americans.
The United States Navy planes were not in competition for the Daily Mail prize money, because of their stop in the Azores. It was therefore not fear of losing the money that led Hawker and Mackenzie-Grieve to decide upon immediate action, despite poor visibility and the soggy surface of their field. For the British Empire, and for T. 0. M. Sopwith, they hoped for the honor of being first to fly the Atlantic.
At 3:00 p.m., May 18, the Sopwith plane was made ready for its memorable flight. Tanks were filled to their capacity with 350 gallons of gasoline. Colored signal lights, paddles, and emergency food rations were stowed. The mail bag was made fast inside the tail. Hawker and Mackenzie-Grieve donned their flying suits, both having an outer surface of rubber with inflatable air pockets which would serve as life buoys in case the wearers should be forced into the sea.
The plane sped down her damp runway and went off the ground at 5:42 p.m., Greenwich time. At the controls Hawker was barely able to get the heavily loaded craft over a fence, but he made it, and the First Trans-Atlantic Air Post was in the air on May 18, 1919. Passing over the suburbs of St. John’s, they saw the Martynside of their rivals still by its hangar. When the city had been well cleared, a lever was pulled and the heavy undercarriage dropped into the sea. Immediately their speed increased 7 miles an hour, a factor which had been carefully calculated in planning the flight.
From now on the two men were on their own, traversing an uncharted air route. There were no advance bulletins on weather and upper air conditions. No arrangements had been made with surface vessels in the event of an emergency landing. There were no sea patrols to watch their progress. Both Hawker and Mackenzie-Grieve had steadfastly held to the ideal that if the North Atlantic was to be flown, it was to be the sole achievement of the aircraft and its crew.
Aviation radio was still in its experimental stage at the time of this flight, and the small set carried by the Sopwith soon proved totally ineffective under prevailing weather conditions.
With the North American continent behind them, the fliers soon found themselves enveloped in deep fog, the kind that so frequently blankets the Newfoundland banks. Hawker sought clear air by climbing to 10,000 feet. Four hours out and Mackenzie-Grieve estimated that they were over the normal steamship lanes. From then on they laid a course designed to follow the great-circle route to Ireland. Once, before darkness set in, and between clouds, they saw giant icebergs in the sea, so no plans were made for low flying.
The ship had been in the air something over 5 hours, and was on the 12,000-foot level, when Hawker observed the mercury rising in the radiator thermometer. In an effort to clear a suspected obstruction in the radiator, he first made a dive of 3,000 feet, and then another of 8,000 feet. At the end of the latter the motor missed and the plane dropped down to within 20 feet of the water. The motor finally “took hold” again after vigorous use of the auxiliary fuel pump.
Daylight made drift observations possible and course corrections were made to insure that they were over the steamship lanes. Water in the radiator by this time was boiling and almost all gone, and a forced landing was inevitable. Both men kept a sharp lookout for a steamer.
Through the rain Hawker finally sighted a ship and sped for it. He circled the vessel to attract attention and then moved ahead about a mile. The plane was set down in the water as easily as possible.
While pounding waves wrecked the wings, the fliers climbed out on top and detached their frail emergency boat. They stayed alongside long enough to attach a white shirt as a signal of distress. Then they paddled clear, to await rescue.
The steamer soon drew near, came to a stop, and launched a lifeboat. At 8:30 a.m., May 19, the fliers were picked up and received with both courtesy and amazement aboard the ship by the master and his crew. The rescue steamer proved to be the Danish freighter Mary, east- bound for Copenhagen. Because of the high waves, Captain Duhn decided not to attempt salvage of the aircraft.
As the Mary steamed away, the two fliers watched their ill-fated airplane pounding in the sea, badly wrecked but still held afloat by its partially empty gasoline tanks. They had been in the air 14| hours, and had flown approximately 1,200 of the 1,880 miles of open sea that lie between Newfoundland and Ireland. Only half of the gasoline supply had been used.
Six days later, on the morning of May 25, the Mary passed abeam of the coast guard station on the Butt of Lewis, the most northerly point of the Hebrides Islands, off Scotland. Signal flags from the bridge of the little Danish steamer gave her name and home port, and then the big news of the day.
“Saved hands—Sopwith airplane.”
Telegraph and cable lines flashed that sentence around the world. The Mary, without long-distance radio equipment, had previously been unable to send out word of the rescue. The world had heard nothing from the fliers since their departure from Newfoundland on the afternoon of May 18, and they were generally believed to have been lost at sea.
Later in the day on May 25 the Royal Navy destroyer Woolston came out and took Hawker and Mackenzie-Grieve off the Mary. That night they were the guests of Vice Admiral Sir Sidney Robert Fremantle, R.N., aboard H.M.S. Revenge, at anchor in Scapa Flow. The next morning they went ashore at Thurso to take train for London. It was a triumphal trip with crowds out at every station to cheer the men who had been first to dare a non- stop flight over the Atlantic.
In London King George V received the fliers at Buckingham Palace and bestowed upon each of them the Royal Air Force Cross. The London Daily Mail generously presented them with a check for £5,000.
On the evening of May 28, 1919, the American freight steamer Lake Charlottsville, en route to Baltic ports with a full cargo for the Food Relief Administration, arrived in port at Falmouth. The next morning her master posted the following letter to Washington, D. C.
29 May, 1919
From: Lieutenant Commander A. C. Wilvers, U.S.N.R.F. Master, S.S. Lake Charlottsville.
To: The Secretary of the Navy.
Subject: Finding British Airplane at Sea.
I beg to report that on 23 May, while in Lat. 49°-49'-00" North, and Long. 29°-04'-00" West, we found an abandoned airplane drifting in the sea, which proved to be the machine in which Mr. Harry Hawker and Lieut. Comdr. Mackenzie- Grieve, R.N., had attempted to fly the Atlantic.
About 2:30 p.m., 23 May, I was in my room when the second officer notified me by voice tube that there was something on the starboard bow which he could not quite make out. I immediately went on the bridge and headed the ship for the object, thinking it was a shipwrecked crew in a lifeboat, but soon discovered it was the Sopwith plane in which the British had attempted to fly across the Atlantic. We stopped and picked it up.
Owing to the condition of the wind and sea, it seemed at times as if we would be compelled to leave it there, but on our third attempt we were successful in landing the machine on deck.
It was floating in the sea tail up, and on top of the tail was a white shirt tied as a signal of distress. Near the top of the plane was lashed a brown mail bag, which was marked Newfoundland, G.O.P. It contained mail mostly addressed to prominent British peers, the Royal family, and also one addressed to His Majesty, the King. The mail was very much watersoaked and otherwise damaged, but it will be turned over to the authorities in due time.
It is believed from the position of the shirt and the mail that the occupants remained by the wreck some time after it landed in the water.
(Signed) A. C. Wilvers
While in port at Falmouth Captain Wilvers told British press representatives of the salvage of the airplane. He displayed the mail bag, and the letters and stamps he had found in it. These he had dried out over the steam radiator in his cabin.
The mail was turned over to British naval authorities. The wrecked airplane was delivered through the customs service to a representative of T. O. M. Sopwith, who had it transported to London. For some days thereafter it remained on exhibition on the department store roof of Messrs. Selfridge’s, in Oxford Street.
Eighty-six letters, watersoaked and in many instances badly damaged, were recovered from the Newfoundland mail bag. One had been addressed to the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. Another, written by Governor Harris, was addressed through the Royal private secretary to George V.
St. John’s, Newfoundland
April 11, 1919
For: “His Majesty, The King.”
The Right Honorable,
Lord Stamfordham, P.C., G.C.B., G.C.V.O. Buckingham Palace, London.
Dear Lord Stamfordham:
Within the next day or two, if the weather holds, Comdr. Mackenzie-Grieve and Mr. Hawker will be starting in a Sopwith machine to make the effort to fly across the Atlantic. In case of their safely accomplishing the flight we are sending a few letters over and I thought it only right to send a few lines through you to His Majesty on an occasion, which, if it proves successful, will be very memorable.
I am driving out this afternoon to make an official inspection of their arrangements near Mt. Pearl, some seven miles from St. John’s, and I expect some of the ministers will be there, and generally there will be sort of an official gathering. Then at the appropriate moment before many days are over they will take the opportunity of making their start.
You will notice that the Postmaster General here has arranged for a special stamp for these letters, and I should think His Majesty would like to have the stamp for his collection.
(Signed) C. Alexander Harris
Captain Wilvers had found all of the specially marked “First Trans-Atlantic Air Post” stamps detached from their letters. Many were damaged to the extent of being worthless. Approximately 40 of them were worth saving and today they are quite well distributed among some of the largest and most valuable stamp collections of the world. With experts they are quite generally considered to be “the rarest of all air mail stamps.”
A philatelist himself, Captain Wilvers retained three stamps for his own collection when he turned over the Newfoundland mail bag with its letters to the authorities at Falmouth. One of his stamps, in good condition and without a cancellation mark, is now listed as worth $2,000 by the leading stamp catalogue. His other two bear cancellation marks and are officially catalogued at $1,500 each.
Aviation history was made during that spring season of 1919. The salvaged Sop- with plane had been in England but three days when, on May 31, Lieutenant Commander A. C. Read, U. S. Navy, and his crew brought the seaplane NC-4 safely into Plymouth. To the United States Navy went the honor of being “first to fly the Atlantic.”
Two weeks later the British pilots, Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Brown, made their memorable nonstop flight from Newfoundland to Ireland. This crossing was completed on June 15. It was made with a twin-motored biplane which escaped the misfortune of radiator trouble.
At this writing Commander Kenneth Mackenzie-Grieve, R.N., Retired, is a resident of Victoria, British Columbia.
Captain Albert C. Wilvers resides in San Pedro, California.
Harry G. Hawker was killed on July 12, 1921, in an airplane crash at the Hendon Aerodrome near London. In his death the British Empire lost one of its great air pilots, and certainly one of its most courageous men.