Aviation: The Pioneer Period

Newfoundland has played an important role in the development of long-distance air travel. As the most easterly place in North America, it became a popular taking-off point for aviation pioneers attempting to cross the Atlantic by air in 1919. It also served as a refueling point for round-the-world attempts in the 1920s. Amelia Earhart made two record-setting flights from Newfoundland, in 1928 and 1932. The advent of passenger flight in the 1930s brought the pioneer period to a close, but established Newfoundland as a major stopover between Europe and North America.

Taking off from Lester's Field, 14 June 1919.
Photographer: Holloway. Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections Division (Coll. 137.05.04.004), QE II Library, Memorial University, St. John's, NL.
Larger Version with more information(61 kb)
Taking off from Lester's Field, 14 June 1919.

Transatlantic Flight

In April 1913, the London Daily Mail offered a £10,000 prize for piloting the first non-stop transatlantic flight between Great Britain and any point in Canada, the United States, or Newfoundland. The competition was suspended during the First World War, but reopened when peace was restored in 1918. Newfoundland was the preferred taking-off point because it was closer to Europe than anywhere else in North America and prevailing winds favoured a west-to-east voyage.

In the spring of 1919, four teams arrived to compete for the prize and a place in aviation history. They were: 1. Australian pilot Harry Hawker and Scottish navigator Kenneth F. Mackenzie-Grieve; 2. British aviators Frederick Raynham (pilot) and C.W.F. Morgan (navigator); 3. the Handley Page Company Group, led by British pilot Mark Kerr (Handley Page was an American aircraft manufacturer); and 4. British aviators John Alcock (pilot) and Arthur Whitten Brown (navigator).

Alcock and Brown with Vickers Vimy biplane, 13 June 1919 Alcock and Brown with Vickers Vimy Biplane, 13 June 1919
Photographer unknown. Courtesy of the Archives and Special Collections Division (Coll. 137.05.04.001), QE II Library, Memorial University, St. John's, NL.
Larger Version with more information (65 kb)

Much work had to be done before a flight could be attempted. Newfoundland had no airstrips, so teams had to scout for a suitable taking-off points (such as a large field) and level the ground. They also had to assemble their aircraft, which were shipped to the island in pieces, and then perform a series of test flights. Poor weather conditions also slowed things down.

At the same time, the United States Navy Air Corps had stationed personnel at Trepassey to prepare for its own transatlantic effort. This was not connected to the Daily Mail contest. Instead, the Navy planned to fly a Curtiss NC-4 flying boat from the United States to England with multiple stopovers for refueling and maintenance. On 8 May 1919, Lieutenant Commander Albert C. Read and his crew departed Rockaway, New York, and landed at Plymouth, England, on 31 May, with stopovers at Massachusetts, Halifax, Trepassey, the Azores Islands, and Lisbon, Portugal.

Lieutenant Commander Albert C. Read (far left) and crew. n.d.
From The St. John's Daily Star 10 July 1919: 9.
Larger Version with more information (65 kb)
Daily Star

Read had successfully piloted the world's first transatlantic flight, but the race to fly nonstop across the Atlantic continued at Newfoundland. Two unsuccessful attempts were made on 18 May 1919. Hawker and Mackenzie-Grieve departed from a field in Mount Pearl, but an engine failure forced them to land in the Atlantic Ocean 14 hours and 1,770 kilometres later. They were rescued by a Danish freighter. Raynham and Morgan's Martinsyde biplane crashed moments after takeoff from a field near Quidi Vidi Lake in St. John's, because it could not carry the heavy gasoline load needed to cross the Atlantic.

Sopwith Atlantic biplane flown by Hawker and Mackenzie-Grieve, 1919.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of the Archives and Special Collections Division (Coll. 232 03.05), QE II Library, Memorial University, St. John's, NL. Larger Version with more information (65 kb)

No further attempts were made until 14 June 1919, when Alcock and Brown took off from Lester's Field near St. John's at 1:45 p.m. in a Vickers Vimy biplane fitted with two Rolls-Royce engines. The two landed nose down in a bog at Galway, Ireland 16 hours later. They received the Daily Mail prize for completing the world's first nonstop transatlantic flight and were knighted by King George V. Kerr's team abandoned its plans to fly a World War I Handley Page bomber across the Atlantic.

Round-The-World Flights

Circumnavigation drew the spotlight in the 1920s. A team of aviators with the US Army Air Services made the first round-the-world flight in 1924. Four Douglas World Cruiser biplanes departed Seattle Washington on 6 April, but only two completed the journey - one crashed into a mountain while flying through fog on 30 April and the other sank in the North Atlantic on 3 August after losing all oil pressure. Both crews survived. The remaining two planes, named the New Orleans and Chicago, stopped at Icy Tickle, Labrador on 31 August and Hawkes Bay, Newfoundland on 2 September before successfully completing their journey on 28 September 1924.

Newfoundland played an important role in future circumnavigation attempts. In 1927, Fred Koehler of Detroit's Stinson Aircraft Corporation identified Harbour Grace as a potential refueling point for round-the-world flights. The community launched a fundraising campaign to build an airport and the Newfoundland government contributed $14,500. The inaugural flight was made by Edward F. Schlee and William S. Brock on 27 August 1927 aboard the monoplane The Pride of Detroit. The pair's circumnavigation attempt, however, ended in failure after an engine defect grounded the plane at Tokyo on 11 September.

The Pride of Detroit at Harbour Grace, 1927.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of the Archives and Special Collections Division (Coll. 232 03.05), QE II Library, Memorial University, St. John's, NL.
Larger Version with more information (65 kb)

American pilot Wiley Post and Australian navigator Harold Gatty were more successful in 1930 when they flew their Lockheed Vega, named Winnie Mae, around the world in record setting time (eight days, 15 hours, and 51 minutes). The 24,903-kilometre voyage began on 23 June at Long Island, New York and took the pair to several stopover points, including Harbour Grace.

Amelia Earhart

Newfoundland also played a role in Amelia Earhart's historic flights. On 17 June 1928, Earhart became the first women to cross the Atlantic by air. The Fokker F7 aircraft named Friendship took off from Trepassey with pilot Wilmen Stultz, co-pilot/mechanic Louis Gordon, and passenger Earhart on board. It touched down at Burry Point, Wales 20 hours and 40 minutes later. On 20 May 1932, Earhart piloted the world's first transatlantic solo flight by a woman. She took off from Harbour Grace in a red Lockheed Vega and landed at Northern Ireland 13 hours and 30 minutes later.

Amelia Earhart at Harbour Grace, 20 May 1932 Amelia Earhart, 1932.

Photographer: Ernest Maunder. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada (PA-057854).
Larger Version with more information (57 kb).

By then, the pioneering phase of transatlantic flight was nearing its end. Technological advances had made aircraft, meteorology, and wireless communications more sophisticated and reliable than in the past. As long-distance flight became increasingly safe and commonplace, government and industry expressed interest in establishing regular passenger and mail services. Newfoundland's location meant it would play an important role in the development of a transatlantic commercial air service.

Article by Jenny Higgins. ©2012, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site.

Bibliography


Partnered Projects Society Economy and Culture - Table of Contents Site Map Search Heritage Web Site Home