Transatlantic Flight - Eyes on the prize

A substantial cash prize focused the minds of early 20th-century aviators on the daunting challenge of crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Their rich legacy includes rare overprints, evocative flown covers and modern commemoratives

Report by John Winchester

Human ambition always outpaces technology, and never more so than in the history of aviation.

The very first aeroplane flight, by the American brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright, covered a distance of just 852ft (258m) over a beach near Kitty Hawk in North Carolina in December 1903.

The Wright Flyer I was extremely rudimentary. Constructed in box-kite fashion, and propelled by low-horsepower petrol engine, it flew uncertainly and erratically, at low altitude. Remarkably, though, within a few short years the next generation of aviators were planning air travel of international, even oceanic, proportions.

Lofty ambitions

Developing aircraft required capital, as well as courage, but pioneer pilots were encouraged by a series of cash prizes offered by Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe, the proprietor of Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper.

Having famously declared to the newspaper’s Editor that ‘England is no longer an island!’, in 1908 he offered £1,000 to the first aeronaut who could fly across the English Channel, and this was duly claimed by the Frenchman Louis Blériot with his self-built monoplane in July 1909.

A crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, requiring a flight almost 90 times longer than Blériot’s, remained unthinkable, but not for long. Within four years, Lord Northcliffe was offering £10,000 (the equivalent of £30m today) for the first such crossing achieved within 72 hours in a single plane.

The bare statistics behind an Atlantic crossing made for daunting reading. The shortest conceivable distance, from St John’s in Newfoundland to the Portuguese archipelago of the Azores, was 1,368 miles, and could only barely be described as spanning two continents. To claim the Daily Mail prize, an aircraft would need to make it from Newfoundland to Ireland, a distance of at least 1,880 miles. At Blériot’s flying speed, the crossing would require almost two days and nights in the air, in a fragile machine with uncertain reliability, crude navigation aids and limited prospects of rescue for the pilot if anything went wrong. It appeared an impossible task. Even the first successful flight across the North Sea, from Scotland to Norway by the Norwegian explorer Tryggve Gran in an upgraded Blériot monoplane in July 1914, entailed a distance of only 289 miles, which placed the Atlantic challenge in perspective.

Read the full article in Stamp Magazine September 2017

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