History repeats, until it doesn’t.
Next summer, two important anniversaries occur within a few weeks of each other. The one that most SkyNews readers are likely anticipating is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. The second commemoration is just as noteworthy but is destined to be overlooked: the 100th anniversary of the first nonstop transatlantic flight. Unless you’re an aviation buff, you might be thinking, wait a minute—Charles Lindbergh didn’t fly across the Atlantic until 1927! True. Yet such is the selective nature of history that Lindbergh’s solo crossing in the “Spirit of St. Louis” is better remembered than the pioneering accomplishment of British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown.
It was a cloudy afternoon on June 14, 1919, when Alcock and Brown squeezed into the cockpit of their Vickers Vimy IV twin-engine biplane, parked on an improvised airstrip at Lester’s Field, just southwest of Mundy Pond in St. John’s, Newfoundland. When all was ready, the heavily laden machine sputtered to life, then bounced and lumbered its way along the grassy field, picking up speed with nerve-racking slowness. When the aircraft finally became airborne, it cleared the trees at the end of the airstrip by mere inches. It was a rough start to what was to be an even rougher trip, a marathon challenge marked by numerous equipment failures and two harrowing nosedives that nearly ended catastrophically in the Atlantic Ocean.
The aviators spent much of their journey literally flying blind as they contended with thick fog and persistent overcast, making navigation nearly impossible. But shortly after midnight, they caught the kind of break most stargazers can appreciate: a hole in the cloud cover. The clearing lasted long enough for Brown to sight Vega and Polaris with his sextant to confirm that the Vickers was still on course. Good thing too—a few hours later, they hurtled at nearly 200 kilometres per hour into the teeth of a brutal snowstorm. One can only imagine how uncomfortable the open cockpit must have been as the duo struggled to keep their aircraft aloft!
The 3,000-kilometre flight ended 16 hours later when Alcock and Brown crash-landed slightly off target on a peat bog south of the town of Clifden, in westernmost Ireland. As Alcock himself summarized in his telegraph report, “We have had a terrible journey. The wonder is that we are here at all. We scarcely saw the sun or the moon or the stars. For hours we saw none of them.” Their reward was a £10,000 prize (presented by Winston Churchill, no less) and a place in aviation history.
I wonder whether, on that June day in Ireland, Alcock and Brown experienced a sensation similar to what Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin must have felt when they set their lunar lander down on the grey, dusty surface of Mare Tranquillitatis—the thrill of having achieved what no other human had before. The two missions featured several parallels, including being sparked by competition (in one case, a cash prize; in the other, a “space race” between nations), and they involved flying machines best described as fragile.
Perhaps the most significant point of contact between the two voyages is their relative positions on the time line of human history. When Apollo 11 lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969, 50 years had elapsed since Brown and Alcock landed in Ireland. That’s the same span of time that will have passed when we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 next July. Half a century after Brown and Alcock’s risky flight, transatlantic air travel had become routine—anyone with the money could make the trip any day of the week. And yet 50 years after Apollo 11, how many of us have been to the Moon?
Comparing the accomplishments of one era to another is a fool’s errand. Even so, it’s hard to shake the feeling that our ability to turn big dreams into reality has atrophied over the past five decades. If you had met Brown and Alcock on that Irish bog in June 1919 and informed them that in 50 years time, humans would set foot on the Moon, they probably would have thought you mad. By the same token, if you had told Armstrong and Aldrin that 50 years after their trip to Tranquility Base, the best astronauts would be able to manage is low Earth orbit, they probably wouldn’t have believed you either.