For a while I’ve known about the links between aviation history and the Burnage/Levenshulme borders. Louis Paulhan, the first pilot to fly from London to Manchester, landed in a field in Burnage, and Fairey’s Aviation on Crossley Road produced bombers and fighter planes during World War II. But a chance comment from a friend alerted me to another connection with one of the great pioneer aviators. He had been cycling down the A6 and spotted a plaque on St Thomas’ school, Heaton Chapel, saying that the school was attended by Sir John Alcock in 1899 – the first pilot to fly non-stop across the Atlantic.
With the help of Toni from the group I’ve pieced together the story of an immensely confident, brilliant and driven young Manchester man, from a very humble background, who seems to have thrived on danger.
John Alcock was born in 1892 at the lodge or cottage of Basford House on Seymour Grove in Old Trafford. His father worked as the coachmen at the house and later as a horse dealer. The family seems to have been quite peripatetic. For a while they lived in a small terraced house on Firswood Road in Fallowfield, perhaps when John attended school in Heaton Chapel. Between 1900 and 1905 the family lived in St Anne’s, but by 1909 they were back in Manchester again, John working as an apprentice mechanic at the Empress Motor Car and Aviation Company, at 180 Stockport Road on the Longsight/Ardwick border, another A6 link.
In 1910 John watched the arrival of Louis Paulhan in Burnage. He went with his father and thousands of others to witness the early morning landing of French winner [of the London to Manchester race] Louis Paulhan. As the crowd raced across the grass to greet the Paulhan, Alcock marvelled that the French man`s Farman [plane] was just like the one he had been working on. He informed his father “one day I am going to fly”. That single-minded determination characterised his short life…
While working at the Empress Motor Car and Aviation co, John helped make an engine for the pilot Maurice Duqroq, and when he delivered the engine to Brooklands in Surrey he persuaded Duqroq to take him on as his engineer. By 1912 he had qualified as a pilot and when World War I broke out he enlisted as a pilot. In September 1917 John was shot down over the sea near Turkey and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner. He recounted his experience of being shot down in a letter to his uncle: I had the rottenest luck in the world, my propeller and reduction gear burst about 1 ½ hours after I started on a raid, I tried to get home but unable to, I landed safely in the sea, with some effort, sat on the machine for over two hours making signals why I wasn’t picked up is a mystery to me. At last I had to leave the bus [i.e. plane] which was sinking to get ashore was in the water for well over an hour. After all this I spent the night on the rocks shivering, and was made prisoner 10 o’clock the next day.
Ditching his plane in the sea clearly didn’t deter him from adventure, and even while a prisoner John wrote that I shall be ready for any big stunt after the war. That “stunt” was to be the first Atlantic crossing, a challenge set by the Daily Mail in 1913, with a £10,000 prize and three other competing teams. John’s partner on the flight was another Manchester man, Arthur Brown, whose well-to-do American parents had moved from Glasgow to Oswald Road in Chorlton when he was a child. Arthur was a much quieter man than John, and a brilliant navigator, capable of complex calculations under pressure. Although both lived in South Manchester, the two men had only met a few weeks before the flight, but their personalities seemed to complement each other very well.
John and Arthur set off on their night flight on 14th June 1919 at 16.10 GMT, carrying their lucky mascots. Their plane, a Vickers Vimy, was a large aircraft carrying 865 gallons of fuel. From a modern point of view it’s hard to fully grasp the risks involved. This was still the very early days of aviation technology – Paulhan’s flight from London to Manchester in 1910 had taken 12 hours, and it was only 15 years since the Wright brothers’ first ever powered flight. In addition Arthur’s navigation was partly dependent on clear skies.
During the flight John and Arthur encountered many problems. The wireless transmitter broke and part of the exhaust fell off, and what was supposed to be a clear night ended up being cloudy for some sections of the flight. The most dangerous time was when the engines stalled in thick cloud in the early morning of the 15th June. The plane nosedived and spiralled towards the sea – when they emerged from the clouds they were 100 feet above the water and John only managed to restart the engines about 50 feet from the waves.
Eventually, after 1,890 miles and around 16 hours of flying (the accounts give different lengths of time), land was spotted and a flat area in County Galway was identified for a smooth landing. Unfortunately it ended in a bog, with the plane’s nose down in the peat! Interestingly, the two men suffered from the first cases of jet lag.
John and Arthur had won the prize and they were welcomed by huge crowds wherever they went. Both men were knighted a few days later at Windsor.
Unfortunately John was to live for only a few more months. At the age of 27 he crashed in bad weather on the way to the Paris air show and was buried in Southern Cemetery. Arthur never flew again.