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100 yrs of transatlantic flight

The city of St. John's, known for its seafaring roots, is commemorating aviation history today, 100 years to the day after two young British war veterans took off from Newfoundland in a Vickers Vimy airplane headed across the Atlantic.

When they landed in Ireland 16 hours later, John Alcock and Arthur Brown entered the history books as the first people to fly non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean.

Gary Hebbard, a retired journalist who writes on aviation history, said the June 14, 1919 flight represents a turning point that shaped the development of modern aviation.

"Alcock and Brown did it in one hop," Hebbard said. "The significance of that really can't be overstated. That's kind of the genesis of the aviation industry we have today."

The journey began from a field that's now part of the coastal city of St. John's. The two had to scout an appropriate takeoff point, given there were no airstrips in the city at the time.

In honour of the centennial, aviation enthusiasts in Newfoundland and Labrador arranged a series of celebrations that started in late May, with guest speakers, aircraft displays, re-enactments and museum exhibits. A statue of Alcock and Brown has been commissioned, and a commemorative flight with 50 guests will retrace the June 14 flight path over St. John's.

Modern international flights, with movie screens, climate control and flight attendants, are a far cry from the 16-hour marathon Alcock and Brown undertook in a machine they had to assemble from parts shipped to St. John's. A newspaper's reward of 10,000 British pounds — the equivalent of more than 500,000 pounds today, according to a Bank of England calculator — had teams racing to be the first to fly across the Atlantic, but the end goal came with life-threatening risks.

The team's radio cut out shortly after takeoff, leaving the two alone in the air together, with Alcock flying and Brown navigating as they battled the harsh weather the North Atlantic is known for. Brown, who walked with a cane after a war injury, at one point had to stand up midflight to clear snow from a fuel gauge. "It's the kind of thing that your average person today would hesitate to get off the ground in, never mind fly the Atlantic," Hebbard said.

"They made this flight knowing full well that they could just disappear in the ocean and never be seen again. I think that says a lot about the character of the people involved." 



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