Tag Archives: Transatlantic Flight

31 January 1951

Charles F. Blair, jr. arrives at Heathrow. (Getty Images)

31 January 1951: Pan American World Airways Captain Charles F. Blair, Jr., flew a modified North American Aviation P-51C-10-NT Mustang, NX1202, named Excalibur III, from New York International Airport to London Airport in 7 hours, 48 minutes, with an average speed of 446 miles per hour (718 kilometers per hour). Captain Blair took advantage of the jet stream, flying as high as 37,000 feet (11,278 meters).

“At last, I was riding the jet stream, pushed by a tailwind exceeding 200 miles per hour. . . Above me, the sky was empty and blue; below the wings of my tiny aircraft a winter storm raged. Its upper canopy of white clouds gave it a look of complete innocence.”

The Salt Lake Tribune, Sunday, 3 June 1951, Page 115

This was Blair’s 401st Atlantic crossing.

Blair’s flight did not set an official record. No arrangements had been made to have officials of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) available to observe the flight.

Mrs. Charles Blair Jr. (right) with her two children, Suzanne, 16, and Christopher, 10 months, get the news of Capt. Blair’s safe arrival. (NEWS foto by Sam Platnik)

Interestingly, Excalibur III was impounded by HM Customs at the London Airport. Blair had not paid the £800 customs duty which would have allowed the Mustang to stay for six months. He would have had to fly the airplane back to the United States to avoid the aircraft being impounded.

The Chicago Daily Tribune reported the event:

LONE PILOT HOPS OCEAN IN LESS THAN 8 HOURS

LONDON, Jan. 31 (AP)— Air Line Capt. Charles Blair landed his scarlet Mustang fighter plane in a blaze of red flares tonight, chalking up a New York to London speed record of 7 hours 48 minutes. He clipped an hour and seven minutes off the old record.

     Blair said his only troubles during the flight were some icing in the early stages and a painfully tight pair of boots.

     As he climbed from the cockpit of the flying gas tank named Excalibur III and waved to a cheering crowd at London airport he winced and declared: “The first thing I do is get these boots off.”

Aided by Tail Winds

     Blair left New York’s Idlewild airport at 3:50 a.m. Chicago time [09:50 UTC] and was clocked in here at 5:38 p.m. British time [11:38 a.m. Chicago time]. [17:38 UTC]

     A Pan American Airways pilot, Blair took the time record from a Pan American Stratocruiser which made the eastward Nov. 22, 1949, with 24 passengers, in 8 hours and 55 minutes. Strong tail winds helped in both cases.

     Blair, tall, dark, married, and 41, brought no luggage, but had a shaving kit and a tooth brush in a small leather bag.

     His plane is powered by a Packard built Rolls-Royce Merlin engine and was modified to hold 863 gallons of gasoline inside wings and fuselage without external tanks. He said the plane cost $25,000 to buy and revamp.

Averages 450 M. P. H.

     Blair told newsmen at London airport: “It was a very good crossing. It wasn’t as fast as I expected, but after Gander, N.F., I had a tail wind of 130 miles an hour. But the weather wasn’t too good and there was some ice.”

     Blair’s average speed was about 450 miles an hour and he made much of the jaunt at 37,000 feet.

     He said the trip had a dual purpose, to break the record and to study the effect of high velocity winds on airliners in the lower stratosphere.

     Blair will fly back to New York as a passenger in a Stratocruiser. He has to return by Saturday. On that day he will fly a planeload of passengers from New York to London.

Chicago Daily Tribune, Volume CX—No. 28, Thursday, February 1, 1951, Part 1, at Page 6, Columns 4 and 5.

Blair was presented the Harmon International Trophy by President Harry S. Truman in a ceremony at the White House, 18 November 1952. The Harmon awards are for “the most outstanding international achievements in the art and/or science of aeronautics for the previous year, with the art of flying receiving first consideration.”

Captain Charles F. Blair, Jr., American Overseas Airlines.

Charles Francis Blair, Jr., was born 19 July 1909 at Buffalo, New York, the second child of Charles F. Blair, an attorney, and Grace Ethelyn McGonegal Blair. He entered the University of Vermont, where is father was a member of the Board of Trustees, as a freshman in 1927. He was a member of the Phi Delta Theta (ΦΔΘ) fraternity.

Blair was commissioned as an ensign in the United States Naval Reserve, 16 August 1932.

On 6 September 1932, Ensign Blair married Miss Janice Evelyn Davis at Wallingford, Vermont. They would have two children, Suzanne, born in 1934, and Christopher Noel, born in 1950. The Blairs would later divorce.

He was promoted to lieutenant, junior grade, 16 August 1937. During World War II, he served as a transport pilot in the U.S. Navy.

On 18 November 1952, Blair was one of three aviators to be awarded the Harmon Trophy. The presentation was made by President Harry Truman in a ceremony in The White House Rose Garden.

Blair resigned from the Naval Reserve in 1952 and the following year he accepted a commission in the U.S. Air Force Reserve with the rank of colonel. In 1959, Blair was promoted to brigadier general.

While serving as a reserve officer, Charlie Blair continued his civilian career as an airline pilot for United Airlines, American Overseas Airlines, and then with Pan American.

On 12 March 1968, Captain Blair married to actress Maureen O’Hara, whom he had met during one of his 1,575 transatlantic crossings. It was the fourth marriage for both.

Captain Blair made his final flight with Pan American in July 1969. He had flown more than 45,000 hours and traveled more than 10,000,000 miles.

Blair was the author of Thunder Above (Henry Holt & Co., 1956), a novel co-written with A.J. Wallis and filmed as “Beyond the Curtain,” starring Richard Green and Eva Bartok, in 1960. He also wrote Red Ball in the Sky (Random House, 1969), an account of his career in aviation.

Brigadier General Charles Francis Blair, Jr., died 2 September 1978 in an airplane accident. His remains were interred at the Arlington National Cemetery.

Captain Charles F. Blair, Jr., checks his astrocompass shortly before beginning his transpolar flight, 29 May 1951. (Smithsonian Institution)

Excalibur III is a Dallas, Texas-built North American Aviation P-51C-10-NT Mustang, one of a group of 400 fighters which had been contracted on 5 March 1943. Its North American Aviation serial number is 111-29080, and the U.S. Army Air Force assigned it serial number 44-10947.

After World War II, 44-10947 was transferred to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (a Depression-era agency of the United States government) at Searcy Field (SWO), Stillwater, Oklahoma. It was purchased by Paul Mantz, 19 February 1946, and the Civil Aeronautics Administration registered it as NX1202. Mantz had the Mustang painted red and named it Blaze of Noon. (Mantz was a movie pilot and aerial coordinator for the 1947 Paramount Pictures movie, “Blaze of Noon,” which was based on the Ernest K. Gann novel, Blaze of Noon, published in 1946.)

Paul Mantz flew NX1202 to win the 1946 and 1947 Bendix Trophy Races. Flown by Linton Carney and renamed The Houstonian, NX1202 placed second in the 1948 Bendix race, and with “Fish” salmon in the cockpit, it took third place in 1949.

Paul Mantz in the cockpit of “Blaze of Noon,” P-51C-10-NT Mustang 44-10947, NX1202. (Hans Greehoff Photographic Collection, Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum, NASM-HGC-1100)
North American Aviation P-51C Mustang NX1202, now named “The Houstonian.” The modified fighter flew in the 1948 Bendix Trophy Race, finishing in second place. (NASM)
Test pilot Herman “Fish” Salmon awaits the starter’s signal at the beginning of the 1949 Bendix Trophy Race on Rosamond Dry Lake, California, in the modified North American Aviation P-51C Mustang, NX1202. Salmon finished in third place. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)

Paul Mantz had set several speed records with the Mustang before selling it to Pan American World Airways, Inc., Blair’s employer. Blair named the Mustang Stormy Petrel, but later changed it to Excalibur III.

To increase the Mustang’s range for these long-distance flights, Mantz had removed the standard 90-gallon pressure-molded Firestone self-sealing tanks from each wing and converted the entire wing to a fuel tank (what is known as a “wet wing”).

The P-51B and P-51C Mustang are virtually Identical. The P-51Bs were built by North American Aviation, Inc, at Inglewood, California. P-51Cs were built at North American’s Dallas, Texas plant. They were 32 feet, 2.97 inches (9.829 meters) long, with a wingspan of 37 feet, 0.31-inch (11.282 meters) and overall height of 13 feet, 8 inches (4.167 meters) high. The fighter had an empty weight of 6,985 pounds (3,168 kilograms) and a maximum gross weight of 11,800 pounds (5,352 kilograms).

North American Aviation P-51C-10-NT 44-10947, "Excalibur III", at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, National Air and Space Museum.
North American Aviation P-51C-10-NT 44-10947, “Excalibur III,” at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, National Air and Space Museum.

P-51Bs and Cs were powered by a right-hand tractor, liquid-cooled, supercharged, 1,649-cubic-inch-displacement (27.04-liter) Packard V-1650-3 or -7 Merlin single overhead cam (SOHC) 60° V-12 engine which produced 1,380 horsepower at Sea Level, turning 3,000 r.p.m at 60 inches of manifold pressure (V-1650-3) or 1,490 horsepower at Sea Level, turning 3,000 r.p.m. at 61 inches of manifold pressure (V-1650-7). (Military Power rating, 15 minute limit.) These were license-built versions of the Rolls-Royce Merlin 63 and 66. The engine drove a four-bladed Hamilton Standard Hydromatic constant-speed propeller with a diameter of 11 feet, 2 inches (3.404 meters) through a 0.479:1 gear reduction.

The P-51B/C had a cruise speed of 362 miles per hour (583 kilometers per hour) and the maximum speed was 439 miles per hour (707 kilometers per hour) at 25,000 feet (7,620 meters), slightly faster than the more numerous P-51D Mustang. The service ceiling was 41,900 feet (12,771 meters). With internal fuel the combat range was 755 miles (1,215 kilometers).

Identical to the Inglewood, California-built North American Aviation P-51B Mustang, this is a Dallas, Texas-built P-51C-1-NT, 42-103023. (North American Aviation, Inc.)
Identical to the Inglewood, California-built North American Aviation P-51B Mustang, this is a Dallas, Texas-built P-51C-1-NT, 42-103023. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

In military service, armament consisted of four Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns, mounted two in each wing, with 350 rounds per gun for the inboard guns and 280 rounds per gun for the outboard.

1,988 P-51B Mustangs were built at North American’s Inglewood, California plant and another 1,750 P-51Cs were produced at Dallas, Texas. This was nearly 23% of the total P-51 production.

Though the P-51D with its bubble canopy was built in far greater numbers during World War II, the earlier P-51B and P-51C Mustangs were actually faster, so many surplus airplanes were used for racing and record attempts after the war.

In 1952, Pan American World Airways donated Excalibur III to the Smithsonian Institution. The airplane’s registration was cancelled 4 June 1952. Today, completely restored, it is on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

Charles F. Blair, Jr.'s North American Aviation P-51C-10-NT Mustang, Excalibur III, at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)
North American Aviation P-51C-10-NT Mustang, Excalibur III, at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)

A British PATHÉ news film of Blair’s arrival at London can be seen on YouTube at #0000ff;">https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdRbIQdnyQo

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

26 October 1958

Pan American World Airways’ Boeing 707-121, N711PA, Clipper America, at Idlewild Airport, New York, 26 October 1958. (Pan American World Airways)

26 October 1958: Pan American World Airways opened the “Jet Age” with the first commercial flight of an American jet airliner. Pan Am’s Boeing 707-121 Clipper America, N711PA, departed New York Idlewild (IDL) on an 8 hour, 41 minute flight to Paris Le Bourget (LBG), with a fuel stop at Gander, Newfoundland (YQX). (The actual flight time was 7 hours.) The distance was 3,634 miles (5,848 kilometers). Aboard were 111 passengers and 11 crewmembers.

A Pan Am company publication explained the need for the stop at Gander:

The Jet could not be fully loaded with fuel before takeoff because of weight restrictions imposed at Idlewild. Fuel capacity of the jet is 17,398 gallons, allowing a cruising range of 4,400 miles. But with a full pay load of passengers, only 9,731 gallons could be taken aboard in New York.

Pan American Clipper, Vol. XV, No. 11, November 1958, Page 6, Column 5

The Boeing 707 was developed from the earlier Model 367–80, the “Dash Eighty”. It is a four-engine jet transport with swept wings and tail surfaces. The leading edge of the wings are swept at a 35° angle. The airliner had a flight crew of four: pilot, co-pilot, navigator and flight engineer. The 707-121 is 145 feet, 1 inch (44.221 meters) long with a wing span of 130 feet, 10 inches (39.878 meters). The top of the vertical fin stands 42 feet, 5 inches (12.929 meters) high. The 707 pre-dated the ”wide-body” airliners, having a fuselage width of 12 feet, 4 inches (3.759 meters).

The first versions were powered by four Pratt & Whitney Turbo Wasp JT3C-6 turbojet engines, producing 11,200 pounds of thrust (49,820 kilonewtons), and 13,500 pounds (60.051 kilonewtons) with water injection. This engine was a civil variant of the military J57 series. It was a two-spool axial-flow turbojet engine with a 16-stage compressor and 2 stage turbine. The JT3C-6 was 11 feet, 6.6 inches (3.520 meters) long, 3 feet, 2.9 inches (0.988 meters) in diameter, and weighed 4,235 pounds (1,921 kilograms).

The airliner’s empty weight is 122,533 pounds (55,580 kilograms). Maximum take off weight (MTOW) is 257,000 pounds (116,573 kilograms). At MTOW, the 707 required 11,000 feet (3,352.8 meters) of runway to take off. Its maximum speed is 540 knots (1,000 kilometers per hour). It had a range of 2,800 nautical miles (5,185.6 kilometers).

The Boeing 707 was in production from 1958 to 1979. 1,010 were built. As of 2011, 43 707s were still in service.

Boeing delivered N711PA to Pan American on 17 October 1958. The airliner was named Clipper America,  but was later renamed Clipper Mayflower. It was leased to Avianca (Aerovías Nacionales de Colombia S.A.) from 1960 to 1962. In April 1965 the 707 was upgraded to the –121B standard. This included a change from the turbojet engines to quieter, more powerful and efficient Pratt and Whitney JT3D-1 turbofans, producing 17,000 pounds of thrust. The wings were modified to incorporate changes introduced with the Boeing 720, and a longer tailplane installed. Pan Ayer of Panama purchased Clipper Mayflower 21 February 1975. It was later leased to Türk Hava Yolları, the Turkish national airline, and went on to serve with Air Asia Company Limited (an Air America aircraft service unit) and E-Systems. After 26 years of service, in August 1984 Clipper America was scrapped at Taipei.

Pan American World Airways’ Boeing 707-121, N711PA, Clipper America, arriving at Aéroport de Paris – Le Bourget, Paris, France, 27 October 1958. (Photograph © Jon Proctor. Used with permission.)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

26 September 2003

“David Hempleman-Adams, left, with Saint John resident Jim Rogers on Sept. 26, 2003, just before the balloon launch.” (Kings County Record)

26 September 2003: At 2:38 a.m., Friday, David Kim Hempleman-Adams, O.B.E., lifted off  from the athletic field of Sussex Elementary School, Sussex, New Brunswick, Canada, in his Rozière balloon on a four-day transatlantic flight. Hempleman-Adams was in an open  7 feet × 3 feet (2.1 × 0.9 meters) wicker basket.

Hempleman-Adam’s Cameron R-90 being prepared for takeoff on a previous transatlantic attempt, 27 June 2003, at Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The balloon was built by Cameron Balloons, Ltd., Bristol, in 2000. It was a Cameron R-90, serial number 4751. The balloon was first registered 31 March 2000, as G-BYZX.

The R-90 is a Rozière balloon, which has separate chambers for helium and heated air. This allows the aeronaut to control the balloon’s buoyancy, but the hybrid type uses much less fuel than a hot-air balloon. The type is named after its inventor, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale places the Cameron R-90 in the free balloon sub-class AM-08, for mixed balloons with a volume of 2,200–3,000 cubic meters (77,692–105,944 cubic feet).

G-BYZX had a maximum takeoff weight of 2,654 kilograms (5,851 pounds).

Hempleman Adams had previously flown G-BYZX, then named Britannic Challenge, to the North Pole, on 3 June 2000. Following his transatlantic flight, he would use it to set a FAI World Record for Altitude of 12,557 meters (41,198 feet), 23 March 2004.

During the first day, Hempleman-Adams’ balloon gradually rose to an altitude of 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) as it drifted eastward. On the second day he was at 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), and on Day 3 he reached a peak of 14,000 feet (4,267 meters).

The weather was very cold, with rain and snow. Hempleman-Adams said that the average temperature during the flight was -12 °C. (10.4 °F.). Ice built up on the balloon’s envelope, increasing its weight. It became heavy enough that the balloon began to descend. Hempleman-Adams was unable to prevent the descent by using the propane burners to heat the air and increase buoyancy, and was forced to lighten the balloon by jettisoning six propane cylinders.

During the third day, the balloon was hit by the shock waves of a Concorde supersonic airliner as it passed overhead at 30,000 feet (9,144 meters). Hempleman-Adams felt a very abrupt, but fortunately, brief, descent as a result.

G-BYZX reached the southwestern tip of Ireland at 8:30 a.m., BST, on 29 September, completing the transatlantic phase of his flight. The balloon continued to drift eastward, and at 6 p.m. on 30 September, came to rest near Hambleton, Lancashire, England. The total duration of the flight was 83 hours, 14 minutes, 35 seconds.

Sir David Kim Hempleman-Adams, K.C.V.O., O.B.E., K.St.J., D.L., is an interesting guy. He is the first person to have completed the True Adventurer’s Grand Slam, by reaching the North and South Poles, the North and South Magnetic Poles, and to have climbed the highest mountains on each of the seven continents. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale online database currently credits him with 49 world aviation records.

David Hempleman-Adams waves at the camera after landing in England, 30 September 2003.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

14–18 September 1984

Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr., after setting an FAI World Record for Distance, Montenette, Italy, 18 September 1984. (Joe Kittinger collection)
Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr., after setting an FAI World Record for Distance, Montenette, Italy, 18 September 1984. His deflated Yost GB55 helium balloon lies on the ground. (Joseph W. Kittinger Collection)
Yost Mfg. Co. GB55 helium balloon, N53NY, being prepared at Caribou, Maine, 14 September 1984 (Orlando Sentinel)
Yost Mfg. Co. GB55 helium balloon, N53NY, being prepared at Caribou, Maine, 14 September 1984 (Orlando Sentinel)

14–18 September 1984: Colonel Joseph W. Kittinger II, United States Air Force (Retired), lifted of from Caribou, Maine, at the extreme northeast corner of the United States, aboard Rosie O’Grady’s Balloon of Peace, a 3,000-cubic-meter Yost GB55 helium-filled balloon, registered N53NY. 86 hours later, he came rest at Montenotte, Italy, having completed the very first solo transatlantic balloon flight.

Kittinger established four Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Records for Distance, having travelled 5,703.03 kilometers (3,543.70 miles).¹ These records still stand.

This was not the first time Joe Kittinger had ascended in a balloon. The previous year he had set two FAI distance records, covering 3,221.23 kilometers (2,001.58 miles) from Las Vegas, Nevada to Farmersville, New York.² But he is best known for his historic high-altitude balloon flights. On 2 June 1957, Joe Kittinger rode the Project MAN-HIGH I balloon to an altitude of 97,760 feet (29,490 meters). One 16 August 1960, aboard Excelsior III, Kittinger reached 102,800 feet (31,333 meters). He then stepped out of the gondola and began the longest free-fall parachute descent attempted.

During the Vietnam War, Joe Kittinger flew 483 combat missions during three tours. He shot down one enemy MiG-21 fighter, and was later himself shot down. He was captured and held at the infamous Hanoi Hilton for 11 months.

Joseph William Kittinger II
Joseph William Kittinger II, 1999. (MSGT Dave Nolan, United States Air Force)

¹ FAI Record File Numbers 1045, 1046, 1047 and 1048

² FAI Record File Numbers 1013, 1014

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

4–5 September 1936

beryl Markham stands at The entrance to the cockpit of the Percival Vega Gull, probably late August 1936.
Beryl Markham steps out of the cockpit of the Percival Vega Gull, probably late August 1936. (Library of Congress)

4–5 September 1936: At 6:50 p.m., British Summer Time, Beryl Markham departed RAF Abingdon, Oxfordshire, England, aboard a turquoise blue and silver Percival P.10 Vega Gull, registration VP-KCC. Her intended destination was New York City, across the Atlantic Ocean in America.

The airplane flown by Mrs. Markham, serial number K.34, was brand-new, built for John Evans Carberry (formerly, 10th Baron Carbery) for his entry in The Schlesinger air race from London, England, to Johannesburg, South Africa. He loaned the airplane to her for the transatlantic flight on condition that she would return it to England by mid-September, in time for the start of the race.

Beryl Markham with the Percival P.10 Gull, VP-KCC. (HistoryNet)

Designed by Edgar Percival and built by Percival Aircraft Limited at Gravesend, the P.10 Vega Gull was a four-place, single engine monoplane with fixed landing gear. Known as the K-series, it was a development of the previous D-series Gull Six. The airplane was 25 feet, 6 inches (7.772 meters) long with a wingspan of 39 feet, 6 inches (12.040 meters) and height of 7 feet, 4 inches (2.235 meters). The standard airplane had an empty weight of 1,740 pounds (789.25 kilograms) and loaded weight of 3,250 pounds (1,474.2 kilograms). K.34, the airplane flown by Markham, carried two auxiliary fuel tanks in the passenger compartment, for a total capacity of 255 gallons (965.3 liters).

The Vega Gull was powered by an air-cooled, normally-aspirated, 9.186 liter (560.573-cubic-inch-displacement) de Havilland Gypsy Six I, an inverted inline six-cylinder overhead valve (OHV) engine. The engine had a compression ratio of 5.25:1. It was rated at 184 horsepower at 2,100 r.p.m., and  205 horsepower at 2,350 r.p.m. for takeoff. The direct-drive engine turned a two-bladed Ratier variable-pitch propeller. The Gypsy Six I weighed 432 pounds (196 kilograms).

The Vega Gull had a cruising speed of 150 miles per hour (241 kilometers per hour) and a maximum speed of 174 miles per hour (280 kilometers per hour). The service ceiling was 17,000 feet (5,181.6 meters). Estimated range with the auxiliary fuel tank was 3,800 miles (6,115.5 kilometers).

John E. Carberry's brand-new Percival P.10 Vega Gull, VP-KCC, Messenger, is rolled out of the Percival Aircraft Limited hangar at Gravesend.
John E. Carberry’s brand-new Percival P.10 Vega Gull, VP-KCC, The Messenger, is rolled out of the Percival Aircraft Limited hangar at Gravesend. (Unattributed)

John Carberry was a resident of Colony and Protectorate of Kenya so the new airplane received the civil registration marking, VP-KCC. It was named The Messenger.

Beryl Markham was an experienced airplane pilot who had most recently been employed as Chief Pilot, Air Cruisers Limited, owned by a French financier, François Dupré. She was certified both as a pilot and an aircraft mechanic, and had recently had her pilot’s license endorsed for “All Types.”

Percival P.10 Vega Gull K.34 VP-KCC, The Messenger. (NPR)

Mrs. Markham and the airplane were ready for the solo transoceanic flight by 1 September, but were delayed by bad weather, with worse forecast. Captain Percival had recommended that she start from RAF Abingdon because its 1 mile runway (1.6 kilometers) would give the overweight airplane a longer takeoff run.

By the 4th, however, she was impatient with waiting and decided to takeoff regardless of the weather. She arrived at the airfield at about 5:00 p.m. Her takeoff was delayed while the runway was cleared of a wrecked bomber that had been overturned by the high winds.

Because of the high winds, the Vega Gull was airborne in just 600 yards (550 meters).

Percival P.10 Vega Gull K.34, registration VP-KCC, in flight over England, sometime between 15 August–4 September 1936. (Unattributed)
Beryl Markham and the Percival P.10 Vega Gull K.34, with Kenyan civil registration VP-KCC, westbound over England, 4 September 1936. (Henry How, Daily Mirror)

From the start, Markham encountered heavy rain, low clouds, fog, and gale force winds. Almost immediately, her carefully-prepared chart was blown out of a cockpit window. She flew most of the distance at an altitude of about 2,000 feet (610 meters). If she climbed higher, the rain turned to ice. If she flew lower she was in danger of the winds forcing her into the sea below. She had hoped to have the light of a nearly full moon as she crossed the Atlantic at night but the weather was so bad that she flew by reference to her instruments for the entire crossing.

During the transatlantic flight the Percival Vega Gull was sighted by several ships which reported her position. Although the airplane had a cruising speed of 150 miles per hour (241 kilometers per hour), because of the headwinds, Markham estimated her rate of advance at just 90 miles per hour (145 kilometers per hour). With the airplane running on fuel from the final tank, which should have lasted 11 hours, the gauge indicated that it was being consumed at a higher rate. She estimated her position as nearing Newfoundland but with rain, clouds and fog, she was only able to see brief views of the ocean below.

The dawn broke through the clouds. The wind changed and I stopped being so silly. I wouldn’t have imagined that there was an expanse of desolation so big in the whole world as the waste of sky and water I saw go past me since I left Abingdon. . . It was fog, rain, sleet for hours on end. If I climbed it was sleet, if I dropped it was rain. If I skimmed the sea it was fog. I couldn’t see anything beyond my wingtips. . .

That tank, on which I was banking my all, didn’t last eleven hours. It lasted nine hours and five minutes. . . I watched that tank getting emptier and emptier and still saw nothing but sea and clouds and mist. . . I could see nothing to save me. Good old Messenger was going to stop any moment and I said to myself, “If I’m going to go, now is the time to get ready for it.” The only thing anywhere around was fog, great hefty banks of it. And then I saw the coast. The beautiful coast. I’ve never seen land so beautiful. . . But then the engine began to go “put, put, put.”

. . . I knew then that I had to come down and made for the beach. I couldn’t land there; there was nothing but great big rocks and Messenger and I would have been dashed to pieces. I went inland.

My engine was missing badly now. It was sheer agony to watch my petrol gauge . . . I peered around for a field to land on. I was still peering when the engine stopped.

 Beryl Markham, quoted in Straight on Till Morningby Mary S. Lovell, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1987, Chapter 9 at Pages 177–178.

Beryl Markham's solo transatlantic flight ended in this peat bog at Beliene, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, 5 September 1936. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)
Beryl Markham’s solo transatlantic flight ended in this peat bog at Baliene Cove, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, 5 September 1936. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)

The field turned out to be a peat bog at Baliene Cove on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada. The airplane nosed over in the soft surface. Beryl Markham struck her head and was briefly knocked unconscious. She soon climbed out of the damaged Vega Gull and was taken to a nearby farm where help soon arrived.

Beryl Markham did not reach her intended destination of New York City. But what she did accomplish was the first East-to-West solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by a woman. Although Amelia Earhart had flown solo across the Atlantic in her Lockheed Vega four years earlier, her crossing was West-to-East. Because of the prevailing weather patterns, the westerly crossing is considered much more difficult.

Beryl and The Messenger returned to England aboard the passenger liner RMS Queen Mary. Although the damage was repaired, it was not in time to compete in The Schlesinger. John Carberry sold VP-KCC to Dar-es-Salaam Airways. It was written off in Tanganyika in August 1937, and de-registered in March 1938.

Beryl Markham was a remarkable woman whose exploits are too great to touch on here. She wrote West with the Night, which was considered by author Ernest Hemingway to be “a bloody wonderful book.” She died at her home in Nairobi, Kenya, 3 August 1986, at the age of 83.

Beryl Markham, with her forehead bandaged, after her historic solo transatlantic flight, 5 September 1936. (Boston Public Library_
Beryl Markham, with her forehead bandaged, after her historic solo transatlantic flight, 5 September 1936. (Unattributed)
Beryl Markham, with her forehead bandaged, after her historic solo transatlantic flight, 5 September 1936. (Unattributed)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes