Manchester has a unique place in aviation history thanks to First World War hero and intrepid pilot Sir John William ‘Jack’ Alcock.
As one half of the legendary duo Alcock and Brown, he made the first non-stop transatlantic flight from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Clifden, Connemara, in June 1919.
The flight, in a modified open-cockpit Vickers Vimy bomber, took 16 hours and 12 minutes. It was the epitome of endurance, initiative and sheer determination as bad weather nearly forced the pair to crash twice.
Almost as soon as they landed, Captain John Alcock and his navigator Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown were whisked off to Windsor Castle to be knighted by King George V.
Such was the nation’s gratitude and pride in their achievement.
Alcock was born in Seymour Grove, Firswood, in November 1892. He was educated at St Thomas’s Primary School in Heaton Chapel, Stockport, and Heyhouses School in Lytham St Annes.
His interest in flying was nurtured by Charles Fletcher, the manager of Empress Motor Works in Manchester, who employed Alcock as his assistant in 1910.
Another influence was motor engineer Norman Crossland, the founder of Manchester Aero Club.
Alcock gained his pilot’s licence in November 1912 after moving to Brooklands aerodrome in Surrey to work with aviation pioneer Maurice Ducrocq.
He was a mechanic at Ducrocq’s flying school before joining the Sunbeam Motor Car Company as a racing pilot.
In summer 1914 Alcock competed in the Hendon-Birmingham-Manchester and back air race in a Farman biplane. He landed at Trafford Park aerodrome and flew back to Hendon the same day.
Alcock’s air-racing career came to a halt with the outbreak of the First World War in July 1914.
He signed up as an instructor at the Royal Naval Flying School in Eastchurch in Kent and was transferred to an operational squadron on the Greek island of Lemnos in December 1915.
Alcock was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in September 1917 when he flew his Sopwith Camel into action against three enemy aircraft, forcing two to crash into the sea.
In the same month he was taken prisoner by Turkish forces when the Handley Page bomber he was piloting on a raid to Constantinople was forced to ditch in the sea.
Alcock remained a prisoner of war until the Armistice and retired from the Royal Air Force in March 1919.
After the war he threw himself into the challenge of becoming the first pilot to fly directly across the Atlantic. He became a test pilot for Vickers and helped adapt the Vimy bomber used in the record attempt.
After a few months of testing, Alcock and Brown took off from St John’s in Newfoundland, Canada, at 1.45pm local time on June 14th 1919.
The aircraft was so overloaded it only just missed the tops of the trees. Then the generator failed, leaving the pair without radio contact or heating.
The Vimy nearly crashed twice in thick fog which prevented Brown from using his sextant to navigate. Alcock also had to contend with a broken trim control.
Rain and snow followed – and it is believed Brown had to climb on to the wings to clear the engines.
After 16 hours and 12 minutes – and 1,980 miles aloft – the pair landed in Derrygimia bog in Clifden, Ireland. The aircraft was damaged but Alcock and Brown were unhurt. They mistook the bog for a green field.
The pair gratefully accepted the £10,000 prize awarded by the Daily Mail for the first non-stop transatlantic flight. Brown said that if the weather had been better they’d have made it to London!
The recovered Vimy aircraft was presented to the nation at the Science Museum, London, on December 15th 1919.
Three days later Alcock was killed flying the new Vickers Viking amphibious aircraft to an air exhibition in Paris. He crashed in fog near Rouen in Normandy.
A large stone memorial marks his grave in Southern Cemetery, Manchester.