14th June, 1919

Alcock and Brown Take Off, 14th June, 1919.

Alcock and Brown depart St. John’s, Newfoundland in their Vickers Vimy.  14th June, 1919 (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

I remember going to the Science Museum in London when I was small and seeing the Vickers Vimy  that Alcock and Brown used to make the first non-stop Atlantic crossing.  Until today it had never actually struck me on which day the crossing had taken place. Admittedly it was on the 14th/15th June.   You can read about some of the trials and tribulations of the flight  on their Wikipedia page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transatlantic_flight_of_Alcock_and_Brown

A couple of things I didn’t know about the flight:

  1. John Alcock had been a POW in Turkey in the First World War while flying with the Royal Naval Air Service – while a POW he dreamed of making the Atlantic crossing.
  2. There was a very real competition between Vickers and Handley-Page (among others) to win a 10,000 GBP prized offered by the Daily Mail. The Handley-Page team were still testing their aircraft when the Vickers team arrived, assembled their aircraft and took off.
  3. Alcock approached Vickers suggesting they use a modified Vimy bomber for the attempt. Vickers were impressed and made him their pilot.
  4. Arthur Whitten-Brown was apparently unemployed and approached Vickers looking for a job.

It’s amazing how a series of chances came together. One would say it was a very British undertaking.


Happy Birthday

5th March 1936, first flight of K5054 the Supermarine Type 300 Spitfire prototype, or so the common theory says.

Jeffrey Quill in his book Spitfire: A Test Pilot’s Story is adamant that the first flight actually took place on 6th March,  because he flew Vickers’  Miles Falcon G-ADTD from Brooklands to Martlesham Heath, picking up  Captain Joseph “Mutt”  Summers (Vickers’ Chief Test Pilot) and transporting him to Eastleigh for the flight.  Quill also says he gave brief joyrides to Major H.J Payn,  R.J Mitchell’s Technical Assistant, and Stuart Scott-Hall, Air Ministry technical officer in place at Supermarine.  They were also at Eastleigh for the first flight.     It doesn’t help that Dr. Alfred Price when preparing Spitfire: A Complete Fighting History, quoted an account sheet with a note, hand written by Mitchell updating a line from “Not yet flown” to “Flew 5 Mar 36.”

While we’re in uncertain territory, what did “Mutt” Summers  say when he landed K5054 after that first flight?  Quill says he said “I don’t want anything touched”   which has been widely misquoted (the Wikipedia article says he said “Don’t touch anything”).   Bryan Swopes in This Day in Aviation quotes him as saying “Don’t change a thing!”    People wonder why I like being a history teacher.  What one person said in front of a group of witnesses 81 years ago is a matter of debate and interpretation.  Perhaps in the future our record keeping will be better, but somehow I doubt that important speeches and sayings will ever be clearly recorded or remembered.

I’m inclined to agree with Quill who says it’s unlikely  that after a test flight of a few minutes in which he didn’t even retract the undercarriage,  that Summers thought the aircraft was perfect and didn’t need any refinement.  It’s much more likely he didn’t want anyone fiddling with the aircraft before he flew it again.

Wherever the truth lies, at least we know how the story developed.


Spitfire Mark VB

Spitfire Mark VB (AD233, ‘ZD-F’) being flown on 25 May 1942 by Squadron Leader Richard Milne, Commanding Officer of No. 222 Squadron based at North Weald, Essex.
By RAF [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Those were the days.  I was looking at a picture the other day of N70700,  the prototype Boeing 707 (or more properly the Boeing 367-80 Stratoliner) which flew around this date in 1954. I started wondering about VC10s.  I remember seeing them around and about during my travels and indeed they served BOAC / British Airways until 1981. I always remember thinking how graceful they were.  I also have a vague memory of a Dr. Who story which involved VC10s or an airport, or both, in some way. I must confess I was watching it from the hallway so I don’t remember all the details.

There is one association that many Brits will have with the VC-10 and that’s mostly because of this bloke. If there was anyone you wanted to see jetting around the world in the First-Class compartment of a VC10 it was the late,  great Alan Whicker   (1921 – 2013).  He may have had an amazing title image for the series in the 1980s standing beside a runway as a British Airways Concorde took off (and all without ear defenders) but for me the VC10 is a symbol of British sophistication and grace in the air during my impressionable youth.

Alan Whicker, circa 1960 (BBC)

Alan Whicker, circa 1960 (BBC)

Opening Titles from Whicker’s World in the 1960s.
That undercarriage and the rear-mounted engines are saying VC10 to me. (BBC)

The VC10 was designed to operate on long-distance routes from the shorter runways of the era and especially was designed to maximise hot and high performance for operations from African airports. Allegedly a VC10 still holds the record for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic by a subsonic jet airliner at a shade over 5 hours.   I’m also fascinated to read in Wikipedia that the original plan for the Super VC10 involved lengthening the fuselage by 28 feet, although after some worries over production schedules this was cut to around 13 feet.

BOAC  “Standard” VC10 G-ARVF at London Heathrow (LHR), March 6th, 1964.
Photo by Ken Fielding/http://www.flickr.com/photos/kenfielding
CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

And while I’m here, some rather charming YouTube footage from 1968. The second commercial, as  the comments suggest, seems to be fascinated by the main undercarriage of the VC10.  Who am I to complain?

The politics of the VC-10, the Boeing 707 and the intervention of the British government in aircraft production are fairly well summarized in the Wikipedia article on the VC10 so I won’t go into any of that here.

On  the lighter side, a couple of pictures of the lowest known pass by a VC10 at a UK airshow – G-ARVM appearing at the 1977 Silver Jubilee air show on 14-15 May at White Waltham airfield in Berkshire. – go to the VC10.net Memories page.

Another footnote which I feel requires inclusion is this BBC News website article from May 2016 reporting that a collection of Alan Whicker’s personal papers had been  donated to the British Film Institute’s National Archive.