On 14th June 1919 John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown took off from St. John’s, Newfoundland, in their heavily converted, and heavily laden, Vickers Vimy. After almost sixteen hours in the air, they landed in what they thought was a field in Ireland, but what turned out to be a bog. This first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by an aeroplane from Canada to Ireland won them the £10,000 prize that had been offered by the Daily Mail in 1913.
50 years on, in May 1969, the publishers of The Daily Mail newspaper promoted and organised an Air Race between the centres of London and New York, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this first non-stop flight across the Atlantic. They offered prizes in twenty different categories, many of them sponsored by different airlines and corporations, to provide opportunities for both private individuals and government backed attempts. The race was between individual competitors, who had to travel between the top of the Post Office tower in London and the Observation Platform of the Empire State Building in New York during the week of 4 to 11 May 1969. They could travel one way or both ways, and it was possible to make several attempts as long as they took place during this week. The nature of the challenge, involving both air travel across the Atlantic and a daunting trip into and from the centre of a large city, meant that many different solutions were devised, some of which required an extensive support organisation. There was a lot of enthusiasm for the race, culminating in nearly 400 competitors.
By 1969 the VC10 was a common sight on the Atlantic routes, and it is no surprise that several VC10s were involved in the race. The type was an obvious choice for those competing for category (f) for example: a £5000 prize, donated by BOAC, for the shortest time using any regular scheduled service between New York and London. But other competitors also turned to the VC10, with racing driver Stirling Moss, unable to resist any race, using a chartered VC10 from BUA to make his attempt. He was sponsored by Crosse & Blackwell, and they invited a large group of guests, mostly key buyers, to join him in the VC10 on the trip from Gatwick to New York.
Another competitor was Ted Drewery, a London real estate owner with a private fortune, who chartered a BOAC Super VC10 with crew. He too invited some guests, in this case over 100 snappily dressed businessmen. Phil Hogge was part of the crew and remembers it well:
"The captain was Mike O'Sullivan a lovely man and one of our best training captains on the VC10 fleet. The senior co-pilot was Dave Martin who went on to be the Flight Training Manager of the Tristar Fleet and then the principle of the civil flying school at Prestwick. The flight engineer was Alan Harmer, and I was the junior co-pilot who navigated the flight. Unfortunately I don't have any of the cabin crew names but they were a good team. The aircraft was Super VC10 G-ASGH, and our flight number as we left London Heathrow was ’Speedbird 2144’.
The flight time from London to New York on 4 May was 6hrs 41mins (08.29 - 15.10) and the time taken by our runner was 7hrs 28 mins from the Post Office Tower to the Empire State Building. We had everyone on board ready for when our runner arrived (I think on a motor bike) and, as soon as he was on board, we set off. I cannot remember which stand we were on (whether it was at Terminal 3 or from our maintenance area – I think the maintenance area). ATC were primed and we got an immediate fast taxi out and an immediate take-off clearance. Shanwick had also been primed to give us the best North Atlantic track of the day too. We took off with full tanks and cruised as fast as we could, intially MMO (the maximum operating Mach No.), but we couldn't do that all of the way because we would have used too much fuel. We cruised at that speed until we needed to slow down to a more normal cruise speed to ensure we would have enough fuel for our arrival into New York. That involved me and the flight engineer doing a lot of calculations in order to fly at MMO for as long as possible, it was quite a juggling act to get it right.
Mike O’Sullivan must have talked well in advance to ATC at New York because they were equally helpful. As soon as we came on stand our runner was off again on a motor bike and then all the passengers trooped off one after another. The flight had been chartered by a well-known businessman and all the passengers were dressed the same way – bowler hats, dark jackets, pinstripe trousers, black shoes and all carrying identical briefcase and furled umbrellas. They all marched down the steps and across the tarmac into the terminal twirling their umbrellas with panache and military precision. It was priceless to see the open mouthed hilarity on the faces of the airport workers as they watched these crazy limeys!
The whole crew returned as passengers on a 707 to London next day. The man who chartered the flight and all the passengers so enjoyed the flight out that they asked for exactly the same crew to take them back to London, which we did on 11 May in 6hrs 25mins (01.03 - 07.38) in G-ASGI as 'Speedbird 2145'. Our runner managed to do the reverse journey in a time of 7hrs 10mins. The captain flew both legs, but on the return flight I co-piloted and Dave Martin navigated and we used the same procedure for balancing speed versus fuel consumption.”
Ted Drewery wasn’t just competing against the other entrants in the race, he also had a private bet with an American friend, businessman Paul Vaughan from Ohio. They would both take part in the race, but the quickest of the two would have to buy the other one a new suit. Ted managed to win not only category (j), which netted a price of £2,500 donated by the Financial Times, but he also beat his friend Paul.
Another civilian competitor was Peter Hammond, Rolf Richardson remembers flying the JFK to LHR leg with him on board:
"Peter Hammond, on behalf of the Green Diamond club, made two attempts, again using a VC10, in the direction JFK-LHR. BOAC were very happy to 'fix' the crew using two Green Diamond members who were BOAC first officers as part of the crew, Ged Lavery and myself. We were 'issued' with a very acceptable captain in the shape of Tommy Thompson. Maybe because I was Peter's brother-in-law, I got the job of flying the leg and I see from my logbook that we left JFK at 0001 on 5th May 1969 in G-ASGC and arrived at LHR at 0621, flight time 6:20. This was very fast considering that the upper winds were unusually weak, my logbook records showing that out of about 35 JFK-LHR sectors that I flew over the years 6:20 equalled the fasted (slowest was 7:45). Unlike the other account from Phil Hogge, we did not go balls-out to start with, but took a more measured top speed view. Unfortunately, I can't remember our cruising Mach number, but it would have been well above the normal, which I believe was .86 in those fuel-cheap days. We used a lot of fuel and had plenty of help from ATC at both ends. Peter's winning times (he made a second attempt later in the week when the upper winds increased, but posted almost exactly the same time) were 6:54, which meant that only 34 minutes were spent on the two 'land' sectors, a tribute to the Green Diamond ground organisation."
BOAC’s VC10s weren’t the only ones to regularly fly between the UK and New York. RAF’s 10 Squadron had quite a bit of experience on that route and decided to take part in the race. There already was an official RAF team, centred around Squadron Leader Tom ‘Lecky’ Thompson flying a Harrier GR1 between a disused coal yard, or ‘RAF St. Pancras’ as it was temporarily known, and a pier in Manhattan, supported by Victor K1 tankers. The Royal Navy team was another official MOD entry, flying Phantoms and also using Victor K1s to keep their tanks topped up. As the Phantoms couldn’t land as close to the Post Office Tower as the Harrier, they used BAC’s Wisley airfield instead. The MOD entries were extensively supported by an Air Race flight with Wessex helicopters, RAF Police motorcycles and communication facilities. These RAF and RN official entries had priority, but other attempts could make use of the same motorcycles and the two Wessex helicopters at each end, as long as they didn’t conflict with the official attempts. This set the scene for 10 Squadron’s initiative, centred around a ’States trainer’ flight but supported by additional team members. The nominated runner of the team, AQM Sgt(W) Heather Robinson, recalls:
"10 Squadron entered this race privately as their entry was not officially sponsored by the MOD. The official RAF entries used The Harrier and Victor aircraft supported by The Air Race Flight.
The operating crew of flight 2046 on the 5th May 1969 consisted of Sqn Ldr Tommy Thompson (Captain); Flt Lt Tony Pearce ( Co- Pilot); Sqn Ldr Pip Moules (Navigator); Fg Off J Knight (Engineer); Sgt (W) Heather Robinson (AQM); Sgt (W) Pat Howard (AQM) and Sgt Harry Atkins (AQM). The support personnel on the ground in London and New York were Sqn Ldrs Bob Hill and Ned Neill; Flt Lts Bill Gainey and Olly Tarran; Fg Off Keith David and Master Eng. Montague. Apologies to any people I have forgotten to include but my memory after 45 years is not what it was!
I had been selected to act as 'the runner' with Pat as my stand in if required. I clocked out of the Post Office Tower and rode pillion on an RAF police motorbike to a goods yard at St Pancras station where an RAF Wessex helicopter was waiting to fly me to Wisley Airfield. VC10 XR810 was waiting on the tarmac with engines running ready to whisk me to JFK Airport in New York. I entered the aircraft by some lightweight steps up to the front passenger door. An army cadet called Simon Langdon was also travelling as a competitor on our aircraft and he followed me up the steps. This was the only time I used a conventional method of entering the aircraft.
On arrival in New York I exited the VC10 via the forward freight inspection hatch (underneath the avionics bay, see photo above), being assisted by the New York Detachment, Ned Neill and Ollie Tarran. I was wearing plimsolls so no heels to bother with during the small drop to the tarmac. Another Wessex flew me to a heliport in Manhattan and thereafter a sports car painted in the 'stars and stripes' took me to the bottom of The Empire State Building. I clocked in at the top in an overall time of 7hrs 17 mins 52 seconds. We knew that that this was not a winning time and the return flight with tail winds across The Atlantic would give us a better chance of success.
As a crew we flew on the next day to Chicago and San Francisco, thereby continuing the training flight. We returned to New York on the 8th May in preparation for the return attempt on the 9th May
Race rules had stipulated that all modes of transport used on the outward attempt must be replicated on the return but at the last minute the 'stars and stripes' car was not available to us. I was told I would be travelling by motorbike. This was to be the critical factor in the final result!
I clocked out of The Empire State and rode pillion to the Heliport. The bike rider looked like a member of the Hell’s Angels and I hung on for grim death as we sped along the New York streets. One memory is that every set of traffic lights were at red so we raced between them and braked violently at each one.
The Wessex again took me from Manhattan to JFK. I entered the VC10 via the inspection hatch and was hauled inside by George Sperring, the reserve engineer. We braced ourselves in the hold whilst the aircraft took off – no such thing as Health and Safety in those days!
Once airborne I went onto the flight deck to find the crew ecstatic at the short time it had taken from my leaving The Empire State to top of climb. Ned Neill recalled that ‘...the biggest single contributory factor in your return run was the preferential taxi and departure clearance issue by the ATC controllers which probably saved us half an hour if we had been required to join the departure queue. This is particularly of interest in view of the fact that they had been issued with instructions not to allow any favourable treatment to any aircraft.’ The nav’s calculation of the flight time led us all to believe that we could win our category for subsonic aircraft.
We landed at Wisley after a flight time of 6 hours. The Wessex flight and ride on the police motorcycle followed and I clocked in at The Post Office Tower after a time of 6hrs 29mins 11 secs!!! It was a winning time.
However the broadcaster Clement Freud (who competed in the Aer Lingus sponsored category that required the use of a scheduled service via Shannon) realised that we had changed the mode of transport in New York without notifying the officials. This had been a complete oversight but rules are rules. Mr Freud was unhappy at the number of prizes already won by the military and he was key to our entry being disqualified.
It was a bitter disappointment but Rothmans of Pall Mall who had sponsored the subsonic category recognised that the VC10 had indeed completed the crossing in a record time. At a party held at 10 Squadron headquarters at Brize Norton they presented the squadron with a silver salver engraved 'For meritorious achievement and good sportsmanship for the fastest subsonic time from the centre of New York to the heart of London'. That salver remains with the squadron silver and is a fitting reminder of the wonderful VC10.”
Simon Langdon, the Army cadet who accompanied Heather and the rest of the team on XR810, used a separate travel arrangement in London and New York, using Army motorcycles, and he did beat Heather to the top of the Empire State Building on the London to New York leg. He is not listed amongst the winners though.
This documentary shows several of the competitors during their attempts, including some great footage of XR810 departing Wisley.
Another entry that involved a VC10 was Prince Michael of Kent. A colleague of his competed on the outbound leg, and he acted as runner from New York to London, using a 10 Squadron VC10 on a regular New York - UK trip. The VC10 did its best to deliver him to Wisley in record time, where he descended an escape rope from the mid-passenger door to the tarmac so that he could sprint to the waiting Wessex helicopter. So far the race went well for him, but when he entered the Wessex, he tore the seat of his white flannels on the door frame. It is not known if it was this setback that caused him to miss out on a prize.
As it is now 100 years ago that Alcock and Brown won the original Daily Mail prize, and 50 years after the more elaborate 1969 race, the Brooklands Museum decided to commemorate these events by organising the 'First to the Fastest' exhibition around their Vimy replica, which itself crossed the Atlantic in 2005, and recently restored air race winning Harrier GR1 XV741. In Ireland, a festival has been organised to commemorate Alcock and Brown's achievement.
For more about this race, have a look at Guy Ellis' website about it.