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PAL Airlines retraces flight plan Alcock and Brown took in first non-stop transatlantic flight 100 years ago

Capt. Kirby Short and Lt. Todd Coates smile in the cockpit of a Dash 8 PAL Airlines plane, which made a commemorative flight over St. John’s and The Narrows on Friday, retracing the flight plan of Capt. John Alcock and Lt. Arthur Whitten Brown, who made the first non-stop transatlantic flight on June 14, 1919.
Capt. Kirby Short and Lt. Todd Coates smile in the cockpit of a Dash 8 PAL Airlines plane, which made a commemorative flight over St. John’s and The Narrows on Friday, retracing the flight plan of Capt. John Alcock and Lt. Arthur Whitten Brown, who made the first non-stop transatlantic flight on June 14, 1919. - Rosie Mullaley
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

Capt. Kirby Short has guided hundreds of flights all over the world in his decades as a pilot.

But a 40-minute trip on Friday over the St. John’s metro area was one that was out of this world.

“It was really amazing, unforgettable,” he said, smiling and shaking his head.

Gazing through the cockpit just after 1 p.m. on a chilly, but sunny, Friday afternoon, Short was at the controls as he flew a PAL Airlines Dash 8 over the city and through The Narrows.

With 49 passengers, aboard — including politicians, aviation enthusiasts and historians, a group of young air cadets and members of the media — the flight was made to commemorate the centennial anniversary of Capt. John Alcock and Lt. Arthur Whitten Brown’s first non-stop transatlantic flight, retracing a first portion of their flight plan.

The British aviators of the Royal Air Force flew a modified First World War Vickers Vimy bomber that took off from St. John’s on June 14, 1919, crossing the Atlantic Ocean before nose landing in a bog in Clifden, Ireland, 16 hours and 12 minutes later.

Actor Ben Pittman performs a monologue based on the Alcock and Brown story Friday afternoon during a ceremony at PAL Airlines’ executive flight centre in St. John’s to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the first non-stop transatlantic flight.
Actor Ben Pittman performs a monologue based on the Alcock and Brown story Friday afternoon during a ceremony at PAL Airlines’ executive flight centre in St. John’s to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the first non-stop transatlantic flight.

It was much clearer Friday than the overcast day when Alcock and Brown took off 100 years ago.

Passengers aboard Friday’s flight were awed with the scenic views as the Dash 8 descended to 1,000 feet above land and water, flying over Holyrood, Bell Island and Torbay, even past an iceberg, before reaching what used to be Lester’s Field (now near the Royal Canadian Legion on Blackmarsh Road), where Alcock and Brown took off 100 years ago to the day.

Passengers cheered and clapped when Short announced the plane was flying over Lester’s Farm.

Laughter erupted when Short announced, “We’re on a direct route to Ireland and we’re showing four hours and 23 minutes.”

He again got chuckles 20 minutes later when he told the group, after flying over The Narrows through the cloud, “We’ve terminated our trip to Ireland and are heading back.”

There was again cheering and clapping when the plane made a smooth landing at St. John’s International Airport.

“To relive something like that was awesome,” Short told The Telegram after the flight. “Flying that type of airplane, there’s a lot of systems up front, so you have to monitor everything. Safety is first, obviously.

“But I actually had a time, once I shot the approach and did the climb-out and we went out (by) Signal Hall, I actually put myself in (Alcock and Brown’s) position. It must’ve been scary for them.”

Carson Porter of Lewisporte, 12, stands in front the the PAL Dash 8 plane Friday at St. John’s International Airport. Carson was one of 49 passengers who was on board for the flight over St. John’s commemorating the Alcock and Brown first non-stop transatlantic flight 100 years ago.
Carson Porter of Lewisporte, 12, stands in front the the PAL Dash 8 plane Friday at St. John’s International Airport. Carson was one of 49 passengers who was on board for the flight over St. John’s commemorating the Alcock and Brown first non-stop transatlantic flight 100 years ago.

Flying the twin-engine plane in gusty winds that cold day in 1919, Alcock and Brown sat in an open cockpit with no top and little to protect them from the weather conditions during their lengthy flight.

“I can only imagine those two engines roaring and the loudness of it,” said Short, who is originally from St. Anthony and lives in Torbay.

There were many differences in the planes. A turbo prop airliner, the Dash 8’s takeoff speed is 125 mph, compared to the Vimy’s 50 mph; the runway length for the Dash 8 is 3,000 feet, compared to 1,500 feet of grassy runway at Lester’s Field; the Dash 8’s cruise speed is 330 mph, while the Vimy’s was 100 mph.

Also, the Dash 8 has a sophisticated technological navigational system, with satellite, GPS and autopilot. The only tools Alcock and Brown had were a sextant, an instrument that measured celestial objects in relation to the horizon, and a compass.

“The plane back 100 years ago is not like we have today, so to think about what they did, it was quite amazing,” said Short, who is also PAL’s director of flight operations.

“And the courageousness to take that on…,” co-pilot Lt. Todd Coates of Conception Bay South added, “because really, they didn’t know how all that was going to work out. The particulars of their journey didn’t go without incident either — running into bad weather when things were supposed to be fair and good.

“They were the pioneers in aviation and it was quite an overwhelming experience and privilege to be a part of it.”

No one was more excited to be aboard the plane than Carson Porter of Lewisporte, who won a provincewide cadet contest to be on the flight.

“I was jumping for joy when I heard I got chosen to go,” the 12-year-old said, after getting hugs from his mother, Tenisha Saunders, and father, Jamie Porter, when he stepped off the plane.

“I really want to be a pilot when I grow up and being in a small community like mine, I see this as a great opportunity.”

The flight was part of several events being held in St. John’s to mark the 100th anniversary of Alcock and Brown’s flight, hosted by Aviation History Newfoundland and Labrador.

Co-chairman and co-founder Bill Mahoney told the crowd gathered at the PAL hanger Friday, “Alcock and Brown’s flight was truly the beginning of the international aviation industry.”

As part of the commemoration, the Dash 8 PAL plane was branded, on the tail, with the Alcock and Brown centennial logo, which will stay the throughout the summer.

“It’s fair to say long-distance aviation, transportation today started right here on this spot 100 years ago,” said Gary Hebbard, a member of Aviation History Newfoundland and Labrador.

“One thing I’d like to see come out of this is for people of our province, especially our young people, to have an appreciation of the fact that this little province in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean played this major role in today’s modern aviation, and that’s pretty incredible.”

rosie.mullaley@thetelegram.com
Twitter: TelyRosie

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