Pilot Journal
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Transatlantic In A Twin Star

An epic journey, in the footsteps of Alcock and Brown

1:45 a.m.: We return to a very dark and cold airport. As we strap into our seats, we’re both quieted by the enormity of the task we’re about to undertake. ATC gives us our clearance for the route from St. John’s to Swansea, and ice is already forming on the inside of the windscreen as we follow the runway lights to line up. I push the throttles fully forward to encourage our very heavy, very small airplane down the tarmac. After just over ¾ of a mile, we reach the takeoff speed of 110 mph. We begin climbing at a rate that even a baby seagull could beat. But we’re going up, through wispy clouds creating a thin, silvery layer of frost on the wings, which eerily glisten in tonight’s full moon. Oxygen masks on at 10,000 feet; 56 minutes later, we level out at 18,000 feet. Next stop: Europe.

4:30 a.m.: I can no longer feel my toes. Outside it’s minus-35 degrees C; inside, it’s probably just above zero. We’ve been on oxygen now for about 90 minutes. I look over to Paul, who for a few moments appears to have nodded off. I give him a nudge when he complains of tingling fingers—classic symptoms of hypoxia. We whack the oxygen supply up to max, which we find is a very effective way of keeping alert.

5:38 a.m.: I reset my clock and we’re greeted by a most welcome orange glow as an enormous sun rises through the cloud right on the nose. Our little plane warms like a greenhouse. I can feel my toes again, and Paul can feel his fingers.

8:30 a.m.: Time for a celebratory cup of flasked coffee. (It’s a small one: The first opportunity for relief is at least seven hours away.) For some reason, I don’t feel hungry, which is just as well (eating anything would be tricky with the oxygen mask on).

10:43 a.m.: We’re a long way from anywhere—at the halfway point, about 1,000 miles out into the Atlantic. If we had to ditch, we’d remain conscious for no more than one hour in the near-freezing sea before hypothermia would slowly and painfully close our bodies down. If anything should go wrong now, we know the chances of survival are negligible as it would take several hours to get a vessel anywhere near us. I take my headset off to get the comforting drone of the engines at full volume. I hope to hear that noise for at least another five hours.

Alcock & Brown
Alcock and Brown were motivated to make the first transatlantic flight on June 14, 1919, by the offer of a prize of £10,000 (equivalent to more than $750,000 today) put up by the Daily Mail newspaper.

John Alcock (age 27 at the time of the flight), a U.S. citizen, had six years of flying experience, but Arthur Whitten Brown (age 34), a British citizen, had earned his pilot’s license only nine months before the pioneering flight. Alcock died in a flying accident six months after completing the transatlantic journey. Brown died in 1948.


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