I ordered Atlantic Fever: Lindbergh, His Competitors, and the Race to Cross the Atlantic by Joe Jackson through my local library as research for a project I am working on. I was looking for one aviator that I did not know much about, but found this wonderful, detailed book of all of the aviators who were involved in the race for the Orteig Prize, ultimately won by Charles Lindbergh when he flew from New York to Paris in 1927.

Charles and Anne Morrow Lindberg on a wharf. Six men are on the wharf with them, and a seventh man is in a small boat. The view is mostly of water, but part of the image is scratched in the top left corner and black in the top right corner.
Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh at Bay Bulls Big Pond, prior to taking off for Botwood on 14 July 1933. PANL A 47-77

I found this text to be interesting, as I had not really thought much of the Orteig Prize, as most of my focus is on Newfoundland and Labrador specific aviation. That said, even in reading this, I did make note of anything related to Newfoundland. Funny enough, almost all of the aviators in the book do have a Newfoundland connection. Lindbergh used Signal Hill to check his instruments on his historic flight, the Columbia landed in Harbour Grace twice, once as part of the first Canadian transatlantic flight, and the Oiseau Blanc may have been lost near, or as some speculate, on the island of Newfoundland. In fact, Jackson talks about how the loss of the Oiseau Blanc delayed some of the other aviators on their attempts for the Orteig prize until Nugesser and Coli were found, and how the search for the Oiseau Blanc is still ongoing. While I have not focused on the French aircraft, I do make note of archival documents that mention it and stories that offer theories on where the aircraft might have crashed, and, in 1992, TIGAR were in Newfoundland searching, likely based on much of the same information.

The aircraft Columbia taking off from the Harbour Grace runway. The how of Harbour Grace is seen in the background.
The Columbia leaving Harbour Grace on June 20, 1928. From the collection of the Conception Bay Museum.

One theory Jackson puts forward is that the Oiseau Blanc was a casualty of American Prohibition, being shot down by the rum boat Amistad, off the coast of Saint Pierre and Miquelon. I had not heard that theory before, but, interestingly enough, had recently had a hand in the selection of stories for Flights From The Rock by Engen Books, and one of the stories is eerily similar. 

Teaser image for Engen Books' Flights From the Rock, featuring the title, in gold block letters in front of a few clouds and blue sky
Flights From The Rock, a collection of short stories about flight, some of which are historical fictions based on real events, and others are fictional stories of flight written by pilots. Available through Engen Books.

One thing I did find interesting about the book was how much more detail there was in Lindbergh’s preparation. When reading We a while back, the autobiographical book made it sound like Lindbergh, on a whim, picked up the Spirit of St. Louis on a whim and few across the Atlantic. In fact, Jackson details the financial wrangling, as well as some of the meetings that Lindbergh had, and the sometimes struggles he had to secure not just funding for the aircraft, but also to ensure that he, and he alone, would fly the aircraft. It wasn’t just hubris, but Lindbergh, unlike the other aviators in and around New York, believed that a smaller, lighter, aircraft would be best for the flight, while the others were experimenting with large, tri-motor aircraft and crews of at least two. It also detailed how the aviators, Lindbergh included, had to watch the weather around Newfoundland, worried about the fog and pressure systems known to cause problems around the Grand Banks. While these flights were to leave New York, Newfoundland would be the last point of land, and watching the weather was imperative for any flight.

Two aviators standing in the cockpit of an aircraft. The aircraft has an image of a black heart with a skull and crossbones and a coffin.
Book caption reads: The French airmen, Nungesser and Coli, in their plane L'Oiseau Blanc before attempting the first non-stop east-west Atlantic crossing by heavier-than-air machine.
From They Flew the Atlantic by Robert de la Croix.

Of course, while the book offers a lot of very interesting and very useful information, there are some problems. The big one, from my own perspective, is that it does not recognize that Newfoundland was not part of Canada, and it uses Newfoundland and Canada interchangeably. Certainly, Newfoundland and Labrador are now part of Canada, but to the aviators in question during their transatlantic bids, as well as later for their flights to Harbour Grace, they were in Newfoundland, not Canada. It might be a small thing, and it can sometimes be difficult to reconcile where Newfoundland and Labrador history fits within Canadian history, having joined the country only in 1949, but, as a researcher, it makes it easier when looking for specific things to acknowledge that distinction.

The aircraft Columbia looking down the stretch of the Harbour Grace runway with Lady Lake in the background. A group of people are milling around the aircraft which is tied down.
The Columbia looking down the Harbour Grace runway with a view of adjacent Lady Lake, June 1928. From the collection of the Conception Bay Museum.

The author also seemed to be sort of star-struck by the aviators. This is understandable, and easy to do when conducting this research. The attempts for the Orteig prize was highly publicised, and, whether they wanted to be or not, the aviators were taken up as media darlings. In fact, as Jackson points out, some conflicts arose when selecting crews, as sometimes the more “Holywood” or “attractive” potential crew member was sometimes selected over other, equally qualified aviators. Jackson’s language reflects this media frenzy with a lot of descriptions about the appearances of the aviators, and if they were thought of as attractive at the time. It is very much a product of that media frenzy that did often focus on looks, and not always the merits of the aviators. That said, Lindbergh, while being considered incredibly all-American attractive at the time, was an astounding aviator, and did quite a lot to use his fame to promote aviation.

Charles Lindbergh and Richard Bird, two of the competitors for the Orteig Prize. From The Cradle of Aviation Museum

It was also very nice that the book looks at the aftermath of the Orteig prize. Many histories (and I myself have done this) don’t bother to look beyond the big event, but Jackson followed the other aviators involved and told how the Columbia and the America continued their attempts, and crossed the Atlantic with varying degrees of success, as well as other aviators who made the attempt in the years that followed, especially the women who tried to be the first to cross the Atlantic.

A crumpled, crashed aircraft in a body of water. America is written on the side of the aircraft.
The America at the end of its transatlantic flight in 1927, near Ver-sur-Mer. From Wikipedia.

Overall, this is a very good and informative book that I would highly recommend for anyone interested in early aviation. It is large and long, but filled with a great deal of information that I have yet to disseminate for my own research. I will certainly be referring to the notes I made, and may likely pick up my own copy at some point, rather than the library copy I read this time around. Perhaps my favourite part of the book is seeing all of the names that I have seen before in the Harbour Grace Airfield Log Book, as many of them stopped in Harbour Grace on other flying adventures.

The first page of a book, The Official Register of The Harbour Grace Airport Trust in front of a window that overlooks the garden next to the Conception Bay Museum and the ocean.
The Official Register of the Harbour Grace Airport Trust, on display at the Conception Bay Museum in Harbour Grace.

de la Croix, R.
1959 They Flew The Atlantic. W.W. Norton & Co. Inc.: New York.
Jackson, J.
2012 Atlantic Fever: Lindbergh, His Competitors, and the Race to Cross the Atlantic. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York.


Rear Admiral Sir Mark Edward Frederic Kerr was a proper sort of British gentleman, the son of an admiral, and who moved in royal circles. Apparently, he was also a bad poet. Kerr was an admiral at the start of the First World War, and received his pilot chit on 14 July 1914, testing after a total of 82 minutes in the air. He was the first flag officer of the Royal Navy to learn to fly.

Photo of Major Brackley, Admiral Mark Kerr, and Major Gran
From Brackley 1938

Flying by Kerr
Quietly stealing across the blue sky,
Out-pacing the Eagle the Air-craft will fly;
Caring for nothing in Heaven and Earth,
For this is a new life come into birth.

Quoted in Rowe 1977

Kerr’s team arrived later than most of the entries, and decided to attempt their flight out of Harbour Grace, whereas the other entries were out of Trepassey, St. John’s, and what is now part of Mount Pearl.

The Atlantic sitting in the runway and three men in the foreground.
The Atlantic moving across the Harbour Grace runway, VA 67-32.3 The Rooms

His team consisted of Major Herbert George “Brackles” Brackley as navigator, Major Jens Tryggve Harman Gran, a Norwegian born RAF pilot and member of Scott’s expedition to the South Pole, Mr R. Wyatt, Wireless Operator, Lieutenant Colonel E.W. Steadman, Assembly Engineer, Major G.T. Taylor, Meteorological Officer, and twelve mechanics. The team mostly consisted of men of high military and social ranking and as such, were the favourites of the elite in England to win the Atlantic Air Race and the Daily Mail prize.

A house on rollers being moved to clear the airfield
Relocation of a house in preparation for the Handley Page airfield, VA 67-1.1 The Rooms

Kerr’s team would be flying the largest biplane in the world. He had a four-engine Handley-Page U-1500 Belin bomber called Atlantic. The aircraft arrived in 105 crates, some described as “large enough to be used as houses” (Parsons and Bowman 1983). The crates arrived on the RMS Digby to St. John’s, and were sent by rail to Harbour Grace. The crew ate and drank at the Crosbie Hotel (whereas the other aviators were at the Cochrane) before moving on to Harbour Grace. The crew boarded in people’s homes in the town. The crates were large enough that it was difficult to transport them, but that was solved by using the wheels from the aircraft to wheel the crates along the field. Once assembled, the aircraft weighted 14 tons and had to be pulled by a steam tractor.

A man standing next to the wheels of the aircraft Atlantic. The wheels are almost the height of him.
The wheels of the Atlantic, VA 67-16.2 The Rooms

Harbour Grace had to airfield at the time, and a runway was cleared at the east end of town, between the railway track and the harbour, parallel to Water Street, near St. Francis School. To build the 900 yards long and 100 yards wide runway, several small farms and gardens separated by rock pile fences and even houses, had to be dismantled. Some of the land had been in the families for years, but folks seemed willing to sell their land for the runway. The created field became known as “Handley Page on the Sea”.

It wasn’t one field, but a series of gardens and farms, with rock walls between them. These all had to be considerable obstructions, a barracks, which had to be destroyed. Gangs of men carried out this work and then, when all was cleared, a heavy roller, drown by three horses and weighed down with several hundred pounds of iron bars, eliminated the hummocks. The result, after a month, was a bumpy aerodrome

Joseph R. Smallwood, quoted in Rowe 1977
Cockpit of the aircraft, with the name Atlanticf visible, in a makeshift hangar.
Cockpit of the Atlantic, VA 67-26.4 The Rooms

On a test flight, the aircraft left Harbour Grace in early June, and took 23 minutes to reach St. John’s, flew over, and returned to Harbour Grace. The test showed that there were issues with the engine’s cooling system that needed to be fixed. The flight did add some urgency to Alcock and Brown and the Vicker’s Vimy team to make the attempt. The urgency was unnecessary as Kerr had to order new parts from England, and the first that arrived did not fit.

Biplane flying over Harbour Grace with church spires in the background
Handley Page Atlantic test flight 1919, from the Conception Bay Museum

This wasn’t Kerr’s only time in St. John’s (besides his arrival). He had a Rolls Royce leant to him by the Reid family, and would make the occasional trip from Harbour Grace to St. John’s where he would interact with the other aviators.

Before Kerr could attempt the transatlantic flight, Alcock and Brown made the successful flight across the Atlantic, winning the Daily Mail prize. Kerr wanted to attempt the Atlantic, but was ordered to quit the transatlantic attempt, but to instead tour the aircraft in the United States. Kerr attempted to arrange his visit to New York with the arrival of the R-34 on its east to west flight. The Reids were there to see the plane off (Brackley misspells them as Reeds). During the flight, Kerr exchanged wireless messages with the R-34.

Working attaching the wings to the aircraft. Wood and crates are still visible under the aircraft and workers are working on the wings.
Positioning the wings on the Atlantic, VA 67-23 The Rooms.

The team left Harbour Grace for New York on 4 July 1919. On the way to New York, the engine started to overhead. There was a loud crack, the engine stopped, and as piece of metal went through the fuselage., which forced them down. In Parrshoro, Nova Scotia, they landed heavily on a small racetrack and destroyed the fuselage and damaged the tail. It took until October to repair the damage and continue to journey to New York. The aircraft was damaged again when it landed in Cleveland while en route to Chicago, and it was decided that the tour should be canceled and the aircraft was dismantled and shipped back to England. Parsons and Bowman (1983) speculate that there might have been a serious malfunction or defect which was a major factor in the cancellation of the tour.

Three men standing in front of the biplane Atlantic. The propellers are spinning and blurred in the picture.
The Atlantic with the engines started, VA 67-29.4 The Rooms

Brackley, H.E.
1938 Newfoundland to New York, 1919. The Aeroplane, p. 533.
Parsons, B. and B. Bowman
1983 The Challenge of the Atlantic: A Photo-Illustrated History of Early Aviation in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. Robinson-Blackmore Book Publishers: Newfoundland.
Rowe, P.
1977 The Great Atlantic Air Race. McClelland and Stewart Ltd.: Toronto.
Will, G.
2008 The Big Hop: The North Atlantic Air Race. Boulder Publications: PCSP.

There is a fantastic collection of photographs available at the Rooms of the Handley Page called the Kerr-Brackley Photograph Collection