Harbour Grace

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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

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See Part One here

While Harry Richman and Dick Merrill waited comfortably at the home of T.W. Abbot for the necessary supplied and equipment to fix their aircraft, The Lady Peace, a modified Vultee V1-A, that had nosed down in a Musgrave Harbour bog on their return flight from Europe, a flurry of activity was happening at the Harbour Grace Airfield.

Once a popular airfield for those attempting to fly the Atlantic, the Harbour Grace Airfield had not been used as much since 1933. With construction starting on the airfield at Mile Post 314, what would become known as Gander, and a lack of funds, the future of the airfield was uncertain.

A picture of the Harbour Grace Airfield. Daly 2017.

When The Lady Peace, with its two famous aviators, crashed in Musgrave Harbour, the Harbour Grace Airfield was suddenly very active. According to the airport log, four aircraft landed in Harbour Grace on 15 September 1936. The first was NC 16515, a Beechcraft scatterwing piloted by Duke Kranto, and owned by the Daily News in New York City. He landed in Harbour Grace at 12:35 local time, then left for Musgrave Harbour at 3:30, stayed in Musgrave Habour for three hours before flying back to Harbour Grace. Kranto stayed the night, and left for New York City at 8am on 16 September. Two other Beechcraft are listed as landing on 15 September: NC 15812 piloted by Carl O. Chader, and owned by O.J. Whitney Inc. Flying Service, and NC 15849, piloted by John H. Shobe and owned by Shobe Airlines Inc. These aircraft landed at 2pm and 2:30 respectively, and left at 8am the following morning. All three are listed as leaving at the same time, so it is assumed they left one after the other. The later two aircraft brought newspapermen to Harbour Grace, who then went to Musgrave Harbour.

The largest plane to ever land in Harbour Grace also arrived on 15 September 1936. The Great Silver Fleet, NC 17731, owned by Eastern Air Lines, landed amongst the smaller Beechcraft. This aircraft was piloted by George W. Branson, co-piloted by Joe Kelly, and brought the famous Captain Eddie Rickenbacker to Newfoundland. 

Harbour Grace Airport, The Great Silver Fleet, Lady Peace, and an unidentified aircraft. Maritime History Archives Rorke Family Fond PF-314 01 232

There was actually a fourth scatterwing that landed in Harbour Grace but wasn’t recorded in the log. The other newspaper aircraft left on 16 September, but a picture of The Lady Peace and The Great Silver Fleet available on the Digital Archives Initiative at MUN shows another Beechcraft. Further readings have not allowed me to identify the aircraft. The log indicates all of the newspaper aircraft had left on 16 September, and The Lady Peace did not arrive until the 18th. The only other possibility is that it was flown by one of the mechanics brought by Rickenbaker as suggested by Pushie (1959), even though the three mechanics, the pilot, co-pilot, and Rickenbacker could all comfortably fit on The Great Eastern Fleet, a DC-2. Perhaps Rickenbacker brought a small aircraft to possibly fly to Musgrave Harbour if needed? I am open to suggestions or further reading suggestions.

From Pushie 1959

On the evening of 16 September, Rickenbaker chartered a boat, Lincoln II, to take him, his crew, and supplies, to Musgrave Harbour. Meanwhile, the residents of Musgrave Harbour were preparing a runway for The Lady Peace. It was determined that the hard-packed sand revealed by low tide would make a suitable runway, and a series of wooden ramps were constructed to move the aircraft to the makeshift runway.

Four days after their surprise landing in Musgrave Harbour, Merrill and Richman took off from the beach with just enough fuel for the shot hop to Harbour Grace. Given the condition of the runway, they wanted the aircraft to weigh as little as possible, looking to fuel-up in Harbour Grace. The Lady Peace, landed in Harbour Grace at 7pm on 18 September 1936.

Entry in the Harbour Grace Airport Log for The Lady Peace

Rickenbacker looked on as, at 8am on 19 September, The Lady Peace took off from Harbour Grace. The aircraft landed at Floyd Bennett Field in New York, where the wheels edged off the runway and sank into the mud. The aircraft had to be towed off the runway.

Ironically, The Lady Peace later went to war as a light bomber operating out of Spain. The aircraft was renamed Capitan Haya and survived the war. It was scrapped in 1953.

In the aftermath of The Lady Peace event, Harbour Grace attempted to renew the airfield. The Harbour Grace Airport Trust Company did not charge for the use of the airfield, but rather relied on donations. With all of the media attention, letters were sent to the Universal New Reel, Paramount News, Fox News, Hearst Metrotone News, and The Daily News, asking for donations toward the upkeep of the runway, suggesting a $25 donation. This suggests that aircraft from each of these news sources landed in Harbour Grace, and perhaps the mystery Beechcraft was among them, although the aircraft was still present when the letter was sent. At least one $25 donation was received from the O.J. Whitney Flying Service, whose aircraft was flown by Carl Chader.

With work starting on the Newfoundland Airport in what would become Gander, Thomas M. McGrath wrote to the Airport Committee suggesting that the airfield continues to be useful even with the completion of the larger airfield. In the interim, McGrath suggests it could be of use to visiting aircraft, and after completion could be an alternative landing place. Keep in mind, this was before the construction of the Second World War airbases, making these the two major airfield on the island. McGrath suggested that Mr. E. L. Oke of the Airport Committee write to Mr. Manning, the Secretary for the Department of Public Unitilies and discuss repairs and maintenance to the airport. A visit to the Provincial Archives may uncover more related correspondences.

Letter from T.M. McGrath to E.L. Oke, 1936. On File at the Conception Bay Museum.

Merrill returned to Newfoundland about 40 years later and at a reception in his honour in Harbour Grace, and actually inquired after the man, Israel, who we first me at Man Point Marsh as the plane landed.

Musgrave Harbour (top circle) and Harbour Grace (lower circle). Map from the MUN Digital Archives and annotated by author.


1976      We Treated Them As If They Were Residents of Our Community. Decks Awash, 5(6): 59.

Clarke, D.J.
2018      Stories From Our Shores: Musgrave Harbour and the Ping Pong Flight. The Western Star, 04 December 2018.

Guy, R.W.
1987 Ten Miles Apart in Space: Five Years Apart in Time. One a Vultee; the Other a Hudson. The Newfoundland Quarterly, 83(1): 5.

Jessamine, B.
n.d.       The Ping Pong Flight Project. The Ping Pong Flight, website, accessed 20 December 2018

Mann, R.S.
1936      Letter to Paramount News, 18 September 1936. On File: Conception Bay Museum.
1936 Letter to O.J. Whitney Inc., 02 October 1936. On File: Conception Bay Museum.

McGrath, T.M.
1936 Letter to E.L. Oke, 02 November 1936. On File: Conception Bay Museum.

Pushie, G.F.
1959 Atlantic Flights From Newfoundland. The Atlantic Advocate, 49(12): 77-86.

Radecki, A.
2015      From Glendale to London with Peace, Pingong Balls, and the Ritz. Vintage Air, website, accessed 04 May 2018.

Whiteway, L.
1971      The Story of Musgrave Harbour. The Newfoundland Quarterly, 68(2): 6-11.

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