Vimy Victorious

The Vickers Vimy carried its intrepid pilots through ice, rain, and the best hours of their lives
- by Lane Wallace

There is, in all pilots, a thirst for that stimulating, exhilarating drug called adventure. We wouldn't fly if we didn't crave at least some measure of a life path that challenged our skills, quickened our pulses, and flooded our senses with the sharp, vivid awareness and intensity that adventure provides. But this trait must have existed in even greater portions among early aviators, for their adventures were far more daring and risky than most aerial challenges we take on today.

In 1919 and 1920, three different pilot/navigator crews, flying an oversized, boxy World War I bomber called the Vickers Vimy, became the first aviators to successfully fly three different routes: across the Atlantic, from London to Australia, and from London to South Africa. The plane used for each of these record-setting flights was one of the most capable long-range aircraft of the day. But the Vimy was still an open-cockpit wood-and-fabric design, with a top speed of 103 mph, extremely primitive flight and navigation instruments, and far less reliable engines and components than even Lindbergh had. The Vimys were also flying over long stretches of water and extremely hostile terrain, in challenging conditions, with only the most rudimentary ground support or weather information.

Yet the flights attracted numerous pilots, for two reasons. First, London's Daily Mail newspaper had put up two £10,000 prizes (worth about $500,000 today) for the first pilot or crew to accomplish the Atlantic and South African flights, and the Australian government had offered a similar prize for the winner of the London-to-Australia race. But an equally strong motivator was the simple lure of a never-before-accomplished adventure. The pilots who signed on to compete for the three prizes were all young men who were fresh out of military service and hungry for the zest, glory, and adrenaline fix that only a great adventure could provide.

"This sort of flying is a rotten game. The cold is hell, and I am a
silly ass for ever having embarked on the flight." —Vimy pilot Ross Smith

And yet, from the little I know of the subject, I guarantee that for all their love of adventure, all of the intrepid Vimy pilots and crew members still would have shaken their frozen, sunburned or windswept heads any number of times during their respective flights and asked themselves what in the world had possessed them to think this was a good idea. For whatever other wonderful things adventure may be, it is rarely a comfortable experience. Indeed, Ross Smith, the main pilot of the Vimy that flew from London to Australia in November of 1919, noted after only the first leg of the journey that "this sort of flying is a rotten game. The cold is hell, and I am a silly ass for ever having embarked on the flight."

I, of course, have never flown across the Atlantic, challenged the Sahara or fought my way through the inhospitable mountain jungles of Southeast Asia in a rickety, wood-and-fabric World War I biplane. But I still laughed when I read Smith's words, because I remember expressing a very similar sentiment while attempting a much tamer adventure—ferrying a World War II B–17 bomber from Minnesota to California. When I was invited along on the ferry flight, I couldn't believe my good luck. The B–17 was a beautiful museum piece that had been meticulously restored to its original military configuration, including the installation of hollow machine gun barrels at each of the combat stations. I thought that flying in it would allow me a wonderfully romantic encounter with the past, a chance to experience some of the same sensations and feelings that pilots and soldiers from a bygone era would have known. Of course, the trip was going to take place in the middle of winter, and the bomber was unheated. But at the time, that seemed a mere detail. The trip would be fun. It would be exciting. And it would be...a great adventure.

I dressed for the journey with great excitement, pulling on thick Sorrel boots and layers of thermal underwear, wool, Polartec fleece, down, and leather in the dark chill of a Minnesota winter morning. But by the time we took off and got over the Nebraska border, I was colder than I'd ever been in my entire life, and my enthusiasm had cooled almost as much as my body temperature.

The plane was so cold that none of the pilots on board could fly for more than 20 minutes at a stretch before they'd lose feeling in their feet and have to stomp around the bomber to warm up so they could feel the rudder pedals again. And as I shivered miserably at the navigator's station, I found my mind much more focused on thoughts of hot coffee than any romantic connection with the past, except perhaps to wonder how all those poor B–17 crews got their adrenaline unfrozen enough to care about incoming German fighters. I also had some unkind thoughts for those lovely, authentic machine gun barrels, which had turned into high-velocity air scoops that were blasting subzero air on me at 150 miles an hour. "Whoever touted all the wonders of adventure," I remember muttering as I stomped around looking for rags to stuff in the offending gun barrels, "forgot to mention just how ungodly uncomfortable the stupid stuff is."

Multiply this discomfort by several orders of magnitude, and you might come close to envisioning the misery endured by Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown, who flew from Newfoundland to Ireland; Ross and Keith Smith, who flew from London to Australia; and Pierre van Ryneveld and Quintin Brand, who flew from London to South Africa. For these hardy souls didn't undertake their adventure flights in an enclosed metal bomber from World War II. They faced all the hazards of stormy weather and flying over uncharted stretches of desert, jungle and ocean in a much less reliable, open-cockpit, fabric bomber from World War I.

"Walking around the enormous, square-rigged
Vimy, I decide that the plane looks more like an
early sailing ship than anything that should fly."

The Vickers Vimy was designed at the very end of WWI as a long-range night bomber, capable of carrying 2,000 pounds of bombs from England to Berlin. Powered by two 375-horsepower, Rolls-Royce V-12 engines, it cruised around 85 mph and had a range of just over 1,000 miles. There are no flyable original Vimys left in existence. But in 1993, a San Francisco investment banker named Peter McMillan hired woodworker John La Noue to build a faithful, flyable Vimy replica. The plane has already recreated both the London-to-Australia and London-to-Cape Town flights, and when I visited La Noue's shop recently, he was getting the Vimy ready to retrace Alcock and Brown's pioneering Atlantic journey.

Walking around the enormous, square-rigged Vimy, I decide that the plane looks more like an early sailing ship than anything that should fly. As I take in the boxy fuselage covered in heavy, laced canvas and the jungle of bracing wires and structures in between the wings, I comment that the Vickers folks didn't seem to know much about drag reduction. La Noue nods with a bemused look in his eye as he considers the ungainly masterpiece he spent a year and a half building. "Didn't know a whole lot about aerodynamics, either," he adds with a grin.

Posters celebrated John Alcock and Arthur Brown's historic transatlantic flight.

But for all its limitations, the Vimy was still the B–1 bomber of its day. And like any other military bomber, it is large. Pictures of this delicate-looking biplane can make it look deceptively normal in size. Standing next to it in person, however, it looms like some kind of Steven Spielberg-commissioned prehistoric creature on steroids. Even standing behind the wing, the square fuselage is taller than I am by at least half a foot. Standing by the nose, the taildragger's cockpit rim is a full 8.5 feet up in the air.

Climbing up on the lower wing is an athletic endeavor, but it's by standing on the broad, 10.5-foot-wide lower wing that I really appreciate the Vimy's scale. With most biplanes, climbing up on the lower wing walk involves a fair amount of ducking and scrunching to avoid hitting the upper wing or any struts or flying wires. The space between the wings is a cramped and delicate place, and most people spend as little time as possible there on their way to and from the front cockpit. The upper and lower wings of the Vimy, on the other hand, are a full 10 feet apart. Standing on the lower wing walk and looking toward the wingtip through the widely spaced struts and bracing wires, I feel as if I'm standing underneath a comfortable, protected bridge that could provide shelter for an entire family picnic if the weather turned damp.

"The plane's two wooden propellers are positioned
unnervingly close to the pilots' ears..."

The Vimy's wingspan stretches 68 feet from tip to tip, and the wing itself measures 10.5 feet wide. But perhaps the clearest statement about the bomber's massive size is that the ailerons on the Vimy are almost the same size as a Stearman biplane's wings. It seems fantastic that something that looks so fragile, yet weighs 12,500 pounds fully loaded, could actually fly without snapping in two from the mere weight of itself in flight. But La Noue tells me the wings are deceptively strong, flexing less than an inch at the tips, even in turbulence. The huge wing area on the Vimy does cause some other problems, however. Most airplanes with as much wing area as the Vimy are much heavier, which makes it easier for them to cut through turbulence. But with almost 1,400 square feet of wing, the Vimy in flight acts like a kite in the wind. "It's like flying a big old sailing ship," La Noue says. "Instead of penetrating the air, the Vimy moves across it like a ship rolling over swells in the ocean."

As I try out the Vimy's cumbersome control wheel, I realize that steering this flying schooner would also be an exercise in endurance and exhaustion, because the Vimy's controls are almost unbearably heavy, and there's no way to trim the controls to make them easier to handle. To add to the challenge, the controls aren't all that effective. Even the Vimy's massive ailerons can't always keep up with the airplane's rolling movements. "You can turn the control wheel more than 180 degrees, with both hands, which takes 45 pounds of force," says Mark Rebholz, who flew the replica Vimy from London to Cape Town with La Noue in 1999, "and a jolt of turbulence can still be lifting the wing at a rate three times faster than you can correct."

The Vimy's slow reaction time can become especially problematic if the plane is close to the ground—particularly because the Vimy is a very dangerous airplane to ground-loop or crash. The Vimy has wide gear and a lot of wing and bracing to absorb any forward impact. But the plane's two wooden propellers are positioned unnervingly close to the pilots' ears—so close, in fact, that Vickers actually installed a metal grate on each side of the open cockpit to keep the pilot and navigator from sticking an elbow or hand into a prop by accident. The grate can't stop pieces of the propeller blades from whipping into the cockpit after a bird strike or a landing accident, however, which makes such mishaps extremely hazardous—something Pierre van Ryneveld discovered the hard way when he and Quintin Brand crashed their Vimy en route to Cape Town in 1920. A splinter of a disintegrating propeller flew through the cockpit as the plane skidded to a stop, narrowly missing the South African pilot's face.

"The plane lost more than 4,000 feet in altitude
before breaking out of the clouds in a
horrendously steep bank angle, less than 100 feet above the waves."

Sitting in the deep, round well of the Vimy's cockpit, with the propellers only inches from my head, I can picture the incident all too clearly. And even in the stillness and safety of La Noue's California hangar, I still shudder at the thought of it. But van Ryneveld wasn't the only Vimy pilot to have such a close call. All of the record-setting Vimy crews had their share of harrowing moments in the course of their flights.

Alcock and Brown took off on their flight across the Atlantic from a rocky, uneven and windswept field in Newfoundland. The overloaded Vimy almost crashed right after takeoff when it hit a downdraft, but Alcock finally regained control—less than 50 feet above the ground. The plane then headed off across the North Atlantic, but weather prediction was a highly uncertain art in 1919, and the conditions were far worse than the two men were led to expect. They flew in between or inside clouds for most of the flight—a feat even more amazing considering that their flight took place 10 years before the first official instrument flight was conducted. Alcock could only tell if the plane was straight and level by watching vigilantly for changes in its compass heading, which would indicate that he was in a bank and turning, and changes in the engine rpm or altitude, which would indicate that the plane was climbing or diving.

The clouds made it difficult for Brown to get the moon or star sightings he needed in order to get accurate navigation fixes. But that wasn't the worst of the men's difficulties. At one point, the two pilots found themselves in the middle of a thunderstorm. Hampered by the Vimy's slow control responses and his lack of flight instruments, Alcock lost control of the plane, which began spiraling down to the sea. The plane lost more than 4,000 feet in altitude before breaking out of the clouds in a horrendously steep bank angle, less than 100 feet above the waves. Somehow, Alcock managed to regain control and level out before the plane hit the ocean, although the plane got close enough for ocean spray to hit the bottom side of the wings.

Off to Australia: Captains Ross and Keith Smith (center) prepare for
their London-to-Australia flight, a journey of 11,294 miles that took 28 days.

At another point, flying between layers of clouds at 8,000 feet, another storm began to coat the two men in the Vimy's open cockpit with freezing rain and snow, and ice began to build up on the plane's surfaces. Several times, Brown had to stand up and brace himself awkwardly against the wind so he could twist around and reach up to chip ice away from a critical fuel gauge that was positioned high on a strut behind the cockpit. Then, only an hour away from Ireland, the plane iced up again. The controls became sluggish and the engines started to lose power. Alcock had no choice but to glide down through the clouds, trying only to maintain level flight and hoping that the ice would melt and they would break out into clear air before crashing into the ocean. They emerged less than 500 feet above the waves and finished the journey to Ireland at an altitude of 200 feet, below the clouds. Upon awarding Alcock and Brown their £10,000 prize, Winston Churchill remarked, "I really don't know what we should admire the most in our guests—their audacity, their determination, their skill, their science, their Vickers Vimy aeroplane, their Rolls-Royce engines, or their good fortune."

"Over the wintry fields of France, they encountered
freezing rain and snow that turned their goggles
and faces into frozen masks of ice."

Six months later, the Smith brothers took off on their 11,000-mile flight to Australia, and faced equally hazardous conditions from the very start. The day they were supposed to leave England, the weather was officially rated "totally unfit for flying." Undoubtedly feeling the pressure of having five other competitors vying for the same £10,000 prize, the two pilots and their two mechanics left anyway, each carrying only the clothes on his back and a toothbrush, because the plane's precious cargo capacity had to be saved for spare parts. Over the wintry fields of France, they encountered freezing rain and snow that turned their goggles and faces into frozen masks of ice. At one stop in Italy, the plane got so bogged down in mud that one of the mechanics had to sit on its tail to keep the plane from nosing over while the engines were throttled up for take off. He then ran alongside the Vimy as it began rolling and jumped into the back cockpit just before the plane lifted off the ground.

Nor was that the end of the Smith brothers' troubles. In addition to the discomfort of flying in scorching heat, freezing cold and through clouds, the Vimy crew had to contend with numerous mechanical difficulties and all sorts of hazards at their ground stops, including a raging bull, tree stumps, mud, and a landing site in Singapore that was too short for the Vimy to safely land. Ross Smith's inventive, if risky, solution to that one was to have one of the mechanics climb out of the back cockpit and slide back down the tail as they were landing in order to get the plane's tail down sooner, allowing the Vimy to stop in a shorter distance.

Less than two months after the Smith brothers arrived safely in Australia, van Ryneveld and Brand took off for South Africa in a Vimy they'd dubbed "The Silver Queen." But the two South African pilots encountered so many problems and mishaps en route that the trip ended up taking almost two months and required no less than three separate airplanes to complete.

Pilots Pierre van Ryneveld (left) and Christopher Quintin Brand
attempt a record flight to South Africa in their Vimy "Silver Queen."

The first legs of the journey went well, but then the weather deteriorated. The Silver Queen battled through 11 hours of lightning, thunder, and gale-force winds just to make its way across the Mediterranean from Italy to North Africa. Then, not far out of Cairo, a leaky radiator forced van Ryneveld to make a night emergency landing along the Nile. Unfortunately, the plane hit a pile of rocks during the roll-out and was damaged beyond repair. The engines, however, were salvageable, and the crew attached them to a new Vimy airframe supplied by the South African government.

The rebuilt "Silver Queen II" continued on toward Cape Town, persevering through several hair-raising takeoffs, a sandstorm, fuel pump failures, floods that washed out many of the landmarks along the route and mired the airplane in mud on the ground, and a near-crash following an engine failure. But then, less than 800 miles from its goal, the Vimy crew crashed again. All the other competitors had already crashed, and the sponsors were reluctant to give up on the completion of the flight so close to its finish. So a major-general in the mid-east contingent of the Royal Air Force had a deHavilland biplane ferried from South Africa to Van Ryneveld and Brand's location, and it was in this deHavilland that the two pilots finally reached Cape Town. It was another five years before a pilot managed to complete a flight from Cairo to Cape Town in a single airplane, but the Vimy flights to South Africa and Australia had linked the far reaches of the British Empire and helped to lay the groundwork for the international airline service that soon followed along those routes.

As I contemplate the replica Vimy, which seems impossibly fragile and cumbersome even by vintage aircraft standards, it's hard for me to imagine how any of those landmark flights succeeded, or how their crews managed to endure the Olympic-intensity discomfort each flight entailed. But it also occurs to me that my modern-day experience puts me at something of a disadvantage in that regard. I know how much more safety, reliability and comfort are possible, you see. Those early pilots didn't.

"Alcock, Brown, van Ryneveld, Brand, and the Smith
brothers persevered because they all trusted in their machine..."

The Vimy crews knew that what they were attempting was hazardous. Of the sixteen people involved in the race from London to Australia, four died in crashes, two were arrested as spies, and two others ended up fending off hostile tribesmen with hand grenades after a forced landing. All five competitors on the South African flight crashed, and three other aircraft competing for the Daily Mail's transatlantic prize had already crashed by the time Alcock and Brown took off on their own attempt.

But Alcock, Brown, van Ryneveld, Brand and the Smith brothers persevered because they all trusted in their machine, which offered better long-range performance and load-carrying capability than almost any other aircraft of its day. They were also seasoned military pilots who had survived World War I and were still young enough to believe that bad things happened to the other guy. And their thirst for that tantalizing drug called adventure evidently weighed in the balance more than all the discomfort and risks such addicting adventures might entail.

For once it's over, adventure is a sweet and wonderful thing to savor, reminding its veterans that they now know how it feels to become more than they thought they could be, reach a seemingly unattainable summit, and feel really, truly alive. Ross Smith may have cursed his choice when he and the Vimy were being tossed about in the stormy winter skies over France. But when he finally landed in Australia, his view of the trip changed dramatically. He confessed to his diary that "the hardships and perils of the past month were forgotten in the excitement of the present. We shook hands with one another, our hearts swelling with those emotions invoked by achievement and the glamour of the moment. It was, and will be, perhaps, the supreme hour of our lives."