1919 Tans-Atlantic Air Race

Captain Charles W. Fairfax “Fax” Morgan of the Royal Navy was the first to arrive on the Digby. A veteran British aviator, he claimed to be the descendant of the buccaneer, Sir Henry Morgan. Most of his family had nautical ties, but he was the first to also take to the air. During the First World War he earned the Distinguished Service Order and the Croix de Guerre for taking down German aircraft. He did take a bullet injury to the leg, leaving him without one leg.  

On the boat ride to Newfoundland, he contracted influenza and was hospitalized. There he had conversations with up and coming journalist Joseph Smallwood, who covered the air race extensively for The Evening Telegram.

Morgan told Smallwood about how he would need flat land for a runway, and Smallwood arranged for the land alongside Quidi Vidi Lake. When feeling well enough, Morgan went traipsing through the snow to inspect the field and found it suitable. enough, although far from perfect He returned to England. As Morgan was the first one to come to Newfoundland to try for find an airfield, it did start a fair bit of speculation in the city about what the air race would mean to Newfoundland.

The aircraft the Raymore surrounded by people examining the aircraft, including a man in a greatcoat and another who looks to be a soldier.
Martinsyde flight, The Rooms VA 123a-20.7

On April 11, 1919, he returned with navigator Frederick “Freddie” Raynham and their Martinsyde biplane named through the combination of the first syllable of each of their last names, the Raymor. Hawker and Grieve were, at this point, in Newfoundland and had just conducted their first flight, with Quidi Vidi claimed, had found their airfield at Glendenning Farm.

Raynham earned his pilot’s license in 1911 at 17, and was issued the 85th aviator’s certificate in Britain. He was inspired when he saw the plane Louis Bleriot used to fly the English Channel. He was the youngest of the aviators in the transatlantic competition, was an accomplished pilot, and might have been the first aviator to get out of a spin alive. He flew Avro planes, then Martinsyde monoplanes in aerial derbies and worked by testing aircraft and giving flight lessons. Often though, he was a common participant in derbies, he often came second to Harry Hawker.

In the lead up to their attempt, Morgan did make public jabs at Hawker and Grieve for their life-saving equipment. Morgan was reported to have said “I’m afraid those lifesaving gadgets are of little use. For myself, I have decided that I may as well take one deep breath if we strike the sea. We will be a very small speck in a big ocean out there.”

The aircraft The Raymor surrounded by men, some of whom are looking into the cockpit.
The Raymor at Quidi Vidi, The Rooms VA 123a-21.6

Morgan was actually one of the most popular of all of the aviators in the race. He would talk to everyone, from poor children to the St. John’s elite. He would joke about his cork leg and would play practical jokes on anyone, but would be a good sport when they would backfire. Morgan would take questions, but also make up lies about the aircraft to tell kids. To tell what sort of characters they were, amongst their crates were some labeled “Aircraft Spares: Handle With Care” which actually held two dozen bottles each of brandy, gin, rum, whiskey, sherry, and port. In light of prohibition in Newfoundland, they decided to bring their own liquid encouragement.

Seven days after the Raymor was uncrated,  Morgan and Raynham were ready to test it. The aircraft was wheeled across the road to their airfield. Local reporters, as well as Hawker and Grieve, were present to see the test. They played up the showmanship of the test, wearing their Burberry flying suits, fleece-line boots, and leopard-shin hats. The test was successful and the aircraft took off at the thirty-seven yard mark.

The aviators had a gentlemen’s agreement to inform the others of their attempts, Hawker, Grieve, Morgan, and Rayhnam all ordred extra sandwiches from the Cochrane Hotel the Sunday after the Nancies had made it to the Azores. The day Hawker and Grieve made their attempt, they made a point of flying over Morgan and Raynham, who were also preparing to take off. Their aircraft had the speed potential to overtake Hawker and Grieve in the Atlantic, so the team rushed to takeoff. The Raymor was fater than the Atlantic, so could have potentially overtook Jawker and Grieve. Given that they were at Quidi Vidi Lake, Morgan and Raynham had a huge crowd of over two thousand had gathered. The aircraft was too heavy with a full load of fuel, 350 gallons of fuel, some food, and letters. Raynham decided that they were going to take off, even though the wind was somewhat behind the aircraft. Because it was now a race with Hawker and Grieve, it was an act of desperation. Just after 4pm that evening, the aircraft was started. With a full load, the aircraft didn’t start to lift off until after 300 yards down the runway. When it started to rise, it was due to hitting a bump, rose, wavered, and plummeted down so hard that the undercarriage buckled. It his a soft spot, and crashed nose first into the field. Raynham cut the engines and fuel supply to prevent fire.

Two unnamed aircraft flying over Quidi Vidi Lake
Aircraft over Quidi Vidi Lake in 1919, The Rooms, VA 157-58

The crowd came forward to help, but Raynham managed to pull himself out. Morgan had to be helped as his cork leg made it more difficult to get out, and he was more injured. Raynham had recieved a blow to the abdomen, was bruised, winded, and had a bleeding nose, which was taken care of on site. At the time of the impact, Morgan had been looking over the side of the plane and the left side of his face was hit. He needed to be supported as he walked away from the plane. He suffered from sock and was taken to the home of Gerald Harvey, where he fainted. He was examined, received stitches in his cheek and two over his eye. His left shoulder and leg were both badly bruised, and he was in great pain. He was blind in one eye, caused by the bruising. There had been a small piece of shrapnel received in the war in that eye, which was unknown to the doctors in Newfoundland. Morgan rested for a few days, and, during this time, he said he planned to return to England, but would return to St. John’s to set up a air service. Unfortunately, doctors prohibited him from every flying again. He left St. John’s, but on his way out, he wrote a letter to the Evening Telegram  praising the place and the hospitality he received. He said “The doctors have run the death knell on my ever flying again, but the Raymor will fly again, and a better man than I am. You will be blessed by seeing her rise again. My heart and thoughts will always be with her.”

After Alcock and Brown made their successful flight, Raynham still wanted to attempt the crossing. He first approached Mackenzie-Grieve to be his navigator, but Grieve declined. Instead, he found Lieutenant Conrad Biddlecombe, a pilot and master mariner, to fly with him. 

The Raymor‘s engine had to be replaced, and much of the aircraft had to be rebuilt. Much of this was done in a garage on the outskirts of St. John’s. The aircraft was renamed the Chimera, and on July 17th, they made another attempt. Hundreds of people came out to see this attempt. At 300 yards, the aircraft skipped into the air, shuddered, caught by a side gust of wind, which caused the wing to dip and touch the group. Raynham righted the aircraft, but it crashed down. The undercarriage, propeller, wing, and fuselage were all badly damaged. This time, neither were hurt, but gave up on the attempt and Raynham caught the first ship he could back to England. The pieces of the aircraft were later shipped back as well.

Article from The Evening Telegram about the Raymor's second attempt and second crash.
The Evening Telegram has a very good description of the Raymore‘s second attempt. 1919-07-18, “Martinsyde Biplane Crashes”

Raynham went back to working with Martinsyde, but in 1920, when the company was in trouble, he started to look for a new job. On 21 March 1920, he set a world speed record of 161.4 miles per hour over a kilometre course, but soon went back to finding himself in second place in many competitions. He even played number two to the main actor in a movie called “The Hawk”. He formed the India Air Survey and Transport Company, working in India and Burma. He and his wide, Dodie Macpherson, moved to the United States, bought a motor home, and wandered for six years until he suffered a heart attack and died in 1954. He is buried in Colorado.

Moon, E.
1959 Air Race From Newfoundland: The Story of the Alock and Whitten-Brown Flight Forty Years Ago. Atlantic Advocate, 49(11): 45-56.
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.

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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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