Tales from Brooklands: Arthur Whitten Brown
24 July 2021
“Brown’s navigation in adverse conditions was a triumph of experience, coolness and finesse...”
Wing Commander JL Mitchell
In our next Tales from Brooklands, volunteer Peter Kearns is sharing the story of navigator and engineer Sir Arthur Whitten Brown, who navigated the first non-stop transatlantic flight alongside pilot Sir John Alcock.
It is June 15th, the Imperial War Museum in London, and once again, a man stands alone, leaning heavily on his walking cane, looking up at the Vickers Vimy – the first aircraft to fly non-stop across the Atlantic. He has been here on this day every year for some time. Nobody recognises him. Even if they knew him as Mr Brown, they would probably be none the wiser. If they knew him to be the Brown in Alcock and Brown, very many would know him to be one of the most important aviation pioneers of the twentieth century.
His parents were American, but they had moved to Glasgow when he was born in 1886. The family soon moved on to Manchester where his father was working on the British Westinghouse factory at the newly created Trafford Park industrial estate. Arthur’s working life began as an engineering apprentice at British Westinghouse alongside studying at the Manchester Municipal Technical School.
At the outbreak of the First World War, he gave up his American citizenship to become a British subject and joined the Universities and Public Schools Battalion. He initially served with the Manchester regiment in the trenches at Ypres and on the Somme before transferring to the Royal Flying Corps and training as an observer.
During the war he was shot down while flying over enemy lines. He suffered from a leg injury that affected him for the rest of his life, meaning he always needed a walking cane. He spent two years as a prisoner of war. During this time, he studied air navigation, using books supplied by the Red Cross.
The injured Brown was returned to the UK in 1917 and joined the Ministry of Munitions working on the production of aero engines. He knew that the Daily Mail had offered a prize for the first non-stop crossing on the Atlantic and decided that this would be a good use of this newly acquired navigation skills. Unable to find an employer willing to give him this opportunity, he pretty much gave the idea up and focussed on just getting a job, so that he could marry Kathleen.
Entering the Daily Mail Atlantic crossing race
During a meeting at Brooklands, his interest in the Daily Mail Atlantic crossing prize was discussed. Although aircraft were still unreliable and dangerous, crossing the Atlantic was now a realistic undertaking. The war’s end had led to a fall in orders for aeroplane technology. Several British firms saw the Daily Mail competition as a way to stimulate the civilian industry instead. The newspaper’s proprietor Lord Northcliffe saw it as something greater. A decade earlier, he’d been among the crowd who witnessed Europe’s first powered flight in Paris. He’d met Wilbur Wright.
“Britain is no longer an island,” Northcliffe had warned the politician Winston Churchill. The aeroplane, he said, was vital to the future of their country. “We must get hold of this thing and make it our own.”
Vickers had developed the Vimy to meet the RAF’s need for a long-distance bomber. The end of the war meant that it had become a solution to a problem that no longer existed. Various ideas were worked on, to find a role of the Vimy, including as a flying ambulance and as a civil passenger aircraft. It was also seen as a possible contender for the Atlantic challenge.
Vickers had already taken on John Alcock to lead a project to attempt the non-stop Atlantic crossing as pilot of an appropriately modified Vimy. Arthur Brown was introduced to John Alcock and it was agreed that he would be taken on as navigator for the project.
Although Alcock and Brown had only just met, it turned out that they had grown up just a few miles from each other in Manchester. Five years apart in age, they were contrasting characters; the outgoing Alcock and the shy and serious Brown. Their backgrounds were different too. The grand townhouse in affluent Chorlton-cum-Hardy where Brown grew up was very different from the Alcock family’s narrow terrace in working-class Fallowfield.
Alcock thought Brown was reserved but charming and, above all, reliable. To Brown, Alcock appeared nerveless and bubbling over with good humour. The perfect temperament for flying.
Just a few weeks later, in May 1919, they were on a steamship from Southampton to the start line in Newfoundland. They were rank outsiders for the Atlantic competition. Three other aircrews had arrived in St John’s, Newfoundland, before them. A fourth had tried to make the flight - flying the other way, from Ireland to Newfoundland - and failed, ditching in the water.
“Hawker left this afternoon,” shouted a passing motorist as they returned from yet another failed attempt to find themselves an airfield. This was bad news. Hawker, who Alcock had first idolised as a boy and then raced against before the war, was once again their rival. Harry Hawker was presumed lost at sea for days. In fact, he had been picked up by a ship that did not have radio contact with land. Eventually, what remained of his aircraft was returned to the UK and displayed on the roof of Selfridges in London.
“And Raynham?” they asked about another rival: “Machine smashed before it left the ground.” The Vimy eventually arrived on 26th May, having been held up by strike action in London. It was in parts and packed in crates, which the Vickers team worked long days to construct. They were ready to go by 14 June.
The transatlantic flight
Strong winds again delayed the flight; however, news was coming in of another competitor getting underway. The decision was made to go. The Vimy, modified with extra fuel for the long journey struggled to get off the ground. A Times correspondent reported that the machine “showed not the least desire to leave the ground”, but leave the ground it did, and made its way, just clearing a fence a few yards further ahead. The event was observed by just a few locals and some overseas reporters. A great contrast with what was ahead of them over the next few days and weeks.
At first things went well. It appeared that Twinkletoes was doing her job. Twinkletoes was the black toy cat that Arthur Brown’s fiancé had given him for good luck.
After an hour or so, they were surrounded by sea fog, making navigation observations impossible, so Arthur Brown was dependent on dead reckoning – a far more difficult method. Then he tried to send a message on the wireless and as he did so, he saw a part of it break off, making it useless. They were now alone with no way of contacting the outside world. It was also almost impossible for them to hear each other, as a part of the exhaust system had fallen off.
Brown continued to work as best he could, making navigation calculations in his notebook, without anything in sight to confirm their true position.
After several hours of flying, Alcock took the plane up, hoping to break free of the mass of cloud around them so Brown could confirm their position by a sighting. However, there was another layer of cloud above it. This, at least, was thin enough for Brown to see Vega and the Pole Star shining. Using only these stars as a guide, he was able to fix their position.
“The level of navigational skills shown was extraordinary,” says Kevin Glynn, a filmmaker who has made a documentary about the flight. What Brown had done was to work out his calculations in advance. He did the maths on land, then tried to get confirmation he was right while in the air. “He was doing complex calculus in his head.”
Brown calculated they had flown 850 nautical miles, less than halfway.
As dawn broke, the wind picked up. The Vimy shuddered. Then it stalled. Spinning down inside the cloud, unable to see the horizon, the men lost all sense of balance. Bursting out of the cloud, the sea seemed to be standing sideways to them, so close they could almost reach out and touch it. Brown could taste the salt spray on his lips. He unclipped his seat belt in readiness for a sea ditching.
But Alcock was not going to be beaten. A quick glance at the horizon enabled him to regain his balance, he regained control, opened the throttles and the plane climbed up, away from the ocean. Now sleet and hail slashed across them, soaking them, and covering the plane in ice.
After a few hours of this, hunkered down in the freezing, open cockpit, Brown turned to check the petrol-flow gauge behind them and realised it was clogged with snow. He stood up in the cockpit and leaned over to clear it. The wind rushed at him, cold and violent.
Meanwhile, Alcock kept staring forward, wrestling with the plane to keep it level, unable to lift his hands from the controls for even a moment. Brown struggled on with his blind navigation calculations, and with no communication with the outside world.
After dozing for a short time, Brown started to put together some form of breakfast for them both. Just as he was putting away the remains of the breakfast, he felt a tugging on his shoulder. Alcock was pointing ahead to two small islands, off the coast of Ireland.
Arthur Whitten Brown put away his chart and calculations. He had completed his contribution to the great project.
Near Clifden, County Galway, Alcock saw what looked like a flat meadow and brought the Vimy down, its wheels seeming to glide over the surface. There is a saying in flying: make sure you see what is there, not just want to see. What was there was not a smooth grassy field, but rather a peat bog. The Vimy underwent what no pilot wants – a sudden stop. This left them axle-deep in water and mud. Brown had a bloody nose and mouth, but neither had serious injuries.
A permanent memorial lies on the bog where Alcock and Brown landed.
A small crowd of locals gathered and asked them where they had come from. The answer: “America” drew laughter and disbelief.
They asked for news of the other contenders for the prize but nobody there knew. However, it was later confirmed that they were the first, and had won the £10,000 prize.
Arthur Brown’s next thought was to get home to his fiancé. He sent a telegram: “Landed Clifden, Ireland, safely this morning. Will be with you very soon,” If he thought that was the end of the story, he was much mistaken. On their journey from Ireland to England, Alcock and Brown learned how much their lives had changed.
On the long journey home, mainly by train, cheering crowds turned out at each station, and at Dublin and Holyhead ports. At times, their train was followed by aeroplanes. It dawned on them that, having been unknowns just a couple of days before, they were now national celebrities. This was not what they had done it for. It was not something that either of them relished.
After presentations to royalty and political leaders, and other big events, John Alcock just wanted to get back to Brooklands to continue as a test pilot for Vickers. Arthur Brown went back to marry his fiancé. During their honeymoon in San Francisco, Brown heard that John Alcock was killed in an air crash taking a Vickers Viking to a Paris Aircraft Exhibition. He never flew again. He and Kathleen moved to Swansea where he worked for Vickers.
During World War Two, their only son joined the RAF and was killed in action. Arthur Brown then became a recluse. He died at home in October 1948, aged 62.
Peter Kearns, Brooklands Museum volunteer
Sir Arthur Whitten Brown prior to the start of the first non-stop transatlantic flight, snapped by Raynham of the Martinsyde, June 1919
Transatlantic Vimy being reconstructed in Newfoundland
Crowds watch the transatlantic Vimy prior to take-off in Newfoundland
Alcock and Brown depart Newfoundland at the start of the first non-stop transatlantic flight.
Alcock and Brown's lucky mascots, "The Lucky Jim" and "Twinkle Toes"
Arthur Brown’s sextant, which was clipped to the Vimy’s dashboard
Alcock and Brown's hero's welcome at Weybridge