Round-Trip

Racing against time was rapidly gaining speed among aviators in the early 1930s, continuing the ever-accelerating sprint to modern aviation. Transatlantic flights, while still undeniably treacherous and popular among aviation enthusiasts, were no longer the fad. Successful around-the-world flights completed at an ever-faster pace dominated the imaginations of North American aircraft crews. The record for circling the earth in a heavier-than-air machine was held by the Graf Zeppelin, which made the trip in 21 days. This record remained unchallenged until June 23, 1931 when Wiley Post, Pilot, and Harold Gatty, Navigator, took off from New York in the “Winnie Mae”, on the first leg of what they hoped would be a ten-day flight around the world.

The “Winnie Mae” hovered over a newly landscaped Harbour Grace Airport on the surprisingly hot and still June morning. It was 10:42am when the crew glided to a graceful landing, reminiscent of the effortless perching of the bald eagles sometimes spotted around the community. Unlike the peaceful descent, when Post and Gatty emerged from the “Winnie Mae,” the airport became hectically intense. Walking towards Magistrate Casey with frantic vigor, the crew flatly refused a formal announcement and dismissed the townsfolk, grimacing as if straining to get away from the prying eyes of the public, subsequently powerwalking down the nearby dusty dirt descent determined to depart Harbour Grace quickly. Like many aviators before them, Post and Gatty went to Cochrane House, but they just ate hurriedly. The slightly disappointed residents trickled away from the airport, surely mumbling in aggravation.

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Post (right), trying to get away from town officials

Local mechanics tinkered with the sublimely constructed “Winnie Mae.” With a wingspan of 41 feet, length of 27-feet 8 inches, height of 8 feet 6 inches, and a 550-horsepower cylinder engine, the monoplane was steadfast. Residents surely remembered the flimsy and comical “Gipsy Moth,” which was a pipsqueak in comparison. Along with its sturdy make, the “Winnie Mae” was adorned with first-class technologies, courtesy of the obsessive Post. Its fuel capacity was 645 gallons, it had a Sperry Automatic Pilot apparatus, Radio direction finder, earth induction compass, and it was previously flown for under eight days. In short, the “Winnie Mae” longed for a strenuous, record-breaking flight, eager to flaunt its abilities. It would only take a positive weather report to set such a flight in motion, which came about three hours later, at 2:00pm.

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The “Winnie Mae” in Harbour Grace

High winds combined with pelting rain and a wall of dense fog North of the Azores threatened to delay Post and Gatty, but because that was the only concern, the crew decided to simply fly above the weather system. After just four hours in Harbour Grace, most of it spent impatiently waiting at the Cochrane House for the weather report from New York, the “Winnie Mae” was soaring above Water Street, bound for England. Characteristic of Newfoundland, the “Winnie Mae” encountered pestering tailwinds for the first 600 miles of their transatlantic connection. It is easy to picture Post and Gatty, intent on setting a new record for quickest round-the-world flight, fiddling with their top-notch equipment in a tedious effort to shake loose the tailwinds and anticipated cloud systems. Their persistence remained, and despite any minor obstacles, at 8:45am on June 24th they landed at the Royal Air Force Airdrome near Chester, England.

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Location of the Azores

As if seeking to top the leaderboards in every category, the “Winnie Mae” landed in Chester, England after 15 hours, 48 minutes, which was 12 minutes less than it took Alcock and Brown to make their transatlantic crossing in the iconic Handley Page “Atlantic.” The usually focused and unrelenting Post leaned out of the cockpit with an exacerbated wheeze. As the damp fog and sprinkling drizzle hit their faces, Post and Gatty slowly gained their footing, legs feeling like Yorkshire pudding, and trudged through the muddied airfield. It is said that some locals volunteered to help the two walk to a resting area, as exhaustion gripped their cramped and stress-inebriated muscles. For most aviators, completing the transatlantic journey and dealing with all the physical or mental strain that comes with it would be enough, but Post and Gatty pushed onward, departing England that same day, and arriving in Hanover, Germany in the afternoon.

Over the next eight days, the “Winnie Mae” embarked on an excursion that would make even the worldliest contemporary travellers turn green with envy. On June 25, Post and Gatty reached Berlin, Germany, soaring over the famous 18th century Brandenburg Gate. After spending a night in Berlin, the aviators landed in Moscow at approximately 1pm, where they were invited by Soviet aviation officials to a lavish banquet at the imposing Leningradskaya Hotel. The following day they journeyed to Irkutsk, Siberia, 2,600 miles away. They followed the trans-Siberian railway route, flying over the jagged snow-capped Ural Mountains. Astonishingly, Post reported that the “Winnie Mae” “functioned perfectly” during this perilous stretch. On June 29th, the two landed at the nearly deserted fields known as Solomon, Alaska, after an energy-sapping 16-hour flight over the North Pacific. Suddenly, in a scary incident, Gatty was struck by the plane’s propeller after carelessly jumping from the cockpit upon landing in Solomon. Luckily, he was a sufficient distance from the propeller to receive only a cut requiring minor stitching. As if nothing happened, the “Winnie Mae” was spotted landing in Edmonton, Alberta, the following day.

Aerial View of Berlin, Brandenburg Gate (right)

Berlin, Brandenburg Gate (right)

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Leningradskaya Hotel, Moscow

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Ural Mountains

Nome, Alaska, near Solomon

Nome region, Alaska (incl. Solomon)

On July 1, 1931, at 10:17am the blasts of high-pitched sirens, thunderous applause, and blinding camera flashes greeted Post and Gatty as they descended into their newfound fame. The seductive skyscrapers of New York City enveloped the “Winnie Mae,” confirming the triumphant completion of the eight-day, 15 hour, and 51-minute round-the-world flight, crushing the previous 21-day record set by the Graf Zeppelin. New York Mayor James Walker welcomed Post and Gatty, declaring that they had joined the aviation greats and set new heights for human accomplishment. Among the crowds of reporters and civilians at Roosevelt Field that morning to greet them were some of those aviation greats, Charles Lindbergh, Chamberlain, Burt Acosta and William Brock. Post would go on to break the record once more in the “Winnie Mae,” but it was this flight in 1931 that wrote his, and Gatty’s, names in the aviation history books.

Speaking in NY after flight

Post speaking after arriving in New York, signed.

Authored By: Francis Finlayson

Sources: 

https://airandspace.si.edu/collection-objects/lockheed-vega-winnie-mae/nasm_A19360030000

https://www.historyinink.com/710901%20Post%20-%20Gatty%20SP.htm

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.

https://timeandnavigation.si.edu/navigating-air/early-air-navigators/two-men-in-a-hurry/winnie-mae

Pipsqueak

A speck of dust, puny, measly, insignificant, the single-seater biplane known as the “Gipsy Moth” was confusing to transatlantic aviation enthusiasts. Shipped to St. John’s in a series of crates from Liverpool, England, the biplane could muster a comical 85 horsepower, less than half of the 200 horsepower of the monoplanes used for transatlantic crossings, and its Captain, Harry C. MacDonald always mustered far more. MacDonald was known as a firebrand, a Royal Navy reservist, he served in the Battle of Jutland as part of the HMS “Warspite” crew, during which his boldness was on full display.

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The “Gypsy Moth” in Harbour Grace

The HMS “Warspite” crashed through the jagged waves of the North Sea, its deck barraged by a torrential downpour and its signals obscured upon encountering a taunting fortress of dense fog. Flanked by the HMS “Malaya,” the “Warspite” uneasily scanned for enemy vessels, unaware that German submarines lurked beneath the desolately deep darkened depths. With a thunderous boom the “Warspite” trembled, its hull contorting and contracting reacting to the piercing sting of a German torpedo. She was hit. Cannons opened, alarms blared, the Battle of Jutland began. The largest naval engagement of the first world war, the Battle of Jutland pitted 151 British ships against 99 German and resulted in approximately 10,000 casualties total. Harry C. MacDonald, a deck hand on the “Warspite” would have been one of many servicemen dazed by the blast and selflessly tending to the damaged areas of the hull. It is easy to picture the pointed shrapnel and scorched steel threatening to injure the crew, all the while hearing panicked shouts of another imminent strike. That day, the “Warspite” was holed 150 times by submerged torpedoes, battleship barrages, and anti-personnel mines. Nonetheless, the British claimed victory.

Jutland location and battle lines

Battle of Jutland Theatre

Jutland

HMS “Warspite” (left) Flanked by HMS “Malaya” (right)

Invincible Blowing Up

HMS “Invincible” Torpedoed

MacDonald’s experiences that day undoubtedly stayed with him, as the bold audaciousness he exemplified during the Battle of Jutland accompanied his aviation exploits. Before arriving in Harbour Grace in October 1928, MacDonald toured France, Italy, Egypt, Arabia, ancient Mesopotamia, and Spain in his tiny “Gipsy Moth.” Soaring above ancient civilizations and enduring the radical weather changes in the separate regions, MacDonald piloted his biplane as an ace would, despite only having an astonishingly low eight hours of previous flying experience. His decision to conquer the Atlantic in the “Gipsy Moth” came with no reservations, reflecting the trailblazing spirit possessed by those transatlantic aviators before him. MacDonald arrived in Harbour Grace with the intention of following Alcock and Brown’s famous 1919 pioneering transatlantic route. Intentions, however, are often unintentionally subverted.

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An Arabian Sandstorm, MacDonald Avoided Storm Systems.

As Alcock and Brown discovered when departing St. John’s in 1919, a mixture of high winds, erratic precipitation, and faulty early aviation technology, posed a grave risk to transatlantic pilots. While Alcock and Brown reached Clifton, Ireland successfully, it was not without nearly ruinous dangers. As noted in “The Handley Page “Atlantic” at Sea Level,” the ambitious aviators travelled through a blinding curtain of fog laced with pillorying ice shards. At one point, they flew in a nauseating, disorienting upside-down fashion to avoid storm cloud formations. When considering the monstrous size of the Handley Page “Atlantic,” weighing 14 tons with a wingspan of 126 feet, and shipped in 15 over-sized crates, it is impossible to think the minuscule “Gipsy Moth” would remain sturdy during the relentlessly repetitive retribution of the elements.

Alcock and Brown Cross Atlantic

New York Times Report on Alcock and Brown Successfully Completing their Transatlantic Flight.

Handley Page Atlantic

The Enormous Handley Page “Atlantic.”

While in Harbour Grace, MacDonald endured a three-week delay because of uncertain weather, advised by the Department of the Air Ministry of the United Kingdom to remain grounded while storm systems subsided off the coast of Newfoundland. While not having extensive preparation to tend to, MacDonald did, as did numerous transatlantic aviators before him, allow the townsfolk to refuel and clean his aircraft. Magistrate John Casey supervised the maintenance, according to one report, he was visibly perplexed at the notion that such a flimsy and puny plane would attempt a transatlantic crossing. Picturing Casey, one can imagine the anxiety he felt while observing the hearty tradesmen of Harbour Grace, many of the same men who prepared the “Sir John Carling” and “Royal Winsor,” laboriously tweak the fuel cylinders and wipe down the visor of the “Gipsy Moth.” He must have realized the potential for disaster awaiting MacDonald, should even the slightest obstacle face his single-seater biplane. Nevertheless, on October 17, 1928 MacDonald departed the Harbour Grace Airport at 1:21pm, bound for Croydon, England, his plane seemingly hopping down the runway.

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Harry C. MacDonald (left) Preparing to Depart Harbour Grace

The following morning, he was spotted 700 miles East of Newfoundland, by the Dutch steam ship “Hartenburg.” If the “Gipsy Moth” continued as intended, MacDonald would arrive in England in a few short hours. Unfavourable rainstorms had cleared up over Galway shortly before he was scheduled to arrive. As his family and friends waited for the triumphant landing, the minutes ticked by, then minutes became hours. Unreasonably late, MacDonald’s family began to rationalize, avoiding the horrible conclusion that felt increasingly likely. Perhaps MacDonald had gotten lost and landed in an area with nobody to communicate with. After all, he brought no wired communication apparatus on the flight, they reasoned. A day passed, and on October 19, flares that had been lit to guide MacDonald to Croydon were extinguished. Eventually, with no sighting of MacDonald for weeks, it was acknowledged that he was another unfortunate victim of the swallowing Atlantic. Harry C. MacDonald was never seen again, nor was any trace of the feeble “Gipsy Moth,” ever found. The conclusion implicitly expected by Magistrate Casey and the aviation enthusiasts of Harbour Grace upon first seeing the biplane became reality, the “Gipsy Moth,” was simply no match for the treacherous endeavour.

Despite the recklessness exhibited by MacDonald’s transatlantic flight attempt at first glance, it can be assumed that his foolhardiness may have saved future lives, as traffic at the Harbour Grace Airport slowed dramatically in the following year due to new safety concerns. Regardless, Harbour Grace would host its most historically significant and daring flights since the Handley Page “Atlantic” in the coming years.

Authored By: Francis Finlayson

Sources:

https://www.britannica.com/event/World-War-I/The-Battle-of-Jutland

https://conceptionbaymuseum.com/

Memorial University of Newfoundland – Digital Archives Initiative, http://collections.mun.ca/cdm/landingpage/collection/daily_star

https://www.naval-history.net/OWShips-WW1-01-HMS_Warspite.htm

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.

 

Concert in the Park Series Starts This Wednesday, August 5!

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Event: Concert in the Park Series (Wednesdays in August)

August 5 Lineup: 12:00: Paul Stevenson; 12:45: Phillip Clarke

Location: Conception Bay Museum Grounds

Notes:

  • Weather permitting! We will post at 11 a.m. on Wednesdays if the concert is a go!
  • Social (physical) distancing required: please follow separate enter and exit locations.
  • No concessions will be sold this season. 
  • Max capacity: 50 people. 

August Update

The Conception Bay Museum Executive has decided that our museum will remain closed this season for tourists and the general public. While we are saddened to make this decision, we feel it is necessary during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, just because you can’t come to our museum, doesn’t mean our museum can’t come to you!

We are happy to announce that we will be hosting some outdoor events on our beautiful grounds during the month of August (weather permitting). We will be following social distancing protocols, with separate Enter/Exit locations on our grounds. We ask for the public’s cooperation and understanding, so that we may continue with these weekly events.

These events include…

Display Day: We will display museum artifacts and some hidden gems on our grounds. Drop by for a visit, take some pictures, and embrace our wonderful history! Starting Sunday, August 2, from 2 p.m. – 4 p.m.

Lunchtime Concerts: Bring a blanket and lawn chair and enjoy fantastic local entertainment with a breaktaking view! Starting Wednesday, August 5, from 12 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.

Stay tuned for upcoming event ads on our social media and website for additional information.

We look forward to seeing you again soon! Be safe!

 

 

Humble Heroics

Calm seas do not make a skilled sailor. An adage reflective of Newfoundland’s history of hardship, development, and nautical experience, but also emblematic of the story of Lamont, better known as Lal, Parsons. Born in 1919 to Reuben and Gertrude Parsons, Lal grew up imbued with a tenacious work ethic reminiscent of his father, whose photography was essential in documenting the history of Harbour Grace. At 16 he faced danger wobbling on the ever-lopping waves of the Atlantic, fishing for the precious whale oil that warmed the houses of Harbour Grace, as part of the Newfoundland Whaling Company. Lal strained his aptitude and body mining for the Atlantic’s organic gold, unaware that distressing altitude would define his future four years later, when the world was drowned in chaos.

From 1939 onward the British Royal Air Force desperately sought aspiring pilots from the commonwealth nations as Denmark, Belgium, Holland, and France crumbled under the force of the mechanical German onslaught. British citizens scrambled to construct air defenses and shelters as the Luftwaffe began blotting out the sun. Lal Parsons, intrigued by the prospect of challenging adventure and the call from the former metropole, travelled to Nova Scotia and joined the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, under the Royal Canadian Air Force. His training began immediately, Parsons often recalled training exercises which tested his reflexes, including a game in which the “pilot” with a control stick, had to line up three sets of lights as quickly as possible. Parsons excelled to such a degree that his fellow trainees told him “not to bother” checking the postings on the base notice board, as they felt it was certain he would be accepted as a pilot. Indeed, Parsons was. After becoming a pilot, Parsons was posted across Canada, to Toronto, Trenton, Saskatoon, Montreal, Montmagny, Moncton, and Dartmouth to name a few destinations.

British Air

BCATP Overview

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Lal Parsons Standing Next to his Hawker Hurricane Fighter

Parsons’ duties were based on east coast defence, and included leading endeavours such as sector reconnaissance flights, altitude tests, formation flying, practice dogfights, and scrambles. In Dartmouth Parsons described the “scrambles” as “somebody pulling a horn, and pilots getting on their parachutes and getting airborne as quickly as possible.” This type of drill was designed to respond to an undetected enemy air force coming into view within minutes. It is easy to imagine the Newfoundlander sprinting as the blaring horn signalled an incoming emergency, shouting to his squadron to get airborne, while Hurricanes and Spitfires sputtered to life on the sunrise bathed tarmac. Soaring above coastal Nova Scotia within minutes, Parsons would gesture to his comrades to maintain defensive formation while peering at the crimson horizon, scanning for enemy bombers and their fighter escorts. No such confrontation would come to Canada, but Parsons’ piloting career became instantly exciting when, in June 1942, he was transferred, along with the entirety of his 125 RCAF Fighter Squadron, to Torbay, Newfoundland.

Hurricane formation

Standard Hurricane Formation, WWII

The “local boy” was coming home to Newfoundland, and the St. John’s Daily Star explained in excessively exorbitant exuberance, that Parsons exemplified a self-made man, one who, through gritty hard-work, went from floating on ocean currents to sailing on wind streams. The purpose of 125 Fighter Squadron’s transfer was to provide similar defence to that provided in Nova Scotia. Parsons was part of a readiness section that investigated suspicious sightings and unidentified aircraft. In February 1943, the squadron’s training was put to the test when intercepted radio signals suggested something had arrived just off Cape Race. Newfoundlanders were weary of German submarine attacks ever since the attack on Bell Island in mid-1942 which killed more than 60 servicemen, and 125 Squadron feared this could be another. Like a fish to a bait, Parsons scrambled to his Hawker Hurricane plane and took off to observe the entity. Peering down to the monstrous Atlantic below, Parsons saw nothing. Even had he seen a U-Boat, the .303 machine guns on the Hurricane were unlikely to do any serious damage.

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Cleaning up the Wreckage After the Attack on Bell Island, 1942

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Hurricane .303 Machine Guns

This caused Parsons to ponder the potential for a depth charge dropped from a plane, as an anti-submarine weapon. After proposing the idea to Flight Sergeant A.S. Goodwin, a solution was discovered. Angled iron bars and springs from bunk beds in the military barracks were used, along with electrical arming mechanisms, to create racks that enabled Hurricanes to carry depth charges under each wing. It became known as the “bedspring bomb rack” and was a staple throughout the remaining years of the war. In March 1943, Parsons tested the device off Cape St. Francis, describing how the successful detonation of the dropped depth charge “just about blew the Hurricane out of the air and gave me one of the greatest frights of the whole war.”

Depth charge Hurricane

Parsons (Top) Testing the “Bedspring Bomb Rack” with Depth Charges, 1943

During Parsons’ posting in Torbay, he frequented his hometown of Harbour Grace to the glee of the townsfolk. The dapper young man, dressed in his RCAF uniform, visited various community landmarks to interact with friends and town leaders. Parsons knew he would be transferred to England later that year to face real combat duty, so, in order to pay tribute to the town that raised him, he got the daring idea to fly his Hurricane fighter plane between the iconic spires of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral. By any stretch, it was crazy, the plane would have to be maneuvered to a diagonal degree to completely avoid clipping the cathedral’s wooden and metal spires. One can picture Parsons careening towards the spires, pulling the control stick at just the right angle, and calculating the time necessary to jolt the plane back upwards. However, in what is now a famous incident in Harbour Grace, he soared crisply through the spires, making it look easy.

Lal Flying through the cathedral

Rendition of Parsons Flying Between the Spires of the Cathedral, 1943

Lal Parsons’ story is a remarkable one, one that cannot be done proper justice in a 1000-word blog. However, Parsons himself was always humble when recounting his experiences during the second world war. He constantly deflected praise for his actions onto his fellow pilots, even when telling the stories of his postings in Europe, once providing coastal defence for the Scapa Flow Naval Base in Scotland, and also being involved in escorting key British cargo planes and bombers over occupied Europe. Parsons’ involvement in those endeavours aside, it is undeniable that his heroism not only inspired pilots who soared alongside him but built his reputation in Harbour Grace that persists to this day.

Authored by: Francis Finlayson

Sources: 

Doyle, Robert. (2020). Doyle’s 2020 Almanac of Newfoundland and Labrador. Neighbourhood Pharmacy LTD.

Hillier, Darrell. (2012). The Gentleman Pilot: Lal Parsons. The Newfoundland Historical Society.

Memorial University – Digital Archives Initiative http://collections.mun.ca/cdm/compoundobject/collection/cns_enl/id/2677/rec/1

Profile: St. Patrick’s Hall

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On July 20, 1879, the Harbour Grace Standard posted the following tender:

The Building Committee of the Benevolent Irish Society will receive sealed tenders until Saturday, 28th instant, at noon, from persons wishing to contract for for the erection of St. Patrick’s Hall. Plan and specifications can be seen on the application to the Chairman. The Committee do not bind themselves to accept the lowest or any tender. 
                                                              – Michael J. Jones, Chairman, Building Committee

St. Patrick’s Hall (pictured above) was constructed at the bottom of Kingswell Lane, just west of Ridley Hall.

Robert J. Connelly recounted his memories of the Hall in his history of Harbour Grace:

Movies were held at St. Patrick’s Hall in the town. Those were the days of the silents, in the early decades of the century. The feature pictures were usually western thrillers, but for many of the happy patrons, especially the youth, the main attraction was Charlie Chaplin. The admission was 10 cents for adults and 5 cents for other–and others tended to be legion!

St. Patrick’s Hall can be seen on several old survey maps of Harbour Grace:

Insurance Map of Harbour Grace, 1893.

Insurance Map of Harbour Grace, 1893

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Insurance Map of Harbour Grace, 1914