On May 13, 1932, Lou Reichers, nicknamed “The Arlington Speed Pilot,” departed Newark, New Jersey, at 12:30 a.m. NT, expecting to make Harbour Grace in five hours. Flying in darkness, Reichers encountered bad weather within fifty miles of the Harbour Grace Airport. Fortunately for Reichers, the visibility was clear over Conception Bay. The plane was first sighted in the western horizon by those at the airstrip. The plane then headed north and reappeared some minutes later: blinded by the brilliant sunlight, Reichers had overflown the field.
Doug Fraser and Arthur Sullivan, who had earlier flown from St. John’s in a seaplane to greet Reichers, realized the predicament and went out to guide the Liberty back to the airstrip. When he finally located the field, Reichers made a complete circle at an altitude of 2000 feet, descended gracefully and landed in the west end of the field. He touched down at 6:24 a.m.—a record time.
During landing, the tailskid threw up a loose rock which slightly damaged the plywood covering the port stabilizer. Reichers arranged to make the necessary repairs while the plane refuelled. Soon, however, another issue threatened to delay the flight: the London Air Ministry reported rainy weather over the Atlantic, with a southeast wind blowing 30 mph. Undaunted, Reichers requested the Air Ministry have light flares ready at Baldonnel, Ireland, in case he would need them that night.
Reichers, wearing an ordinary suit and windbreaker, ate a light breakfast in Harbour Grace and took coffee and sandwiches to eat on his way. At 8:29 a.m., two hours after landing, the pilot tuned up his plane and took off. Harry Connon, chief officer of the Baltimore Mail Line ship City of Hamburg, furnished Reichers with weather reports and navigational data.
Reichers described experience flying across the Atlantic to the Cornell Daily Sun:
[Harry Connon] indicated [the] weather [was] O.K. so I refuelled and took off flying the course Harry radioed me from aboard his ship mid-ocean. The first hour out was clear and cold and I sighted several icebergs; then low-hanging clouds obscured the sea and for at least four [hours] I did not see it again.
When eight hours had passed I came down through a hole to have a look underneath. The visibility was poor and I could see no indication of land, so I climbed up again over the clouds and flew another half hour. I repeated the same performance but still no land again at nine hours and at nine and one half there was still nothing but water.
Turning south I flew for half an hour, still I could see nothing but water, so [I] came to the conclusion then that winds out of the north, possibly north-west, had carried me so far south that the southwest wind I was flying in then had not been enough to counteract them.
Because of the night and poor visibility, plus my landing speed and the fact that I was tired I felt incapable of judging a forced landing. So when sighting the lights of the President Roosevelt, and still no land and with very little gas left, I decided there was only one thing to do and that was to set the Liberty down on the water. I signalled the boat to stand by and came down in the sea about fifty yards away.
That evening, at 9:10 p.m., the lookout on the bridge of the SS President Roosevelt spotted the Liberty floating in the water off the coast of Ireland. The ship’s chief officer, Harry Manning, immediately prepared to take Reichers aboard. Despite southwest wind and high seas, the liner maneuvered as near to the ill-fated plane as possible. After dangerously circling, the lifeboat crewmen hauled the exhausted pilot aboard. Reichers was immediately placed under the care of Surgeon Mulligan; but except for lacerations and a broken nose, he was none the worse for his struggle for survival.
Of the twenty planes attempting transatlantic flights from Harbour Grace between 1927 and 1936, only the Liberty was successfully rescued at sea.
This post is part of the Harbour Grace Notebook series. Follow the updates on social media with the hashtag #hgnotebook.
Sources & Further Information
Parsons, Bill & Bill Bowman. “Liberty.” The Challenge of the Atlantic, 1987. Print.
Reichers, Lou. “Lou Reichers Gives a Graphic Account of His Ocean Flight.” Cornell Daily Sun, vol. 52, no. 166, 16 May 1932.
— Written by Matthew Gerard McCarthy (Communications Officer) for the Conception Bay Museum, Harbour Grace.