A symbol of man’s conquering of his earthly nature could be no better represented than by a man-made contraption soaring high above the ground, traversing whole oceans and unearthing the awe of all types of people. The British “Daily Mail” publication sought to make this a reality in the spring of 1919, offering £10,000 for any crew that could successfully complete a non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean in British-built, British manned, heavier-than-air machine. After the failed attempt by Harry Hawker and Kenneth Mackenzie-Grieve in May 1919, the path was clear for British Rear Admiral Sir Mark Kerr, a decorated RAF pilot from the first world war, and Major H.G Brackley to lead their crew on the daunting flight across the Atlantic, and claim the coveted prize.
Upon the crew’s arrival in Harbour Grace in June of 1919, the excitement was palpable. One can imagine a community that survived for all its previous generations on the abundance of worldly resources such as cod, seal, and lumber would be eager to witness the initiation of a new era, one spent exploring the skies. Kerr and Brackley determined that, given its proximity to Europe and favourable jet streams, Harbour Grace would best facilitate the treacherous Atlantic crossing. Indeed, once the land now known as “Saint Francis Field” was selected to be the crew’s point of departure, the community was unrelenting in its accommodations. Like firemen battling a raging blaze, farmers and fishermen alike uprooted sturdy fences, hacked through loose timber, disposed of awkwardly bulky rocks, and towed away entire houses to make space for the fabled flying machine. Reflecting the zeal with which the community was imbued due to this opportunity, almost no attention was paid to the fact that many families had owned and developed property on that field.
Chosen to make the transatlantic flight was a model of the largest biplane in the world, the Handley-Page V/1500 bomber, this one appropriately called “Atlantic.” The plane was transported to Harbour Grace by sea, then by train, packaged in 105 crates that residents often joked could be used as houses, given their enormity. Weighing 14 tons and with a wingspan of 126 feet, the Handley Page “Atlantic” was massive. The hulking plane sitting on the makeshift aerodrome became known as “Handley Page on the Sea,” given its location parallel to Water Street and proximity to the sea. Not only was the Handley Page “Atlantic” sitting close to sea level on the aerodrome, but the residents of Harbour Grace would soon be the first to witness it traverse the skies from far below, at sea level.
On June 10, the local Daily Star reported: “The horny handed fishermen-farmers watched with intense interest the huge bird-like machine passing gracefully overhead. Women and children left their dwellings, abandoned their work, and made their way to vantage points and watched the flying machine until lost to sight.” This was the Handley Page “Atlantic” on a trial flight to St. John’s and back, to test its fueling and cooling systems. The Daily Star also reported that the weather was perfect for viewing the plane from below, with clear skies and the sun beaming down onto Conception Bay. The experienced fishermen, hands damp from cleaning cod fillets, clothes rank with the stench of salt water, looked up to see the Handley Page “Atlantic” seemingly floating on the wind, just as their boats had done on the water for generations. The trial flight to St. John’s lasted approximately 25 minutes and was a success, however due to a deficiency in the engine cooling system, the crew of the “Atlantic” had to delay their flight across the Atlantic until new parts could be shipped to Harbour Grace from the United Kingdom.
It was this delay that ultimately sealed the fate of the Handley Page “Atlantic” crew and finished the Daily Mail’s transatlantic flight contest, as on June 14, 1919, Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur W. Brown took off from Lester’s field in St. John’s and arrived in Clifton, Ireland, 16 hours and 12 minutes later. Journalists scrambled to confirm the landing, with many asking for hours whether the rumours of success were true. Once Alcock and Brown were confirmed to have reached Ireland, sentiments of jubilation emerged from across the Atlantic, with one journalist saying “Well, it must be something for a man in Ireland today to be able to say “Yesterday, when I was in America.”” With the residents of Harbour Grace disappointed given all they had done to facilitate the Handley Page “Atlantic” flight, Admiral Kerr sought to attempt the transatlantic flight regardless, but was ultimately convinced to tour the United States with the plane instead.
On July 5, 1919 many in the community of Parrsboro, Nova Scotia were awakened by what was described as a “UFO.” In reality, it was the deafening rumbling of the engines on the Handley Page “Atlantic,” which was seeking to make an emergency landing in the middle of its journey to the United States. Fuel was running low due to strong headwinds and the crew of the “Atlantic” chose Parrsboro because it was the only community nearby with visible electric power. The locals frantically jumped in their Model Ts and sped to the local racetrack to light up a landing strip. It was the only flat piece of land without any trees. Sitting there in the cool summer morning, locals waited patiently for the Handley Page “Atlantic” to land. When it did, it collided with a barbed wire fence, ripping the fuselage and denting the propellers. This extensive damage required months to repair, during which Parrsboro experienced a surge in tourism, people determined to see an airplane for the first time traveled there in droves. According to locals, the roads were lined with cars; hotels and restaurants flourished, and news reporters were “everywhere.”
In October of 1919, the Handley Page “Atlantic” finally concluded its journey, reaching the United States and delivering the first ever air-mail parcel from Nova Scotia to the United States in the process. Due to additional damage, the US tour was cancelled, and the “Atlantic” was dismantled before being shipped back to the United Kingdom. Today, pieces of the Handley Page “Atlantic” are in various museums. At the Ottawa House By the Sea museum in Parrsboro for example, an original Handley Page “Atlantic” propeller boss, and the navigator’s seat, were presented during community festivities in July 2019. For more information on the unique story of the Handley Page “Atlantic,” visit the Conception Bay Museum.
Authored by: Francis Finlayson
Boland, G. “Parrsboro’s connection to the Handley Page ‘Atlantic’,” Historic Nova Scotia, accessed June 29, 2020, https://historicnovascotia.ca/items/show/109.
Léger, K. “1919: A Year of Flying Firsts,” Halifax Public Libraries, Local History Blog https://www.halifaxpubliclibraries.ca/blogs/post/1919-a-year-of-flying-firsts/
Memorial University of Newfoundland – Digital Archives Initiative, http://collections.mun.ca/cdm/landingpage/collection/daily_star
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.
Will, G. “2008 The Big Hop: The North Atlantic Air Race.” Boulder Publications: PCSP.