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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.