On this day in 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. There had been previous crossings in 1919—one by a seaplane that made several stops, and the Alcock and Brown flight from Newfoundland to Ireland. But Lindbergh’s flight, in addition to being solo, was almost double the length of the Alcock-Brown flight and notable also because it connected two major cities-New York and Paris.
Through the 1930’s there was some scheduled trans-Atlantic flight available, by dirigible, until the Hindenburg disaster, and by flying boat, but such travel was only available to the very rich.
The Second World War changed the picture completely. As Britain began to purchase thousands of planes from the US, it became apparent that shipping the partially-disassembled planes by boat was too slow and too dangerous owing to the German U-Boats that were taking a major toll on marine traffic. The RAF developed a plan to fly the aircraft across the Atlantic. The planes would be fitted with extra fuel tanks, and as well there were air bases installed in Greenland and Iceland providing refueling opportunities.
Initially Ferry Command, as it was called, was formed by Canadian-born British Cabinet Minister Lord Beaverbrook, partnering with Canadian Pacific Railway. At the beginning the pilots were civilians—Canadians as well as Americans who came north in the years before the US entered the war, It was that experience that opened the door for scheduled air service across the Atlantic. The B-24 Liberator bomber and the C-54 cargo aircraft had four engines and were both capable of making the Atlantic Crossing non-stop on a regular basis. By war’s end, tens of thousands of successful trans-Atlantic flights had taken place.
One of the first VIPs to fly across the Atlantic was Canada’s wartime Prime Minister Mackenzie King. King was in his late 60’s when in 1941 he flew from Montreal to the UK via Gander Newfoundland in a specially-rigged B-24 to attend a war conference in London. He made the return flight non-stop from Scotland to Montreal.
With the end of World War Two, there were hundreds of surplus C-54, (essentially DC-4’s) planes available and airlines started buying them up and converting them for civilian use. In January 1946 Pan Am’s Douglas DC-4 was scheduled New York (La Guardia) to London in 17 hours 40 minutes, five days a week; in June 1946 Lockheed L-049 Constellations had brought the eastward time to London Heathrow down to 15 hr 15 min. Canadair developed a souped-up version of the DC-4, adding Rolls-Royce engines, which increased the cruising speed of the plane to 325 mph-100 mph greater than the DC-4, and pressurized the cabin for greater passenger comfort. It was in one of these Canadian-built planes that Queen Elizabeth, flew back from Africa in 1952 on the death of her father George VI.
By the late 1940’s regular and growing trans-Atlantic plane service was well established. It would still be a few more years before jet aircraft and discount operators would bring trans-Atlantic flight to the masses.
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