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Transatlantic flight is the flight of an aircraft across the Atlantic Ocean, from Europe or Africa to North America or South America, or west-to-east. Such flights have been made by fixed-wing aircraft, airships, balloons and other devices.
Early aircraft engines did not have the reliability needed for the crossing, nor the power to lift the required fuel. There are difficulties navigating over featureless expanses of water for thousands of miles, and the weather, especially in the North Atlantic Ocean, is unpredictable. Since the middle of the 20th century, however, transatlantic flight has been routine, for commercial, military, diplomatic, and other purposes. Experimental flights (in balloons, small aircraft, etc.) still present challenges for transatlantic fliers.
The idea of transatlantic flight came about with the advent of the balloon. The balloons of the period were inflated with coke gas, a moderate lifting medium compared to hydrogen or helium, but with enough lift to use the winds that would later be known as the Jet Stream. In 1859, John Wise built an enormous aerostat named the Atlantic, intending to cross the Atlantic. The flight lasted less than a day, crash-landing in Henderson, New York. Thaddeus S. C. Lowe prepared a massive balloon of 725,000 cubic feet (20,500 m3) called the City of New York to take off from Philadelphia in 1860, but was interrupted by the onset of the American Civil War in 1861. (The first successful transatlantic flight in a balloon was the Double Eagle II from Presque Isle, Maine, to Miserey, near Paris in 1978.)
The possibility of transatlantic flight by aircraft emerged after the First World War, which had seen tremendous advances in aerial capabilities. In April 1913 the London newspaper The Daily Mail offered a prize of £10,000 to
|“||"the aviator who shall first cross the Atlantic in an aeroplane in flight from any point in the United States of America, Canada or Newfoundland and any point in Great Britain or Ireland" in 72 continuous hours".||”|
The competition was suspended with the outbreak of war in 1914 but reopened after Armistice was declared in 1918. Between 8 and 31 May 1919, the Curtiss seaplane NC-4 made a crossing of the Atlantic flying from the U.S. to Newfoundland, then to the Azores and on to Portugal and finally the UK. The whole journey took 23 days, with six stops along the way. A trail of 53 "station ships" across the Atlantic gave the aircraft points to navigate by. This flight was not eligible for the Daily Mail prize since it took more than 72 consecutive hours and also because more than one aircraft was used in the attempt.
On 14–15 June 1919, British aviators Alcock and Brown made the first non-stop transatlantic flight. During the War, Alcock resolved to fly the Atlantic, and after the war he approached the Vickers engineering and aviation firm at Weybridge, who had considered entering their Vickers Vimy IV twin-engined bomber in the competition but had not yet found a pilot. Alcock's enthusiasm impressed the Vickers' team and he was appointed as their pilot. Work began on converting the Vimy for the long flight, replacing the bomb carriers with extra petrol tanks. Shortly afterwards Brown, who was unemployed, approached Vickers seeking a post and his knowledge of long distance navigation convinced them to take him on as Alcock's navigator.
Several teams had also entered the competition. The Handley Page team were in the final stages of testing their aircraft for the flight but their leader, Admiral Mark Kerr, was determined not to take off until the plane was in perfect condition. The Vickers team quickly assembled their plane and at around 1:45 p.m. on 14 June, whilst the Handley Page team were conducting yet another test, the Vickers plane took off from Lester's Field. Alcock and Brown flew the modified Vickers Vimy, powered by two Rolls-Royce Eagle 360 hp engines. Their altitude varied between sea level and 12,000 ft (3,700 m) and upon take-off they carried 865 imperial gallons (3,900 L) of fuel. They made landfall in Galway at 8:40 a.m. on 15 June 1919, not far from their intended landing place, after less than sixteen hours' flying time. They had spent around fourteen-and-a-half hours over the North Atlantic crossing the coast at 4:28 p.m., having flown 1890 miles (3040 km) in 15 hours 57 minutes at an average speed of 115 mph (185 km/h). Their first interview was given to Tom 'Cork' Kenny of The Connacht Tribune.
The Secretary of State for Air, Winston Churchill, presented them with the Daily Mail prize for the first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in 'less than 72 consecutive hours'. There was also a small amount of mail carried on the flight making it the first transatlantic airmail flight. The two aviators were awarded the honour of Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (KBE) a week later by King George V at Windsor Castle.
The first transatlantic flight by rigid airship, and the first return transatlantic flight, was made just a couple of weeks after the transatlantic flight of Alcock and Brown, on 2 July 1919. Major George Herbert Scott of the Royal Air Force flew the airship R34 with his crew and passengers from RAF East Fortune, Scotland to Mineola, New York (on Long Island) covering a distance of about 3,000 statute miles (4,800 km) in about four and a half days.
The flight was intended as a testing ground for postwar commercial services by airship (see Imperial Airship Scheme) and was the first flight to transport paying passengers. R34 wasn't initially built as a passenger carrier and extra accommodation was arranged by slinging hammocks in the keel walkway. The return journey to Pulham in Norfolk was from 10 to 13 July and took 75 hours.
In the early morning of Friday, 20 May 1927, Charles Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field, New York, on his successful attempt to fly nonstop from New York City to the European continental land mass. Over the next 33.5 hours, Lindbergh and the "Spirit of St. Louis" encountered many challenges before landing at Le Bourget Airport near Paris, France, at 10:22 PM on Saturday, 21 May 1927, completing the first solo crossing of the Atlantic.
The first east-west non-stop transatlantic crossing by an aeroplane was made in 1928 by the Bremen, a German Junkers W33 type aircraft, from Baldonnel Airfield in County Dublin, Ireland. On 18 August 1932 Jim Mollison made the first east-to-west solo trans-Atlantic flight; flying from Portmarnock in Ireland to Pennfield, New Brunswick, Canada in a de Havilland Puss Moth.
On 11 October 1928, Hugo Eckener, commanding the Graf Zeppelin airship as part of DELAG's operations, began the first non-stop transatlantic passenger flights, leaving Friedrichshafen, Germany, at 07:54 on 11 October 1928, and arriving at NAS Lakehurst, New Jersey, on 15 October.
Thereafter, DELAG used the Graf Zeppelin on regular scheduled passenger flights across the North Atlantic, from Frankfurt-am-Main to Lakehurst. In the summer of 1931 a South Atlantic route was introduced, from Frankfurt and Friedrichshafen to Recife and Rio de Janeiro. Between 1931 and 1937 the Graf Zeppelin crossed the South Atlantic 136 times.
DELAG introduced the Hindenburg, which began passenger flights in 1936 and made 36 Atlantic crossings (North and South). The first passenger trip across the North Atlantic left Friedrichshafen on 6 May with 56 crew and 50 passengers, arriving Lakehurst on 9 May. Fare was $400 one way; the ten westward trips that season took 53 to 78 hours and eastward took 43 to 61 hours. The last eastward trip of the year left Lakehurst on 10 October; the first North Atlantic trip of 1937 ended in the Hindenburg disaster.
The British rigid airship R100 also made a successful return trip from Cardington to Montreal in July–August 1930, in what was intended to be a proving flight for regularly scheduled passenger services. Following the R101 disaster in October 1930, the British rigid airship program was abandoned and the R100 scrapped, leaving DELAG as the sole remaining operator of transatlantic passenger airship flights.
Although Alcock and Brown first flew across the Atlantic in 1919, it took two more decades before commercial flights could become practical. The North Atlantic presented severe challenges for aviators due to weather and the long distances involved, with few stopping points. Initial transatlantic services, therefore, focused on the South Atlantic, where a number of French, German, and Italian airlines offered seaplane service for mail between South America and West Africa in the 1930s.
From February 1934 to August 1939 Deutsche Lufthansa operated a regular airmail service between Natal, Brazil, and Bathurst, Gambia, continuing via the Canary Islands and Spain to Stuttgart, Germany. From December 1935, Air France opened a regular weekly airmail route between South America and Africa. German airlines, such as Deutsche Luft Hansa, experimented with mail routes over the North Atlantic in the early 1930s, with seaplanes and dirigibles.
In the 1930s, a seaplane route was the only practical means of transatlantic travel, as land-based planes lacked sufficient flying range for the crossing. An agreement between the governments of the US, Britain, Canada and the Irish Free State in 1935 set aside the Irish town of Foynes, the most westerly port in Ireland, as the terminal for all such services to be established.
Imperial Airways had bought the Short Empire seaplane, primarily for use along the empire routes in Africa and Asia, but began to explore the possibility of using it for transatlantic flights from 1937. The range of the Short Empire was less than that of the equivalent US Sikorsky "Clipper" flying boats and as such was initially unable to provide a true trans-Atlantic service.
Two boats (Caledonia and Cambria) were lightened and given long range tanks to increase the aircraft's range to 3,300 miles.
Meanwhile in the US, attention was initially focused on transatlantic flight for a faster postal service between Europe and America. In 1931 W. Irving Glover, the second assistant postmaster, wrote an article for Popular Mechanics on the challenges and the need for a regular service. In the 1930s, under the direction of Juan Trippe, Pan American World Airways began to get interested in the feasibility of a transatlantic passenger service using seaplanes.
On 5 July 1937, A.S. Wilcockson flew a Short Empire for Imperial Airways from Foynes to Botwood, Newfoundland and Harold Gray piloted a Sikorsky S-42 for Pan American in the opposite direction. Both flights were a success and both airlines made a series of subsequent proving flights that same year to test out a variety of different weather conditions. France's Air France also became interested and began experimental flights in 1938.
As the Short Empire only had enough range with enlarged fuel tanks at the expense of passenger room, a number of pioneering experiments were done with the aircraft to work around the problem. It was known that aircraft could maintain flight with a greater load than is possible to take off with, so Major Robert H. Mayo, Technical General Manager at Imperial Airways proposed mounting a small, long-range seaplane on top of a larger carrier aircraft, using the combined power of both to bring the smaller aircraft to operational height, at which time the two aircraft would separate, the carrier aircraft returning to base while the other flew on to its destination.
The Short Mayo Composite project, co-designed by Mayo and Shorts chief designer Arthur Gouge, comprised the Short S.21 Maia, (G-ADHK) which was a variant of the Short "C-Class" Empire flying-boat fitted with a trestle or pylon on the top of the fuselage to support the Short S.20 Mercury(G-ADHJ).
The first successful in-flight separation of the Composite was carried out on 6 February 1938, and the first transatlantic flight was made on 21 July 1938 from Foynes to Boucherville. Mercury, piloted by Captain Don Bennett, separated from her carrier at 8 pm to continue what was to become the first commercial non-stop East-to-West transatlantic flight by a heavier-than-air machine. This initial journey took 20 hrs 21 min at an average ground speed of 144 mph (232 km/h).
Another technology developed for the purpose of transatlantic commercial flight, was aerial refuelling. Sir Alan Cobham developed the Grappled-line looped-hose system to stimulate the possibility for long-range transoceanic commercial aircraft flights, and publicly demonstrated it for the first time in 1935. In the system the receiver aircraft trailed a steel cable which was then grappled by a line shot from the tanker. The line was then drawn back into the tanker where the receiver's cable was connected to the refueling hose. The receiver could then haul back in its cable bringing the hose to it. Once the hose was connected, the tanker climbed sufficiently above the receiver aircraft to allow the fuel to flow under gravity.
Cobham founded Flight Refuelling Ltd in 1934 and by 1938 had demonstrated the FRL's looped-hose system to refuel the Short Empire flying boat Cambria from an Armstrong Whitworth AW.23. Handley Page Harrows were used in the 1939 trials to aerial refuel the Empire flying boats for regular transatlantic crossings. From August 5 to October 1, 1939, sixteen crossings of the Atlantic were made by Empire flying boats, with fifteen crossings using FRL's aerial refueling system. After the sixteen crossings further trials were suspended due to the outbreak of World War II.
The Short S.26 was built in 1939 as an enlarged Short Empire, powered by four 1,400 hp (1,044 kW) Bristol Hercules sleeve valve radial engines and designed with the capability of crossing the Atlantic without refuelling. It was intended to form the backbone of Imperial Airways' Empire services. It could fly 6,000 miles unburdened, or 150 passengers for a "short hop". On 21 July 1939, the first aircraft, (G-AFCI "Golden Hind"), was first flown at Rochester by Shorts' chief test pilot, John Lankester Parker. Although two aircraft were handed over to Imperial Airways for crew training, all three were impressed (along with their crews) into the RAF before they could start civilian operation with the onset of WWII.
Meanwhile, Pan Am purchased nine Boeing 314 Clippers in 1939, a long-range flying boat capable of flying the Atlantic. The "Clippers" were built for "one-class" luxury air travel, a necessity given the long duration of transoceanic flights. The seats could be converted into 36 bunks for overnight accommodation; with a cruising speed of only 188 miles per hour (303 km/h). The 314s had a lounge and dining area, and the galleys were crewed by chefs from four-star hotels. Men and women were provided with separate dressing rooms, and white-coated stewards served five and six-course meals with gleaming silver service.
The Yankee Clipper's inaugural trip across the Atlantic was on June 24, 1939. Its route was from Southampton to Port Washington, New York with intermediate stops at Foynes, Ireland, Botwood, Newfoundland, and Shediac, New Brunswick. Its first passenger flight was on 9 July, and this continued until the onset of the Second World War. The Clipper fleet was then pressed into military service and the flying boats were used for ferrying personnel and equipment to the European and Pacific fronts.
In 1938 a Lufthansa Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor long range airliner flew non-stop from Berlin to New York and returned non-stop as a proving flight for the development of passenger carryng services. This was the first landplane to fulfil this function and marked a departure from the British and American reliance on seaplanes for long over-water routes. A regular Lufthansa Transatlantic service was planned but didn't start before World War II.
It was from the emergency exigencies of World War II that the crossing of the Atlantic by landplane became a practical and commonplace possibility. With the Fall of France in June 1940, and the loss of much war materiel on the continent, the need for the British to purchase replacement materiel from the United States was urgent.
The aircraft purchased in the United States by Britain were flown to airports in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, partially dis-assembled and loaded on ships and transported to England where they were unloaded and re-assembled, a process that could take several weeks, not counting repairing any damage to the aircraft incurred in the shipment. In addition, German U-boats operating in the North Atlantic Ocean were a constant menace to shipping routes in the North Atlantic making it very hazardous for merchant shipping between Newfoundland and Britain.
However, larger aircraft could be flown directly to the UK and an organization was set up to manage this using civilian pilots. The program was begun by the Ministry of Aircraft Production. Its minister, Lord Beaverbrook a Canadian by origin, reached an agreement with Sir Edward Beatty, a friend and chairman of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company to provide ground facilities and support. Ministry of Aircraft Production would provide civilian crews and management and former RAF officer Don Bennett, a specialist in long distance flying and later Air Vice Marshal and commander of the Pathfinder Force, led the first delivery flight in November 1940.
In 1941, MAP took the operation off CPR to put the whole operation under the Atlantic Ferry Organization ("Atfero") was set up by Morris W. Wilson, a banker in Montreal. Wilson hired civilian pilots to fly the aircraft to the UK. The pilots were then ferried back in converted RAF Liberators. "Atfero hired the pilots, planned the routes, selected the airports [and] set up weather and radiocommunication stations."
The organization was passed to Air Ministry administration though retaining civilian pilots, some of which were Americans, alongside RAF navigators and British radio operators. After completing delivery, crews were flown back to Canada for the next run. RAF Ferry Command was formed on 20 July 1941, by the raising of the RAF Atlantic Ferry Service to Command status. Its commander for its whole existence was Air Chief Marshal Sir Frederick Bowhill.
As its name suggests, the main function of Ferry Command was the ferrying of new aircraft from factory to operational unit. Ferry Command did this over only one area of the world, rather than the more general routes that Transport Command later developed. The Command's operational area was the north Atlantic, and its responsibility was to bring the larger aircraft that had the range to do the trip over the ocean from American and Canadian factories to the RAF home Commands.
With the entry of the United States into the War, the Atlantic Division of the United States Army Air Forces Air Transport Command began similar ferrying services to transport aircraft, supplies and passengers to the British Isles.
After World War II long runways were available, and North American and European carriers such as Pan Am, TWA, Trans Canada Airlines (TCA), BOAC (successor of Imperial Airways), and Air France acquired larger piston airliners that could cross the North Atlantic with stops (usually in Gander, Newfoundland and/or Shannon, Ireland). In January 1946 Pan Am's DC-4 was scheduled New York (La Guardia) to London (Hurn) in 17 hours 40 minutes, five days a week; in June 1946 Lockheed 049s had brought the eastward time to Heathrow down to 15 hr 15 min.
To aid aircraft crossing the Atlantic, six nations grouped to divide the Atlantic into ten zones. Each zone had a letter and a vessels station in that zone, providing radio relay, radio navigation beacons, weather reports and rescues if an aircraft went down. The six nations of the group split the cost of these vessels.
The September 1947 ABC Guide shows 27 passenger flights a week west across the North Atlantic to the US and Canada on BOAC and other European airlines and 151 flights every two weeks on Pan Am, AOA, TWA and TCA. 15 flights a week to the Caribbean and South America, plus three a month on Iberia and a Latecoere 631 six-engine flying boat every two weeks to Fort de France.
In May 1952 BOAC was the first airline to introduce a passenger jet, the de Havilland Comet, into airline service. All Comet 1 aircraft were grounded in April 1954 after four Comets crashed, the last two being BOAC aircraft at altitude. Later jet airliners including the revised Comet 4 were designed to be fail-safe: in the event of for example a skin-failure due to cracking the damage would be localized and not catastrophic. In October 1958 BOAC operated the first transatlantic Jet service with the larger and longer-range Comet 4.
Supersonic flights on the Concorde were offered from 1976 to 2003. Since the loosening of regulations in the 1970s and 1980s, many airlines now compete across the Atlantic.
Unlike over land, transatlantic flights use standardized aircraft routes called North Atlantic Tracks (NATs). These change daily in position (although altitudes are standardized) to compensate for weather—particularly the jet stream tailwinds and headwinds, which may be substantial at cruising altitudes and have a strong influence on trip duration and fuel economy. Eastbound flights generally operate during night-time hours, while westbound flights generally operate during daytime hours, for passenger convenience. The eastbound flow, as it is called, generally makes European landfall from about 0600UT to 0900UT. The westbound flow generally operates within a 1200–1500UT time-slot. Restrictions on how far a given aircraft may be from an airport also play a part in determining its route; in the past, airliners with three or more engines were not restricted, but a twin-engine airliner was required to stay within a certain distance of airports that could accommodate it (since a single engine failure in a four-engine aircraft is less crippling than a single engine failure in a twin). Modern aircraft with two engines flying transatlantic (the most common models used for transatlantic service being the Airbus A330, Boeing 767 and Boeing 777) have to be ETOPS certified.
Gaps in air traffic control and radar coverage over large stretches of the Earth's oceans, as well as an absence of most types of radio navigation aids, impose a requirement for a high level of autonomy in navigation upon transatlantic flights. Aircraft must include reliable systems that can determine the aircraft's course and position with great accuracy over long distances. In addition to the traditional compass, inertials and satellite navigation systems such as GPS all have their place in transatlantic navigation. Land-based systems such as VOR and DME, because they operate "line of sight", are mostly useless for ocean crossings, except in initial and final legs within about 240 nautical miles (440 km) of those facilities. In the late 1950s and early 1960s an important facility for low-flying aircraft was the Radio Range. Inertial navigation systems became prominent in the 1970s.
This table is for the twenty busiest commercial routes from North America to Europe:
|1||New York City, JFK||London, Heathrow||2,501,546|
|2||Los Angeles||London, Heathrow||1,388,367|
|3||New York City, JFK||Paris, CDG||1,159,089|
|4||Chicago, O'Hare||London, Heathrow||1,110,231|
|5||Montreal, Trudeau||Paris, CDG||1,105,007|
|6||New York City, Newark||London, Heathrow||1,065,842|
|7||Toronto, Pearson||London, Heathrow||926,239|
|9||Boston, Logan||London, Heathrow||851,728|
|10||San Francisco||London, Heathrow||841,549|
|12||New York City, JFK||Frankfurt||710,876|
|13||New York City, JFK||Madrid||690,624|
|14||Washington DC, Dulles||Frankfurt||659,532|
|17||New York City, JFK||Rome||563,129|
|18||Los Angeles||Paris, CDG||558,868|
In September 2013, Jonathan Trappe lifted off from Caribou, Maine, United States in an attempt to make the first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by cluster balloon. The craft is essentially a small yellow lifeboat attached to 370 balloons filled with helium. A short time later, due to difficulty controlling the balloons, Trappe was forced to land near the town of York Harbour, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Trappe had expected to arrive in Europe sometime between three and six days after liftoff. The craft ascended by the dropping of ballast, and was to drift at an altitude of up to 25,000 ft (7.6 km). It was intended to follow wind currents toward Europe, the intended destination, however, unpredictable wind currents could have forced the craft to North Africa or Norway. To descend, Trappe would have popped or released some of the balloons. The last time the Atlantic was crossed by helium balloon was in 1984 by Colonel Joe Kittinger.