“Suddenly a terrifying noise broke the silence; the right-hand engine sounded like a machine gun blazing. The two men were scared stiff. The exhaust pipe of the cylinder facing inwards had split, and the engine was shooting naked flames into the slip-stream. Alcock and Brown remained helpless as the metal turned red hot, melted away and finally started striking the controls in white-hot globules.”

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“As far as Brown was concerned, the only possible way of avoiding a crash was to make a trip out onto the wings. He grabbed a knife and swung his legs out onto the nose. Seeing what he had in mind, Alcock stood up from his seat and tried to hold his companion back. Brown jerked himself free, and, in the blinding snow, he wriggled forward from strut to strut and from cable to cable, holding on with one hand. His left leg caused him difficulty, because it was still stiff from wounds he had received in the war.”

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“The plane plummeted from 4,000 ft. to 1000 ft. and, just above the surface of the water, Alcock gained control of the Vimy. For a fraction of a second he could not believe his eyes–he saw the sea lying vertically, and then with a quick automatic reflex action he straightened out the Vimy and opened the throttles to the full.”

Three brief, terrifying moments in the saga of the very first transatlantic flight from North America to Ireland in less than 72 hours. John Alcock and Arthur Whitten-Brown, a pair of intrepid British airmen, made the crossing on June 14, 1919.

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Following a frighteningly close call with the edge of a forest on takeoff, they flew through hours of dense fog and snow and sleet, encountering engine trouble, radio failure, frozen elevator flaps and other difficulties that were close to catastrophic. When they finally reached the west coast of Ireland, they were so exhausted all they wanted to do was land. Thinking the locals in a radio tower were waving a welcome when they were, in fact, attempting to warn them away from the nearest green patch, the two airmen brought the large, modified Vickers bomber down in a bog.

The men who had watched the Vimy land rushed toward the plane, jumping from one grass tuft to another through the swamp. A man by the name of Taylor was the first to reach the fliers and he asked breathlessly:

“Anybody hurt?”

“No.”

“Where are you from?”

“America.”

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The news of the adventure spread like wildfire, and there followed for Captain Alcock and Lieutenant Whitten-Brown a hectic round of greetings, receptions, speeches, galas, and banquets. Alcock carried a small linen bag with a bundle of 197 letters. These were rushed to the nearest post office, where they were franked and forwarded (airmail stamps not yet having been invented). The letters had made the long journey from Lester’s Field near St. John’s, Newfoundland, to London in record time.

Only six months later, twenty-seven year old Captain Alcock would crash-land once more in bad weather, this time on the way to an air show in Paris in a new Vickers plane. He would not survive. His days of glory would be far too brief. When Lindbergh made his historic flight eight years later, he gave Alcock and Brown credit “for showing the way.”

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Nearly a century later, our journey from Melbourne, Australia to Clifden, Ireland (a journey of some 11,000 miles) was dead easy by comparison. On the giant planes taking us from Australia to England, with a quick hop to Dublin, our only quibble was with the quality of the cuisine and the comfort of the seats.

Our road trip obstacles were frustrating but minor– the tricky roundabouts getting through the city of Galway. Innumerable road repairs on the windy road from Galway to the coast. I agreed to rent a GPS unit, knowing full well that its suggestions might be way off, but at least it would know where we were. Brown couldn’t even see the stars during their incredibly long night.

The M4 and M6 motorways are a dream, soaking up the kilometers, lulling you into thinking that getting around Ireland will be easy and quick. Once you leave the motorways behind, you get a sense of the real, rural Ireland. The roads are narrow, often lined with hedges which make it difficult to see what is coming around the next curve.

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The Connemara countryside is stark and beautiful, and any serious attempt to keep to a timetable will be an exercise in frustration. This is Ireland, after all. There must be time for talk and time for Guinness and time for music. Faul House in Clifden is a wonderfully hospitable B&B and most of Kathleen’s guests soon become regulars.

The weather we encountered was spectacular sunshine, an anomaly in Ireland any time of year. I had attempted to pack in too much sightseeing for the short stay we had in Ireland, so we drove the beautiful Sky road instead of cycling or walking; we had an abbreviated visit to Kylemore Abbey, and didn’t even get to the fishing village of Roundstone. There are many reasons to return. Connemara deserves at least a month, not a pair of days. Everything in Ireland should be approached slowly, with care and appreciation, like a good whiskey.

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If you have to crash a bomber into a bog, you could do a lot worse than Clifden. Stay tuned, We’re off to County Clare.

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