Today is the 84th Anniversary of the Flight of the Bremen, the first east-west transatlantic flight.
After the First World War, the ambition of all aviators was to make the first crossing of the vast Atlantic Ocean by aircraft. In the 1920s this was considered the greatest test of man and machine. The first transatlantic flights were made in the West-East direction but to make the flight from Europe to North America was far more dangerous because of prevailing winds and the greater flight time.
In 1927 ten unsuccessful East-West transatlantic attempts were made and seven lives were lost. The Atlantic airspace was finally conquered in April of 1928 and Ireland played a large part in the historic achievement. The Bremen took off from Baldonnel Aerodrome on Thursday 12th April 1928 at 5:38 am and landed on Greenly Island in Labradorthe following day. One of the crew of three was an Irishman, Captain James C. Fitzmaurice.
Born in 1898, James Fitzmaurice joined the British Army and fought on the front in France in WWI. On his return he joined the Royal Flying Corps, and, in 1922, the Irish Army Air Corps. Fitzmaurice’s biggest ambition was to make a crossing of the Atlantic. He made an attempt in 1927, but weather conditions meant he didn’t make it out of Ireland. He did not have long to wait before he would fly west again in his attempt to reach America. On 12th April he set off from Baldonnel toNew York on the Bremen with two Germans, Captain Hermann Koehl and Gunther Freiherr von Hunefeld. Thousands of people made their way from Dublin out to Baldonnel to wish the flyers well and to see the historic take-off. Michael Burgess, a Garda on duty there that day recalled that the crowd were “very excited but well behaved, many of them had Rosary beads, and some of them were shaking holy water at the plane and its crew.” The huge crowd of sightseers cheered as the Bremen took off at 5:38 am. A little before 7am it could be seen over Galway, heading for the ocean. Fitzmaurice later wrote “Dear old Ireland seemed nestled in peaceful sleep as we smashed through the air on our great adventure.”
The aircraft was piloted by Koehl and Fitzmaurice, each taking control for three hour stints. They had about twenty hours of incident free flying, but that was not to last. The airmen encountered a fierce Atlantic storm and then the Bremen began to leak oil. At this time they were headed on a southwesterly course for the coast of Newfoundland, but when they realised they were losing oil, the pilots decided to land as soon as possible. They landed on Greenly Island in Labrador on Friday 13th April 1928. They made aviation history for having made the first successful East-West crossing of the Atlantic.
News of the successful flight was greeted with jubilation throughout the world. It grabbed headlines in all the major newspapers both sides of the Atlantic. The event particularly captured the imagination of the American public. There was a carnival atmosphere and cities came to a standstill as people danced in the streets on hearing of the safe landing of the Bremen. The ‘Three Musketeers of the Air’ travelled on to New York where they were given Freedom of the City and a parade was held in their honour. More then two million people lined the sidewalks of Broadway and 5th Avenue. The Irish Independent reported: “Extraordinary scenes of enthusiasm […] at times the cheering of the people was on a scale never before experienced in this city.” A couple of days later, the flyers met the U.S. President Calvin Coolidge at the White House where they were presented with the US Distinguished Flying Cross.
Eventually on 3rd July, the three flyers made a triumphant return to Dublin. There were amazing scenes of celebration when they landed at Baldonnel. President Cosgrave and the full government cabinet greeted the flyers on their arrival and they were cheered all along the ten-mile route into the city centre. Speeches were made at the GPO in O’Connell Street where an unprecedented number of people turned out. Among the honours bestowed on them was the Freedom of the City of Dublin and President Cosgrave held a reception in their honour at the Metropole Hotel. On 24th July Fitzmaurice was promoted to the rank of Colonel.
For more on ‘The Flight of the Bremen’, see www.askaboutireland.ie