Well, today I finally finished the last part of my reflections on the history of the “Atlantic Airliners”, that is, the story how designers and other craftsmen learned to make metal birds that carry passengers safely across the great ocean.
I got interested (again) in aviation history when I bought thirty years ago at a jumble sale an old scrap book with photographs of the Dornier Do-X. The picture shown above carried the caption (in Dutch):
1929 THE BIGGEST AIRPLANE IN THE WORLD, the Do X, has recently been completed in the halls of Dornier in Friedrichshafen and will make soon its first test flight. This immense aeroplane has a length of almost forty meters; the span of its wings comes to 48 meters and its height is 8.5 meters. The giant will be propelled by no less than 12 large Siemens Jupiter engines with a total power of 6200 hp. The fuel tanks are in the bottom of the airplane reducing the danger of fire almost completely. The number of passengers that can be transported is astounding: no less than 100!
There is a crew of twenty needed to control the airplane and serve the passengers. The creator of this enormous colossus, Ir. Dornier, has stated that three or four of the engines may be stopped during flight without problems. However, the crossing of the ocean is not yet possible with this giant – it is not more than a step forward on the difficult road to trans-oceanic air traffic. On the photograph the immense monoplane is shown in the assembly hall of the Dornier factory.
The Germans have always been very proud of their Do-X – and rightly so – but of course in 1932, as predicted, it failed where five years earlier Charles Lindbergh had succeeded without apparent effort:
a simple non-stop jump across the Atlantic.
I wondered why this would be so and started to read (+ collect) books about 1930-flying boats and airliners. What were the factors that determined their long-range performance? How fascinating that era was!
Next I got into a correspondence with a certain Don Middleton, a British aviation journalist, who had stated in an English monthly that the amazing long range of the Consolidated Catalina patrol boat was due to its ‘Davis-wing’. Based on general data from Jane’s ‘Fighting Aircraft of WWII’ edition I undertook to compare four contemporary transport planes: the Douglas DC-3 and DC-4, and the Consolidated Catalina and B-24 Liberator, and proved to him that Catalina’s extreme performance was based on two factors: its light construction (empty weight approximately 50% of take-off weight) and its slow cruising speed, which was right at the optimal economic flight point (maximum CL/CD ratio). The other three planes, for commercial or operational reasons, all cruised faster than their most economic speed and as a consequence had a comparatively shorter range. The Cats were slow, real slow, to the exasperation of their crews. However, slowness could also be advantageous: they were able to shield the ships they were escorting by circling tightly around them, outmaneuvering in this way attacking German and Japanese aircraft that were much faster.
The PBY Catalina had no Davis-wing and I think I proved it, but Middleton never entered into a serious discussion and suggested I submit my paper to the Royal Aeronautical Society, which of course was a bit much. Later on I learned he disliked smart asses like me who argued from theory: he had been a skilled aircraft worker at de Havillands himself and a RAF engineer during the war.
Of course the Davis-wing was used on the B-24 Liberator. Next blogs will summarize what I know about it. The inventor, David R. Davis, appeals to me because he was obviously a maverick: he worked outside the official circuits of Universities and NACA. Apparently he had a mind of his own.
As a result however, descriptions of his work are hard to find in official literature (like Abbott & Doenhoff; maybe Durand mentions him?). Apparently his wing had extreme low drag at small angles of attack (laminar flow?), which is remarkable, because long range (like Catalina’s) is usually associated with low engine power and therefore relative large angles of attack. So there were things here which were not quite clear to me. I wanted to know more about the wing profile: it must have been very thin with maximum depth near the middle of the chord. How can thin wings be made strong enough for long spans? This was the state of my comprehension (and confusion) until I found more information.
 A word of warning: there have been other aviators of fame with the name Davis. So is our man not to be confused with the unfortunate pilot Noel Guy Davis, who crashed short after take-off for a trans-Atlantic flight in 1927, aboard a Keystone Pathfinder (N-X179) airplane called American Legion.  picture: PBY5 Catalina; credit: Wiki.
ELEMENTARY NAVIGATION FOR AIRCRAFT PILOTS By A. W. BROWN
” A KNOWLEDGE of at least the elements of navigation is necessary to the pilots of modem aircraft undertaking long journeys. whether over land or ocean. On recognised air-routes over the land, his task will be made easier by the provision of land marks and lighthouses, but over the ocean, his only guides will be the wireless telegraph, or the SUN and stars. Wireless telgraphy provides an efficient and rapid means of locating the positions of an aircraft during a moderately long journey, but its reliability has yet to be proved over greater distances, such as will obtain in the Atlantic flight. On the other hand, observation of the sun or stars provides a reliable and never-failing means of position-finding, for it will be seldom indeed that aircraft will be unable to rise above any clouds obscuring the sky. It is not necessary for the pilot to know every detail of the methods of navigation in use on shipboard ; aircraft are in no danger from rocks or shoals, and have a large radius of vision, so that a high degree of accuracy is not essential. At the same time, the great speed of aircraft, and the extent to which they are affected by the wind, render necessary a system of navigation by which the position may be found at frequent intervals with rapidity and a minimum of calculation. “
From the same splendid Archives: FLIGHT magazine, June 19, 1919: THE FIRST NON-STOP FLIGHT ACROSS THE ATLANTIC WITH a British-designed and British-built aeroplane and engine, piloted by British officers, rests the honour of having made the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic. In an .Vickers-Vimy-Rolls-Royce biplane. [This] has won for them the Daily Mail prize of 10,000 pounds, the 2,000 guineas from the Ardath Tobacco Co., and 1.000 pounds from Mr. Lawrence R. Phillips for the first British subject to fly the Atlantic.….”
MESSAGE from Capt. Alcock and Lieut. Brown to the Royal Aero Club, sent off from the wireless station at Clifden :—
” Landed at Clifden, Ireland.at 8.40 a.m., Greenwich mean-time, June 15; Vickers-Vimy Atlantic machine, leaving Newfoundland Coast 4.28 p.m. (G.M.T.), June 14. Total time 16 hours 12 minutes. Instructions awaited.” AS SOON AS the formalities were completed Capt. Alcock and Lieut. Brown dismantled the instruments from their machine and prepared to make for London as quickly as possible.…
[after many celebrations in Ireland they finally arrived at the Royal Aero Club in London:]…
They were welcomed by Gen. Holden, who said: “…It was one of the most remarkable feats of this century, and one which would be remembered as long as the world lasted. It was nine years since Bleriot crossed the Channel, a distance of 20 miles. Everybody thought that a magnificent exploit at the time ; but here they were welcoming men who had crossed nearly 2,000 miles.”
Three cheers having been given for the airmen, there were repeated calls upon them to speak.
Captain John William Alcock (1892-1919)
CAPT. ALCOCK, standing on a chair, said :— ” I should like to thank Gen. Holden for the kind words he has said about Lieut. Brown and myself. I must say the flight has been quite straightforward. Although we had a little difficulty in keeping our course, Lieut. Brown did very well and steered a wonderful course. With regard to the flight itself all the credit is due to the machine, and particularly the engine—that is everything. If the engine went well there was nothing to prevent us getting across so long as Lieut. Brown was able to get his sights, and here we are.”
Lieut. Brown, who also was loudly cheered, [spoke in similar vein]
AFTERWARDS Capt. Alcock and Lieut. Brown stepped out on to the balcony, where they were greeted with loud cheers by the crowds still waiting outside, Lieut. Brown ultimately driving off to Ealing where a further reception by the local authorities was gone through.
Meanwhile Capt.Alcock, after dinner at the Club, went to Olympia to witness the great boxing match.
THE FOLLOWING is the story of the crossing as given to the Daily Mail by Capt. Alcock :
—” WE have had a terrible journey.The wonder is we are here at all. We scarcely saw the sun or the moon or the stars. For hours we saw none of them. The fog was very dense, and at times we had to descend to within 300 ft. of the sea.For four hours the machine was covered in a sheet of ice carried by frozen sleet; at another time the fog was so dense that my speed indicator did not work, and for a few seconds it was very alarming. We looped the loop, I do believe, and did a very steep spiral. We did some very comic “stunts,” for I have had no sense of horizon. The winds were favourable all the way : north-west and at times south-west. We said in Newfoundland we would do the trip in 6 hours, but we never thought we should. An hour and a half before we saw land we had no certain idea where we were, but we believed we were at Galway or thereabouts. Our delight in seeing Eashal Island and Turbot Island (5 miles west of Clifden) was great. People did not know who we were when we landed, and thought we were scouts on the look-out for the ‘ Vimy.’
“We encountered no unforeseen conditions. We did not suffer from cold or exhaustion except when looking over the side ; then the sleet chewed bits out of our faces. We drank coffee and ale and ate sandwiches and chocolate. The only thing that upset me was to see the machine at the end get damaged. From above, the bog looked like a lovely field, but the machine sank into it up to the axle and fell over on to her nose.”
It certainly was unfortunate that what looked like a good meadow from above should have turned out to be a bog. Not only did the ” Vimy ” bury her nose in it but a R.A.F.machine which flew over from Oranmore to render assistance also came to grief. Later advices indicate that the Vickers machine is not so seriously injured as was at first supposed.
DURING the greater part of the flight of 1,950 miles the machine was at an average altitude of 4,000 ft. but at one
time—about 6 a.m.—in an endeavour to get above the clouds and fog, it went up to 11,000 ft. Lieut. Brown was only
able to take three readings for position, one from the sun, one from the moon and one from the Pole Star and Vega.
On passing Signal Hill, Lieut. Brown set out a course for the ocean on 124 deg. compass course and at 3 a.m. from an observation on Polaris and Vega he found he was about 2 deg. south. He then set a course of 110 deg.
Between 4 and 5 a.m. the machine ran into a very thick fog bank, and the air speed indicator jammed, through sleet freezing on it, at 90 m.p.h. It was then that Capt. Alcock thinks the machine looped, at any rate it went into a steep spiral which only ended with the machine practically on its back about 50 ft. from the water. The machine was covered with ice, and it continually became necessary to chip ice off the instruments, etc. Capt. Alcock says that he nursed the engines all the way, and had one-third of his petrol supply left when he landed. One of the exhaust pipes blew off, but otherwise there was no trouble from the engine installation.
APPARENTLY the start from St. John’s provided an anxious time for the onlookers. The machine had a hard job to get away with her heavy load. The aerodrome level was only 500 yards long, but the machine took off at 300 yards, and just managed to clear the trees and houses. However she climbed steadily if very slowly, and when she passed over the harbour a t St. John’s had reached a height of 1,000 ft.
THE FLIGHT has shown that the Atlantic flight is practicable, but I think it should be done not with an aeroplane or seaplane, but with a flying-boat. We had plenty of reserve fuel left, using only two-thirds of our supply.”
From FLIGHT Magazine, Deceember 25, 1919: THE DEATH OF SIR JOHN ALCOCK IT is with most profound regret that we have to record the fatal accident to Sir John Alcock, which occurred on the afternoon of December 18,’ while he was engaged in taking a new Vickers machine to Paris in connection with the Salon. It appears that the machine when nearing Rouen had great difficulty in negotiating a strong wind. A farmer at Cote d’Evrard, about 25 miles north of Rouen, saw the machine come out of the fog, commence to fly unsteadily, and—it was then about 1 o’clock—it suddenly crashed to the ground.
SIR JOHN ALCOCK was taken from the wreck, but unfortunately there was considerable delay in getting medical assistance as the farmhouse near where the crash occurred is out of the way. As soon as the accident was reported, doctors rushed from No. 6 British General Hospital, Rouen, but they were too late. It is probable that an enquiry will be held by the French authorities, at which the Air Ministry and Messrs. Vickers will be represented. Arrangements are being made for the conveyance of the body of Sir John Alcock to England for burial in Manchester, his native city. The death of Sir John Alcock is an irreparable loss to aviation. His great flight across the Atlantic is too fresh in the mind of readers of FLIGHT for further reference to be made to it here, while his previous work is recorded in the pages of past volumes of this paper.
NOTE: After his record Atlantic flight, Sir Arthur Whitten Brown pursued a career in industry. He rejoined the RAF for a short period during the Second World War, but had to resign because of ill health. He died in his sleep in 1948.