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October 15, 1998
If I hadn't seen the sign -- ALCOCK & BROWN LANDING SITE -- pointing down the narrow, rocky, rutted way that led me promptly to a closed gate, I would have turned around. Beyond the gate extended a typical Connemara landscape: treeless bog strewn with boulders and black-muzzled, grass-munching sheep. The gate, I reasoned, was closed to keep the sheep in and not me out, so I unhitched it and drove through.
I had landed in Ireland two days earlier, through the dawn fog over Shannon Airport. With hours to kill before the first northbound bus left the airport, I'd noticed a corner display ignored by my fellow jet-lagged newcomers, a miniature stage above which palm-sized brass letters spelled out "AVIATION HALL OF FAME." Gleaming under lights and laid out chronologically to form a page of aviation history were portraits and plaques commemorating famous flyers -- Orville and Wilbur Wright at top left, Chuck Yeager and Neil Armstrong at bottom right, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart in between.
And directly before me: John Alcock and Arthur Brown.
I stepped closer, inspected the small black-and-white picture of the men, and read the words inscribed underneath: The first non-stop air crossing of the Atlantic was achieved on 14th-15th June 1919 by Captain John Alcock and Lt. Arthur Whitten Brown who flew a converted Vickers Vimy bomber from St. John's, Newfoundland, to Clifden, County Galway.
I'd never heard of Alcock and Brown, though apparently they had cleared the Atlantic eight years before Lindbergh's solo flight. But I had heard of Clifden, the so-called "capital of Connemara" -- I was headed there.
The tourist office in Clifden was modest, crowded. Once I reached the counter with my request, a sharp-beaked, bespectacled woman chirped apologies in brogue: she had little to tell me about Alcock and Brown that went beyond what I'd already read in guidebooks, which was only that a monument -- a limestone fin celebrating the flyers' feat, erected in 1959 -- stood on a hill south of town. "Have you tried the library?" she asked.
A few doors down, the Clifden Town Library was also modest -- just a single room of books. That midafternoon it was empty except for a librarian, who passed me a book opened to a photograph of Alcock and Brown taken in the nearby Derrygimla Bog, where the aviators had landed (and immediately begun sinking) in 1919. In their first hours of fame, dressed in matching flight jackets and boots, the young men gazed assuredly back at the camera. Alcock, the pilot, was twenty-six years old, and Brown, his navigator, thirty-three. Blurred in the background sat the bomber, wheels stuck in bog muck, snout submerged in peat, tail pointing to the sky. When I asked what other materials were available, the librarian's sigh was part hiss: the only other good source on the flight of Alcock and Brown was an out-of-print book, and someone had filched his copy.
"But there's always the bog," he said -- somewhat dubiously, I thought.
Past the gate, jounced by seemingly every stone of the broken road that passed under the wheels of my cramped rented Opel, I rolled on. In the distance to my left, curtains of rain hazed the view of the Twelve Bens, Connemara's rocky mountains. Ahead, the road rose and disappeared -- into a clearing, I imagined, where the flyers must have brought their bomber down.
But over the rise I found only more bog, more sheep, and two weary bicycle tourers off their bikes, legs sprawled before them on the wet earth. They looked defeated by the rugged road -- and possibly bored by the bog. They were newlyweds, from Strasbourg, bicycling through Connemara on their honeymoon. When I asked them if I was on the right road to the Alcock and Brown landing site, they shrugged. They had quit here. The road, or at least a puddled path, continued, though, so I parked the car and proceeded on foot.
Later I read that Alcock and Brown had flown for England during the First World War -- in fact, both had been brought down under enemy fire and had survived enemy prisons -- but that their paths had crossed only six weeks before they strapped themselves into the open cockpit of the 13,000-pound wood-and-fabric Vickers biplane. Four hundred yards of a runway in St. John's, Newfoundland, launched them into what would be nearly 1,900 miles of unbroken fog. Brown determined much of the oversea course by dead reckoning.
My course was easy -- I just walked the muddy trail farther into the bog. Wind whipped over boulders and lily-padded pools of rainwater. Somber sheep wandered and chewed. A peat farmer stacked bricks of turf to dry in intermittent bouts of sunshine. Otherwise I saw nothing noteworthy, and felt aware only of the gusts from the west and a growing uncertainty about being anywhere near the landing site.
I also later read that the flyers had barely advanced over the ocean when the propeller on the generator for their wireless telegraph snapped, leaving them unable to transmit word to the world below; that flames raged from the rear of one of the Rolls Royce engines when a piece of its exhaust pipe broke free; that ice and snow repeatedly clogged the air intakes, forcing Brown to balance himself six times out on the fuselage and wings while he chipped away at it with his jackknife; and that at around three in the morning they flew straight into storm clouds, inside which hail swirled, lightning flashed, dashboard controls froze over, and the engines sputtered, ultimately sending the bomber spinning in a freefall toward the sea. Seconds from certain death, Alcock managed to fire up the engines again and level off. Brown pointed east, and the duo steered on toward dawn.
Now I could see the ruins of a building, just a lone crumbling wall, and beyond it a curious gray mound rising from an outcrop of rock; from the distance it looked like a breaching whale. I approached the wall and read a plaque indicating that here had stood Marconi's transatlantic wireless telegraphy station, the first in the world, in operation between 1907 and 1922. Alcock, I later discovered, had used the station to send his news back across the Atlantic on the morning of June 15th: Vimy arrived Clifden 8.40 gmt. Machine damaged through landing in bog.
When I turned the corner, the mound resembled not a whale at all but rather the nose of a battered old rocket frozen in lift-off from some underground station. It was enormous, ovoid, rain-cloud gray -- surely a monument to the flyers. But circling it I found no sign, no plaque, not the briefest inscription (except for the faint, scratched-in initials of previous visitors to the bleak spot). This unlikely immense protuberance in the bog must have once symbolized Alcock and Brown's unprecedented, world-awing achievement, but it now appeared to symbolize what can get forgotten in the rush of time. It could not have looked more abandoned or more out of place, and the lone sheep I discovered in shadow behind it -- holding its ground, not bleating or batting an eye at my presence -- appeared thoroughly unimpressed with it all.
"That is the way to fly the Atlantic," Brown had said upon arrival in the bog, after sixteen hours and twenty-seven minutes aloft. The young aviators were cheered as heroes as news of their flight spread around the world. In London, Winston Churchill handed them the long-sought £10,000 prize for the crossing, and at Windsor Castle, King George V knighted them -- Sir John Alcock, Sir Arthur Whitten Brown.
At the landing site, however, these names are nowhere to be found. And in the shadow of the towering, weather-beaten stone, in the company of a single sheep, in the lonely sweeping wind, I found myself amazed that the flyers had ever been there, had ever touched down in the bog. Apparently Alcock had felt the same way. "The wonder," he told an adoring world after the flight, "is that we are here at all."
Allan Reeder is a staff editor at The Atlantic Monthly.
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Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved. Photographs by Allan Reeder.