The Evolution Of Transatlantic Flight

Crossing the Atlantic has always been a magical experience, since the dawn of the age of exploration till today, made much easier with a quick hop across the pond in an aircraft. But what we consider today to be simple was not always easy, with the story to get to this point quite fascinating.

A BOAC Comet from 1952. Photo: Imperial War Museums

You can watch a video on the topic here:

Believe it or not, the first idea of crossing the Atlantic by air was in 1859 and was to be done by ballon! Many attempts were made, and one might have been successful if it was not for the start of the American Civil War.

But it would not be for another 60 years until the end of World War I when people considered using biplanes instead.

First attempts (the 1910s)

Early aircraft engines did not have the reliability needed for the crossing, nor the power to lift the required fuel. But this didn’t stop the idea from capturing the public imagination. In fact, in 1913, London newspaper the Daily Mail offered a prize of £10,000 (£451,400 in 2019) for the first successful flight across the pond.

“The aviator who shall first cross the Atlantic in an airplane 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 with one aircraft.” – The Daily Mail in 1913

Daily mail
The wager from the Daily Mail. Photo: Daily Mail

In May of 1919, the Curtiss seaplane NC-4 made the journey from the United States to New Foundland then to the Portuguese Azores before landing in Portugal and the United Kingdom. It took 23 days and six stops.

A month later, on the 14th June, the British aviators Alcock and Brown made the first non-stop transatlantic flight in a Vickers Vimy IV twin-engined bomber. They replaced the bomb racks with fuel tanks which carried 3,900 liters of fuel.

The Evolution Of Transatlantic Flight
The headline from the day. Photo: Imperial War Museums

The flight took 16 hours and landed just outside of Galway in Ireland.

Commercial travel (the 1920s)

Obviously flying a World War I bomber was neither practical nor possible for passenger aircraft, and thus one company set out to provide an actual commercial passage across the sea.

And it might surprise you to know that balloons were used once again. From October 1928, vast rigid airships crossed the Atlantic from Germany to New York. However, in 1937 this fantasy with floating cruise ships ended with the Hindenburg and the R101 disasters.

The first planes, however, focused on South Atlantic travel, delivering mail from the Gambia in Africa to Brazil in South America, where the distance was the shortest.

First transatlantic airlines (the 1930s)

Imperial Airways was the first airline to investigate using the Short Empire sea plan to cross over from Ireland to the Americas in 1937. Not to be left out on this venture, Pan American flew the opposite way with a Sikorsky S-42. Both airlines would begin regular seaplane routes soon after.

This initial journey took 20 hrs, 21 min at an average ground speed of 144 miles per hour (232 km/h). The Short Empire seaplane didn’t actually have enough power to lift itself off the ground with the fuel needed for the journey, so it was actually carried by a bigger aircraft to the right height and then released.

Short Empire
The Short Empire. Photo: Imperial War Museums

On the American side, Pan Am as it was now called, operated the Boeing 314. And boy was this fancy. It featured all first-class seats, chefs from famous hotels, waiters in white uniforms, dressing rooms for both men and women and bunks for sleeping during the slow 210 miles per hour (303 km/h) trip.

The first land-based aircraft was by the specially designed Lufthansa Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor from Berlin to New York.

The war (the 1940s)

Just when civilian air travel was about to take off (pun not intended), World War II began. Because of the perils of moving precious cargo across the sea (in the form of Nazi U-Boats), America and the allies decided it would be better to fly.

Better technology led to better aircraft that could easily make the journey in under 20 hours, in the form of bigger piston engines and longer runways allowing an aircraft to carry more fuel.

After World War II long runways were available, and North American and European carriers such as Pan Am, TWA, Trans Canada Airlines (TCA), BOAC, and Air France acquired larger piston airliners that could cross the North Atlantic with stops (usually in Gander, Newfoundland and/or Shannon, Ireland).

Pan Am
Pan Am DC-4. Photo: Imperial War Museums

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 L-049 Constellations had brought the eastward time to Heathrow down to 15 hr 15 min.

Following the end of that era was also the rise of jet aircraft. In October 1958, BOAC started transatlantic flights between London Heathrow and New York with a Comet 4, and Pan Am followed on 26 October with a Boeing 707 service between New York and Paris.

You can follow what happened to Pan Am here.

Modern travel

From there, airlines introduced more routes with better jet aircraft, decreasing the time and the flexibility of air travel. This technology would gradually improve without a new major development in many years.

Well, that’s not entirely true.

Supersonic flights on the Concorde ran from 1976 to 2003, from London (by British Airways) and Paris (by Air France) to New York and Washington, in around three hours. It would eventually wind up but at the end of its run, it was operating profitably.

British Airways Concorde
British Airways Concorde. Photo: British Airways

A British Airways spokesman in 2003 said: “Concorde will not fly commercially again. Airbus says it will not support the continued use of the planes because the maintenance would be too expensive and it is just not viable.”

When air travel was deregulated, the market exploded with many airlines now making the journey across the Atlantic between Europe and the Americas. In 2015, there were 44 million seats on offer from 67 European airports with no sign of slowing down.

What do you think? Have we missed any important events? Let us know in the comments.