When chasing speed was worth the time it took.
Charles Lindbergh—as any school kid will tell you—was the first person to fly across the Atlantic. The only catch is any school kid who does tell you that doesn’t have it quite right.
Yes, Lindbergh was the first to do it solo, but the first to do it at all was Capt. Sir John Alcock and his navigator, Lt. Sir Arthur Whitten Brown. It was 1919, their plane was an open-cockpit Vickers Vimy, the weather was awful and a lot of things broke, but they (And a sack of mail! -Ed.) made it from Newfoundland to Ireland in just under 16 hours.
Fast forward to early May 1969, and The Daily Mail of London, Eng-a-land decided the best way to commemorate Alcock and Brown’s flight (to whom they had awarded £10,000 in prize money for their accomplishments a half-century prior) was with a big hullabaloo of an air race between London and New York. This time, however, multiple competitors in multiple categories would make a dash for £60,000 in prize money. (Just shy of £830,000 in 2023, or slightly more than $1 million.) And instead of just flying from one place to the other, the race would be from from the top of London's Post Office Tower to the top of the Empire State Building. That meant while flying was the biggest part of the race, flight time itself wasn't the sole measure of success.
By the way, this was was only the half of it: the Mail had organized another leg of the race, run concurrently in the other direction. In the midst of all this, the world’s latest and greatest ocean liner, the Queen Elizabeth 2, sailed into New York on her maiden voyage, while down in Washington D.C. the lead singer of The Turtles fell off the stage five times while performing for Tricia Nixon at The White House.
Among the participating luminaries: racing driver Sir Stirling Moss who travelled via scheduled VC10 quad-jet, motorcycle, helicopter and even a speed boat; athlete Mary Rand, the first British woman to win Olympic gold in track and field; habitual aviation record-setter and -breaker, Sheila Scott (who left the Post Office Tower and arrived at the Empire State via Aston Martin DBS); a chimp; and Prince Michael of Kent.
Also among them was 18-year-old art student Anne Alcock—niece of Capt. Alcock—who ferried a letter to the American postmaster general from his British counterpart. (That counterpart being John Stonehouse. He’d fake his own death five years later in Miami Beach and was rumored to have been a spy for the Czechs, too. -Ed.)
Meanwhile, the British military wanted in on the action, as well. The Royal Navy entered two F-4 Phantoms, one taking off from Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, the other headed towards it. The Royal Air Force, meanwhile, entered two sets of planes, a pair of Handley Page Victors—of the fearsome threesome of V bombers—following the same flight plans as the RAF Phantoms, plus a pair of brand-new Hawker Siddeley Harriers.
The Harriers were not on the Brooklyn flight plan, however. Instead, it was between some open space behind London St. Pancras station and what is now the site of The British International School (Seriously! -Ed.) in Manhattan alongside the East River, otherwise known as Bristol Basin. Takeoff from the temporary RAF St. Pancras kicked up a cloud of coal dust as big as the Albert Hall (I lived near St. Pancras in the early 2000s; still some coal dust floating around the place. -Ed.), while any Bristol Basin takeoff detritus was damped down by a drenching downpour.
When all was said and done, honors went to Royal Navy Lt. Cmdr. Peter Goddard, hustling from the Empire State to Post Office Tower in 5 hours and 11 minutes via Phantom jet. But this whole extravaganza wasn’t just a commemoration of what Alcock and Brown had done—it was meant to presage the next 50 years of aviation. However quick Goddard’s trip was, the Concorde—which had flown for the first time only two months prior—could do it in 90 minutes less with up to 128 people aboard. Great things were obviously just over the horizon.
For contemporaries reading about the 1969 race, the implications were clear: the next half-century of aviation was bound to get even faster and even better. “Passengers and mail will cross in three and a half hours on the Concorde,” said the narrator of the above Post Office film. Adding a little punctuation, he concluded with a tantalizing, “After that, who knows?” (We know. -Ed.)