Up in the air

Cen­tral home to avi­a­tion his­tory

The Central Voice - - Front Page - David J. Clarke

New­found­land and Labrador has been part of avi­a­tion his­tory on sev­eral oc­ca­sions.

Its im­por­tant place in the story of flight was ce­mented in June, 1919, when avi­a­tors, John “Jack” Al­cock, and Arthur Whitten Brown made the first non-stop trans-At­lantic flight from St. John’s to Ire­land in a mod­i­fied Vick­ers Vimy bomber.

In 1932, avi­a­tion his­tory was made once more when famed pi­lot Amelia Earhart lifted off from Har­bour Grace in her Lock­heed Vega. Touch­ing down at Lon­don­derry, North­ern Ire­land, about 15 hours later. She be­came the first woman to cross the At­lantic solo.

In the 1940s an­other glo­ri­ous chap­ter was added to New­found­land’s place in the story of flight, as the New­found­land Air­port, Gan­der (opened, 1938) be­came a vi­tal cog in the Al­lied war ef­fort. Sixty years later, now of­fi­cially named the Gan­der In­ter­na­tional Air­port, the fa­cil­ity took cen­tre stage in world news for host­ing some 38 air­craft and their pas­sen­gers, stranded dur­ing the ter­ror at­tacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

These sto­ries, and many more, are proudly re­mem­bered by New­found­lan­ders, who cher­ish our con­nec­tion with the skies. Still, there is one piece of provin­cial avi­a­tion his­tory that few of us know about, and which was only as­so­ci­ated with our neck of the woods by ac­ci­dent.

On Mon­day, Sept. 13, 1936, Po­lice Con­sta­ble John Har­vey, sta­tioned on Fogo Is­land, made a short en­try in his of­fi­cial jour­nal.

It read: “[An Amer­i­can] aero­plane crashed at Mus­grave Har­bour.”

This sim­ple note points us to­ward an ad­ven­ture ri­valling any­thing in Earhart’s ca­reer, or even that of Charles “Lucky” Lind­berg.

The ad­ven­ture had its be­gin­nings with Henry T. “Dick” Mer­rill, a pi­lot with Eastern Air­lines. As we’ve seen, by 1936 the At­lantic run had al­ready been con­quered, so Mer­rill de­cided on a more am­bi­tious flight – a roundtrip voy­age from New York to Lon­don. There was one catch; the costly project was beyond Mer­rill’s means. To make it hap­pen he teamed up with Harry Rich­man. A celebrity vo­cal­ist and part-time pi­lot, the well-heeled Rich­man had both the in­ter­est and re­sources to make an ideal part­ner for Mer­rill.

The air­craft the duo se­lected for their at­tempt was a Vul­tee V-1A. This sin­gle-en­gine, me­tal air­craft was cho­sen for its speed and dura­bil­ity. Chris­tened Lady Peace, the plane was mod­i­fied to carry ex­tra fuel, while hol­low ar­eas of its wings and fuse­lage were packed with 40,000 ping pong balls, so Lady Peace would float if Mer­rill and Rich­man were forced to crash land on the wa­ter. To this day the ven­ture is re­mem­bered as, “The Ping Pong Flight.”

Lady Peace de­parted New York for Lon­don on Sept. 2 fly­ing the “great cir­cle” route to­wards Europe. For most of the first leg all went well, un­til the avi­a­tors ran into a large thun­der­storm about 1,000 kilo­me­tres off the English coast. Pounded by high winds, and run­ning low on fuel, they de­cided to put down short of Lon­don, in a farmer’s field in Wales. Mer­rill and Rich­man set a speed record for an At­lantic cross­ing, ar­riv­ing at their in­tended des­ti­na­tion the fol­low­ing day.

A few days later Lady Peace was air­borne once more, mak­ing its way back to North Amer­ica.

Once again, things didn’t go quite as the avi­a­tors had planned, and this un­ex­pected hitch for­ever linked a small town in cen­tral New­found­land with the Ping Pong Flight.

En­coun­ter­ing strong head­winds and notic­ing that the Vul­tee’s wings had be­gun to ice up, Mer­rill took the plane to a lower alti­tude to clear them. Un­for­tu­nately, Rich­man mis­took this for a splash­down in the ocean, and rashly dumped some 1,900 litres of fuel. Re­al­iz­ing they now hadn’t enough petrol to make New York, Mer­rill was forced to make a real emer­gency land­ing.

Their ac­ci­den­tal land­ing place was on a soft bog near the com­mu­nity of Mus­grave Har­bour. Named for one-time New­found­land Gov­er­nor, An­thony Mus­grave, it was and is, a fish­ing town of about 1,000 peo­ple. While the marshy sur­face of the bog saved Lady Peace from se­ri­ous struc­tural dam­age, it did suf­fer a bent pro­pel­lor dur­ing the land­ing. At this point the fa­mous New­found­land hos­pi­tal­ity came to Mer­rill and Rich­man’s res­cue, as lo­cals aided them in ex­tract­ing the air­craft from the bog. With this as­sist, the pair were soon able to fix the pro­pel­lor and carry out other mi­nor re­pairs. After re­fu­elling, they took to the skies once more on the fi­nal leg of their jour­ney.

A few days later Mer­rill and Rich­man ar­rived tri­umphantly in New York, their flight a roar­ing suc­cess.

Though the strains of the jour­ney, es­pe­cially Rich­man’s fuel dump, had tested their friend­ship, it’s re­ported that the now­fa­mous avi­a­tors re­mained on good terms. Mer­rill went on to make three more trans-At­lantic flights, flew as a civil­ian trans­port pi­lot in the Sec­ond World War in China, and re­tired from Eastern Air­lines in 1961.

Act­ing in sev­eral Hol­ly­wood movies, Rich­man’s pop­u­lar singing ca­reer con­tin­ued on into the 1940s, when he left show busi­ness.

Mus­grave Har­bour has moved on as well. Tourism now pro­vides an im­por­tant part of its econ­omy, with vis­i­tors lured by its hik­ing trails and fa­mous sandy beach. Even so, for any­one who cares to re­mem­ber, this out­port on New­found­land’s Kit­ti­wake Coast will al­ways be linked to a pi­o­neer­ing feat of At­lantic avi­a­tion.

This sim­ple note points us to­ward an ad­ven­ture ri­valling any­thing in Earhart’s ca­reer, or even that of Charles “Lucky” Lind­berg.

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