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A joint German-Irish flight into aviation history

Laois Local Studies > Articles > A joint German-Irish flight into aviation history

by Teddy Fennelly, author of Fitz and the Famous Flight

April 12th, 2008 marked the eightieth anniversary of the first east-west non-stop transatlantic flight. It was joint German-Irish effort which stands out as one of the greatest milestones in aviation history. The North Atlantic had been first flown from the American side in 1919 by British aviators, Alcock and Brown. This was only 16 years after the Wright brothers first achieved powered flight in 1903, one hundred years ago this year. Yet it took nine further years, after a myriad of failed attempts many ending in disaster, for man to fly non-stop from Europe to America. It was a feat considered impossible with the aircraft and technology then available and the extra difficulties faced in the east-west attempt.

By the beginning of 1928, Germany had banned all further east-west attempts because of the risks and the loss of life. It is estimated that at least twenty-nine aviators were killed in the east-west transatlantic attempts. Two of those who had tried and lived to tell the tale were WWI decorated pilot, Capt. Hermann Koehl and his friend, Baron von Huenefeld. Another was the Irishman, Major James Fitzmaurice, officer-in-charge of the Irish Air Corps at Baldonnel, popularly known as Fitz and a man with strong Portlaoise connections. He had teamed up with the British pilot, Capt. R.H. McIntosh, in the previous year in the Princess Xenia, but they were forced back 500 miles out into the Atlantic because of a raging storm. Fate brought the Germans and the Irishman together.

The most obvious difficulty of flying the Atlantic from east to west are the prevailing winds which, it is estimated, add an extra five hundred miles or so in terms of fuel load and flight time. The foggy and turbulent weather often experienced off Newfoundland, which is the nearest American landfall to Ireland, add to the risk. There was also the problem of erratic magnetic variations known to confuse compass readings, because of unusual climatic conditions, in the vicinity of the Grand Banks near Newfoundland on the Great Circle Atlantic route.

Koehl and Fitz were both experienced airmen and had the flying and navigational skills to match he best in the world. Huenefeld had the aircraft and, through his employers at North German Lloyd, he provided the financial backup for the venture. With Germany out-of-bounds for a takeoff base, Fitz was particularly important because he was in a position to put the airfield, equipment and staff at Baldonnel at the disposal of the project. It made more sense, in any case, to fly from Ireland because it reduced the flying time substantially. It seemed the right combination.

The aircraft used in the attempt, Bremen, was a full cantilever, all metal, low-wing monoplane, typical of the Junkers aircraft of the period. The aviators decided against carrying radio equipment because of its weight and unreliability at the time. Despite the dangers involved and having one near miracle escape from the Atlantic’s clutches, Fitzmaurice was thrilled to get a second chance of aviation glory. The President of the Irish Free State, William T. Cosgrave, was one of a big crowd that turned out in the early morning to see the plane on her way. With him was his son, Liam, who was later to become Taoiseach. Liam was guest of honour along with another man present at the take-off, Pearse Cahill, at a commemorative dinner held at Baldonnel in April this year to mark the 80th anniversary of the flight.

It was an eventful flight, nightmarish in parts, and trouble came at a very early stage. As the Bremen gathered speed along the Baldonnel runway Fitz, on the lookout, spotted a sheep wandering across its path. Koehl, in the pilot’s seat, did not see the animal and was startled when the Irishman grabbed the control column from him and eased it back. The aircraft barely cleared the sheep and hit the ground again with a thundering thud. Koehl knew that they needed every yard of the extended runway to get the Bremen, with its lethal cargo of 500 gallons of fuel on board, airborne. A sheep wandered across the path of the aircraft as it gathered speed on the runway and the airmen were relieved when contact was avoided. The aircraft lifted with only yards to spare, touching the hedgerows at the airfield’s perimeter, barely clearing some oak tree and a conical hill nearby.

After twenty hours of trouble-free flying, the Bremen, ran into gale force headwinds and thick clouds, turning day into night. Now the blind flying qualities of Koehl and Fitz were fully tested. The storm persisted hour after hour as the airmen struggled to keep their trusty flying machine on course. It was panic stations when the electricity suddenly failed. But worse was to follow. In flashing his torch to locate the charts, Fitz noticed that the floor of the cockpit was covered in oil. He checked the main oil gauge. He took the reading as less than a quarter full. He turned the cock on the reserve tank. But after refilling the main tank, the gauge dropped again to its former level. He pointed out the problem to Koehl, who later admitted to the Baron, who was serving the crew with food and drink from the rear, that he had to say three ‘Our Fathers’ to settle himself. Fitz decided to investigate. He failed to discover the leak and, unable to communicate with his companion because of the noise of the engine, he scribbled a note to Koehl. It read: ‘We are losing oil somewhere – get to land as quick as you can, we are losing oil very badly.’ If the machine was losing oil at the rate it seemed to be, then lady luck was fast running out on them. Some time later they discovered, however, that the scare was a false alarm. The gauge showed the rate of flow, which was a slow trickle and not a measure of the oil left in the tank. The oil on the floor had come from the tachometer cable.

The storm forced the Bremen hundreds of miles off course to the north over the snowy wastelands of Labrador. On realising their mistake, Koehl and Fitz, who were switching their piloting roles as the situation demanded, decided to change course and head south once again. They flew onwards for what seemed like endless hours, getting an odd glimpse of the wilderness below. They could not recognise any of the ground features, but they knew they had reached American landfall and were ever so relieved. The full load of fuel had been estimated to give them 40 hours flying time, but it was now over thirty hours since they had begun their great adventure but with more than average consumption due to difficult conditions, they knew they were running dangerously low. All three were fatigued and almost exhausted. Their mind and vision were playing tricks after the long difficult night. Fitz, on constant lookout, spotted what seemed like a funnel of an ocean liner through the breaking cloud. Koehl brought the Bremen down lower to investigate further and to their absolute delight the airmen discovered that it was a lighthouse. There seemed to be a possible landing area nearby. The airmen decided this might be their best chance of survival.

The Bremen landed on an ice-covered lake on Greenly Island, a remote and bleak location situated between Newfoundland and the Canadian province of Quebec. The aviators were rescued but attempts to get the Bremen back into the air failed. The Ford Museum in Dearborn, Detroit, took possession in 1935 and it remained on display there until 1999.  A committee, comprising of business people from the German city of Bremen, after which the aircraft was named, negotiated its return on temporary loan to Germany, where it was restored to its former glory by engineers at Lufthansa. It now holds a place of honour is a special viewing hall in the airport at Bremen. Attempts to get the Bremen on loan to Ireland have failed thus far. But there are hopes abroad that it may make a stopover in Baldonnel or Dublin Airport when it is being shipped back to the USA.

The two Germans and the Irishman were hailed as all-conquering heroes by an adoring American public. The reception they received in New York was even bigger than that given to Lindbergh on his return after his famous solo flight, the previous year, to Paris. They were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the first foreigners to receive such an honour, by US President Coolidge. The Irishman cut a fine dash in his officer’s uniform of the Irish Army, which appealed especially to the millions of his nationally minded countrymen and women living in the US. After a hectic tour of American cities, the aviators returned to a rousing homecoming in both Germany and Ireland. Fitz and his German comrades were granted Freedom of the City of Dublin. This was the Irishman’s city of birth and that made the honour all the more special for him.

For Germans, whose spirits were deflated from the ignominy of defeat in WWI, this was a great morale-booster. It was seen as a reflection of their prowess in aviation technology and human endeavor. For Ireland, still in the infancy of its independence, Fitz represented all that was good and progressive in the new state; a rare injection of confidence at a time of lingering doubts in its ability to be maser of its own affairs.

The Bremen never flew again. It held pride of place at the Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, USA for many years until it was sent on loan to Germany in 2003, where it was reconditioned by Lufthansa, the German national airline. It is currently on display at a specially built unit at the airport in the city of Bremen, after which the aircraft was named.

Fitz – his Portlaoise connection

Col. James Fitzmaurice was born in Dublin on 6 January 1898, but along with his family, moved to Portlaoise (then Maryborough) when he was four years old. He received all his formal education at Portlaoise CBS, and in later life, expressed his gratitude for the dedication of the brothers and teachers there in furthering the interests of their pupils.

When he was 11 or 12 years old, he wandered accidentally into Aldritts’ Garage just up the road from the school. The Aldritt family were among the foremost automobile engineers in the country at the time and even manufactured their own automobiles. Powered sustained flight had been achieved for the first time in December 1903 by the Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, at Kittyhawk, North Carolina. The Aldritt brothers, Louis, Frank and Joe, and their father Frank snr., took a keen interest in the early development of aviation and decided to build their own plane with the help of local artisan, Johnny Conroy, father of a family of reputable tradesmen in Portlaoise. The young Fitzmaurice, affectionately known as Fitz, was allowed to help them in this fascinating project.

The plane was duly built, a monoplane similar to the one used by Louis Bleriot in the first crossing by air of the English Channel in 1909. It was powered by a three-cylinder in line water-cooled engine cast in Dublin by Tonge and Taggart. The bamboo shoots used in the construction of the wings were grown in the Ballyfin demesne. Frank, son of the founder, was pilot in the attempt to the machine airborne. It rose briefly but fell back to earth again. The weight of the engine in relation to the weight of the plane caused a severe imbalance which consigned the attempt to failure.

But it had implanted a passion for flying in Fitzmaurice, the boy, which remained with him through his lifetime. After serving at the front, and wounded on two occasions during WWI, he was commissioned. He joined the RAF and flew on the first experimental air mail flight expedition in Europe, from Folkestone to Cologne. He returned to Ireland where he joined the infant Irish Army Air Corps. In a few brief years he became officer-in-command at Baldonnel.

After his historic flight in 1928, Fitz stopped off at Portlaoise and met some of his old friends in the town. He made the last of his many visits to the town of his youth in the 1950s and was taken on a tour of his old stomping grounds by Donie Aldritt, son of Joe, and grandson of Frank snr.

After years in the limelight, a personality much sought after by presidents and royalty, he fell upon hard times. He inspired the creation of Aer Lingus but took no part in its development. The Irish government turned its back on one of the country’s greatest assets, an internationally renowned aviation pioneer, and he died a disillusioned and lonely man in his native city of Dublin in 1965. Then, although neglected by the country in his lifetime, he was given a state funeral to Glasnevin with full military honours. The forgotten hero had, in death, again been remembered.

On the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of his birth and the 70th anniversary of the flight, in 1998, a bust was unveiled in his honour at County Hall, Portlaoise, by his only child, Patricia Selwyn Jones, who is since deceased. A new recreation area, Fitzmaurice Place, is also named after the famous aviator. There is a plaque to Fitzmaurice at Portlaoise CBS, where he went to school.

Image from Laois Heritage Society Journal. Vol. 4

To mark the 80th anniversary of the flight in 2008 a talk, jointly organised by Laois County Council and Laois Heritage Society, was given at County Hall, Portlaoise, by Brigadier General Ralph James, Officer in Command of the Irish Air Corp at Baldonnel, a position held by Fitzmaurice at the time of the flight.

This article, written by Teddy Fennelly, author of Fitz and the Famous Flight and owner of the Fitzmaurice Archive, was first published in the Laois Heritage Society Journal. Vol. 4 in 2008. Laois Local Studies would like to acknowledge the dedication and generosity of Teddy Fennelly in creating an important body of work on Col. James Fitzmaurice and providing access to the Fitzmaurice Archive through the Laois Local Studies Digital Archive.