Saturday 7 November 2015

23 Sir Arthur Whitten Brown

23. Sir Arthur Whitten Brown (photos: Heathrow statue, plaque, memorial) - 7/11/15

Some achievements that seemed impossible a hundred years ago are now almost commonplace.  Visitors attain the summit of Mount Everest (albeit not always unscathed), scientists visit and work at the South Pole, and each day hundreds of people fly across the Atlantic Ocean.

Such accomplishments used to be beyond the scope of any except the most highly skilled and best equipped men and women, and one of these subsequently came to live and work in Swansea. 

The names Alcock and Brown became famous in June 1919 when they achieved the first non-stop transatlantic flight.  They flew in a modified Vickers Vimy bomber from St John’s, Newfoundland, to Ireland in sixteen hours, of which fourteen-and-a-half were over the north Atlantic.  They covered 1,890 miles at an average speed of 115 mph and encountered fog, ice, snow, and much bad visibility.  Several times Brown, who was navigator, had to climb out onto the wings to remove ice from the engine air intakes.  They landed in Connemara, County Galway, near their intended destination but in a bog, which caused some damage to the aircraft, though neither airman was injured: two memorials now mark the site.    

For achieving the first non-stop transatlantic flight they were presented by Winston Churchill with the £10,000 prize put up by the Daily Mail - and they were knighted by King George V at Windsor Castle.  

But six months later 27-year-old Lancastrian Sir John Alcock, the pilot on that epic flight, was killed when a new Vickers Viking amphibian that he was flying to the Paris air show crashed in fog near Rouen in Normandy.  For his colleague, however, there remained years of useful service ahead.

Born to American parents in Glasgow, Arthur Whitten Brown’s career was in engineering.  He took up British citizenship during the First World War when his plane was twice shot down over France; the second time resulted in him becoming a prisoner of war and interned in Switzerland.  In 1923 he was appointed chief representative for Metropolitan-Vickers (formerly British Westinghouse) in the Swansea area.  In his office at 62 Wind Street (part of present-day Ice Bar), one of the propellers from the Vickers Vimy hung on the wall for many years, before he presented it to RAF College Cranwell in Lincolnshire. 

At the time of the 1926 General Strike, Whitten Brown served with the County Borough of Swansea Police as a special constable.  Two years later he went to Burry Port to congratulate the American Amelia Earhart, who in 1928 became the first woman to fly the Atlantic.  Although she had not been pilot or navigator on that occasion, four years later she became the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo.

He taught pilots at Fairwood Airport, for after the Air Training Corps was formed in 1941, Whitten Brown became the first Commanding Officer of 215 (City of Swansea) Squadron Air Training Corps.

During the Second World War he served in the Home Guard as a Lieutenant-Colonel, before rejoining the RAF to work in RAF Training Command dealing with navigation.  But the death in a 1944 aircraft crash in the Netherlands of his only son Arthur, while serving with the RAF, affected him deeply.  Sir Arthur Whitten Brown died in 1948 from an accidental overdose of sleeping tablets aged 62, and is buried in Buckinghamshire.

In Langland a plaque in the wall in Overland Road states that he had lived initially in Overland Court, while another plaque is placed above an entrance to Belgrave Court in the Uplands: the 1939 Register of Electors lists him and his wife Margaret at flat number 24.
At Heathrow airport a statue of Alcock and Brown was unveiled in 1954 - it now stands outside the visitor centre. 

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