I walked passed this imposing grave many times before I realised it was the one I was seeking. It was on a roundabout in the old part of the vast Southern Cemetery on the outskirts of Manchester. You don’t really except graves to be buried on a roundabout so I passed by it about three times with the usual expression of idiocy on my face. An aviator is buried here but I think he would have preferred to have been cremated and had his ashes released from a plane at high altitude as this is where he spent a lot of his life.
He was a captain in the RAF but mainly known for being the first man to fly (with another aviator John Brown) on the first ever non-stop flight from England to America. He’s called John Alcock but he wasn’t really all cock but more balls. He went up in the air scores of times as a fighter pilot. He was a captain and Knight by the age he died at just 29.
He was born on Bonfire Night in 1892 just a short drive away in Stretford. He became interested in flying aged 17. For most it was just a dream but he got a job at the Empress Motor Works in Manchester. However he left this coveted position when he met a French pilot Maurice Ducrocq. He went to Surrey to work for Maurice probably because there was a realistic chance of flying aircraft than working on them. This move worked and he got his pilot’s licence at 24 (at 24 I was pressing buttons on a computer and didn’t even have a car.) He joined the Sunbeam Car Company as a racing pilot.
World War I stopped play and, naturally, he joined the RAF and was posted to Greece. He conceived and built the Alcock Scout, a fighter aircraft built out of the remnants of unused and abandoned aircraft. Aged 29 he was up in a Sopwith Camel Alcock and had a cat fight with three enemy aircraft, forcing two to crash into the sea (for which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.) This real life Acton Man returned to base then took up a bomber to bomb Constantinople. An engine failed and he had to turn back. After flying 60 miles the other engine failed and he ditched the plane in the sea then swam for an hour to reach the enemy-held shore. He was taken prisoner by the Turkish forces (that was a bad day.) He remained a prisoner of war until the end of the war.
After the war he became a test pilot for Vickers and took up the challenge of flying across the Atlantic. Nobody had done it before though some had tried. There was a high chance he and his flight partner Arthur Brown would crash into the sea and freeze to death. They did it, taking off from Newfoundland in North America and landing 16 hours and 12 minutes and 1980 miles later in Ireland. It was no picnic. The entered fog so thick they couldn’t see anything and flew blindly for many miles. At one point it was so cold the instruments failed so they flew upside down for a while to get them working. Ice formed on the wings. At one point the right-hand engine started rattling like a machine gun and starting spitting flames. Some red-hot globules of metal started splattering the outside of the cockpit. Somehow the engine kept working. The electric heaters in their flying suits stopped working (the batteries had run out) and they almost froze to death. Thankfully they made it, travelling at an average speed was 115mph. However they almost didn’t make it, landing in field which turned out to be boggy. This flight carried the first mail. The aviators brought a post bag containing 197s letters franked in America. They won a £10,000 prize offered by the Daily Mail newspaper presented to them by Winston Churchill (worth about £500,000 now.) Days later awarded John with a knighthood by King George V at Windsor Castle.
Life was mercilessly short and John died aged 27. After cheating death through the war and flying across the Atlantic he died while flying in fog. The First World War was over and he flying to an aeronautical exhibition in Paris just before Christmas 1919. He was used to banks of fog so who knows what happened but the plane plunged into a field in Rouen in Normandy where he suffered a fractured skull. He was rushed to hospital but didn’t regain consciousness and died.
There's some footage of the funeral here.
Get ready…………………………………………..setting off from America………………………………………landing in Ireland
It could do with some CIF on it…