Though aerial crossing of the Atlantic was no longer a novelty by the mid-1930s, no round trip flight by airplane had yet taken place.
The first round trip by air was by the British airship R-34 in July 1919. This was just two months after the Navy-Curtiss NC-4 flying boat completed the first airplane crossing of the Atlantic and one month after British aviators Alcock and Brown made the first non-stop transatlantic flight in an airplane.
The first effort to fly a round trip across the Atlantic was during 1932 by the well-known Scottish aviator, James Mollison. In August 1932 he completed the first Atlantic solo flight westbound but was unable to complete a return flight.
It was not until 1936 that the first double-crossing of the Atlantic by airplane was successful. The pilot was a well known Eastern Air Lines pilot, Dick Merrill. Not only did Merrill succeed in 1936, he would repeat the round trip crossing again in 1937.
Henry Tyndall “Dick” Merrill, born Feb. 18, 1894, in Iuka, Mississippi, was a junior at the University of Mississippi when he got hooked on flying after seeing Katherine Stinson perform at an airshow.
During the First World War he joined the Navy and wanted to take up flying. He was sent to Pensacola and then over to France where he had flying lessons, but never got the chance to fly for the Navy.
Merrill’s flying career began in 1920 when he purchased a war-surplus Curtiss Jenny for $600. After learning to fly he spent about seven years barnstorming in the South and Southwest. On May 1, 1928, he joined Pitcairn Aviation, Eastern Air Lines predecessor, as an airmail pilot.
He eventually became chief pilot for Eastern Air Lines. While with Eastern, he was frequently detached for special missions. In 1935, he flew 8,200 miles from Kansas City to the southern tip of Chile to help in the successful search for Lincoln Ellsworth and Herbert Hollick-Kenyon, explorers who were then missing in the Antarctic.
PING PONG SPECIAL
Merrill’s demonstrated skill as a long distance flyer with the Ellsworth mission would hold him in good stead when he tried to get backing for one of his personal goals – a round trip trans-Atlantic flight. But the Atlantic could not be crossed on his airline pilot’s salary. Merrill needed a financial backer.
Dick knew that Harry Richman, a millionaire entertainer and amateur pilot, was practically the only civilian who owned a plane capable of making the transatlantic flight. He flew down to Miami to present the idea to Richman, who owned a Vultee V-1 eight-passenger transport. The Vultee not only carried a large load, it was fast.
In 1935 Jimmy Doolittle flew one to a transcontinental speed record of under 12 hours. Richman was up for the challenge, although he thought it was an outrageous idea.
Eddie Rickenbacker, the head of Eastern Air Lines, assigned several of the line’s top mechanics to work on preparing the plane for the flight. This included new fuel tanks and new electronics. Merrill made many test flights to calibrate performance.
One of the test hops was a New York to Miami round trip to test for fuel consumption. Sid Shannon, operations manager for Eastern, suggested filling the wings with ping pong balls for use as a floatation device in case of a forced landing in the ocean. That led to the wings being filled with thousands of ping pong balls.
Merrill thought the plane should be given a prestigious name. With war threatening Europe, they decided that naming the plane “Lady Peace” would be appropriate. However, reporters covering preparations for the flight fixated on the ping pong balls and referred to the aircraft as the “Ping Pong Ball Special.”
The intrepid aviators departed New York on the afternoon of Sept. 2. They settled down at an altitude of 11,000 feet at a speed of 210 mph. While over the ocean the radio went dead. As the flyers had intended in using a radio direction course to England, it was a problem. Cloud cover stretched over most of the Atlantic and they never saw Ireland. With fuel running low, they landed in Wales.
Despite the problems that forced them down in Wales, they had crossed the Atlantic in a record time of 18 hours, 38 minutes. The pilots wired for fuel but had a lengthy delay as the fuel supplies had to come by land. After refueling they were able to continue on to London.
On Sept. 14 they took off for the return trip in the dark facing a headwind of 25 mph. Halfway across the ocean the weather took a turn for the worse with gale force winds jostling the plane. Off the coast of America they ran into torrents of rain, mist and fog. To make matters worse they discovered that the dump valve on the main fuel tank had been opened, releasing hundreds of gallons of gasoline.
Merrill then started looking for a place to land. It was mid-afternoon when the plane landed in a swamp 100 miles north of St. Johns, Newfoundland. On Sept. 21, Merrill and Richman flew the “Lady Peace” back to New York, ending one of the most adventurous flights of the year.
In 1937 the resignation of England’s King Edward VIII in order to marry American commoner Wallis Simpson received great media attention. The coronation of his brother as King George VI on May 10, 1937, would also command world-wide attention.
William Randolph Hearst Sr., founder of the Hearst newspaper chain, let it be known that he was interested in having coronation pictures flown back to the United States. Flying the pictures back to the U.S. would certainly make sensational news on its own and allow Hearst to scoop competitors who would have to wait for many days for photos to arrive by ship.
Two Wall Street brokers, Ben Smith and Jack Bergan, heard of Hearst’s interest and decided that could be a profitable venture. They immediately thought about Dick Merrill and his famous round trip crossing of the Atlantic the previous year. Upon being contacted, Merrill said that he would be interested in such a flight. He discussed the proposal with his boss at Eastern Air Lines, Eddie Rickenbacker, and found out that he also was enthusiastic about the flight.
Scouting for a suitable airplane, he learned that Harold S. Vanderbilt, director of the New York Central Railroad, had a little-used Lockheed 10E Electra. Vanderbilt agreed to part with the plane for $40,000 and the backers allotted another $6,000 for modifications. Merrill was pleased with the prospects of using the Electra as it represented the latest state-of-the-art technology, powered by twin Pratt and Whitney Wasp engines, each rated at 550 hp and equipped with constant speed propellers, a Sperry gyro autopilot, and two-way radio.
After computing the necessary and reserve fuel requirements, Merrill installed six large fuel tanks in the fuselage which would provide a fuel capacity of 1,270 gallons. He figured this would provide a range of 4,300 miles. This was more than enough given the great-circle round from New York to London was 3,022 miles. Merrill requested his regular copilot from Eastern, Jack Lambie, to accompany him on the flight.
The flight departed New York on the afternoon of May 9. Merrill took along with him photographs of the Hindenburg airship disaster, which occurred three days before the flight. After flying out over the ocean beyond Newfoundland thick weather set in and the crew would see nothing until they spotted the Irish coast.
They arrived at London’s Croydon Airport after a flight of 20 hours and 59 minutes — a new record. On draining the fuel tanks Merrill discovered that he had about 100 gallons of gasoline remaining, more than he expected.
After viewing the coronation the pilots went back to Croydon Airport to await delivery of the photos. By the time the airmen were ready to depart England on May 13, interest had grown so much that an estimated crowd of 10,000 people had gathered to watch them takeoff.
The western flight was through mixed weather. After 24 hours and 23 minutes they made a landing through a clear spot in fog at Quincy, Massachusetts. After checking on the weather they found out that Floyd Bennett Field in New York was clear, so they continued on to their destination.
The Hearst newspapers published the first pictures of the coronation. Even papers on the West Coast were able to publish the pictures on May 15.
The double Atlantic crossing made a great impression on the public and it proved the merit of commercial flying across the Atlantic. In 1938 Dick Merrill, having crossed the Atlantic four times by air, earned the Harmon Trophy for promotion of general aviation.
Called the “Coronation Flight” by the press, Merrill’s Atlantic roundtrip also caught the attention of Hollywood. In 1937 the film Atlantic Flight, produced by Monogram Pictures, was conceived as a low-budget feature meant to capitalize on Dick Merrill’s fame. Recreating the flight that made him famous, Dick Merrill was hired to star in the film. The movie is available on YouTube and features actual footage of the famous flight.