Wonderful Things: Vickers Vimy

Sometimes it is important to look at some of the older inventions on display in the Science Museum in order to understand how technology has developed and contributed to where we are now.    

One such invention isn’t even 100 years old but technology has moved on so fast that it looks archaic!  This is the Vickers Vimy Mk.IV.  For those of you who aren’t experts in aviation, and I count myself in that category too, this is an aeroplane. 

The Vickers Vimy, 1919

The wonderful Vickers Vimy, 1919. Image SSPL

However, it’s not just any aeroplane, in 1919 it became the first one to fly non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean.  Before this, the only way to get across the Atlantic was by boat. All this changed after two men, Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten-Brown, achieved the flight of 1900 miles in 16 hours.  It is amazing to think that this was just 16 years after the Wright brothers made the first ever sustained flight, which lasted just 12 seconds and covered 37 metres.

The Vickers Vimy flight began on the 14th June in St John’s, Newfoundland. It’s journey was fraught with peril.  The pilots faced storms, snow and ice … At one point Alcock became so disorientated in the dense clouds that they began to spiral out of control!  Fortunately, they recovered just before crashing into the water.  They arrived the following morning in Clifden, County Galway and promptly crash-landed in a bog (probably a bit of a relief). They received a hero’s welcome and were both knighted by George V.      

The Vickers Vimy wasn’t built for this purpose, though; it was originally intended as a heavy bomber during the First World War.  However, Alcock and Whitten-Brown recognised the potential these planes had for long distance flying. They had the best design and Rolls Royce engines, which were the most reliable.

In fact, this was the beginning of a travel revolution, which was to continue throughout the 20th Century.  These days, flying abroad is very common but we are now starting to see the impact that this is having on our environment.  Not only in terms of the energy being used but also the level of noise pollution and changes in our air quality.  In 2010, Heathrow alone recorded nearly 449,220 flights taking off from their runways.  That is 1,231 flights a day! 

Although air travel contributes less to greenhouse gas emissions than say, factories, we do need to address the environmental issues around flying.

  • What suggestions do your students have for how we can reduce the environmental impact of these flights? 
  • The Government has been discussing the possibility of charging a Green Tax in response to these issues (you can read more about green taxes here).  How would you feel about paying a Green Tax when you fly?
  • So…  Would you prefer to holiday 4 times a year by train, or once a year by plane?

You can find the Vickers Vimy aeroplane in the Flight gallery on the third floor of the Museum. 

-Kate Davis

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