Bremen 75, Baldonnel - Greenly Island
photos by Gerard Hoban, 11th April 2003
The Flight of “Bremen Seven Five”...... Niall Kerney
“I saw the green hills of Ireland and I knew that I had hit Europe on the nose. Ireland is one of the four corners of the world.” ..... Charles Lindbergh.
The great, unpredictable Atlantic ocean presented the most prized , and the most formidable challenges to the early fliers. After the horrors of the “Great War”, the conquest of the Atlantic by Alcock and Brown and Lindbergh’s solo flight had rekindled the imaginations and hopes of a shattered world. But to prove the reality of Atlantic air travel, there still remained the much more hazardous challenge of crossing from Europe to America, against the prevailing winds.
The colourful, adventurous and visionary Commanding officer of the Irish Air Corps, Major James Fitzmaurice, known as “Fitz”, shared the ambition to make the first East to West crossing of the Atlantic. Following his failed attempt with Captain Robert McIntosh, “all weather Mac” in September 1927, which ironically had to turn back due to appalling weather conditions, Fitzmaurice was hungry to place Ireland on the world aviation map. He had ambitions for the development of commercial transatlantic air travel from Ireland.
The happy coincidence of the desire of an aristocratic German, Baron Gunther von Hunefeld, to re-establish his country’s reputation after the humiliations of the war, combined with a fear that the American public might be reluctant to welcome German fliers as heroes, led to Fitzmaurice being invited by von Hunefeld to join his attempt to conquer the Atlantic. So it came that in the grey light of dawn on the 12th April, 1928, to the cheers of a crowd of thousands, the “Bremen”, a Junkers W.33 carrying von Hunefeld, Fitzmaurice and Captain Hermann Koehl lifted off the Baldonnel grass towards the South, before heading off into the Western skies. By the following dawn, they were to land safely on a frozen lake at Greenly Island, near Blanc Sablon, some 200 miles from Goose Bay, and so earn their place in history. Two million turned out to greet them on their arrival in New York.
Exactly 75 years later, to the day and the hour, in the calm, grey half light of dawn on Saturday 12th April 2003, a small crowd, including dignitaries from Germany, Canada, members of Air Corps, the Fitzmaurice family and the media gathered to the sound of bagpipes to remember the achievement and to witness its re-enactment. A lone Bell 212 helicopter, carrying the iron cross markings of the German Army flanked by the numbers 73+04, stood across the tarmac in silent witness to the activities. Also parked on the apron was a very un-military looking aircraft, a factory-fresh single-engined TBM 700, registered N700GE. This aircraft, being piloted by Margrit Waltz on delivery across the Atlantic, was to accompany the Irish Air Corps Beech 200 using the callsign “Bremen 75”, carrying German and Irish members of the travelling party to their destination of Blanc Sablon in Canada. Margrit Waltz is well accustomed to the challenges and dangers of the Atlantic, having successfully shepherded innumerable small aircraft on delivery across the ocean. In fact, this was to be her 560th ferry flight!
Following the short formalities, the GOC of the Air Corps, Brigadier-General Ralph James, accompanied by Lt. Col. Gerry O’Sullivan, Capt. Eamon Murphy, Sgt. Anthony Conlon, Ronan Lee, producer of the “Nationwide” TV programme, and a member of the German “Bremen Club”, boarded the Beech 200 “240” for the transatlantic flight, and the early morning stillness was broken by the polite whistling of the Beech’s PT6A engines spooling up. The aircraft moved forward, stopping momentarily in front of the crowd, displaying the titles “Fitz” under the cockpit and the Bremen logo on its rear fuselage, before taxying out and taking off at 06.40 into the pale grey light. Almost immediately, a pair of Warriors gunned their engines into life, and took off after the Beechcraft, swiftly followed by the TBM700, piloted by Margrit Waltz, with Lt. Paul Kelly and the second member of the Bremen Club.
As the noise of the aircraft faded in the morning stillness, it was easy to imagine the shattering noise of the Junkers W.33’s 310 h.p.L5 inline engine firing into life, and to feel the real excitement, anxieties and hopes of the men and women gathered 75 years ago on this same spot. Then from the North, the lights of the “Bremen 75” and its escort formation swept into view above the tree line between the hangars. Following the exact line of the Bremen’s take-off run 75 years previously, the formation swept directly over the heads of the assembled crowd. For good measure, a second flypast was performed before the two aircraft headed West on their Atlantic flight.
Watching and listening to today’s aircraft as they whistled smoothly overhead, it was hard to escape the conclusion that the whole business of flying has become such an unobtrusive and everyday thing for most people. However, the tiny outline of the TBM700 disappearing into the West bore witness to the spirit of adventure and hope that still drives those solo pilots who ferry small aircraft across the great Atlantic for their livelihood.
Later that evening, after approximately 13 hours flight time in perfect weather conditions, and stops in Keflavik, Sondre Stromfjord in Greenland and Goose Bay, the two aircraft touched down at the isolated township of Blanc Sablon in Quebec (pop. 300 persons). The party was received by the town’s mayor and treated to a well-earned meal at Blanc Sablon’s only restaurant, the “Pizza Delight”. In contrast, the original Bremen had taken 37 hours to make the non-stop crossing.
Recalling the treacherous weather conditions which had forced the original Bremen to land in this desolate spot, the party awoke the following morning to a three-foot snowfall! The group travelled by ski-doo to Greenly Island, where further formalities took place, and a wreath of flowers was laid at the spot where the Bremen had landed 75 years earlier.
The following day, the Beech 200 flew in the area for a series of photo opportunities, before heading back to overnight at Goose Bay. The return flight routed via Narsarsuaq in Greenland and Keflavik, before touching down at Baldonnel at approximately 1 a.m on Wednesday morning.
It is interesting to note that the Junkers W33, along with the radial-engined W34 played a significant role in opening up air transport to remote areas of the world. The Bremen was a high-tech aircraft in 1928, yet a Junkers W34 was still flying in Canada in 1962! Maybe the Beech 200 will match its longevity – the 22-year old “240” performed its transatlantic mission flawlessly.
The original Bremen “D-1167” now belongs to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, and is currently on display in Bremen. It is hoped that it will pay a return visit to Ireland early in 2004, travelling to Baldonnel and on for display at Collins Barracks.
The Aviation Society would like to thank the Air Corps and all those who organised such an appropriate commemoration to remind us of one of the great events, and one of the great figures in Irish aviation history.