Riding the Wings of Empire

In Uncategorized on September 5, 2012 by hillermuseum

Historic Flights of the Vickers Vimy

Shortly after the end of the first World War, the British Empire spanned the globe. From humble beginnings during the 17th-century reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the Empire grew to spread its dominion over nearly half a billion people by the early 1920s. One of every five human beings was a subject, and despite the toll taken by four long years of war it remained peerless as a military and economic power.

For much of the preceding century, Great Britain led the world in mastering new technologies able to bind its empire together. The steamship, railroad and telegraph facilitated rapid exchange of people, goods and information throughout the world, tying places like Canada, Australia, South Africa and India to London. Even the most powerful Caesars of ancient Rome could command their lands no faster than a horse could gallop.

It was during the first World War, however, that a new and disruptive technology came of age—and other powers led the way in developing it. Born in America and nurtured in France, aviation was applied to steely result against Great Britain by Imperial Germany. Since the defeat of the Spanish Armada the British had considered their home islands safely isolated from the ravages of war, but in 1915 long-range Zeppelins appeared in the skies over London, flying far above contemporary British interceptor aircraft. Although these raids were barely a whisper of the terrors to come decades later, the impact on the British psyche was profound. The stage was set for development of a remarkable aircraft: the Vickers Vimy.

Midway through the war, the Vickers company was awarded a contract for a long-range aircraft capable of flying nonstop to Germany and back. Named the Vimy in honor of the War’s first Allied victory, the airplane boasted an enormous kite-like structure that dwarfed earlier designs. Two powerful engines propelled this five-ton beast, with biplane wings spanning some 68’ developing enough lift to fly. At a maximum speed just over 100 miles per hour the Vimy was no speedster even by the standards of its day—but it could carry over a ton of payload nearly 1,000 miles.

Flying the Vimy was often a team effort, as no hydraulics were available to assist the pilots in manipulating control surfaces bigger than the wings of some small airplanes. One pilot typically wrestled the primary flight controls while the other handled the throttles, cajoling the two Rolls Royce engines to keep the aircraft in flight. Exposed to the elements in an open cockpit without even a windshield and surrounded by deafening engines swirling 14’ propellers only a few feet away, piloting a Vimy was never meant for the faint of heart.

The first Vimy flew in late 1917, and due in part to engine changes none ever flew a combat mission. When the war ended, however, the brand-new Vimy found itself as the only effective long distance aircraft in an empire that spanned the longest distances imaginable.

Throughout the 1920s the Vimy served the Royal Air Force as Great Britain’s frontline bomber, but its tremendous range made a variety of other missions possible. In June 1919, a modified Vimy flown by pilots John Alcock and Arthur Brown made the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, flying from St. John’s Newfoundland to Clifden, Ireland in some 16 hours, covering a distance of nearly 1,900 miles. This mission won a prize first offered by the London newspaper The Daily Mail, which was awarded by then-Secretary of State for Air Winston Churchill. Widely acclaimed as heroes and knighted by King George V, Alcock and Brown were the first to demonstrate the potential of air power to link the Empire’s far-flung holdings.

Just six months later, Australian pilots Keith and Ross MacPearson Smith, together with two RAAF sergeants, completed an even more daunting task in another Vickers Vimy. Departing from an airfield in England in November 1919, the brothers piloted the massive aircraft on an extended multi-stop odyssey that reached Darwin, Australia after nearly a month enroute. This flight traversed the heart of the British Empire, crossing through the Middle East, across India and much of Southeast Asia on its way down under. The following year, South African pilots Pierre van Ryneveld and Quintin Brand—like the others, wartime veterans of the Royal Air Force—flew two different Vimys and a Airco DH-9 from England to South Africa.

Remarkably for a fabric-covered biplane designed during World War I, Vimys served on in training roles until 1938. A civilian version was developed into a primitive early airliner, and a cargo variant was built as the Vickers Vernon. With the onset of World War II the Vimy’s time had passed, although the Vickers company continued to build exceptional long-range aircraft for the Royal Air Force, culminating in the jet-powered Vickers Valiant of the 1950s and 1960s.

In the early 1990s, American Peter McMillan and Australian Lang Kidby launched the Vimy Project, an audacious endeavor to build a flying Vimy replica and use it to refly the historic Empire-girding journeys of 1919 and 1920. Between 1994 and 2005 the recreated Vickers Vimy completed all three flights and many others around the world, serving as an airborne ambassador from a bygone age of time when long distance aviation was a newfound marvel and not an everyday necessity. On Sunday, November 4th, the Hiller Aviation Museum welcomes Peter McMillan back to San Carlos Airport, one of the original destinations of his restored Vimy aircraft. Join us as he describes his remarkable experiences with one of the world’s first practical long-range airplanes.


Peter McMillan. The Greatest Flight, 1995
National Geographic Magazine. A Personal Narrative of the First Aerial Voyage Half Around the World, March 1921.
National Geographic Magazine, The Vimy Flies Again, May 1995


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