The first people to discover Ireland’s particular value to aviation were glad to see it looming up ahead early one summer morning in 1919. The two men had been flying across the North Atlantic for 16 hours and 28 minutes, at heights varying from 12,000 feet to sea level.
Their airplane was a converted twin-engine British World War I bomber, with an average top speed of 120 mph. The pilot, Captain John Alcock, identified the masts of the Marconi radio station, the key communications link between Europe and North America, signifying that they had reached Irish coast, and decided to land. The navigator, Lieutenant Arthur Witten Brown, had plotted the course from St. John’s, Newfoundland, just under 1,900 miles, and agreed that it was time to call it quits.
Alcock switched off the engines and glided toward what seemed firm and level ground near the radio station. The wheels touched down, and the airplane appeared to settle magisterially as it stopped.
But then, slowly, the nose dipped and the tail lifted, giving the appearance of a crash landing.
Alas, Brown had landed on a bog.
Alcock and Brown stepped clear and became the first people to fly the Atlantic non-stop—eight years before Lindbergh’s solo flight from Long Island to Paris.
Alcock and Brown won a prize of £10,000 from a British newspaper, but never came close to Charles Lindbergh’s celebrity. (Lindbergh was gallant enough on his arrival in Paris to say that Alcock and Brown had “shown the way.”} Yet they had foretold the real future of transatlantic flight with far more precision than Lindbergh—to be realistic it would require multi-engine airplanes like their Vickers bomber.
Ireland in 1919 was in the violent turmoil of its struggle for independence from Britain after the brutal repression that followed the 1916 Easter Uprising. Aviation was also in flux, as airplane builders struggled with the challenges of figuring out whether a new technology that had been concentrated on war machines could be adapted to peaceful purposes.
In such times, despite Alcock and Brown, the strategic significance of Ireland for Atlantic crossings did not register.
This began to change in December 1936, when Lindbergh flew low over the magnificent estuary of the Shannon River near Limerick. He had been sent to Europe by Juan Trippe, the visionary creator of Pan American World Airways, to survey possible landing sites for the flying boats that Trippe planned to use on the airline’s first transatlantic flights.
The Irish government had selected a spot on the Shannon estuary, Rineanna (Gaelic for “meeting place of the birds”) to be developed as both a seaport that could handle the flying boats and an airfield with four grass runways.
In July 1939 Pan Am’s “Yankee Clipper” made the airline’s first round trip from the U.S. to Shannon. The Boeing flying boats were massive, with a wingspan not far short of today’s jumbo jets. They were slow, not able to top 200 mph, but they carried only 22 passengers in spacious cabins, paying a one-way fare of $375 ($6,400 in 2016).
They were what they were called, literally, a flying boat and a cultural hybrid as well as a mechanical one: The crews had the nautical nomenclature and that has carried over to this day: Captain, First Officer, Purser, Chief Steward, and so on.
However, within two years World War II brought an end to the Clipper flights across the Atlantic. But the strategic value of Shannon was swiftly grasped. In the 1940s, as U.S. built bombers and fighters began to be ferried to bases in Britain, Shannon became a key landfall for pilots taking the North Atlantic route from Gander, Newfoundland—the very same route that Alcock and Brown had pioneered.
All this was prelude.
In the last years of the war there was an outbreak of unholy scheming by aviation interests in the U.S. and Britain to grab dominance of the future air routes of the world. The North Atlantic route would be the first and most singularly instructive step in establishing aviation’s most vaulting promise—a secure and permanent air bridge between North America and Europe, the ultimate conquest of The Pond.
Little of the technology needed to sustain regularly scheduled services between continents actually existed, but with the advantage of the technical breakthroughs achieved under the pressure of war, both the U.S. and Britain believed they now had the resources needed to develop the airplanes, the airports, and the supporting infrastructure.
But they had very different ideas about how this system should be regulated and, essentially, who would get which routes. Britain, like a number of other countries of the old imperium, believed in the principle of dominance by one national carrier, a “fly the flag” airline. Before the war, under the name of Imperial Airways, the Brits had built the infrastructure for routes throughout the British Empire. Now they promoted the interests of a new airline, British Overseas Airways Corporation, BOAC.
Some American politicians believed that the U.S. should do the same thing, and force a merger of a few of the principal airlines to create a single American flag carrier—or, in a phrase that revealed that there was a larger, geopolitical motive involved, a “chosen instrument” where the airline would be a Trojan horse for political purposes.
The airline bosses would have none of it. Among them, Trippe was by far the best-connected in Washington and the wiliest of schemers. In order to get favored treatment in the allocation of international routes he became a champion of the people, a visionary promising the democratization of air travel.
“Air transport does have a choicem” said Trippe. “The very clear choice of becoming a luxury service to carry the well-to-do at high prices—or to carry the average man at what he can afford to pay. Pan American has chosen the latter course.”
Pan Am said it would sell a one-way trip from New York to London for about $148—as compared with the $300 cost of taking the Queen Mary ocean liner. (They would never come near that figure, the economics did not allow it.)
What followed, executed in a series of deliberately prolix international treaties, was a chain of route monopolies masquerading as necessary regulation. Pan Am disputed the proposed arrangement for Europe, partly because although it won the rights to fly through Shannon it failed to win Dublin. This was gained on appeal.
For passengers the late 1940s and early 1950s were the first years when regular, dependable year-round Atlantic crossings by air became a reality. Looked back on from today’s experience they seem a combination of rare comforts (no more than 70 or 80 passengers, generous seating, no lines at the airport) and primitive machines.
Flying at half the speed of a modern jet and unable to cruise at a jet’s high altitude the first post-war airliners were noisy and in bad Atlantic weather the ride was often a white-knuckle endurance test.
Of course, since nothing superior was then imaginable, and most of the passengers were either rich, famous or politically powerful, the more emetic features of the new age of air travel were concealed behind a promotional narrative that portrayed an elegant crowd indulging the finest epicurean tastes as they flew above lesser mortals.
Pan Am introduced the Boeing Stratocruiser, fondly remembered for its lower deck lounge where there was a cocktail bar for first-class passengers. Booze was surely an effective antidote to the noise and turbulence and all the transatlantic airlines traded on the “caviar and champagne” culture of their first class cabins. This reinforced the impression that Trippe’s vaunted democratization of international air travel remained a long way off—which it did.
The Stratoliner and its rivals, the Douglas DC6-B and Lockheed Constellation, could fly no further than 3,000 miles nonstop. Eastbound flights, with prevailing tail winds, could usually make it to London non-stop, but no deeper into Europe. Westbound flights, far slower because of headwinds, needed pit stops at Shannon and, quite often, eastbound flights would need to land there, too.
These flights gave birth to a minor media industry, the airport photo op. Celebrities who flew belonged to a new subset of fame, the VIP—Very Important Person. Airlines had VIP lounges reserved for them, and the photo op was understood to be an essential transaction between the airline and the celebrity. In return for getting a free flight, the stars would agree to pause at the foot of the stairs to the airplane and do the big glam for the photographers.
Shannon was one of the places where a sharp photographer could make a buck by intercepting a celebrity arrival, not only those staged by the airline but those occurring inadvertently because of an unscheduled refueling stop.
The Irish were innovative and in 1947 they made Shannon a customs-free zone. Passengers, both departing and in transit, did not have to endure customs inspections of their baggage—at other European airports this was often carried out with an invasive belligerence that suggested that the customs officers were taking revenge on the privileged. Travelers returning to Europe from the U.S. were viewed as most likely to be carrying the contraband of a place where many pleasures heavily taxed in Europe were untaxed: even LP records were subject to punitive duty in the U.K.
And then, in 1951, Shannon took a small step that can truly be claimed as the precursor of the idea of the airport as shopping mall. The airport opened a small “ship’s store” where airline stewards could buy duty-free cigarettes for re-sale on the airplane. Very soon, this morphed into the world’s first duty-free airport store for passengers, eventually extending from tobacco and liquor to perfumes and the now familiar range of stuff likely to produce buyer’s remorse.
But Shannon’s utility as a pit stop was slowly disappearing. By the late 1950s the last generation of propeller-powered airliners were being replaced by the first generation of jets could safely fly for as far as 3,500 miles or more. The Atlantic non-stops went directly between New York, London and Paris.
Shannon couldn’t develop as a hub because it made no sense as a location for connecting flights—Dublin had that sewn up. Nor was there a major city to attract its own traffic.
But, in the end, Shannon was saved by an asset that is priceless: It is surrounded by the kind of natural beauty that should be on anyone’s bucket list. As a gateway to Ireland (almost all of which should be on that bucket list) it has no equal, certainly not Dublin. Boosted by summer flights from Boston, Chicago, New York, Newark and Philadelphia the airport is now handling around 1.7 million passengers a year.
Of course, given its off-center location, you could say of Shannon what, according to an old Irish joke, a local who was asked by a traveler for directions said: “If I was going there I wouldn’t start from here.” In fact, when I was lost on a road in western Ireland, not far from Shannon, that’s more or less what I was told by the first person I encountered. Nevermind. There is no finer country to be lost in, believe me.