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Going to Rio — First Aerial Crossing of the South Atlantic

30 December 2011

Going to Rio — First Aerial Crossing of the South Atlantic

1919 saw aircraft first crossing the northern Atlantic Ocean. Although relatively, and unfairly, unknown in the North America Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral were the first to fly across the South Atlantic — and they flew early, in 1922. The pair accomplished their feat with single engine floatplanes — Fairey IIID Mk II models — on a flight of several legs from Lisbon Portugal to Rio de Janeiro Brazil. The flight was also commemorative of Brazil’s centennial. The time in the air was just under 62½ hours but occurred over 79 days, using not one but two replacement aircraft. The total distance covered was 5209 miles (8383km) with the flight beginning on 30 March and concluding on 17 June.

It was a remarkable flight that began with a modified Fairey IIID, called the F.400 (its serial number), having a 61 foot (18.5m) wing span which was much greater than the normal 45 feet (13.6m) span — it also had fuel tanks in what was formerly the pilot’s cockpit as well as the floats and the wings. She was named the Luzitania and sunk due to a damaged float off the Saint Peter and Paul Rocks, well into the trip. The Portuguese government responded by shipping a Fairey IIID Mk II, this one named Pátria, but she also sunk on on the first trip leg from the famous “Rocks” in the Atlantic Ocean. Another Fairey IIID was soon shipped, the Santa Cruz, and was the ship that completed the mission. The Santa Cruz is displayed in Lisbon’s Museu da Marinha with a replica also in the Museo do Ar located near Lisbon.

The National Air & Space Museum on the National Mall has a model of the Santa Cruz aircraft flown by Coutinho and Cabral, though. One can see that the aircraft had primitive, non stepped, floats and open cockpits as well as a single engine — given this, the professionalism and bravery of these pilots was incredible. They flew and over a hostile ocean with only their own navigation aids, exposed to the weather at over 100 mph (160kph) and without modern weather services of radio communications. Coutinho and Cabral also flew using a revolutionary navigational instrument in the day, a sextant with two spirit levels so no visible horizon was required for readings — invented by Gago Coutinho!

Model in the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum on the National Mall of the Fairey IIID Mk II, Santa Cruz, as it looked in 1922 when flown in the historic flight across the South Atlantic by Portuguese aviators Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral— photo by Joseph May

Aside from this model, there is at least one monument to their accomplishment and bravery. It is a sculpture of one of their aircraft and it is located in Lisbon near to where they launched their historic flight and a short walk from where the Santa Cruz is exhibited. The location is 38º 41′ 32.12″ N / 09º 12′ 50.99″ W  — if using Google Earth there are several nice photos of the monument that can be viewed if you go to those coordinates.

Both men went on to become admirals in the Portuguese Navy.

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My sincere thanks to Ross Sharp, retired museum curator and host of Shortfinals’s Blog, for his help and fact checking — his information is invaluable for this post.

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Additional information:

Archived at UNESCO, the report made by Coutinho and Cabral to their government, © Portuguese Navy, Arquivo Histórico da Marinha – Biblioteca Central da Marinha

An article about the flight and especially the Coutinho sextant

Instituto Histórico-Cultural da Aeronáutica, this article

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. 31 December 2011 04:30

    Season’s Greetings, Joe! Enjoyed this story very much, and sent the following to Ross Sharp at “Shortfinals”:
    Good Day, Ross –
    Our mutual friend and aviation history blogger Joe May (https://travelforaircraft.wordpress.com/) has introduced his readers to your well-produced and researched site: Much appreciated! Joe credits you with source material for his report on the first South Atlantic aerial crossing (1922) from Portugal to Brazil which led me, in turn, to supplemental details about the Coutinho sextant. As a former Navigator and Skipper for Pan American World Airways I found this, and the account of the flight, to be fascinating stuff!
    Many thanks, and keep up the good work!
    ——————————-
    Cheers, and Happy Hogmanay!
    Mac

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      31 December 2011 08:23

      Mac,

      Thanks again. I had no idea you are a qualified navigator and am happy the Coutinho sextant was mentioned.

      Ross has great stuff, doesn’t he? He is a former museum curator, so his high standards as well as detailed information are little surprise. For the benefit of others, his blog is on my links list or one could go to http://shortfinals.wordpress.com/ to see Shortfinals’s Blog.

      Mac, thanks again and Happy New Year to you and to yours,

      Joe

  2. 31 December 2011 04:32

    Just requesting to be Cc’d on comments/posts

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