Centenary of the first air crossing of the south Atlantic

On March 30, the Portuguese post office worthily commemorated the centenary of the first air crossing of the South Atlantic, between Portugal and Brazil, through the issue of a splendid series of three I20g stamps, corresponding to a nominal value of 1.05 euros. and a 3.00 euro block of paper.

The first air crossing of the South Atlantic was carried out by Portuguese naval aviators Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral in 1922, on the occasion of the centenary of Brazil’s independence. They flew in stages from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro, using three different Fairey III biplanes and flew a distance of 8,383 kilometers (5,209 nautical miles) between March 30 and June 17, 1922. intrinsic in scientific and individual terms, despite the limited resources available, it became an important historical reference in transatlantic aviation and was an inspiration for the numerous successive transatlantic pilots, first of all, Charles Lindbergh.

Let’s briefly return to the events of this historic crossing and the three machines used, which saw the two daring pilots fly over the ocean for 36 hours and 29 minutes, without geographical references, with perfect knowledge of the position, based exclusively on astronomical observation, which for the time was considered an unprecedented and innovative feat, a forerunner of autonomous navigation.

In fact, with this flight for the first time in the history of aviation, the crossing of the South Atlantic had been made using an instrument that made it possible to determine the position of the plane by means of astronomical navigation. The instrument, called “Precision Sextant”, was made by Coutinho himself, making some changes to a naval sextant, with which the sea horizon was not used to observe the height of the same, but an artificial horizon, defined with the help of a water bubble.

With this tool, the Portuguese aviator was able to meet the following three specific conditions of air navigation:

  • the need to determine the direction and intensity on board the aircraft;
  • the need, when flying an aircraft at high speed, to determine its position much faster than that practiced on board ships;
  • finally, the need for air navigators, when flying at high altitudes or above the clouds, without the possibility of seeing the horizon of the sea, to use an artificial horizon as a means of observing the height of the stars.

The experience made by the two Portuguese aviators was invaluable for many of the pilots who subsequently tried their hand at Atlantic crossings and Gago Coutinho was hosted with full honors at the Conference of Transoceanic Aviators, held in Rome from 22 to 26 May 1932, under the aegis of the Royal Aero Club of Italy and promoted, organized and implemented in the wake of the immense favor accorded all over the world to the First Atlantic Cruise of the Italian Aviation. On that occasion, the Portuguese aviator was able to very well represent the autonomous needs of air navigation, which would have had to resort to tools and methods similar to those of naval navigation.

Precisely in Rome, in his report, Coutinho illustrated the reasons that had led him to define the route and the stages of his Atlantic crossing. In particular, the availability of an aircraft with limited capabilities, with a range of just 840 miles, with which you could fly from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro with a stopover in the Canaries and the Cape Verde Islands, but with 1,240 miles between Porto Prahia (Cape Verde) and Rio de Janeiro, it was necessary to make an additional stop at the Rock of San Pedro, which was providentially 900 miles from San Tiagoò Island (Porto Prahia). This rock offered a valid reference as a meeting point between the aircraft and a ship of about 1,000 tons that the Portuguese navy could offer. The distance of the Scoglio from the Island of Fernando de Noronha was just 330 miles and therefore it was not necessary to leave from this point with a heavy load. The flight from the latter island and the Brazilian coast was then less than 300 miles. Here are all the stages from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro:

The three stamps issued on 30 March show the three aircraft used. The first, the seaplane Fairey IIID version Mark II, F 400, called “Lusitania”, which took off from Lisbon on March 30, 1922, at dawn; the second, the Fairey IIID seaplane, F 401, license plate 16, which drifted on 11 May after an emergency landing while being rescued by a merchant ship; the third, the Fairey IIID seaplane, F402, with license plate 17, which completed the crossing on June 17, 1922 and was later christened “Santa Cruz” upon arrival in Brazil.

First plane

The journey started from the Bom Sucesso airship station, on the Tagus, near the Belém Tower in Lisbon, at 4:30 pm on March 30, 1922. The “Lusitania” was equipped with an artificial horizon for aeronautical use (according to the Navy Museum Portuguese, testing the horizon was one of the main reasons for this flight). The first part of the trip ended the same day in Las Palmas (Canary Islands), where the aviators noticed a higher fuel consumption than expected. The voyage resumed on April 5 in the direction of the island of São Vicente (Cape Verde), 850 miles away. After making some repairs to the plane, the aviators left on April 17 and flew to Porto Praia, on the island of Santiago, and then to the Rock of Saints Peter and Paul, already in Brazilian waters, where they arrived on the same day, after traveling 1,100 miles across the South Atlantic. They had reached that point by relying solely on Coutinho’s sextant, with its artificial horizon. However, during the landing near the archipelago at the Scoglio, due to the rough sea, the “Lusitania” lost one of its floats and sank. The two aviators were rescued by the cruiser NRP República, sent by the Portuguese Navy to support the air crossing. The aviators were then transported to the Brazilian islands Fernando de Noronha. the “Lusitania” lost one of its floats and sank. The two aviators were rescued by the cruiser NRP República, sent by the Portuguese Navy to support the air crossing. The aviators were then transported to the Brazilian islands Fernando de Noronha. the “Lusitania” lost one of its floats and sank. The two aviators were rescued by the cruiser NRP República, sent by the Portuguese Navy to support the air crossing. The aviators were then transported to the Brazilian islands Fernando de Noronha.

Second plane

The enthusiasm of the Portuguese and Brazilian public opinion about the flight prompted the Portuguese government to send another Fairey III seaplane to complete the journey. The new plane, dubbed “Patria”, arrived in Fernando Noronha on 6 May. The two aviators returned to fly on 11 May and returned to the point where the journey had been interrupted, the Rock of Saints Peter and Paul. However, an engine problem forced them to once again make an emergency ditching in the middle of the ocean, where they drifted for nine hours until I was rescued by the nearby British merchant ship Paris City, which brought them back. to Fernando Noronha.

Third plane

A third Fairey III, baptized “Santa Cruz”, was sent by the president of Brazil, Epitácio Pessoa, with the NRP cruiser Carvalho Araújo. On June 5, the seaplane took off from Fernando Noronha’s waters in the direction of Recife, then Salvador da Bahia, Vitória and Rio de Janeiro, where they arrived on June 17, 1922, landing in Guanabara Bay. The two men were received as heroes by a huge crowd, also welcomed by the famous aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont. Although their journey took 79 days, the actual flight time was just 62 hours and 26 minutes. The plane, the only one of three surviving to date, is now on display at the Maritime Museum in Lisbon, Portugal.

A bronze monument, in memory of the crossing, is today present along the coasts of the Tagus, near the Tower of Belém.

Praise, honors and tributes

Gago Coutinho has received numerous important medals and official awards. The number of issues is also rich from a philatelic point of view. In 1923, to commemorate the previous year’s event, Portugal issued a series of 16 stamps. In 1969, on the centenary of Coutinho’s birth, four commemorative stamps were issued, which circulated for five years. In 1972, in the fiftieth year of the first air crossing of the South Atlantic, four stamps were issued to celebrate the event. These stamps circulated for more than ten years. Also in 1972, Angola, Macao, Mozambique, Sao Tome and Prince and East Timor issued a commemorative stamp to celebrate that date. In 2009, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his death, Portugal issued a post card, still in use now. Spain also honored the Portuguese navigators in 1930 by dedicating them one of the nine commemorative stamps dedicated to the Universal Exposition in Seville. Portugal also paid tribute to Coutinho through a banknote of 20 Escudos, in circulation from 1978 to 1986. This year the last issue.

Other types of honors were attributed to Coutinho, for example villages baptized with his name. Several cities in Portugal and former colonies paid homage to the admiral, baptizing streets, avenues, squares, airports, with his name. Not to mention the occasions on which he was made an honorary citizen or even an honorary member of charitable and recreational communities.