22 January 1939: American newspaper headlines trumpeted the ravages of a terrible winter storm blanketing the American northeast as two cold fronts collided. The temperature sank to minus 30 degrees F in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York even as an appalling mix of rain, hail and snow fell on the eastern seaboard. Forty-mile-an-hour winds roared down the frigid streets of Manhattan and buffeted the shores of Long Island Sound. A succession of storms agitated the icy Atlantic in what we would today label a “weather bomb.”
Bermuda usually feels pleasantly remote from such polar nastiness. Balminess has, in fact, been the touchstone of its appeal to visitors as a mid-Atlantic refuge from the scourge of winter. But in this epic storm, Bermuda had a hostage to fortune, vulnerable to winter’s power—a gleaming, silver, two-storey-high flying boat of Britain’s Imperial Airways, one that since 1937 had been wafting well-heeled visitors and locals from Port Washington, New York, to and from a seaplane base on Darrell’s Island in Hamilton Harbour. The flying boat service was a milestone: the first scheduled commercial air service in the history of the island colony. In the 1930s, transoceanic air service was in its infancy and Bermuda, as it had in so many touristic ways, was in the forefront of progress.
Cover of The Bermudian, July 1937.
The flying boat that made headlines that winter January, jauntily christened Cavalier, bearing the call letters G-ADUU, was a marvel of modernity, speed and luxury, cutting the travelling time to Bermuda to a speedy five hours in contrast to the two-and-a-half-day journey from New York on an ocean-going behemoth like the Monarch of Bermuda. Moreover, flying boat passengers enjoyed comfortable carpeted cabins and reclined in deep-cushioned chairs complete with lace antimacassars. Some even luxuriated in private compartments. All passengers enjoyed the attention of solicitous stewards in crisp white tunics who served three-course meals, with silver service and china, in the deep-bellied bird of the air as it soared over the Atlantic. Up on the flight deck, Cavalier was flown by a three-man crew of Captain M.J.R. ”Roly” Alderson, first officer Patrick Chapman and navigator Neil Richardson.
Tucked in the cargo holds of the flying boat were not only monogrammed luggage and expensive leather-bagged golf clubs but also sacks of precious air mail destined for Bermuda—yet another reason the colonial government had enthusiastically embraced the inauguration of regular air service to Bermuda. Two airlines—Imperial Airways ( an antecedent of British Airways) and Juan Trippe’s globe-trotting Pan American Airlines—offered service from Darrell’s Island, snugly sheltered in Bermuda’s Great Sound, to the US east coast, each vying to outdo the other in service and reliability, pampering glamorous tourists and well-off Bermudians alike.
On that January 21st, all started out well—the Imperial Airways flying boat, with a passenger load of 10, taxied uneventfully from the seaplane base of Port Washington at 10:42 a.m. Weather reports made Captain Alderson—flying Cavalier as he was in the infancy of both commercial air travel and reliable weather forecasting—mindful of a cold front out over the Atlantic which could potentially move between Cavalier and the warm waters of the Gulf Stream which bathes Bermuda. The passengers that winter day were a varied but prosperous lot—privileged upper-middle-class Americans with a sprinkling of well-off white Bermudians. The passenger roster included Donald W. Miller, a mid-western department-store owner from Lincoln, Nebraska, and his wife. Gordon Noakes, head of a New York auction house was, like Miller, a seasoned business travel veteran with hundreds of hours in the air. But, for Noakes, this was a flight with a romantic difference: he and his wife were flying to Bermuda to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary in high style. Mrs. Noakes was especially excited because she had never flown before.
Another American passenger, Charles Talbot, a dashing, athletic Harvard graduate from tony Brookline, Massachusetts, was travelling with his arm in a cast—he was going to the “Isles of Rest” to recuperate from a skiing accident on the icy slopes. For her part, Edna Watson, a red-haired, Canadian-born physiotherapist and guest-house owner, was flying home to Bermuda after spending the holidays with her family in chilly Montreal: it had been her first Christmas alone since the death of her husband, Robert. Two other returning islanders were aboard—Catherine Ingham and accountant Nellie Tucker Smith, Pennsylvania-born wife of a Bermuda businessman. Catering to them all was head steward David Williams, in concert with another steward, Robert Spence, a diminutive and hospitable Irishman who revelled in pampering his passengers. Only a few hours now to the flowers and sun of Bermuda, far from grim winter: the passengers undoubtedly felt jubilant as the plane roared off over the dun waters of Long Island Sound and pointed her nose southeast to eternal spring some 800 miles offshore.
Next came what Life magazine would soon dub “one of the great air dramas of our time.” The weather reports became increasingly ominous as cold, rough winds buffeted the flying boat. The passengers were a little uneasy as they looked down at the grey Atlantic from the big lurching aircraft. However, about one o’clock, David Williams, the head steward, reassuringly—if somewhat unexpectedly—announced that the flying boat would be landing for lunch.
Survivor and hero Edna Watson descending the gang-plank of the Monarch of Bermuda after her ordeal.
It was not lunch, however, but disaster. What had happened? Earlier, over an hour and a half into the flight, Captain Alderson, alarmed by deteriorating weather conditions, had radioed Port Washington at 12:23 p.m.: “Running into bad weather. May have to land.” The four mighty engines of Cavalier were, he warned 36 minutes later, “failing” because of ice formation in the carburetors: the plane’s altitude had by then sunk from 9,000 feet to a mere 1,500 feet above the angry waves. It was SOS. At 1:12 p.m., he brought Cavalier pancaking down onto the Atlantic—she was “O.K.” on the restless waters, the radio officer initially signalled. One minute later, however, came a stark message: “Sinking.” The impact had cracked the seams of the flying boat’s silvery aluminum flanks. Seawater was pouring in as the big bird-like aircraft bucked and rolled.
There was worse to come. Although Cavalier was fitted out to carry luggage, mail, food, flowers and elegant serving dishes, incredibly, in this insouciant inaugural era of commercial air service, there was not a single life raft on board, no cabin seat belts and no emergency flares either. Only the three flight crew had life jackets, and there were not even enough life belts on board for all the passengers. Mercifully, Alderson and his first officer had managed to keep the flying boat aloft long enough to put her down in the relatively warm—60 degrees F—waters of the Gulf Stream, thereby avoiding speedy death by hypothermia in the frigid waters nearer New York. There was, however, little other reason for optimism.
Somehow, all the passengers scrambled out of the sinking aircraft, clambering onto the roof of Cavalier. In fifteen short minutes, the mangled flying boat vanished beneath them into the deep as they jumped off into the heaving sea. Six rubber life belts—all they had (and only thanks to steward Robert Spence who had frantically collected the belts as the flying boat went down)—were joined into a makeshift ring, buffeted by wind and waves. The passengers and crew clung to this floating circle for their lives, with Talbot, his arm in a sling, frantically trying to hang on with only one good arm. Steward Spence swam around them, offering cheer and encouragement. His selfless courage rapidly exhausted him. When the steward tried to help Noakes, seriously injured on impact with a bloody gash to his head and too weak and groggy to hang on to the life belt for long, both sank beneath the waves, as a horrified Mrs. Noakes looked on. Miller, too, drowned as his wife struggled nearby.
The head steward and the flight crew sought to reassure the remaining survivors, while 43-year-old Edna Watson, like the lost Spence, emerged a hero as she helped keep the injured Captain Alderson afloat, all the while encouraging the other passengers to keep up their spirits amid the wind and waves. Some tried to sing; one survivor saw his trousers float past in the swell and managed to rescue his pipe. Watson periodically swam around to the other passengers in turn, in order to massage warmth into their arm muscles as the numbing minutes and hours passed. All of them tried not to think about the danger of sharks as the wind howled and the life belt loop swayed. Darkness fell.
As word of the disaster spread, rescue efforts had been initiated in Bermuda and on the eastern seaboard. A Pan American flying boat was despatched from Darrell`s Island to go to the rescue of its Imperial Airways sister. The US Coast Guard sent a flying boat from Long Island toward Cavalier’s last known position some 300 miles off Cape May, New Jersey; a US Army Air Corps Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress was sent out from Langley Field, Virginia. All in vain: the terrible weather forced all of them to turn back. The US Coast Guard directed two cutters and two patrol boats to the scene—one some 70 nautical miles away .The rest of the rescue fleet had to come from Cape Cod , Norfolk or New York, heartbreakingly distant in the daunting storm. Rescue, if it were to come at all, would have to be left to nearby merchant shipping.
The survivors hung on grimly as darkness fell. One ship passed by without noticing their desperate plight despite frantic attempts to hail it. Finally, ten endless hours into the ordeal, they spotted Esso Baytown, a commercial tanker, on the horizon. Two of the men swam toward her, hailing and yelling, as she neared them. They were noticed at last. But even the rescue was not easy in the heavy seas: Baytown crewmen were injured as the first lifeboat lowered swamped in the jolting swells. Finally, another lifeboat managed to rescue them. Cavalier’s exhausted survivors were pulled up onto the deck of the tanker. A US Navy gunboat which arrived at the scene was frustrated in its attempts to transfer a doctor to the tanker, leaving medics on Baytown to minister to the passengers. Two days later, after more storm delay, the survivors arrived in New York City. The bodies of Noakes, Miller and Spence were never recovered but lie fathoms deep, as does the wreckage of the once seemingly invincible Cavalier.
The rescue made headlines around the world, with top-story coverage in the New York Times and Life magazine as well as in the British and Bermuda papers. After all, it was one of the first ocean rescues of commercial airline passengers. A church service to commemorate the safe deliverance of the 10 survivors, and to remember the three dead, was held in the Anglican cathedral in Hamilton. A week after the rescue, Edna Watson returned to Bermuda (this time by ship!), descending the gangplank with the captain of the Monarch of Bermuda to a hero’s welcome and the Royal Humane Society’s Silver Medal, pinned on her by the governor a few days later. Incredibly, this would not be Watson’s last drama at sea. Not only would she become one of the first female Bermudian parliamentarians, but during the Second World War she would serve as a physiotherapist with the Canadian armed forces. In 1943, the ship she was travelling on, part of an Allied convoy, was torpedoed in the Mediterranean off the Italian coast by a German submarine. Once again, the plucky Watson was pulled safely from the sea.
What of the flying boat service? Imperial Airways, by then part of BOAC, discontinued that service in 1948; with the simultaneous inauguration of larger, faster Douglas and Lockheed airliner service from Bermuda’s air field (a legacy of the Second World War), the era of amphibious scheduled service came to an end. Earlier, a 1939 inquiry into the Cavalier crash by the British Air Ministry Inspector of Accidents made (not surprisingly) a long list of recommendations for safety improvements on flying boats, including life rafts as standard equipment and the instigation of routine safety briefings to passengers, including the wearing of seat belts on take-off and landing. Measures were also implemented to lower the risk of icing in the carburetors.
The lost Cavalier, however, was to have a sort of resurrection. How? Four decades later, the flying boat’s demise was incorporated into a gripping flight of fancy. Brian Burland (1931-2010), at once Bermuda’s greatest writer, a social/political maverick and “bad boy” in the eyes of many of his fellow white Bermudians, seized on the story of the crash as the scenario for his novel The Flight of the Cavalier (1980). Retaining most of the dramatic details of the crash, he exercised his artistic licence to rework the passenger lists so as to transform the incident into a metaphoric saga of Bermuda life.
Cavalier’s inaugural flight passengers in 1937.
The hero of Burland’s crash is the fictional Lillie Waters, a middle-aged Bermudian woman from St. David’s of mixed black and American Indian blood. A deportee from the US, she uses her Bermudian knowledge of the sea to delay the sinking of the aircraft by fashioning an improvised sea anchor to steady the wreck, aided by the other passengers. An incoming Bermuda governor is aboard the flight, and the anti-colonial Burland depicts him as a blustering, inept upper-class twit with the improbable name (even for the English upper classes) of General Sir Evelyn Lumley-Loughly-Lunt. The sailors from the tanker who actually rescue the passengers are portrayed as two undervalued black Americans. Burland’s message in this thrilling narrative is clear: those traditionally humbled in Bermuda society and elsewhere, devalued as they are by racism, deserve instead to be exalted.
What is most powerful about Burland’s novel is the masterly, suspenseful way his version of events unfolds. Even knowing the historical outcome of the real-life flight, it is hard to put the novel down. Burland’s knowledge of the sea (his family numbers some fabled Bermuda sailors) is put to good use and the account of the rescue is gripping and plausible. The novel sold fairly well, and the film rights were optioned, with Sean Connery rumoured as a prospective star. But the project, alas, never took flight. The novel is now, like all of Burland’s remarkable fiction, undeservedly out of print.
The Cavalier crash—and the mystique of the flying boat—have entered the lore of aviation buffs, as the book The Flying Boats of Bermuda eloquently attests. Given Bermuda’s mid-Atlantic location, Bermudians are of course sadly inured to hearing about rescues at sea, whether successful or not, but this was surely one of the most unusual. Now, seventy-six years later (in a time when another aircraft has plunged into unknown waters far from Bermuda’s shores), if you happen to go by the Bermuda House of Assembly (where a portrait of Edna Watson hangs in the lobby) or the Anglican cathedral in Hamilton (which has a plaque to honour steward Robert Spence), take a moment to remember Cavalier, Robert Spence, Edna Watson and the elements of both hubris and heroism in Bermuda life—on the sea or above it.
For further reading: More on Edna Watson can be found in past issues of The Bermudian, on our website and on Meredith Ebbin’s invaluable “Bermuda Biographies” website. The Bermuda National Library and Bermuda College Library (the latter, along with the Bermuda Archives, holds Brian Burland’s original papers) have copies of Burland’s novel. The Bermuda National Museum at Dockyard features an exhibit on the era of Bermuda’s flying boats.