Aviation Firsts In Recife: First Plane & Zeppelin Crossings of the South Atlantic
Few in Recife are aware that Recife has such an interesting aviation history. Its position on the north east coast of Brazil makes it one of the closest Brazilian cities to Europe. This helped make it an important trade port and a natural first stop for pioneering air crossings.
There were two major aviation events within a decade of each other. The first was the first south Atlantic crossing made by the Portuguese aviators, Sacadura Cabral and Cago Coutinho in 1922.
Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral planned their 1922 voyage in the historical tradition of Portuguese navigation. These two high ranking Navy officers wanted to advance air navigation. Coutinho was an expert in astronomical science and the navigator of the expedition, and Cabral was the pilot. Above all, they sought to prove that air navigation could be just as accurately pursued as sea navigation, by deploying sextants and other available astronomical devices. At the same time, like their ancestors of the 14th and 15th centuries, they wanted to accomplish a first.
The voyage of 1922 began in Lisbon on 30 March and ended in Rio de Janeiro on 17 June, with stops in Las Palmas, S. Vicente (Cape Verde), Praia (Cape Verde), St. Peter and St. Paul’s Rocks, Fernando de Noronha, Recife, Salvador da Bahia, Porto Seguro and Vitoria. The voyage had to be carried out in stages as a result of the aircraft specifications and limitations, and the related problems of excessive weight, which emerged during sea landings and takeoffs. Some mechanical adaptations had to be made along the way to cope with such problems, causing delays and two detours from the original plan. An extra stopover in S. Vicente (Cape Verde) was a deviation caused by water infiltration observed in Las Palmas, which may have already occurred partly during take off from Lisbon. The landing at St. Peter and St. Paul’s Rocks was also a deviation from the original plan because of excessive fuel consumption caused by extra weight and some unsuccessful attempts to take off when wind or water conditions were not optimal. Heavy rainfall had to be avoided at all costs because of the open structure of the aircraft, the risk of water infiltration into the instruments and fuel tanks, and the difficulties in assessing changes in wind and in making gradual navigational adjustments under these conditions.
The most critical deviation from the original plan was the fact that the sea landing at Penedos was done with sea conditions rougher than had been anticipated. The ship “Republica,” which would refuel the hydroplane “Lusitania” at St. Peter and St. Paul’s Rocks, was sending radio messages back to Praia (Cape Verde) and reporting good weather and sea landing conditions outside the islet, but the weather changed soon afterwards when the “Lusitania” was on its way to its next stop. During this longest hop, however, the airmen were far less worried about the weather change than they were about their realization half way through the flight that they probably would not have enough fuel to reach St. Peter and St. Paul’s Rocks unless the wind changed in their favor. The written notes exchanged inflight between the two airmen on their assessment of their situation are themselves important documents in navigation history. In spite of their arrival with hardly any fuel left, one of the aircraft floaters was destroyed by the crest of a wave and the hydroplane tilted and sank soon afterwards.
In spite of the “Lusitania’s” fate, the Government decided to assist the expedition by shipping from Lisbon another plane of the same vintage in a Brazilian passenger-cum-cargo vessel on its way to Recife. Against the airmen’s hopes, however, this second hydroplane (“Portugal”) ended up in Fernando de Noronha, because of weather related complications in the unloading attempts at St. Peter and St. Paul’s Rocks and the fact that the ship’s passengers could not wait for favorable weather for more than two days. It was decided, therefore, to fly from Fernando de Noronha to St. Peter and St. Paul’s Rocks where the “Lusitania” had sunk, and then proceed back to Fernando de Noronha and onwards to Recife. Five hours after take-off, the aviators saw St. Peter and St. Paul’s Rocks from about 15 miles, but heavy rain made them decide to skip this 15-mile distance and turn back towards the refuelling ship “Republica,” located in route at azimuth 25 N, 70 miles from Fernando de Noronha.
About 1 hour and 50 minutes later, the engine stopped due to fuel carburation hiccups, leading to a forced sea landing. They managed to restart the engine for some 55 minutes, but before they could take off, the engine stopped, never to restart again. As the planes floats began to sink slowly, one of the airmen sat on the engine to reduce the rear weight on the floaters. Meanwhile, the “Republica” had realized something had gone wrong and sent radio messages to ships nearby announcing a probable incident. About 1 hour and 20 minutes later, when Coutinho and Cabral’s hopes were vanishing under fatigue and sleepiness, a distant light in the dark emerged to which they responded with two gun shots. They were rescued by the freighter “Paris City” on its way from Cardiff to Rio de Janeiro.
A third plane named “Santa Cruz” was then shipped to Fernando de Noronha in a Portuguese Navy ship. Carvalho Araujo and the voyage immediately continued to Recife, Salvador de Baia, Porto Seguro, Vitoria and Rio de Janeiro without any major incidents.
Gago Coutinho invented a type of sextant incorporating two spirit levels to provide an artificial horizon. This adaptation of the traditional marine sextant allowed navigation without visual reference to the real horizon.
The Portuguese Navy, who had rights to the development, contracted with the prestigious German firm of C. Plath for production. In 1929 Captain Wittenman navigated the Graf Zeppelin around the world using a Coutinho sextant. With this spectacular record, the design was the hit of the 1930 Berlin Air Show. It was used by many of the major airlines of the world throughout the 1930’s.
By coincidence, Recife was the first destination for transatlantic crossings by the Zeppelin. Test flights in 1930 and 1931 were followed by the first scheduled flights in April 1932. A few years later in 1936 scheduled flights to New Jersey, USA began, but the explosion of an airship there on 6th May 1937 put an abrupt end to all commercial Zeppelin flights until the start of the new millennium.