Early Transatlantic Flights,via Southport

Many people must have driven around the Shore Road roundabout near Ainsdale and wondered why there is a sculpture of an airplane flying away from the New York skyline. Perhaps they dismiss it as some random, innocuous piece of public art. However, it is far more important than that. It actually commemorates two double transatlantic flights in the early days of aviation undertaken by the pilot Dick Merrill, via Southport.

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Dick Merrill’s Transatlantic Flights, from Southport

The Lady Peace ‘Ping Pong’ Flight

In 1936, Dick Merrill was looking to do a double transatlantic flight. The object was to fly from New York to England and then back again. He teamed up with a famous broadway entertainer called Harry Richman. Richman not only owned a plane capable of doing this feat, but was prepared to finance the journey to the tune of $360,000, a huge sum in those days. His aircraft was a specially modified monoplane Vultee V-1A, which he named the Lady Peace. However, part of its modifications involved the installation of 41,000 table tennis balls in the wings and tail which supposedly would help with buoyancy if the plane landed in water. This led the press to dub it the ‘Ping Pong Flight’.

After making it successfully from New York to Wales, the plane then flew on to London. But the return trip was to prove a problem – they needed a really long runway in order to take off, as they would be carrying a lot of fuel. The largest runway in the country at the time was at Liverpool’s Speke airport, but this was deemed too short.  The solution lay relatively nearby though; the stretch of beach from Ainsdale to Birkdale was deemed ideal. At 3am on the 14th September 1936, on a makeshift runway lit by flares, the plane ran along nearly a mile of beach before successfully taking off. Bad winds and an accidental loss of fuel on the way over the Atlantic meant that they were forced to land 100 miles north of St John, Newfoundland. A week later they finished their trip and arrived in  New York.

The Coronation Flight

Just eight months later, Dick Merrill was hired to do the same double Atlantic trip again. The abdication of Edward VIII meant there would be a coronation of a new king, George VI, on May 10th 1937. The American press baron, William Randolph Hearst, wanted pictures in his papers before his competitors got them, and this led two Wall Street brokers, knowing of Merrill’s previous flight, to engage him to deliver the goods.

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Merrill had to find a suitable plane and spoke with Amelia Earhart, the pioneering aviator. She suggested a modified twin engine Lockheed Electra, and taking her advice the Wall Street brokers paid $40,000 for one. The modifications cost another $6000 and this included six large tanks in the fuselage to carry 1,270 gallons of fuel. This would give the plane a range of 4,300 miles, more than enough if all went well.

Merrill left New York on 9th May. This time his co pilot was Jack Lambie and they set a new world record for the crossing, landing in London after just 20 hours and 59 minutes. The trip back on 13th May was once again from Southport. After a 5.30am breakfast of kippers and haddock at the Prince of Wales hotel, hosted by the mayor of Southport, they were ready to take off. As well as the photographs of the royal ceremony, it had been planned that they would take newsreel film, but this did not arrive in time. Ten thousand people turned out to watch the plane take off as it rolled down the Ainsdale and Birkdale beach in the direction of Southport pier.

Their non-stop flight of 24 hours and 23 minutes ended with them landing at Quincy, Massachusetts. They then flew on to New York to deliver the photographs of the coronation and Hearst’s newspapers were the first to print them, all as planned.

The sculptured plane at the Ainsdale roundabout represents the one used in the second of the two flights, but the information board gives details of both historic crossings. See the access section below for more details.

Site visited by A. Bowden 2018

Access

The monument can be viewed at the Ainsdale roundabout where Coastal Road meets Shore Road. To read the interpretation board, park on Chatsworth Road and walk down (as there’s quite a lot of double yellow lines around the roundabout and the roads to and from it). There are historic pictures of the pilots and planes on the board, as well as a summary of both journeys. For more information on these remarkable flights, have a look at the websites listed below.

Nearby, just a drive away are the remains of Formby Lifeboat Station – A World First

References

On site interpretation boards at the Ainsdale Shore Road roundabout

https://generalaviationnews.com/2015/09/13/dick-merrill-atlantic-double-crosser/

http://www.historynet.com/dick-merrill-beating-the-odds.htm

http://www.century-of-flight.net/Aviation%20history/coming%20of%20age/Vultee%20V1A.htm

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