Summary of the First Southern Atlantic Crossing (1922) by the Portuguese Aviators Gago COUTINHO and Sacadura CABRAL on a Fairey-17 Single Engine Hydroplane

By Armand F. Pereira
Based on the reports written by the two aviators themselves which are available in publications and mimeographed documents in the Reference Library of the Navy Museum in Lisbon

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 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 XIV and XV centuries, they wanted to accomplish a fate hitherto not done. (The same zeal and approach was evident in the first night crossing of the southern Atlantic by the Portuguese Sarmento de Beires and A. Castilho in 1927 and a similar attempt of shorter scale by Sarmento Beires and Brito Pais in 1924.)

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 (& St. Paul’s) Rocks, Fernando 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 related problems of excessive weight which emerged during sea landings and take-offs. 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, and which may have already occurred partly during take off from Lisbon. The landing at St. Peter (& St. Paul’s) Rocks was also a deviation from the original plan because of an excessive rate of fuel consumption due to extra weight and some unsuccessful attempts to takeoff 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 also the difficulties in assessing changes in wind and in making gradual navigational adjustments under rainfall.

The most critical development against 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 (& St. Paul’s) Rocks, was sending radio messages back to Praia (CV) 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 (& St. Paul’s) Rocks unless the wind changed in their favour. The written notes exchanged in-flight between the two airmen on their assessment of their situation are themselves a reliquiae in navigation history. Notwithstanding 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 thereafter.

In spite of the Lusitania’s fate, the Government decided to assist the expedition by shipping from Lisbon another Fairey of the same vintage in the Brazilian passenger-cum-cargo Bage on its way to Recife. Against the airmen’s hopes, however, this second hydroplane ("Portugal") ended up in Fernando Noronha, because of weather related complications in the unloading attempts at St. Peter (& St. Paul’s) Rocks and the fact that the ship’s passengers could not wait for favourable weather for more than two days. It was decided, therefore, to fly from Fernando Noronha to St. Peter (& St. Paul’s) Rocks where the Lusitania had sunk, and then proceed back to Fernando Noronha and onwards to Recife. Five hours after take-off, the aviators saw St. Peter (& 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 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 floaters 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 Fairey 17 named "Santa Cruz" was then shipped to Fernando Noronha in a Portuguese Navy ship Carvalho Araujo and the voyage was immediately continued to Recife, Salvador de Baia, Porto Seguro, Vitoria and Rio de Janeiro without any major incidents.

Armand F. PEREIRA

 

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