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Flying High - Ainsdale At The Leading Edge Of Aviation!


The 1930s were years when new records and new achievements in aviation seemed to come with impressive regularity. Whether it was a first flight here, or a fastest flight there, the newspapers and newsreels were full of the latest feats of courage, endurance, and technology.


In September 1936 and again in May 1937, Ainsdale was at the focus of the aviation world. Not bad, for a village with no airport! But if we missed out on a couple of miles of concrete, what we did have, and still do, is several miles of lovely firm sand - an asset noticed by a number of the pioneering aviators.

Captain Dick Merrill


Many of the early pilots were larger-than-life characters - celebrities of their time - and Captain Dick Merrill was no exception. Born on 1st February 1894 at Iuka, Mississippi, "Dick" Merrill was born into a family that prided itself as being descended from the famous frontier pioneer, Daniel Boone. Although his full name was Henry Tyndall Merrill, the name "Dick" was a childhood nickname that stuck with him for life. Brought up as a devout Catholic, he was a teetotaler in an age when the "hard-drinking" "fun-loving" aerial adventurer was seen as the norm. Considered very easy-going yet serious, his one foible, however, was that he was an inveterate gambler throughout his life.


Merrill had from an early age been intrigued by the exploits of the first flyers and when he enlisted in World War I, he began learning to fly while stationed in France but returned home to work on the Illinois Central Railroad as a fireman.

Returning from the War, and determined to continue flying, Merrill bought a war-surplus Curtiss Jenny for $600 and began flying in air circuses. He eventually turned his skills to more profitable activities, becoming an airmail pilot - achieving success in 1930 with the greatest cumulative distance flown, and also the greatest income: $13,000 at ten cents per mile! He was both careful and lucky, and became Eastern Airlines’ best pilot. He later became the pilot of choice for many well-known Americans - including Gen. Eisenhower during his campaign for the presidency in 1952.

The Challenge - 1936


But for any intrepid pilot, there was one challenge above all others - flying the Atlantic. Even though this had been done first by Alcock and Brown in 1919, there were other firsts still to be achieved and records to be won. But the Atlantic could not be crossed on an airline pilot’s salary. Merrill needed a backer, and he found one when he met millionaire singer and entertainer Harry Richman (an appropriate name!) - famous from his musicals such as Puttin’ on the Ritz. Richman had recently gained his own pilot’s licence, and Merrill put forward his idea that between them they would ‘take the plane to Europe...gas her up and fly her back. It’s never been done.’

The Preparations


Richman bought a Vultee V1A capable of making the flight. The aircraft, NC 13770, had originally been built for Lieutenant Colonel George Hutchinson's proposed all-freight New York-London-Moscow airline, which never started up. Since then it had served a number of pilots in various record setting flights; in 1935 Jimmy Doolittle used the aircraft to make a record 11 hour 59 minute transcontinental flight, and six weeks later Leland Andrews repeated the flight, then used the aircraft to set a long-distance speed record between Los Angeles and Mexico City.


Merrill and Richman extensively modified the Vultee V1A for the flight. Using Eastern Air Lines mechanics, Merrill had extra fuel tanks installed and a 1,000 hp Wright Cyclone engine with a two-blade constant-speed propeller fitted. The most modern equipment was sought out including the Hooven Radio Direction Finder, licensed to Bendix. It was Richman's idea to fill empty spaces in the wings and fuselage with more than 40,000 ping pong balls, which it was hoped would allow the aircraft to float if it was forced down in the ocean.


After modifications were carried out, they were ready to set off for London on September 2, 1936.

The ‘Ping Pong’ Flight There...


Merrill and Richman took off from Floyd Bennett Field in New York, before a large crowd, and many representatives of the world’s media.

Click HERE to watch the takeoff! The first three quarters of the flight was as routine as it could be - flying a single-engined aeroplane hundreds of miles from land. Then, when they were 600 miles off the coast of Great Britain, the pair ran into bad weather and were eventually forced to put down in a field near Llandeilo in Wales, about 175 miles north west of London. The flight had taken 18 hours and 36 minutes, the fastest Atlantic crossing thus far. The next day Merrill and Richman completed their flight to London. Click HERE to see the aircraft in Llandeilo, taking off for London, and landing safely there.

...And Back Again!


One of the problems of setting off on flights of great length is the need to load the aircraft with as much fuel as possible. This adds weight and increases the length of runway needed for takeoff. Faced with finding the longest possible runway, Merrill and Richman settled on the sands between Southport and Ainsdale - which had been well-known since the days of Sir Henry Seagrave and his land speed record attempts in the 1920s. The Lady Peace was flown up to our beach and prepared for the return flight to New York. On 14th September 1936, the plane started her takeoff near Southport pier, and headed down the beach towards Ainsdale before banking right to head out towards the Atlantic. The weather was far from ideal, and encountering severe weather off the American coast, Richman panicked, and dumped 500 gallons of fuel. This left the aeroplane insufficient fuel to make New York, and barely enough to reach land. The Lady Peace was forced to land in a peat bog near Musgrave Harbour, Newfoundland.

Several days were spent making repairs to the aircraft before it was once again airborne, finally arriving in New York on 21st September. The ‘Ping Pong’ flight achieved its object to become the first round-trip flight across the Atlantic, but Merrill vowed never to fly with Richman again. Richman claimed the flight had cost him $360,000, and for years afterwards he continued to sell autographed ping pong balls for charity!

Dick Merrill and Harry Richman and the Lady Peace at Llandeilo
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Harry Richman
Dick Merrill
Merrill and Richman preparing the Lady Peace - 20th August 1936

The Challenge - 1937


Even though he had come close to disaster in 1936, Merrill seemed unable to resist the challenge of flying the Atlantic. In 1937 he was hired by Hearst Publishing to repeat the flight (this time co-piloted by 27-year old Jack Lambie) in a Lockheed 10E Electra dubbed Daily Express. Hearst wanted to scoop other American newspapers by acquiring movie footage of the May 10, 1937 Coronation of King George VI. The abdication of his brother, King Edward VIII, had been closely followed in the United States, and flying the film back across the ocean seemed to be a suitably high profile stunt.

The ‘Daily Express’ on its Coronation flight

The Flight Out


The pair set off from Floyd Bennett Field, New York, on 8th May 1937, but they were carrying a little more cargo than they had anticipated. The German airship Hindenburg had burst into flames and been completely destroyed at Lakehurst Field, New Jersey, on 6th May, and photographs of this tragic event were included in the pilots’ baggage.

Click HERE to watch a newsreel of Merrill and Lambie setting off.

The outbound flight took rather longer than Merrill’s first crossing, taking 20 hours and 27 minutes. Their final destination was Croydon Airport, London, but the pair managed to get lost over London, and initially landed at an airfield at North Weald. Nonetheless, the pictures of the Hindenburg disaster were a UK scoop for the Daily Express.

The Flight Back


As well as carrying the expected movies of the Coronation for Hearst, Merrill and Lambie were also looking to a  little commercial benefit from their flight by carrying a number of philatelic items bearing the new Coronation commemorative stamp, issued on 13th May 1937. The envelopes had been brought from New York, and were stamped: Anglo American Goodwill Coronation Flight. Some were autographed by Merrill, and are now extremely popular with collectors.

The Daily Express was flown up from London via Speke, ready for the return flight, but an unexpected delay occurred when the films from London did not arrive. The correspondent of the Southport Visiter was on Ainsdale beach, and wrote a complete description of what happened next. Click HERE to read the full report

Report printed in the Southport Visiter.pdf

The Aftermath


Merrill and Lambie’s epic flight once again caught the imagination of the public, and within a few weeks both airmen had been signed up to star in a ‘B’ movie loosely based on their exploits! They were reportedly paid $2,500 each for their participation - a sum which barely lasted a weekend for Merrill who was a compulsive gambler.


Seventy three years later, the flight was commemorated by the unveiling of a stainless steel sculpture of the ‘Daily Express’ over a silhouette of the New York skyline. But the sculpture is not in New York, or even London - it is on the Shore Road roundabout in Ainsdale, where the return legs of both of Dick Merrill’s transatlantic flights began.

Hover your cursor over the picture to see it enlarged
Click HERE to see Paul Clarke’s photos taken at Ainsdale Beach
Click HERE to see Paul Clarke’s photos taken at Ainsdale Beach
Hover your cursor over the picture to see it enlarged