The tale of the remarkable Transatlantic Air Race between the BT Tower and the Empire State Building

In 1969, a air race from the BT Tower to the Empire State Building in New York captivated the nation and set world records.

The Daily Mail Transatlantic Air Race between the Post Office Tower in London and New York’s Empire State Building, which finished on May 111969, marked the 50th anniversary of the first successful, non-stop transatlantic flight.

British pilots Cpt. John Alcock and Lt. Arthur Brown achieved the landmark aeronautic feat in June 1919. In a modified World War I Vickers Vimy bomber, they travelled the 1,900 miles between Newfoundland, Canada to Galway, Ireland in around 16 hours flying time.

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The commemorative event half a century on was less of a race and - for the fastest competitors at least - more of a supersonic time trial. 360 competitors took part in the event, which commenced on May 4 and ended on May 11, 1969. There was £60,000 in prize money on offer in the 21 categories.

Transatlantic Air Race rules

The race was unique for a number of reasons, but primarily because competitors were able to take off and land from wherever they wanted, provided they had the correct permissions. Competitors could travel either way across the Atlantic, so long as they took in the top of the Post Office Tower and the 86th floor observation platform of the Empire State Building. Prizes were awarded for eastbound and westbound travel.

The competitors were also permitted to use varying methods to transport themselves between the landing spots and the two landmark buildings. For example, Sterling Moss, the famed Formula 1 driver, took a motorbike, a helicopter (main pic) and a Vickers VC10 jet to make the crossing from to New York City.

Transatlantic Air Race pic with BT Tower

At that point the Post Office Tower (now known as the BT Tower) had only just opened. The 177-metre-high structure that then dominated central London was built in 1964 and opened to the public in June 1966.

Who won the Transatlantic Air Race?

The Vickers ‘Alcock and Brown’ trophy (and the £6,000 first prize) went to Lt. Commander Peter Goddard, whose team completed the west-to-east crossing in just 4 hours, 46 minutes and 57 seconds in the fixed wing Royal Navy Phantom 001 craft from the 892 Squadron. The team made three attempts during the week-long race, with the winning effort coming on the final Sunday May 11.

The crew used three supersonic sprints at Mach 1.6 (1,228mph) and required three air-to-air refuels using Victor tankers of 55 Squadron from RAF Marham. With an average speed of 723.8mph, the flight was a new world air speed Record.

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Somehow, beyond the record flight time, the team also managed to get from the top of the Empire State Building to the top of the Post Office Tower in a total time of 5 hours, 11 minutes and 57 seconds.

In an excellent first-person account posted on the Fleet Air Arm Officers Association website Lieutenant Commander Brian Davies recalls: “The first refuelling went smoothly. We had expected layered cloud and turbulence but luckily there was no sign of this, and we completed the refuelling without snags.

“The Atlantic crossing went well although we lost two minutes on the planned time. However, we managed to push the third rendezvous eastwards, thus cutting down the refuelling time. On the last lap, we really made up time. We planned to stay at 40,000 feet to get the most favourable true air speed and with the aid of a 50-knot tail wind we hoped to stay abreast of the distance gone/fuel remaining problem. All worked well and with the occasional climb to 45,000 feet to recover from excessive fuel consumption we averaged 960 knots, true air speed (1,100 mph) to Lundy Island.”

A former chairman of the BT Group, Sir Mike Rake, provided this certificate for our report.

Transatlantic Air Race certificate

His father Derek Shannon Vaughan Rake, who had also been a Spitfire pilot during WWII, was a station commander at RAF Wynton during the Transatlantic Air Race took place. This was where the Victor SR2 aircraft that took part in the race were stationed.

A female aviation pioneer

Elsewhere, beyond the record-setting run, legendary aviator Sheila Scott also won £1,000 for the fastest female crossing in a light aircraft. Flying solo, her Piper Comanche plane made the crossing from London to New York in a total time of 26 hours and 34 minutes.

A year earlier, Sheila was awarded an OBE for her aviation achievements, which included the 34,000-mile "world and a half" flight in 1971. She was also the first person to fly over the North Pole in a small aircraft.

Transatlantic Air Race plaque BT Tower

Sheila was among the competitors present for the unveiling of a commemorative plaque (above) by Postmaster General John Stonehouse on the 33rd floor of the Post Office Tower. The PMG also thanked the Post Office staff who “coped magnificently with the dashing airmen.” Oh, the 1960s…

A specially commissioned film from the Post Office Film Unit called The First and the Fastest was shown on that day in August 1969 and enjoyed a run in 800 cinemas around the UK.

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Visit BT Archives to discover more about BT’s role in the history of communications in the UK