James Fitzmaurice was born on January 6, 1898, in Dublin, Ireland. Fitzmaurice was an accomplished military serviceman, but he is best known for being one of a three-member crew that completed the first successful east-west transatlantic flight. His story is characterized by tenacity and determination to achieve the impossible.
At just 16 years old, James Fitzmaurice joined the Irish National Volunteers, a paramilitary force movement that was founded in 1914. That same year, he enlisted in the Seventh Battalion of the Royal Leinster Regiment, an infantry regiment of the British Army that recruited in central and eastern Ireland. However, he was released for being underage.
Undaunted, Fitzmaurice again enlisted in the British Army in 1915, in the 17th Lancers, a cavalry unit. He was sent to France in 1916 and wounded in the conflict, but he was recommended for promotion. During his service with the British Army, he held the titles of Corporal, Sergeant, and Commander. From 1917 to 1918, he trained in aeronautics and was slated to go back to France as a fighter pilot in November 1918. He did not have the opportunity to carry out this assignment as the armistice ending the First World War was signed the day he was scheduled to deploy.
James Fitzmaurice continued his military career with the Irish Air Corps, shortly after the Irish Free State was established in 1922. He was promoted to the rank of Captain a year later.
The transoceanic journey
While there had been two west-east transatlantic flights in the early part of the 20th century by Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Whitten Brown in 1919 and by Charles Lindbergh in 1927, the prospect of a flight in the opposite direction was quite challenging. Prevailing winds would back flights going west-east but were of no help for east-west flights.
Fitzmaurice and British pilot R.H. McIntosh, also known as “All-weather Mac,” attempted to fly across the Atlantic in 1927 but had to turn back after about 500 miles due to stormy weather. That same year, two Germans, Captain Hermann Koehl, a First World War bomber pilot, and Baron von Huenefeld, his co-pilot and navigator, also tried and failed to traverse the Atlantic. High-risk, long-distance flights were banned in Germany, so the two aviators decided to try again from Ireland.
James Fitzmaurice, Captain Koehl, and Baron von Huenefeld teamed up for a transoceanic attempt on the Bremen, a Junkers W33 single-engine monoplane. They set off from Baldonnel, southwest of Dublin, with New York as their planned destination.
The flight got off to a rough start. The aircraft was nearly overloaded with fuel for the long journey and the runway was long and uneven. A sheep began to walk across the Bremen’s path just as the aircraft was gathering enough speed for take-off. The flight barely got off the ground before running out of runway and even skimmed treetops as it ascended.
Nonetheless, the Bremen made progress across the Atlantic during daylight hours. Nightfall brought several challenges for the crew, including a storm that caused the cabin lights to go out and the instruments to give confusing readings. The storm forced them off course by several hundred miles to the north.
But once the storm was behind them, they were able to reset their course. The Bremen was running low on fuel by this point. Thankfully, Fitzmaurice spotted a lighthouse in snowy terrain, and the flight was able to land on a frozen reservoir on Greenly Island, between Newfoundland and Quebec. The aircraft broke the ice and its tail stuck up 20 feet in the air, but the three aviators were unharmed.
Once rescued, the three men were hailed as heroes and visited several major American cities to celebrate their achievement. Over two million people attended a parade for them in New York, and they were even awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, a U.S. Armed Forces military decoration for extraordinary achievement in aerial flight. They were the first non-Americans to receive the medal.
James Fitzmaurice passed away on September 26, 1965, at the age of 67.
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