PHASE 1: PLAN WISELY
It did not have the feel of hysteria at the start. Everything was calm and low-key and innocent. In this red-velvet restaurant at Seventh Avenue and 51st Street in Manhattan there was Pan American Airways Captain Kimball J. Scribner raising his martini and saying the fateful words, "No way we can lose this race. No way." Even that part was innocent, since airline pilots are permitted to drink if they promise not to pilot anybody anywhere for the next 24 hours, and the captain was between flights. So the Sixth Avenue Racing Team drank to winning.
This was our last plotting session before flying to London in the Daily Mail Transatlantic Air Race. The captain had announced cheerily that the jet stream would be waiting up there to kick us across to London in record time. "The computer found it," he said, winking wisely over his prime rib. "The Pan Am computer knows all. It tells us that the jet stream will be at 27,000 feet on Thursday night. Now, if I request 27,000 feet I'll get it because I am a senior pilot and nobody else can have it, right? We'll fly optimum all the way over. At the London end we'll zoom right in, no waiting. Never mind how; I can arrange that, too."
The plan was beautiful in its simplicity. As sure winners we would pick up prizes of $21,000 or more. There would be a gala awards banquet in London—black tie, of course. Prince Philip, of course. Champagne and balloons and glory. We shook hands and agreed to meet the next day at the Pan Am terminal at Kennedy airport to practice sneaking on the plane. Not everyone goes aboard a Boeing 707 by climbing up through a secret hatch in the belly of the plane, then slips out through the rest room to take his seat.
PHASE 2: READ YOUR MAIL
Naturally you do not just go off and win an international air race on nickels and dimes. People have to be hired. They have to be fixed, if possible. No effort would be spared, in fairness to London's Daily Mail, which had started this whole thing. A sassy, gaudy newspaper with a circulation of better than two million. Black headlines in ink that comes off on your fingers. Cheesecake. Vivid writing.
Vivid promotion, too. It was the Daily Mail which produced the RAF pilots Alcock and Brown as winners of its first transatlantic air race, in 1919. Winners in the only plane to finish—not too many were out over the waves in 1919.
Four years ago the Mail's idea man, Peter Bostock, jumped up in a staff meeting and said something like, "I say, here is a smashing idea: 1969 will be the 50th anniversary of our first great air race. Let's sponsor another one, chaps!" The contest would be international and all that, but everyone knew the Mail expected an Englishman to win.
There would be none of this routine takeoff-to-touchdown scoring, Bostock decided. This one would run from the top of the Empire State Building in Manhattan to the top of the General Post Office tower in central London. Or vice versa. It was diabolical. It was fiendish in its scope. So naturally 390 people from 10 countries entered right away. Plus one chimpanzee and one turtle.
Bostock found sponsors all over the world, winding up with $137,400 in prize money for 21 classes. Certain rules were made. Do not break any aerial laws, said one. Do not break any traffic or boating laws, said another. Little things. "We must play fair," said Bostock.