Left Cranwell 8.35am. Weather not too bad. Passed over Waterford 11.30. Left land at Mizenhead 1.30pm. Very cloudy and foggy. Flew over clouds. Our spirits were high. It was not until 10pm that we met bad weather. Since leaving the Irish coast had flown in WNW direction. At 10pm changed a little more North. Met terrible gale. Also back firing, through one plug missing. The gale became so bad that at midnight I decided to change my course to get out of gale, and went straight South.
Gale broke left strut and right strut cracked. Fabric torn. At 1am we knew it would be impossible to get across through the terrible gale. Decided to try and make for the Azores. But from 1am on, I knew that everything was finished. E. became unconscious. I flew due South from 1 until 3am trying to find Azores in time, but had to come down on water at 3.10am within sight of an island (Azores). Machine was buffeted about. I left machine and tried to swim to land, but failed.
|Postcard in the collection of Croydon Airport Society|
Hinchliffe was was a chief pilot for Imperial Airways but wanted more of a challenge in pioneering aviation routes. In 1927 American Charles Levine wanted to attempt the trans Atlantic route with Hinchliffe but the pair soon fell out over Levine's poor maintenance, amongst other issues, of his airplane. The rich heiress, pilot and actress Elsie Mackay then offered Hinchliffe a free reign, a good fee and generous life insurance to provide for his wife and 2 daughters in the event of disaster if he would co-pilot a flight across the Atlantic with her. Hinchliffe bought a Stinson SM-1 Detroiter and named it the Endeavour. The deal was made in secrecy as Elsie's father Lord Inchcape would stop her going if all was known. This has added to some speculation that Elsie pressurised Hinchliffe into flying in March rather than waiting for better weather in April or May or even that the pair were lovers. They set off on 13 March 1928 and were last seen flying over Ireland.
That night, one of Hinchliffe's friends from the war, a Colonel Henderson, was on a P&O liner in the South Atlantic and had vision of 'Hinch' in his cabin repeating over and over again "Hendy what am I going to do? What am I going to do? I've got this woman with me and I'm lost". Henderson found out 3 days later when he docked that Hinchliffe, Elsie Mackay and their plane were lost. Although Mackay had paid for the life insurance, the cheque had not cleared and so Emilie and her young daughters were potentially left penniless.
Some of the information on the seances and evidence below is from John G. Fuller's book The Airmen Who Would Not Die, which Joan Hinchliffe describes as '100% accurate' in terms of facts though interpretation of them may differ. Fuller's book appears to show various accounts from different people of contact with the dead in the case of the R101 airship crash, the leap of Alfred Lowenstein from a plane that had taken off from Croydon Airport and the Hinchliffe / Mackay flight. Certainly the messages convinced many people, not least Emilie and later their daughter. It should be said that Fuller's book argues for the case of the of the spiritualists and so is heavily weighted in their favour.
Emilie's first encounter with these messages come in the form of a letter from an amateur psychic Beatrice Egerton (or Earl) and Arthur Conan-Doyle via her solicitor in Croydon. Earl used a Ouija board mainly to communicate with her son who had died in the war but received a message on 31 March saying 'I was drowned with Elsie Mackay' and other messages asking from a Hinchliffe to contact his wife. A few days letter Egerton got more messages from Hinchliffe and this time he gave her the address of his solicitors in Croydon and wife's name. Convinced that Emilie Hinchliffe would not believe her alone, Egerton contacted Conan-Doyle, the famous writer and member of the spiritualist movement, and recounted the story to him so he could act as an intermediary. Conan-Doyle brokered the meeting between Emilie and the amateur medium, who met on 19 May and had her first direct messaged from Hinchliffe.
Seances tend to be considered a Victorian phenomenon and form a motif in gothic depictions of nineteenth-century culture - see the recent TV series Penny Dreadful for example. However, spiritualism as a movement was its height in terms of membership of the National Spiritual Union as well as the holding of seances with mediums in the aftermath of World War One. The 1920s and 30s saw many people believing in and trying to contact loved ones they had lost in WW1 and following flu epidemic of 1919. One of the best sources for information on this area is the Harry Price archive at the University of London, which comprises Price's personal papers, press cuttings, films and photographs as well as books and artefacts. Price, a business entrepreneur, photographer and magician, wanted to know if there was an afterlife and so rigorously tested mediums, though he himself falsified his own history and some phenomena. He established the National Laboratory for Psychical Research.
Eventually, after legal wrangling and public pressure in the form of newspaper support for the widow and her daughters, as well as further publicity from the mediums' messages and high profile support of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Emilie finally received the life insurance that had been promised to Hinchliffe by Elsie Mackay. Perhaps in her grief and economic uncertainty the messages 'from beyond' offered more and more support to an increasingly desperate Emilie. Emile was so convinced by the mediums that Hinchliffe got as far as the Azores and, after a series of public lectures, wrote The Return of Captain Hinchliffe (1930).
Wheels belonging to the plane were washed up on the coast of Donegal in December 1928. This would appear to dispute the message 'from beyond the grave' that the pair had reached the Azores. However, this evidence did not dissuade EmilIe and she requested that after her death, her ashes should be scattered over the sea near to Corvu, the northern most point of the Azores that Eileen Garrett had referred to in her 'conversation' with Hinchliffe, so her physical remains could be united with those of her husband's. This was carried out in 1982.
Jayne Baldwin (2008), West over the Waves. The Final Flight of Elsie Mackay. G. C. Books Ltd.
John G. Fuller (1979), The Airmen Who Would Not Die, New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons
Derek O'Connor, 'The Indomitable Mr Hinchliffe', Aeroplane, September 2008, 62-66.
Joan Hinchliffe (1986), W. G. R. Hinchliffe - Aviator.