Off the Beaten Track

in Vol. 23 - November Issue - Year 2022
Lusitania, Pátria and Santa Cruz
Sacadura Cabral (pilot) and Gago Coutinho (navigator)

Sacadura Cabral (pilot) and Gago Coutinho (navigator)

The Lusitania takes off from Lisbon harbor

The Lusitania takes off from Lisbon harbor

The plane’s engine started sputtering a few minutes after takeoff. Despite their best efforts, the two pilots were forced to ditch the aircraft in the cold waters off the Brazilian coast. Another emergency landing! They must have been jinxed, that was the only explanation…


To celebrate the centenary of Brazilian independence in 1922, Brazil and Portugal decided to jointly organize an aerial crossing of the South Atlantic between Lisbon and Rio de Janeiro as a way of strengthening the ties of friendship and cultural affinity between them. Portuguese aviators Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral had to choose the most appropriate type of aircraft, determine the itinerary, and organize all necessary logistical support. 
It was decided that a seaplane with floats would be preferable to an airplane. However, seaplanes available from English, French and Italian manufacturers could not provide the range requested by the two aviators and this caused a temporary stop to the project.
Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral realized that if they could devise aerial navigation instruments that could give more accurate readings than the sea navigation instruments used by many aviators around the world, perhaps they could reduce the range required of the seaplanes. The sextant used by ships was not suitable for aviation due to the difficulty of the skyline definition. Gago Coutinho developed a new type of sextant that could measure the altitude of a star without the need for a visible horizon. He called his new instrument the “precision sextant”. It used a water bubble to define an artificial horizon line. The two aviators also invented an instrument to graphically calculate the angle between the longitudinal axis of an aircraft and the direction of flight, taking into account the intensity and direction of the winds. They called this new instrument the “path corrector”. In order to test the accuracy of their inventions, the two aviators made an experimental flight from Lisbon to Madeira (520 nautical miles). It was expected that their trajectory should be a perfect straight line and three ships were used to verify the position of the aircraft. The experiment was a complete success. This allowed them to substantially reduce the range required of the seaplane, a Fairey IIID equipped with a Rolls Royce engine that they named Lusitania.
At 0700 hours on March 30th, 1922, the Lusitania took off from the Bom Sucesso Naval Air Station in Lisbon with 220 gallons of fuel and 15 gallons of engine oil. The flight remained stable at an altitude of 200 meters and at a speed of 68 mph. An engine oil leak covered the faces and goggles of both airmen as well as the sextant. 15 hours and 37 minutes after takeoff, the Lusitania touched water at its first scheduled stopover, Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. High waves caused the rupture of two cables connecting the wings to the floats and seawater had seeped into the floats. After making all necessary repairs, the journey resumed on April 5th, when the Lusitania reached São Vicente Island (Cape Verde) after flying 1,370 km. On April 17th the Lusitania reached Praia on Santiago Island, on the African side of the Atlantic, and continued on the same day to the Saint Peter and Saint Paul Archipelago in Brazilian waters, the longest sector of their journey, flying 1,700 km over the South Atlantic and relying solely on their precision sextant. Unfortunately, the Lusitania lost one of its floats and sank during the hard ditching. The two aviators were saved by a ship and managed to save their precision sextant, their path corrector and their flight logs.
Public enthusiasm on both sides of the Atlantic was so great that the Portuguese government decided to send another Fairey III seaplane to complete the journey. The new plane, called Pátria, took off on May 11th, but quickly developed engine problems and was forced to make an emergency ditching in the middle of the ocean, where it drifted for nine hours. A passing merchant ship saved the two aviators, but the aircraft was lost.
A third Fairey III, baptized Santa Cruz, was sent out. Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral continued their journey on to Recife, Salvador de Bahia and Vitória. On June 17th 1922 they finally ditched in the Guanabara Bay at Rio de Janeiro, where huge enthusiastic crowds greeted them as heroes. They had covered a distance of 8,383 kilometers in 79 days, although the actual flying time was 62 hours and 26 minutes.

By Giovanni Gregorat, Contributing Editor MFN