Aviation History Newfoundland & Labrador

Precision Navigation

by Gary Hebbard, Journalist and Aviation Enthusiast

In the early 21st century navigating from one part of the earth to another can be as simple as entering a few numbers into a computer device and following the simple directions provided by it. In the early 20th century it wasn’t that simple.

As John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown prepared to set out on a non-stop trip by aeroplane across the Atlantic Ocean from North America to Europe, navigation was possible only with the use of specialized instruments wielded by highly trained professionals usually found aboard ships. Celestial navigation, depending on taking complex readings of the position of sun and stars using precision instruments in a vibrating, unstable aircraft flying hundreds or thousands of feet above a treacherous ocean in unpredictable weather conditions was largely untried and untested. But Brown, a trained navigator, was confident in his abilities in the arcane art of celestial navigation and had little doubt in his abilities. But to be successful, he knew the instruments of his craft had to be adjusted to perfection if they were to give him reliable information.

Enter Paddy Thompson, respected St. John’s businessman and master watchmaker. Born 1886 in St. John’s, Paddy grew up on Boncloddy Street and eventually married Barbara Walsh of Witless Bay. The couple would raise children Bob, Doug and Olive on LeMarchant Road. As a young man Paddy got a job at Roper’s Jewelry Store on Water Street, then located in the building that in future years would house The Sports Shop – until it was destroyed by fire. Roper sent the young Paddy to Philadelphia in 1904 to train as a watch maker. The skills thus acquired also qualified Paddy to adjust such precision instruments as ship compasses, chronometers and sextants, tools necessary to the successful navigation of Alcock and Brown’s Vickers Vimy aircraft. When he two young fliers heard of Thompson’s expertise they were quick to engage his services. Thus did the young St. John’s businessman play a not insignificant role in the success of a flight that would lead to today’s trans-ocean air industry.

Today, Paddy’s grandson, Pat Thompson, owns Diamond Design in Churchill Square and is every bit as successful and respected as his grandfather. He remembers family stories of Paddy working on the instruments carried in the Alcock and Brown plane. With a different skill set than his ancestor, Pat doesn’t know exactly what his grandfather did specifically for the flyers because he never talked much about it and Pat was just a teenager when his grandad passed away. Still, he cherishes the history related in the family history.

“I can only just imagine Paddy going home and talking to his wife Barbara and getting the news back that they had actually made it and being absolutely gob struck by the fact that he had … met the guys. I’m sure that both of them would have been very particular about all their equipment,” Pat said in a recent interview.

Today Pat Thompson remembers his grandfather not only as a skilled and respected businessman but also as an avid trouter and the man who owned the first car in St. John’s that was equipped with a speedometer, a new innovation in cars at that time. Paddy later came to own the business established by Roper and created Thompson’s Jewelry located at 303 water Street, today occupied by The Downhomer magazine and retail outlet. He passed away at 86 after a good life and notable career that included his own unique contribution to the success of one of the defining moments of aviation history.