Today in Transportation History – March 22, 1921: 1st Flight From Portugal to Madeira

The first flight between Portugal and its then-territory of Madeira, a North Atlantic archipelago located 280 nautical miles off the coast of Africa, took place when a Felixstowe F .3 seaplane traveled from Lisbon to the city of Funchal on the southern shore of Madeira’s main island. The Portuguese Naval Aeronautical Service crew on board the plane for this pioneering flight included pilots Sacadura Cabral and Ortins de Bettencourt; navigator Gago Coutinho; and mechanic Roger Soubiran.

The flight opened a new chapter for the transportation system within Madeira, which became an autonomous region of Portugal in 1976. Air travel has been a key factor in the economic growth of Madeira and in particular the archipelago’s popularity as a year-round tourist destination. There are presently direct flights between Madeira and mainland Portugal as well as Brazil, Venezuela, South Africa, and various other European countries.

The inaugural flight of more than 600 miles between Lisbon and Funchal was also significant because it enabled the plane’s crew to try out new and first-of-a-kind navigational devices developed by Coutinho and Cabral. The first of these devices was based on the nautical instrument known as a sextant and it allowed navigation without visual reference to a real horizon. The second device was a “path corrector” for calculating graphically the angle between the longitudinal axis of a plane and the direction of the flight, taking into account the impact of prevailing winds.

The use of these devices en route to Madeira proved to be successful, and they were both similarly important the following year when Cabral and Coutinho flew from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro to achieve the first-ever flight across the South Atlantic. The use of devices like these to help determine an aircraft’s position while traveling out of sight of land has since become indispensable to flight throughout the world and into outer space.

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