Chapter XII: Rio De Janeiro
Chapter XII: Rio De Janeiro
On arrival at natal I had considered the idea of flying on to New York and seeing the United States, but owing to the further expense involved decided instead to fly southward and see Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, and Buenos Aires before shipping the Gull back to England.
The flight southward was an interesting one: storms had been forecast, but I was not expecting the series of fierce tropical rain-storms which I encountered. More than once I nearly turned back. The storms, although of almost monsoonal intensity, did not extend over a very great area, however, and it seldom took more than ten or fifteen minutes to fly through one of them. On one occasion, flying low over the tree-tops, I opened the windows, for the heat was intense and great columns of steam arose from the hot jungle. A strong, exotic perfume was wafted into the cabin, and I realized that among the trees of the steaming jungle must be thousands of glorious orchids. Often I would look down and search the dark green, tropical vegetation for some glimpse of the lovely flowers. Although I knew that some of the rarest of orchids were to be found grow-page 163ing on the tree-tops there was no sign of their exquisite colouring in the jungle beneath. Here and there I would see great purple patches of bougainvillaea.
Gazing down on the tropical vegetation as mile after mile slipped by on the long flight southward, I began to realize the vastness of the great country to which I had flown. I tried to remember some of the overwhelming details I had come across while studying the flying conditions in Brazil before setting out from England. The fourth largest country in the world, with an area of 3,300,000 square miles, approximately four-fifths the size of Europe, with a seaboard of 4000 miles, there seemed very little that the great country was unable to produce. With the rarest of orchids and exquisite Morpho blue butterflies (whose wings are used for jewellery), the wonderful mineral riches and infinite variety of precious gems, the huge coffee and cotton plantations, great cattle stations, and the thousand million acres of timber-producing forest area which form only a percentage of its vast natural resources Brazil seems to the flyer almost a world in itself. I remembered how my host at Natal had smiled at my disappointment when it was found that there was no room for the huge pineapples which had been brought to the aerodrome for me. "Perhaps one will be all right there," I had said, balancing one of the large fruits on top of the auxiliary oil-tank, where it had looked so comical. Realizing that it might fall forward and interfere with the controls I reluctantly removed it from the cockpit. There were plenty of pineapples to be had in Rio, my friend assured me. A ripple of amusementpage 164ran round the crowd at my astonishment on learning that nearly ninety million pineapples were exported each year from Brazil.
Innumerable little islands dotted some of the great rivers as they curved towards the Atlantic. Flying low over them, I searched vainly for a glimpse of any crocodiles such as I had seen on my flights over Sumatra, in the Dutch East Indies. There was no sign of life, however, but swimming in the deep waters were probably shoals of the deadly little native fish which live in many of the Brazilian rivers. These fish, although so tiny, swim in vast shoals and are particularly vicious. They will set upon any living thing entering the water, and within a few minutes will have nibbled every ounce of flesh off its bones. One story I heard was of a man who, when trying to cross a river, was attacked by a shoal of these fish and dragged under the water. Only a few hours later his skeleton was found without a single piece of flesh left on the bones.
One of the most interesting-looking cities over which I flew was San Salvador, or Bahia as it was marked on my map. There were innumerable churches to be seen, and it is said that at one time there was a church for every day of the year. I believe the full name of this city, the third largest in Brazil, is Bahia de Sao Salvador de todos os Santos, meaning "Bay of the Holy Saviour of all Saints." At one time Bahia was the capital of Brazil, long before Rio de Janeiro was discovered by the Portuguese sailors, who thought that the harbour was the mouth of a great river and named it Rio de Janeiro—"River of January."page 165Flying over Bahia I saw that it was built partly on the side of the bay and partly on a plateau about two hundred feet high. Connecting the lower part of the town to the upper I could see a high white lift. It appeared to be a very prosperous town, and I learned later that it is the centre of the cacao and tobacco trades, also that it was from Bahia that the navel orange was transplanted to California.
Only fifty miles north of Rio a bad petrol leak exhausted my fuel supply; fortunately I was able to land safely on a beach. I telegraphed to Rio, and kind military pilots from the Campo dos Affonsos air base brought succour on this occasion. When the thirsty Gull was replenished I flew on to the Brazilian capital.
Never shall I forget the magnificent scene which met my eyes when I arrived over Rio de Janeiro. The sun was setting, and the last rays picked out the red wings of the escorting military aeroplanes, which followed the Gull in perfect formation. As we crossed a promontory where the green-clad mountains rose sheer from the sea I suddenly beheld a sight which made me hold my breath. Rio de Janeiro . . . lovely, colourful, unbelievably beautiful Rio ... well worth flying nearly seven thousand miles from London to see. The great blue harbour was shown on my map as being about fifteen miles long by seven wide. Rising sheer to a height of 1000 feet at the entrance of the harbour was a great granite rock, which I immediately recognized as the famous Sugar Loaf. Many green-clad islands dotted the harbour, looking almost like peaks of some sub-page 166terranean mountain range. On a strip of land about six miles long between the great jungle-covered mountains and the sea lay the city of Rio de Janeiro. It looked almost as if the towering mountains had drawn back to allow this exquisite gem of a city to be displayed in this superb setting. Accentuated by the last rays of the sun, the Organ Mountains, thirty miles away, looked close enough for me to lean out of the cabin window and touch one of the fantastic peaks, soaring over 7000 feet into the sky, to earn the apt description of "the fingers of God." Towering above the palatial villas, gardens, and plazas in the centre of the city was a jagged rocky peak—the Corcovado (Hunchback) Mountain, well over 2000 feet in height. As I gazed in wonderment at the great mountain I was fascinated and could scarcely believe my eyes, for on the summit stood a gigantic white figure of Christ, seeming to dominate completely the surrounding country.
The city was suddenly transformed into a fairy city, for almost as if by magic myriads of tiny white lights flashed on. Rio . . . exquisitely beautiful by day, wondrously so by night. The thousands of lights outlined the city, and hung like festoons round all the silvery beaches and coves. In the fast-fading light I could just distinguish the long promenades, and the wide, straight line of the most beautiful of all avenues, the Avenida Rio Branco, over a mile in length, with its three rows of tall, stately palm-trees.
There was a large crowd at the military aerodrome of Campo dos Affonsos. As I landed and taxied uppage 167to the tarmac the aeroplane was quickly surrounded by enthusiastic people, while dozens of cameras clicked a welcome. From that moment until I left Rio and flew on to Buenos Aires some days later I received the most wonderful hospitality from the people in Rio, including a large number of British residents. A big reception was given at the British Embassy. The scene was one of great brilliance, for there were many lovely women present, and their beautiful gowns and exquisite jewellery were admirably set off by the smart uniforms of the men. I learned that the British Ambassador, Sir Hugh Gurney, was to present me to the President of the Republic of Brazil, Dr Vargas, who had taken a great interest in my flight from England to his country.
High up in the mountains, at a restaurant set amid the most glorious scenery, with a superb view of the vast Atlantic, a luncheon was given in my honour by Colonel Ivor Borges and the officers of the military air force and their wives. As I turned my gaze from the magnificent scenery and walked on to the wide, cool veranda I was deeply moved by the genuine enthusiasm and the smiling faces around me. The scene was again a brilliant one, the women in their bright colours looking like so many orchids amid the smart gold-trimmed white uniforms of the officers. It was announced that I was to be made an honorary officer of the military air force, and I felt very proud of the lovely gold badge which was presented to me.
That night a dinner was given by the Royal Empire Society at which several hundred people were present,page 168including the British Ambassador and Lady Gurney. Speeches were made by the President and the Ambassador, and I felt deeply moved by the poetic text of a speech delivered by the head of the Brazilian Press, who spoke in fluent English. During the evening I was presented with an exquisite Brazilian diamond set in a platinum brooch by the British community as a token of admiration for my flight, which, it was said, not only demonstrated the capability of the modern aeroplane and engine, but did a great deal for British prestige in South America.
The following day I visited the Director of Civil Aviation and heard all about the wonderful new aerodrome being made in Rio. The site for this aerodrome, which was already in course of construction, was on a promontory near the wide Avenida Rio Branco, and almost in the heart of the city. Part of the harbour was being reclaimed, and the aerodrome when finished promised to be one of the largest and most modern in the world. "You must fly back to Brazil when it is ready," the smiling Director of Aviation said, as he gave me a design of the projected airport.
Just before leaving I learned that the fonctionnaires— the girls working in the Department of Aviation— wished to meet me. I was delighted by the warmth of their welcome as they crowded round and congratulated me. Suddenly there was a hush, and the group of pretty Brazilian girls parted to allow their spokeswoman to come forward. Although she spoke in Portuguese it was not difficult for me to interpret the words, for her lovely dark eyes alone were eloquent enough. Shepage 169handed me a small case, and on opening it I saw a most exquisite aquamarine. The girls were pleased at my appreciation of their gift as I gazed entranced at the gem. Resting on the pale satin lining of the case it resembled the translucent blue of the water lapping up on to the creamy beaches of Rio, where its shallowness and transparency toned the sapphire shade of the deeper waters almost to pastel tints.
A visit to the headquarters of the naval air force followed, and to my joy I learned that it was the intention of the Aviacao Naval to make me an honorary officer in the force. The naval air base was on the large island of Gobernador, and I learned that British aeroplanes were used for training purposes.
The following morning a flight of aeroplanes from the naval base flew over to the military aerodrome of Campo dos Affonsos, and officially I was presented with the gold wings and diploma making me an honorary officer of the force. The Colonel and officer; were very charming, and I accompanied them back to their base in my own aeroplane. It was a glorious after noon, and the city was bathed in strong sunlight, so before returning to the military aerodrome I decided to fly once more over Rio and explore the numerous little beaches, coves, and islands with which the great harbour abounds. Leaving the island of Gobernador and the naval base I flew first round the Sugar Loaf rock guarding the entrance to the harbour, then low along the silver strand of the Copacabana beach. Speeding back, I passed once again over Rio and along the palm lined avenidas, and circled the site for the new airporipage 170I put the machine into a climb and soon gained height, then at an altitude of well over two thousand feet flew round the shoulders of the giant Christ on top of the Corcovado Mountain. At close quarters it appeared to dwarf everything in the city so far below. I felt almost awed by the immensity of the majestic figure, standing as it does two hundred feet high on the peak of the mighty Corcovado. Gliding down again, I flew for miles up the harbour, passing over unbelievably beautiful little palm-fringed islands encircled by silvery beaches. On some of the islands were coconut plantations, and I could see the tall, graceful palms clustered closely together as if afraid of slipping into the limpid sapphire water surrounding them.
Turning back at length to the military aerodrome I landed, and then drove into Rio.
An English lady had kindly offered to lend me several light frocks, for the costume I had brought with me was too warm for Rio. The heat seemed very sudden, for only a few days previously I had left the chilly autumn of the Northern Hemisphere. It was with a very critical eye that I surveyed the gowns, for that day was to be a momentous one in my life. I was to be presented to the President of Brazil that afternoon, so the selection of a suitable frock had assumed a position of great importance.
With a spray of orchids adorning my dress, I went to join the Ambassador at the appointed hour. We drove along the wide, palm-lined avenidas to the President's house. On entering we were shown into a large cool room with a highly polished parquet floor. Thepage break page break page 171
furniture was upholstered in brocade, and between the large gilt-framed mirrors on the walls were several portraits in oils. An attache in a dazzling white uniform embroidered with gold cord escorted us into another room, where we awaited an audience with the President. It was only a matter of a few minutes before the door opened and a man wearing a tropical suit advanced and warmly greeted the Ambassador. It was the President. On being presented I found him charmingly natural and unaffected as he spoke to me of my flight and congratulated me on the record I had established. He said that the Brazilian nation wished officially to show its appreciation of my achievement. It had been decided to confer on me the decoration of Officer of the Order of the Southern Cross in recognition of my flight, which had linked England with Brazil in the fastest time in history. Taking a green and gold leather case from the desk by his side the President opened the box and produced the insignia of the Order of the Cruzeiro do Sul. It was an exquisitely designed gold cross with a centre medallion of blue enamel, on which were embossed in gold the stars of the Southern Cross constellation. The cross was joined to a pale blue ribbon by a green enamel link representing a laurel wreath. Pinning the decoration to the bodice of my dress the President shook my hand warmly. The first British person other than royalty to receive this decoration—no wonder I felt pleased. Although the President was such a busy man he courteously agreed to pose for a photograph, which was taken on the terrace of his beautiful house.page 172
The following day I drove to the aerodrome and made preparations for refuelling the aeroplane, as I had received cordial invitations to visit both Uruguay and Argentina before leaving South America.
I felt very reluctant to leave Rio de Janeiro, for apart from the fascination I felt for the beautiful city I had made many friends and enjoyed wonderful hospitality during my stay. Although it was very early when I arrived at the aerodrome a large crowd had assembled to see me take off on my flight to Buenos Aires, 1350 miles farther south. As strong head winds were predicted I wished to take off at dawn in order to arrive at Buenos Aires in daylight.
The aeroplane looked like burnished steel when it was wheeled out on to the tarmac, for it had been carefully washed and polished, and the windows and metal fittings were gleaming. The blue-and-green star symbol of the Brazilian Air Force had been painted on the rudder, and I had never seen the Gull look so smart. A squadron of aeroplanes was to escort me for a few miles, and the Colonel had detailed a fast fighting machine to accompany my aeroplane as far as Santos, 200 miles south-west of Rio. After shaking hands with all my friends and bidding them good-bye I was just about to step into my aeroplane when an officer hurried forward and asked me to wait for a few minutes, as the Colonel wished to make a presentation. Almost before the officer had finished speaking the Colonel appeared and walked across the tarmac towards us. He was carrying something in his arms, and as he drew near I saw that it was a beautiful bronze statue. "On behalf ofpage 173the officers of the Aviacao Militar I wish to present you with this trophy as a token of our great admiration of your magnificent flight from England," said the Colonel.
I looked at the statue which he presented to me. It was an exquisitely wrought bronze female figure. She was poised on a globe representing the world and on which were embossed the stars of the Southern Cross. In one hand was an olive branch of peace, and in the other a scroll on which the words "Conquete de l'Air" were written. The statue was mounted on Brazilian marble, and a gold plate bore a suitable inscription.
I was quite sure that all the British people present felt as proud as myself at this signal honour. "I wish it was possible to take the statue with me," I said.
"Yes, do," said some one in the crowd, who added, "then your aeroplane won't take off and you will have to stay in Rio."
"That's a very good idea," I replied laughingly, and handed back the lovely trophy, which was so heavy that I could scarcely lift it.
It was arranged that the statue would be safely packed and sent to England for me. Thanking the Colonel for the beautiful present, and once again for the kindness I had received from the Aviacao Militar, I bade farewell to my friends and climbed into the cockpit. Waving a final farewell I taxied to the end of the aerodrome, and took off to join the squadron of military aeroplanes circling overhead. Rounding the high mountain almost overhanging the aerodrome I drew level with the otherpage 174machines and recognized the pilots, whom I now knew quite well. We flew in formation for some distance then one by one the escorting machines flew close to my aeroplane, while the pilots waved a last good-bye and flashed back to the aerodrome.page 175