Chapter XVI: Solo to New Zealand
Chapter XVI: Solo to New Zealand
On the morning of my departure, on October 5, 1936, I arrived at the aerodrome at 3.30 a.m. to find quite a crowd of reporters and photographers already there, and although it was such an early hour the keen camera men placed the powerful arc lights in position to film the take-off.
"Would you say a few words, please, Miss Batten?" one of the camera men asked. I was not at all in the mood for speeches at such an early hour. However, to oblige him I stood beside the Gull staring into the blinding lights while being filmed making a speech. At last it was over, and I climbed into the cockpit. The engine sprang to life with a roar as I turned the switches on "Contact" and pressed the self-starter. Looking out the cabin window, I saw the camera man, with a look of consternation on his face, waving frantically. Leaving the engine warming up I climbed from the cockpit to say good-bye to my friends. As I left the machine the camera man grasped my arm, and with a very white face said, "Please, Miss Batten, would you repeat that speech for us?"page break page break page 221
"No, there is no time," I replied, as I shook hands with my friends and started to climb back into the cockpit.
"Please!" he persisted. "If you don't I'll lose my job. I forgot to switch on the sound."
Leaning into the cockpit I switched off the engine. "Very well," I said, "but make sure about it this time. I want to leave England to-day, you know." I was about to remark that it was a good thing I never forgot my various switches, but thought the moment hardly appropriate for an object-lesson, so stood patiently beside my aeroplane, trying to be as tolerant as possible, and made another speech.
It was 4.20 a.m. when the gull roared along the path of the floodlight and took off on that memorable morning. It was not until I had circled the aerodrome and set off into the misty darkness over the Channel that I suddenly realized the immensity of the task I had set myself in electing to make the longest flight in the Empire. True, I had already flown to Australia and back, but on this occasion I planned to fly on from Sydney to New Zealand, a distance of 1330 miles over the Tasman Sea. Lying far south in the latitudes known to mariners as the "Roaring Forties," the sudden violent storms and icy gales from the Antarctic had earned it the title of "the most treacherous sea in the world."
My musings were cut short as I encountered a bank of cloud. Climbing above it I flew at 3000 feet, and when by my stop-watch I estimated my position was over Gris Nez I altered course for Paris. Through thepage 222mist which lay like a veil over Northern France I could see the blurred gleam of the air route beacons, and almost as soon as I distinguished the glow of the myriad lights of the capital I saw the beacon at Le Bourget.
Dawn was breaking as I crossed the Seine near Fontainebleau, and when it was light enough to distinguish the ground beneath I found the countryside wreathed in mist. Even when I arrived over Lyons there was thick fog in the Rhone valley, although this dispersed near Valence.
After flying above cloud over most of the route I arrived at Marignane Airport, Marseilles, a little over four hours after leaving England.
Only forty minutes after landing I was on my way again, and the Gull climbed swiftly over the mountains to Cap Camarat, where I left the French coast and flew over the Mediterranean on a direct course for Rome. There was a slight following wind, and I made good time, and, speeding over Corsica, reached the Italian coast in glorious sunshine. By this time I was beginning to enjoy the flight, although, according to the report from Marseilles, bad weather lay ahead over the Adriatic. I had been advised not to attempt to make Athens that afternoon, but to land at Brindisi instead.
The sky had clouded over when I sighted Naples, and I was obliged to climb through great banks of clouds to cross the Apennines. As I neared Brindisi the air became very turbulent, and the Gull was tossed about as I approached the storm area. The weather looked threatening out to sea, and banks of ominous cloudpage 223darkened the sky. At the customs aerodrome at Brindisi I heard that the storm over Greece had not abated. Heavy rain was reported at Athens, and the mountains round Tatoi were covered with low cloud. There was still sufficient daylight left to proceed to Athens, but I decided to play safe and stay the night at Brindisi, and fly straight through to Cyprus early next morning.
Before leaving London I had learned that petrol was six shillings per gallon in Italy, and it was necessary to pay cash for any supplies taken at Brindisi. If I were to make up lost time by refuelling here and going on to Cyprus without stopping in Greece payment for the petrol would constitute a serious problem. I had with me the carnet issued to me against a deposit, which meant that I could refuel at the towns on my schedule without paying for the petrol in local currency. The thirsty Gull would require about sixty-eight gallons on the thousand-mile flight to Cyprus in still air, and with a safety margin against head winds or having to turn back for any reason would need refuelling to approximately eighty-five gallons. This meant producing twenty-eight pounds, which would leave me about two pounds for total expenses during the rest of the flight.
Just as I was puzzling out the best plan of action two men approached and saved the situation. One of them was the representative of the Shell company, Signor Morella, and quite by coincidence he happened to be in Brindisi. As if by magic he was able to arrange for me to take fuel aboard without paying sterling.
Although I had logged 1330 miles that day I was not the slightest bit tired, and on arrival at the hotel ate apage 224hearty dinner of macaroni, which I declared excellent, to the great delight of my two Italian friends.
When we arrived at the airport early next morning I realized that the take-off in the darkness at this aerodrome, which was not then equipped with lights, was going to be very difficult. A runway was being constructed on the landing area, leaving me with very restricted space. Signor Morella walked ahead with a torch as I taxied the Gull slowly into the wind. My kind Italian friends then drove the car to the far corner of the aerodrome, and I took off towards the headlights.
Once off the ground I climbed the machine up through the misty nimbus clouds and over a great bank of cumulus, and crossed the Adriatic Sea at an altitude of 10,000 feet. At this height the air outside was icy, but in the cabin it was warm and comfortable. There was no sign of a break in the clouds when, one hour forty-five minutes after Brindisi, I altered course for Corinth. I wanted to check up my position, but it was inadvisable to attempt to descend through the clouds at this stage on account of the high, mountainous nature of the country.
The rising sun painted the sky crimson with its rays and tinted the cloud banks a delicate pink. Snow-covered peaks reared themselves above the clouds, which lay like a mantle over Greece. Identifying some of the highest peaks I was able to approximate my position, and as I flew on glimpsed the blue waters of the Gulf of Corinth far below through a gap on the white cloud carpet beneath. Over the Gulf of Corinthpage 225I glided down to 3000 feet, and flew out over the Ægean Sea towards the island of Paros, where I intended altering course for Rhodes.
Visibility improved as I flew over the numerous islands that dot the Ægean Sea, and passing over Rhodes I neared the Anatolian coast of Turkey. The sun shone down from a clear sky to reveal the Mediterranean at its best. As on previous occasions, the Gull was tossed about by down-draughts from the high mountains on the rugged coast even though I was flying forty miles out from the coast, and I was relieved when the island of Cyprus came into view.
I landed at Nicosia to refuel. This was done very quickly, but I had to wait nearly an hour for a weather report for the route to Baghdad. On earlier flights over this route I had experienced the fury of sand-storms, and had too much respect for the freak weather in this part of the world to set off without a weather report. It was not very detailed when it did arrive, and I took off knowing that with the head winds predicted it would not be possible to make up the time lost at Cyprus. Some of the residents had very kindly given me large bunches of grapes and some juicy oranges, and these helped to while away the time as I crossed the 150-mile stretch of sea to Beirut.
The down-draughts from the Lebanon Mountains had little effect on the powerful Gull, which climbed rapidly through the clouds to speed across the great range at 10,000 feet. Over the desert a yellow dust-haze hung like a pall, and as I flew on this became thicker, the wind wafting great clouds of sand into thepage 226sky. Two and a half hours after leaving Cyprus visibility became practically nil, and, flying very low, I had great difficulty in keeping the ground in view. The sun was almost blotted out, and resembled a black sphere as it sank rapidly. Would the dust be worse farther on, I asked myself, and decided not to risk flying on to Baghdad under such conditions. The nearest aerodrome was sixty miles farther on, and bore the bare title of H.3—L.G. (Landing Ground) on my map of the region.
It was now a race against darkness and the clouds of dust which swept past the Gull as I flew on. At last, just as the sun sank below the horizon, I sighted a solitary light ahead, and within a few minutes the wheels of the Gull came to rest on the sandy surface of the landing-ground. A visitor was not expected at the tiny outpost of H.3, a pumping-station on the Asiatic Petroleum Company's pipeline, along which the millions of gallons of oil flow from the Iraq oil-fields at Mosul to the ports of Beirut, on the Syrian coast, and Haifa. I was behind my schedule, and realized that I would have to hurry if I were to lower the England-to-Australia solo record as I planned to do on the way through to New Zealand. I therefore decided to omit a landing at Baghdad and refuel at Basra instead, from where I could fly non-stop to Karachi in an effort to make up time.
The manager of H.3 was most hospitable, and arranged for a supply of petrol and a guard for the Gull. The desert track would not be visible in the darkness, and it would be necessary to steer a compasspage 227course over the desert to Ramadi, where I would alter course for Basra. The position of H.3 was not accurately marked on my map, so I asked the wireless operator to get the true course for Rutbah Wells. He was able to do this, and it was a simple matter to calculate the magnetic course from that point by which I could fly direct to Ramadi.
The small band of engineers stationed at H.3 showed great interest in my flight at dinner that night as they had heard on the radio of my progress. There were only two or three buildings and a radio station on this desert outpost, and the only woman was the wife of the manager. I was impressed by the general air of comfort and cleanliness of the quarters, where in addition to the large living-room there was also a billiards-room. I promised to send a photo of the Gull for the mess-room wall.
H.3 was 2000 feet above sea-level, and it was extremely cold in the desert that night. The Gull, picketed out in the open, was exposed to the icy wind, so I let the engine warm up for some time before taking off.
Bidding the manager and his assistant good-bye I took off once again, aided only by motor-car headlights, and steered for Rutbah. It was very dark, but I picked up the lights of Rutbah, and to the north I could see the flames from the waste-oil fire which burns day and night at H.2 pumping-station. After I passed Rutbah there was not another light to be seen, and the desert was shrouded in darkness. The moon was on the wane, but the sky above was encrusted with myriads of page 228 stars. I always noticed that the engine seemed to run exceptionally well on night flights. Although I often felt sleepy during the daytime, especially when the sun burned down and made the cabin uncomfortably hot, at night I too seemed to be at my best, and usually felt wide awake. There is no sensation quite like that which a pilot experiences on a solo night flight across the desert in clear weather especially on a moonlight night speeding through the crisp, clear air high above the shadows of the sleeping earth, with the great vault of the heavens like a vast star-spangled canopy overhead and the moon casting its pale rays on the silver wings of the aeroplane. One feels completely detached from the earth beneath, and ordinary mundane affairs dwindle into insignificance. Under the magic spell and serenity of the night the aeroplane is but a tiny atom in the vastness of the universe. On the flight to South America I had waited back for the full moon, but on this flight it would have meant delaying the start for some weeks.
One hour thirty minutes out from H.3 the lights of Ramadi slipped beneath my wings as I altered course for Basra, 300 miles on. As a grey light stole across the desert the sun rose so quickly that it looked almost comical in its hurry. At this stage I was crossing the Euphrates and over Iraq, or, as it used to be picturesquely called, Mesopotamia—the land between two rivers. After past experiences of the mirage in the desert, when I had actually seen great blue lakes ahead and searched my maps to identify them, I never believed I had sighted water until actually over it. Aspage 229I approached the Horal Hammar lake huge flocks of birds rose in thousands from the marshes bordering, disturbed by the noise of my engine. This great lake extends for over sixteen miles, and the Euphrates loses itself in the maze of swamps at the north-western end before suddenly reappearing on the other side of the lake to join the Tigris at Qurna, supposed site of the Garden of Eden. United, these rivers form the palm-fringed Shatt al Arab, and flow swiftly on through the desert past Basra to the Persian Gulf.
A surprise was in store for me: I landed at the new Margil Aerodrome, Basra, to find it a most modern one equipped with all facilities and wide bitumen runways each over a thousand yards in length.
It did not take long to complete customs formalities and I had breakfast at the aerodrome hotel while the Gull was being refuelled. Karachi was 1380 miles farther on, and as I intended flying non-stop the Gull was tanked up to 130 gallons. It would be necessary to produce a bill of health on arrival in India, and a most impressive document was handed to me stating the number of cases, if any, of cholera, plague, typhus yellow fever, etc., which had occurred at Basra during the past week. Although the Gull was well loaded with fuel and a vicious hot, variable wind had sprung up, it took off easily along the smooth bitumen surface of the long runway. Fine jets of petrol sprayed from the air-vents on the wing-tanks as the Gull met a sudden violent bump crossing the river, and righting the machine I gradually climbed to a cooler altitude.
The Shatt al Arab is very wide at Basra, and alongpage 230the banks beautiful trees, including pomegranate, apricot, banana, and date, cluster together in luxuriant profusion. There were many boats on the river, both big ships and native rafts. From Basra come the most delicious dates, which are one of the main exports of Iraq's only port. Every September on the day of full moon they work at top speed at the docks. On that important day the date crop must be in and packed aboard the boats, for then the tide will be high and deep-draught ships can slip across the bar and down the river to the Persian Gulf. There is often a race for the first ship to arrive in New York with the new crop of dates, which can practically command its own price.
I had been warned of the likelihood of sand-storms along the Persian Gulf, but the weather remained clear, and the sun burned down with increasing fierceness as the day wore on. As I crossed the Strait of Hormuz I noticed a heavy dust-haze clouding the sky, until when near J ask I encountered a dust-storm, which appeared as a wall of sand sweeping towards me. "It might be possible to land at Jask," I thought, but it was too late, for the ground was now blotted out completely, and a yellow cloud of whirring sand enveloped the Gull.
Giving the engine full throttle, I climbed up, endeavouring to rise above the storm. At 9000 feet the dust seemed lighter, and at 10,000 feet I emerged into clear atmosphere, and a remarkable sight met my eyes. Below the storm raged, and even far out to sea dust was being blown, while inland the great ranges of bare mountains lifted their rocky peaks above the wall ofpage 231sand. The storm extended for many hundreds of miles, but at nightfall I flew into clear weather once more.
When nearing Karachi I saw the red beacon lights flashing from the aerodrome. I glided down to a landing on October 7, having taken only 2 days 9 hours 25 minutes for the flight from England to India.
Refuelling was carried out quite quickly, but I found there were a tremendous number of customs formalities, and an hour after landing I was still sitting in the customs office filling in various forms. It was necessary to take out an Indian firearms licence for my revolver, and the health officer insisted on spraying the cockpit of the Gull. Arrangements had to be made for lights for my take-off, and after the sand-storm I thought it necessary to have an engine schedule carried out on the Gull.
Leaving the mechanics working on the machine, I drove to Commander Watts' home on the border of the aerodrome. After a bath and an excellent dinner served by silent-footed beturbaned Indian servants I was able to enjoy two and a half hours' sleep.
Early next morning I set off for Allahabad, 932 miles distant. Crossing the river Indus, I saw the lights of Hyderabad to starboard, and was able to check up on the air beacons of Utarlai and Tilwara on my way over the Sind Desert. Dawn found me over Jodhpur, and after passing Jhansi I arrived at Allahabad six hours five minutes after leaving Karachi.
Great improvements had been made since my previous visit, and an imposing control building now stood on one side of the aerodrome. Much as I wishedpage 232to take off immediately I was unable to resist the opportunity of having breakfast, so sat in the restaurant while the machine was being refuelled. The weather report, as at other places in India and Burma, was a very detailed one, giving in addition to other meteorological information the direction and velocity of winds at levels up to 12,000 feet. This enabled me to choose an altitude at which I would have the advantage of a following wind over a portion of the route to Akyab, in Burma.
At 5000 feet I was above the clouds, and only caught a glimpse of Calcutta as I flew on towards the Sundar-bans and the Bay of Bengal.
The sun was setting as I landed at Akyab, having flown 1900 miles that day from Karachi. Here too vast improvements had been made since my last visit, and in addition to the all-weather runways there was a large, well-equipped hangar.
The usual work was carried out on the machine, and I arranged for a flare path to be lit for my early morning take-off. Invited to dine with Mr Price and his daughter, who had met me on my two previous visits to Akyab, I drove with them to their home.
When my alarum-clock woke me at 1 a.m. I felt reluctant to leave the comparative comfort of the rest-house, but roused myself with the thought that I had planned to fly through to Singapore before sundown. The darkness was pitch black when I taxied the Gull along the flare path and took off for Alor Star, in Malaya, a distance of 1300 miles. The lighthouses on Ramri island enabled me to check my course, and Mrpage 233Tate, superintendent at Akyab, had very kindly arranged for flares to be lit at Sandoway so that I could land there in case of emergency.
The sky lightened with the oncoming dawn as I crossed the jungle-covered Arakan Yoma Mountains at a point 380 miles from Akyab. It was raining at Rangoon, and squalls barred my path as I flew over the Gulf of Martaban to Moulmein. Climbing to 10,000 feet to escape the mist from the steaming jungle and the great banks of cumulus that rose above it, I flew for hours without glimpsing the Burmese coastline. As I flew southward the clouds piled up ahead to immense heights, until I was unable to keep above them any longer, and glided down through the billowy carpet. At 1000 feet I was flying through a filmy curtain of nimbus cloud, and near Victoria Point the sky was an ugly grey, and banks of ominous cloud ahead heralded fierce tropical storms.
Thinking to avoid the storm area, I crossed the mountains to the eastern side of the peninsula, where I was sheltered from the full force of the storms. The elements were not to be cheated, however, and 280 miles farther on when I recrossed the mountains I was exposed to the fury of a hurricane which was raging down the west coast of Lower Siam. The Gull was wafted along like a feather, and I estimated my ground speed at approximately 225 m.p.h. Rain fell in torrents, and washed over the petrol-gauges on the wings, completely obscuring them. Trying to keep the dark blur of the coastline in view I flew very low, passing over lines of coconut-trees bent level with the beach. Waterpage 234streamed into the cockpit through a small leak, and I was soon drenched through. I experienced a feeling of horror as I watched the silver dope washed off the leading edges, and wondered how long the fabric covering would last. Near Alor Star the rain became even worse, and I lost sight of the ground as the Gull plunged through low clouds and torrential rain. I realized that a landing at Alor Star was out of the question, and a group of anxious people waiting for me at the aerodrome were unable even to see the tops of the trees in the deluge, but heard the roar of my engine as the Gull flashed overhead. I had flown 1300 miles from Akyab, and had not counted on being prevented from landing at Alor Star. The nearest aerodrome was on Penang island, over sixty miles farther south, and fortunately I had enough petrol to go on.
Flying on in the hope of clearer weather at Penang I suddenly caught sight of the coastline beneath, and was able to follow it once again. It was only raining slightly when I flew over Georgetown and landed on the smooth concrete runway of the modern aerodrome.
I was surprised to see the fuel agent waiting to refuel my machine, as I had resigned myself to a wait of at least an hour for petrol, Penang not being one of my scheduled stops. "Yes, missie," the smiling little Malay agent informed me, "I expect you. I received a telephone message from Alor Star when they heard you pass over." This appeared to be a stroke of genius, and I silently blessed the faithful petrol agent at Alor Star. "Velly bad weather, yes," the little agent added, pointing to the wings of my poor Gull. I was astoundedpage 235on inspecting the leading edges to find the fabric worn right through and the wood showing bare in parts.
It was imperative that I should take off again as soon as possible and try to race the storm to Singapore. We patched the leading edges as well as we could, therefore, and I used the wide bands of adhesive tape from my first-aid kit to secure the fabric.
It was still raining as I took off and continued my flight over Malaya. As I flew southward over the great coconut and rubber plantations the weather improved. I landed at the R.A.F. aerodrome, Singapore, that evening, just 4 days 17 hours out from England. As the machine was refuelled I told the astonished R.A.F. officers that I intended flying on at eleven o'clock that night.
Leaving the Gull in capable hands to have an engine schedule carried out I drove to the house of Group Captain Sidney Smith, where I had been invited to stay. On the two previous occasions I had stayed with the Group Captain and his charming wife, and once again enjoyed their hospitality. After the luxury of a bath and a good meal I lay down to rest for a while. A legion of mosquitoes, which had somehow managed to get under the net, had other views, however, and when I rose about an hour later my arms and ankles were swollen with bites.page 236