Chapter II: England Calls
Chapter II: England Calls
Several flying clubs were already in existence in New Zealand, but my enthusiasm was frowned on by my father. "It's very dangerous," he had told me when I asked to join a club, "and very expensive," he added in a stern voice.
I had met Kingsford Smith during his tour of New Zealand, and when early the following year I again visited Australia he offered to take me for a flight. Cruising about high above the Blue Mountains I had felt completely at home in the air and decided that here indeed was my element. I was even more determined to fly myself, but as my father was opposed to any such idea there was the apparently insurmountable obstacle of finance. When I suggested selling my piano to help raise the amount necessary to learn to fly there was great consternation in my family.
My mother was going to visit England early in 1929, so I decided to accompany her. In England it seemed I should be in the centre of flying activity, and it would not be so difficult to make a start. It seemed that I was well and truly burning my bridges when very reluctantly I consulted an auctioneer and sold my belovedpage 24piano. Barely nineteen, I declared to my astonished father that I was old enough to make my own decisions and had decided to make a career for myself in aviation.
As we travelled to England a new world was opened up to me: crossing the line and seeing the North Star for the first time; meeting new people, forming new impressions; the quaint shops, rickshaws, temples, and gardens of Ceylon; crossing the Red Sea; the Suez Canal; the natives, coloured cloths, camels and sand of Port Said; then lovely Naples, at the base of mighty Vesuvius, the impressive rock of Gibraltar, and finally . . . England.
The immensity of London astounded me, and I marvelled at the smooth, efficient way in which the great city was run. The tremendous number of people was bewildering, for the total population of my own country was less than two millions. With the help of a guide-book and many maps we learned the names of the principal streets, and gradually began to find our way about with less difficulty. Happy days were spent exploring the wonderful sights of London and the historical buildings which for so many years had been merely names to me: Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Whitehall, and Trafalgar Square; the Tower of London, the British Museum and various art galleries, Hyde Park, and even the Old Curiosity Shop, which we were thrilled to discover hidden among the high modern buildings. We were also deeply interested to watch the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, and visits to Windsorpage 25Castle, Kew Gardens, Hampton Court, and Richmond were all crowded into those first few weeks in England, which were in the nature of a revelation to me.
A short time after our arrival I made inquiries about the different flying clubs. My mother, who already sympathized in my keen interest in flying, agreed to help me. We went together to the London Aeroplane Club, where I joined and commenced training.
Very soon I was being initiated into the art of flying an aeroplane straight and level; then followed hours of careful practice in turning, gliding, landing, etc. At that time the London Aeroplane Club, now at Hatfield, had its headquarters at Stag Lane Aerodrome, which has since been closed and built upon. Stag Lane Aerodrome takes a prominent place in aviation history, for it was there that Captain Geoffrey De Havilland designed and tested the first of the Moth aeroplanes, which became so universally popular. In addition, the London Aeroplane Club has the unique distinction of having trained or numbered among its members the majority of the famous and well-known women pilots. Among these were Lady Heath, the first airwoman to fly to South Africa; the Duchess of Bedford, who with a co-pilot made several flights to India and Africa; Lady Bailey, first airwoman to make a return flight to Cape Town; Miss Winifred Spooner, well known in international and competitive events; Miss Amy Johnson, famous for her many great flights; the Hon. Mrs Victor Bruce, who flew to Japan only a few months after taking her ticket; Miss Joy Muntz, afterwards test pilot for an aviation company; Miss Pauline Gower, whopage 26operated an aerial taxi service with Miss Dorothy Spicer, first airwoman to hold all aviation engineering licences; Miss Joan Meakin, well known in gliding circles in England and abroad. These are some of the airwomen who received their training at this club or were members of it, and whom I used frequently to meet during the happy years when I flew the familiar yellow Moths at Stag Lane.
When I had completed a few hours' flying and passed tests for the A licence I optimistically though vainly tried to obtain backing for a flight to Australia which I had contemplated even before leaving New Zealand. Thinking that it might not be so difficult to interest people in my own country and hoping that my father might help, I sailed home to New Zealand.
Although my father had not known I was learning to fly until I obtained my licence he was very pleased when he saw me give a display of aerobatics at the local club which I joined on arriving back in Auckland. He was, however, not at all enthusiastic about the prospect of his only daughter flying across the world alone. Considerable doubt was expressed, in view of the fact that I had only a few hours' solo flying to my credit, of the advisability of making such a long flight alone. None of my relatives or the people whom I interviewed would help in any way, and admitted that they did not wish to take the responsibility of financing such a flight.
The urge, however, was very strong within me, and I returned to England in June 1931 to study for the commercial or B licence, as I considered that thepage break
At Stag Lane Aerodrome
Photo Barratt's Photo Press Ltd.
Being greeted by Colonel Tempesti at Rome
Photo Agenzia Fotografica Italiana, Rome
[See p. 35]
possession of this ticket would give me a certain amount of prestige in further efforts to obtain finance for the flight. There was a great deal of study in connexion with the commercial licence, and examinations to be passed in navigation, air legislature, elementary meteorology, and inspection of aircraft and engines, etc. In addition to the general flying and cross-country tests there was also a solo night flight to be completed between Croydon and Lympne. It was necessary for a candidate to have completed a hundred hours' solo flying, and in view of the small allowance I received from home and the fact that to hire an aeroplane for one hour cost thirty shillings it was very difficult to make ends meet. For some time I had been studying hard and saving up for the B licence examination, As I wished to increase my knowledge of engineering I took a course in general maintenance of aircraft and engines in the workshop of the London Aeroplane Club. In order to arrive punctually at 8 a.m. every morning I took lodgings near Stag Lane Aerodrome.
For several months the day used to be spent in the hangar, where attired in overalls I worked on the engines with the regular mechanics and in the evenings attended lectures and studied navigation. Rain, snow, or fine, I somehow managed to arrive punctually each morning, and the aeroplanes, carefully inspected, would be wheeled out of the big hangar, propellers swung, and engines warmed up. After being refuelled they were taxied round to the front of the club-house in readiness for the day's flying. Our chief engineer waspage 28very conscientious and thorough, and in the workshops I learned the importance of careful inspection of aircraft and engine before flight.
About this time a great depression was afflicting world commerce, and New Zealand, almost entirely dependent on primary produce, felt the trade slump very deeply. When I was half-way through the tests for my commercial licence my income was stopped. I had already made frequent trips to the pawnbroker in order to keep up my solo flying, so that when fate dealt me this dreadful blow I had no reserve to fall back on. Fortunately my mother saved the situation by providing the funds necessary to enable me to complete the tests and continue flying. In spite of this, however, I felt very worried when on a murky night in November I flew to Croydon to complete tests for my crosscountry night flight. I knew that if I failed it would not be possible to sit again because of the expense involved.
Just as I was about to take off on the return flight from Lympne my instructor hurried across to the aeroplane and handed me a small torch, which proved of vital importance on that memorable night. Only about fifteen minutes after I had left the aerodrome the navigation lights failed owing to a loose terminal, and the machine was plunged into darkness. None of the instruments was luminous, and my predicament was an unenviable one as I sat in the dark cockpit flashing the torch on the instrument panel. The aeroplane was reported flying over Biggin Hill without lights, and when at last the red beacon at Croydon appeared aheadpage 29sighed with relief. Circling the aerodrome several times and flashing my torch I eventually saw the green rocket signal for me to land pierce the darkness be-neath, and, shutting off the engine, glided down to a landing on the floodlit pathway. Although I arrived home in the early hours of the morning I returned to Croydon after breakfast to complete the final test, com- prising a series of spins. After gaining the commercial licence I felt very sorry for my relatives and friends who had tried to dissuade me from attempting to fly. My family, how- ever, gave up all further attempts to put me off my plan, realizing that opposition only made me keener to attain the apparently unattainable. Once my mind was set on anything it was quite useless to attempt to swerve me from my purpose or dampen my enthusiasm in any
way. One day at the club I met a pilot who was interested in my plan for a solo flight to Australia and agreed to help finance the flight. I was to have a half-share in a second-hand Moth which was to be purchased. In return I signed an agreement to give the other pilot 50 per cent, of any proceeds ensuing from that flight and to tour Australia and New Zealand for twelve months afterwards giving passenger flights.
After months of preparation and organization I took off for Australia in April 1933. My first non-stop flight of almost a thousand miles to Rome caused considerable comment. All went well until I arrived in India, where a major engine-failure occurred in which a connecting-rod broke and went through the side of thepage 30crankcase when I was flying at an altitude of only 500 feet and nearing an aerodrome. I made a forced landing, fortunately without any personal injury. The engine trouble would never have occurred had the engine been of a later design or the connecting-rods modified before leaving England. I was far too proud to ask anyone for help, but actually everything I possessed had gone into the flight, and I was now considerably in debt and practically penniless. It was at this stage that I first experienced the kindness and generosity of Lord Wakefield, who has for many years been connected with the most successful events in the world of sport. He had been interested in my progress during the flight to India, and with his customary generosity arranged for me to travel back to England.
On my arrival in London it was to find that the part-owner of the machine was not interested in another projected flight to Australia, so the aeroplane was sold and afterwards reconditioned. Fortunately I was able to interest Lord Wakefield, who agreed to help me finance another flight.
In April 1934, after I had set off again, I had one of the most thrilling experiences of my career. Having battled with head winds on a flight from Marseilles to Rome, my aeroplane ran out of petrol at midnight in teeming rain and pitch darkness over the Italian capital. Gliding the silent machine to the outskirts of the city I managed to bring it safely down with very little damage in a small field surrounded by wireless masts. When I saw this field in daylight I was astounded at my miraculous escape. The masts between which I hadpage 31glided were some hundreds of feet high; bordering the field were high-tension wires over which I had glided in the darkness, and only twenty-five yards in front of the spot where I landed was the high embankment of the river Tiber.
About a week afterwards I flew my aeroplane back to London to make a fresh start. My reason for returning to England instead of flying on was that I was reluctant to add the week spent in Rome on to my time, for I wished to make a reasonably fast flight through to Australia. It was my intention to establish at least a women's record for the journey, realizing that my aeroplane was not suitable for anything faster at this stage.page 32