Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

My Life

Chapter VII: Return Flight

Chapter VII: Return Flight

In Sydney I made many friends, and the few weeks before my return flight were among the happiest of my life. The Moth had been overhauled, and I organized the flight down to the smallest detail, and felt that everything humanly possible had been done to make it a success. I was very reluctant to leave Sydney, however, and right up to the moment when I climbed into the cockpit to take off for England I thought seriously of cancelling the flight and remaining in Australia. Fate evidently ordained otherwise, however, and one lovely morning in April 1935 I set off for England. Good weather favoured me on the 2200-mile section across Australia to Darwin, and after the first day out I began to enjoy the flight. There had been a drought in Central Queensland, and I would pass over lonely drovers with great herds of cattle trekking southward to the greener country. It was a terrible sight to fly over dried-up water-holes and see scores of dead cattle lying around them.

The flight was an eventful one, and on April 12 I took off from Darwin and met with a terrible experience. The wind was south-easterly, and blowing great cloudspage 96of fine red dust from the Australian continent reduced visibility to a minimum. So that I might fly in clearer atmosphere and also take full advantage of the following wind I climbed up to 6000 feet and set off across the Timor Sea for the island of Timor. Below me floated a cloud carpet tinted orange by the dust, and occasionally through a gap I would glimpse the sea. About 250 miles from land the engine suddenly gave a cough. Were my ears deceiving me? I listened intently. There it was again—a sudden falter which seemed to shake the entire structure of the machine. The engine gave a final cough, then there was dead silence. A terrible feeling of helplessness swept over me as the machine commenced a slow, silent glide towards the cloud carpet. "Perhaps it is only a temporary petrol blockage," I thought, as my brain worked like lightning trying to find a way out of the predicament. I gave the engine full throttle, but there was no response. There was no sound to relieve the terrible silence except the whirring noise like a sigh as the lifeless 'plane glided down. "Surely this can't be the end!" I thought. "No, it's impossible; there must be some way out."

Almost fascinated, I watched the altimeter—5000, 4500, 4000 feet. I was in the cloud layer now—it was not very thick though, and at 3000 feet I emerged to see the blue expanse of sea stretching into infinity. This was agonizing—I must try to land the machine on the water as best I could. Undoing my shoes and flying-suit I reached for the small hatchet which I carried in case of emergency and placed it in the leather pocket at my side. There seemed a desperate chance that if Ipage 97were able to land the machine on an even keel I might be able to cut one wing away and float on it.

The last few minutes were torture as I neared the water. The propeller was still just ticking over, and in a last desperate effort before attempting to land I opened and closed the throttle lever—without success. Suddenly, with a noise that was nearly deafening in the stillness and like a great sob, the engine burst into life again. I sank back greatly relieved, scarcely daring to breathe lest I should break the spell. As the engine regained its steady note I gradually coaxed the aeroplane up to 6000 feet again. For the next three hours, however, until I was flying once more over land, my mind was tortured with doubt.

On landing at Kupang I offered up a prayer for my deliverance, and the kind Dutch people listened with ashen faces as I told of my experience. We agreed, as was probably the case, that some foreign matter, possibly dust, had caused a temporary blockage in the petrol system. I cleaned the filter and jets while a weather report was obtained for the next section of 550 miles to Rambang, on Lombok island. My experience had shaken me more than I cared to admit or fully realized, and I did not feel my usual confidence return until I neared England towards the end of the flight.

From the time I crossed the equator until the end of the flight I had to battle with head winds which at times reduced the speed of my machine until it seemed to be making no headway at all. Seventeen days and fifteen hours after leaving Australia I landed my veteran Moth at Croydon on April 29, havingpage 98completed the first journey to Australia and back by a woman pilot.

London was seething with excitement, and thousands of visitors were arriving daily from all parts of the world for the Jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary.

My flight had been a test of endurance, and crossing France I had been delayed some days by fog. On the last section I had felt so bitterly cold that I made an unscheduled landing at Abbeville to spend my last two francs on a cup of coffee.

The morning after my arrival I rose at 6.30 a.m. to give an Empire broadcast from the B.B.C. This was the first time I had broadcast from London, and the experience was an interesting one. A few nights later I spoke again on the "In Town To-night" programme.

The Jubilee celebrations exceeded my greatest expectations, and at the invitation of the Countess of Drogheda I watched the brilliant procession from the balcony of a lovely house in the Mall. Shortly afterwards I visited Scotland as guest of Viscount and Viscountess Elibank, and spent several happy days at their lovely home in Peebles.

Not very long after my arrival in London I signed a contract with Gaumont-British to give talks with a new film which had just been completed. The film was called R.A.F., and, as the title suggests, gave a portrayal, and very vividly, of life in the Royal Air Force. The cream of British aviation was present at the premiere, and the newly appointed Air Minister, Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister (later created Viscount Swinton),page 99introduced the film. I felt very proud to be associated with it. At this time the great Air Force expansion scheme was just about to be launched, and I used to preface my talks with a few words stressing the vital importance of the R.A.F. and the necessity for expansion. Each day for two weeks I gave three talks, which evidently bore fruit, for, to the disgust of the theatre manager, but to my undisguised joy, the operator left to join the R.A.F.

After a considerable amount of thought and studying of the various types of light aircraft on the market I decided to sell my Moth and buy a new Percival Gull aeroplane. This proved to be easier said than done, however, and I ordered the new machine before I had managed to sell the old one, and consequently spent many weeks wondering how I could make ends meet. Eventually I sold the trusty Moth to a pilot in whose ownership I could rest assured it would spend its remaining days being treated with the respect and dignity that its great career merited. I took delivery of the new machine on my birthday, and the sleek silver monoplane fulfilled all my expectations when I took it for a trial flight.

Nearly all my time was occupied in organizing a flight to South America, studying maps and charts of the route, and collecting all available meteorological data for the South Atlantic Ocean. On this flight of nearly 8000 miles from London to Brazil and Buenos Aires I would have to fly over eight different countries, and the regulations to be complied with were legion. The French Government wisely insisted that I shouldpage 100carry a revolver in case I was forced down in the inhospitable Riff territory in West Africa. On the other hand, I learned that the importation of firearms into South American countries was forbidden, and was notified that in no circumstances should I be in possession of a revolver on arrival in South America. I spent months unwinding red tape, interviewing consuls and Air Ministry officials, who were most helpful, and waiting for various permits. At last, however, all preparations were completed, and it only remained for me to fly my Gull to Lympne Aerodrome and clear customs for South America. It was a wrench saying good-bye to my mother, however. I felt that everything possible had been done to make the flight a success, and all depended now on a steady hand, a clear head, and a modicum of luck to win through.

I flew the Gull to Lympne and made final preparations for the flight, arranging for a special weather forecast to be sent to me from the Air Ministry at 3.30 on the morning of my proposed departure. At that very early hour on the appointed day my alarum-clock awakened me with a start, and hurriedly throwing a coat over my nightclothes I crept downstairs in the darkness to listen with bated breath to the forecast for the England-Morocco section of my flight to South America. Picking up the receiver I wrote down the report as it came through: "Patches of fog over the Channel; clouds 10/10ths at 1000 feet; early morning mist in Northern France; wind at 1000—1500 feet, S.W., at 15-20 m.p.h., changing to westerly over Spain and increasing in velocity; isolated storms on the Spanishpage 101border and possibility of hail." The voice at the other end of the line rapped out each word with military-like precision. "And Morocco?" I asked hopefully, the very name conjuring up visions of warm southern sunshine, palms, and strangely garbed people. The visions quickly disappeared as the voice continued, "Conditions over Southern Spain, Strait of Gibraltar, and Morocco more favourable, but wind S. to S.W. at 10-15

m.p.h." "Do you think——" I began, but the receiver had already banged down, and I was left to make my own decisions.

Should I go? Back in my room I perused the report. Throwing open the window wide, I looked out, and was met with an icy blast, which quickly dispelled any further desire for sleep.

Anyway, what was the use of wasting time looking at sleeping Hythe when I had to cross four countries to reach my first stopping-place, Casablanca, 1400 miles away. After all it was November, and the weather as good as could be expected for that time of the year. November . . . With a start I realized it was Armistice Day. That anniversary, synonymous with courage and quick decisions, decided me. Yes, I would go. . . . No use hoping for better weather to-morrow. Who was it said, "To-morrow never comes"?

Hastily donning my flying-suit and coat I collected my few belongings, charts, and maps and hurried downstairs. As I sipped a cup of tea my gaze wandered round the hotel dining-room to the opposite wall, where hung a large coloured print of the dawn breaking over the gigantic waves of an ocean. So big and powerfulpage 102were the waves that they seemed to threaten at any moment to flow from the frame and engulf the room. The picture had fascinated me the previous evening. It seemed to lend itself for contemplation, and was the sort of painting about which one could weave all sorts of stories—especially when- about to attempt a solo flight across the Atlantic. What was the inscription beneath the picture, I wondered. Kind friends were waiting to drive me to the aerodrome, the car was ready, time was flying with incredible rapidity, but I must see what that inscription was before I left. Hurrying across the room as a voice from outside inquired for a third time if I were ready, I peered in the semi-darkness at the inscription, which read, "The Ocean, lonely, wild, unconquerable." Well, we would see about that, I thought.

As we drove towards the aerodrome we could see the tiny red lights like a ruby necklace round the boundary of the aerodrome, and from the Duty Officers' room a single light reassured me that everything was in readiness for my early start. There were no customs formalities to be gone through, for in my blue journey log-book the previous night the customs officer had placed the Government stamp beside the entry Lympne-Casa-blanca, and G-ADPR had been cleared by his Majesty's Customs—outward bound for South America on November 11, 1935.

The big hangar doors swung back, revealing a low-wing monoplane. Its silver surface, glistening and gleaming under the powerful electric lights, made it look like some lovely thoroughbred groomed andpage 103polished in readiness for some great race and straining to be away. 'In readiness,' yes, for had I not for six long months been organizing this flight? More than once I had sat up studying charts, maps, aerodrome and meteorological data till long after midnight, determined to plan every tiny detail so that when the time came to take off I should go knowing that I had done everything possible to make this flight a success.

While the engine was warming up I glanced anxiously at the wind-indicator, and found that I should have to take off towards a long row of ominous-looking pine-trees on a property bordering the aerodrome. How I hated those trees! They brought back vivid memories of my take-off for Australia the previous year when the little low-powered, five-year-old aeroplane heavily laden with petrol had climbed so gallantly over them, but laboriously enough to make the watchers below hold their breaths. My fears were groundless, however, for even while I taxied across the aerodrome the wind changed slightly, so that when the aeroplane had taken off straight and swift as a silver arrow the trees were soon far below.

page 104