Chapter VIII: South American Flight
Chapter VIII: South American Flight
I set my stop-watch and air-log as I left Lympne Aerodrome. The time was exactly 6.30 a.m., G.M.T. I did not follow my usual practice of circling the aerodrome to gain height, but set straight off across the English Channel, as I had no time to waste if I were to make Casablanca before dark with this head wind. Climbing gradually to gain altitude, I was soon high up above the mist and cloud in a world of my own. I had set a compass course for Biarritz, and could only navigate by dead-reckoning as seconds resolved into minutes and minutes into hours, until now I was more than two hours out and still above the clouds.
Blue sky and sunshine above, and below as far as I could see stretched a white carpet. Sometimes it was smooth as ice, and at other times ruffled like swans-down. For company I watched the shadow of my aeroplane on the clouds beneath. Often on my flights I had watched that shadow speeding along, sometimes silhouetted against the sands of the Syrian Desert, sometimes on white clouds such as these high above some lonely part of the world. Something dark caughtpage 105my eye—a gap in the clouds. Very soon more gaps appeared, and here and there I caught glimpses of the pasture-lands of France as hour after hour slipped by. When nearing the Spanish border I expected to see the great snowy peaks of the Pyrenees silhouetted against the skyline. To my consternation there was not a mountain to be seen—only dark, treacherous rain-clouds which I knew were concealing the peaks. Heavy raindrops splashed on to the windscreen, to be whipped into tiny rivulets by the slipstream of the propeller as the aeroplane plunged into the storm. Visibility became steadily worse as I flew south, and the raindrops formed a prelude to thousands of tiny silver arrows which beat against the cabin windows as if vainly seeking admission. Hail... I thought of that voice rapping out the weather report..." possibility of hail."
Flying lower and lower that I might see the coast, I suddenly lost it completely as the machine nosed into the rain-clouds. This would never do. I was flying into a trap. Only a few hundred feet up and heading at 150 m.p.h. straight for the mountains. Wheeling the machine about I turned back. Should I return to Biarritz and wait for the storms to clear? Over the Bay of Biscay the low rain-clouds foretold more storms to come, and if this flight was to be a record every minute was precious. I decided to keep to my schedule. There was only one alternative, and that was to climb up above the clouds before attempting to cross the mountains. I wondered to what height the clouds extended. Giving the engine full throttle, I turned the machine back on to its course and put it into a climb. Up andpage 106up I climbed . . . 5000 feet. . . 6000 feet . . . 7000 feet. As soon as I would rise above one layer of cloud it was only to find another above. I watched the needle of the altimeter creeping steadily higher as my trusty aeroplane roared upward through the great cloud-banks. Twelve thousand feet—surely the clouds could not be much higher. Outside the cabin the grey and white mass seemed to press against the cabin windows of the machine and threaten to engulf it completely. I began to despair of ever penetrating the sea of cloud. Suddenly at 14,000 feet I emerged in brilliant sunshine. How wonderful to see the light again after that dark, choking mass which made me shudder at the thought of it! Able to relax now after the long climb, I realized how cold I was. My fingers gripping the control column were numb, and I welcomed a drink of hot black coffee from my thermos. I seemed to be in a world of my own, for as far as my eye could see there stretched a vast, billowy carpet of cloud. It was bitterly cold, and at such a great height I wondered if conditions were favourable for ice-formation. I anxiously glanced out at the wings of the aeroplane, but was reassured by the answering gleam which flashed back at me from the smooth silver surfaces of the wings. I became overwhelmed by an intense feeling of loneliness which only the long-distance flyer knows, and found myself listening intently to the rhythmic beat of the engine and trying not to think what the consequences of an engine-failure now would mean . . . the thought of gliding down through that white carpet beneath me that hid the mountains, where it would be almost im- page 107 possible to make a forced landing. It seemed strange that I should be crossing a great mountain range like the Pyrenees without glimpsing even one mountains peak.
Away to the east of my course the clouds seemed to assume fantastic shapes, rising and falling like waves. I wondered what strange currents caused such peculiar formations. Suddenly I realized that these irregularities in the billowy cloud carpet were in reality snow-capped mountain peaks. They looked cold and unfriendly, these great snowy peaks rearing themselves majestically above the sea of cloud like giant sentinels.
My spirits rose as I flew southward, and the clouds were lower, enabling me to descend to 10,000 feet, where it was not quite so cold. Gradually the billowy carpet beneath me began to break up, and here and there I caught glimpses of the earth and was able to check up my position. Through one break in the clouds I looked down into the yawning gap of a deep, grey, rocky crevice. So deep it seemed that I thought it must surely descend hundreds of feet into the very bowels of the earth. Another time I caught sight of a precipitous mountain with a narrow road winding up to a castle and looking just like a strand of white cotton thrown haphazard on to the mountain-side. Very soon the clouds disappeared, giving way to a vast panorama of purple-grey mountains and green valleys. Occasionally I would fly over villages with their tiny houses clustered together. What was that open space in the shape of a circle that seemed a feature of every village? Of course … the bull-ring.page 108
Sunny Spain … Half-forgotten tales of my childhood came back to me—tales of adventure, hidden treasure, and Spanish galleons; of flashing swords and chivalrous conquistadores who fought to defend some lovely princess in a lonely castle. There were the castles all right. Even now I was passing over one high up on a mountain. It might have been an abandoned medieval fortress long since forgotten, but it was evidently inhabited, for a tiny flag fluttered from the turret. "I should see Madrid soon now," I thought, scanning the rugged mountainous country ahead. My eyes swept across the instrument-board. All was well: oil-pressure, 42 lbs.; engine revs., 2000; altitude, 9000 ft.; air speed, 150 m.p.h. Leaning down to reach a petrol-cock on the floor of the machine I switched over to the port wing-tank. Number 2 tank I called it, for there were five tanks in all to watch and switch from one to another as the indicators of the little gauges on the wing-tanks neared the red zero mark as the petrol was consumed by the engine, which purred faithfully on hour after hour. I had to be quick, though, to switch over, then turn off the cock of the empty tank so that the two automatic pumps on the engine should not draw air and, forming an air-lock, cause an engine-failure. On the right side of the cabin was an auxiliary oil-tank, and every hour I would pump air into the tank from where the oil flowed out under pressure to the main oil-tank in the starboard wing, where there was yet another gauge to be watched. I checked up my position and jotted it down in the log-book strapped to my knee. I was soon approaching the lovely, undulating purplepage 109line of the snow-capped Sierra de Guadarrama. Above the highest peak a solitary fluffy white cloud floated like a pennant. Villages and roads became more numerous, and now I was beginning to enjoy the flight. In the distance to the westward of my course I saw the great white city of Madrid, and felt tempted to alter course and explore the beauties of the Spanish capital. I made a resolve to return one day and learn more of this fascinating country. How strange it seemed that on my first visit to Spain I should fly the full length of the country with no intention of landing. Why, even Don Quixote would have raised his eyebrows at the very thought of such a journey. The vast plateau over which I had been flying was 2000 feet above sea-level, and although I was nearing the edge of it there were still more mountain ranges ahead. The country beneath reminded me somewhat of my own homeland, New Zealand, with its majestic mountains and fertile valleys. Frequently I would fly over the acres of orderly dark green trees of orange groves.
Crossing the broad, sweeping curves of the Guadalquivir river to the east of Seville I continued on, until at last I sighted the blue waters of the Strait of Gibraltar. The mountains here were lower, and the country became much greener as I neared the southern coast of Spain. A strong westerly wind and myriads of white-crested waves were my impressions of the Strait as I left the coast of Spain east of Cape Trafalgar and crossed to Northern Africa. I had my first glimpse of Morocco nearing Tangier, for although the wind was strong there was a slight dust-haze whichpage 110limited visibility. Tangier . . . The graceful curve of a sapphire-blue harbour backed by green hills. What an exquisite setting for such a gem! White, flat-roofed houses, with here and there a Moorish tower or dome; wide, cool terraces sloping down to the sea, and palms and flowers in profusion.
The sun beat fiercely down as mile after mile of the sandy coastline slipped beneath the silver wings, which reflected the glare and shone like burnished steel. England seemed a long way off . . . 1200 miles away, for I was now eight and a half hours out. Only another 190 miles or so to Casablanca, I thought, pulling on my cork sun-helmet and wondering how I should stand the sun on the next day's flight to West Africa.
The country was flatter now and much greener than I had expected. I was passing over a fairly large town. Picking up my map I read "Rabat." A sleepy-looking place with square white, flat-roofed houses and narrow streets. It seemed to be completely deserted, but then I was too high up to distinguish any figures, and the only sign of life seemed to be a herd of animals wending their way along a street leaving the city. Glancing back I decided Rabat looked interesting and rather pretty, probably worth a visit some day. I flew much lower, and was able to distinguish the figures of some Arabs, their draperies flying in the wind as they galloped their horses along the beach. Approaching a lighthouse I saw three tiny native fishing-smacks, and far ahead the white buildings of Casablanca gleaming in the strong sunlight. Well named . . . Casablanca, for almost without exception it seemed that every flat-page 111
roofed house was white. So strong was the light that I could easily distinguish people walking about the streets, and as I flew low over the aerodrome could see the little crowd that had gathered to welcome me and speed me on my way.
Shutting off the engine, I glided down to land; then as the wheels touched down started to taxi across to the hangars. I paused for a moment and made a hurried entry in the log-book: "Landed Casablanca 04.15 p.m., G.M.T. Day's run, 1350 miles." Arriving in front of the hangar I switched off the engine exactly nine hours and three-quarters after leaving England, and opening the door of the cabin stepped out. I felt a little stiff as I climbed down off the wing, to be immediately surrounded by a group of friendly French people. Handshakes and congratulations, murmurs of "Bon voyage!" and "Bonne chance!" "Why, I've only just started the flight," I began. "This is the first stage." "Ah, oui, but what a record to start out with! Nonstop from England to Casablanca in nine hours and three-quarters!" Yes, of course, I had not thought of that, for there were the preparations for the next stage to think about. Phew! It was hot. Discarding the heavy woollen coat in which I had set out I felt the sun burning my shoulders through my white flying-suit. Accompanied by the president of the Aero-Club de Maroc, I walked across to the customs office, where once again G-ADPR was cleared outward bound, but this time for Rio de Oro, where I had arranged for a supply of petrol to be ready for me at the tiny Spanish outpost of Villa Cisneros. Willing hands pushed thepage 112machine into the shade of the hangar. A French mechanic was waiting to give any help I should require with the engine, for I was not going on again without first servicing the machine and having some food and sleep. There was another flight of some 1600 miles ahead before I reached the taking-off point for the final stage of the flight across the South Atlantic Ocean nearly 2000 miles to Brazil. I must conserve my energy, for the successful navigation of that ocean depended on a clear brain and a steady hand. A cup of tea and some ham and salad in the club-house was a welcome interlude. There was a considerable amount of talking going on in the adjoining room, and it did not occur to me that I was the subject of the discussion. The President left me to finish my belated lunch, and joining the group was himself soon engrossed in the deep discussion. As I was finishing the meal he returned and said that the health officer wanted to know if I had been vaccinated. Giving myself a mental pat on the back for my careful organization I searched through my papers until I came to a medical certificate attesting that I had been vaccinated for smallpox. No, that would not do, it appeared. I must produce a certificate stating that I had been inoculated against 'pest.' What was 'pest,' I wanted to know. It was not mentioned in the long list of "conditions to be complied with in flights to French West Africa" that had been sent to me from the Air Ministry before my departure. Had I not complied with all these regulations, and already shown the customs officer the mooring equipment, signal pistol complete with red and green rocket car- page 113 tridges, the insurance policy for 100,000 francs to assist in paying for a search in the event of a forced landing on the lonely stretches over which I must fly to reach Thies? There were also the big two-gallon water-containers, the packets of emergency rations sufficient to last for fourteen days, the 20 per cent, petrol margin, the glass tubes containing chemicals to indicate wind-direction on impact with the ground, and, of course, the heavy Service revolver with twenty cartridges. I thought with a twinge of regret how these new regulations had already delayed the start of my flight for one month. Surely there could not be anything I had overlooked. No, no, I must not misunderstand them, the President assured me with a smile. I had certainly complied with all the regulations. The health officer had received notification that plague had broken out in Senegal, and no one who was not inoculated against 'pest' could enter Moroccan territory from there.
"I don't want to," I began. "You see, I am flying on from Senegal to South America, and will only land at the military aerodrome of Thies."
"Yes, but you run a terrible risk, and once having entered Senegal it would not be possible for you to return to Morocco should any contingency arise and you wish to do so. It is wiser that you wait in Casablanca for a few days and be inoculated before proceeding."
I closed my eyes for a second: the bottom seemed to be dropping out of my world, so disappointed did I feel. "There must be a way out," I thought, determined not to give up.page 114
"Can I go to Villa Cisneros?" I asked. "That's Spanish territory, and the authorities there might let me proceed to Senegal." If not I had decided to return to England on the following day and make the flight in another month or two. To my mind that seemed the only solution, for apart from the record the thought of being inoculated in the unaccustomed heat of Morocco for such a horrible plague as 'pest' seemed to be, and immediately afterwards attempting an Atlantic flight, was not to be entertained.
The President promised to see if there was any alternative, and departed to the adjoining room, to return almost immediately with a man whom I took to be the health officer. They were not at all happy as they told me that if I liked to sign a document to the effect that having been warned about the plague I proceeded entirely at my own risk I should be allowed to fly on to Senegal. Ah, fate was kind. Yes, I would sign the paper, I declared happily. They all looked at me in astonishment. I had no first-hand knowledge of plague, and did not realize the terrible scourge that it was, so the thought that I might encounter the deadly 'pest' did not enter my head.
Once the document was signed we returned to the machine. Refuelling operations were soon in full swing; the mechanic, eager to carry out any work I could give him, busied himself draining the oil, cleaning filters, and refuelling the petrol-tanks.
At last everything was in readiness for an early start, for I proposed leaving about an hour before dawn in order to arrive at Thies before sundown. Taking thepage 115thermos and the small leather bag containing my few belongings from the cockpit, I smiled at the crowd, who seemed so genuinely pleased that everything was going to schedule. Several people had already offered to drive me into the town, and after arranging for a guard to watch the machine I departed, leaving the aeroplane still surrounded by an admiring group.
Leaning back in the deep seat of the sports car I breathed a sigh of contentment. The flight so far had kept to schedule, and now I was able to relax for a few hours. We were approaching the outskirts of the city, and the sun, setting in a blaze of gold, tinted the low white houses shades of pearly iridescence. The car flashed past a herd of native cattle jolting along the road, and farther on passed two Arabs riding on donkeys and picturesquely clad in hooded garments of orange and black striped cloth. As we drove through the deep shadows of the narrow streets at times we would have to stop as crowds of natives made way for the car. In some of the doorways Arabs were squatting cross-legged smoking pipes, and here and there the rays of an odd lamp would catch the handsome features of some Arab youth padding noiselessly along the street or jogging homeward on a mule.
With a jolt we pulled up outside a large white building, which was appropriately enough called the Hotel Atlantic. A native wearing a long striped garment and a red fez dashed forward to carry the luggage, and I laughed at the look of amazement and incredulity on his face as I emerged carrying the thermos and tiny leather bag. My kind friends agreed to call for me atpage 1163.30 a.m., and after ordering some dinner to be sent to my room I retired.
The furnishings of the room to which I was shown were typically Moroccan. The floor was tiled and partially covered with several beautifully coloured native rugs. The main feature of the bed was a large mosquito net, which completely enveloped it, and the orange and black striped coverlet was of woven cloth.
By the time I had dined, checked over the maps for the next section of the flight, arranged to be called at 3.30 a.m., and instructed the native attendant in the art of filling a thermos it was nearly midnight. As soon as my head touched the pillow I fell into a deep sleep, only to be awakened three and a half hours later by the shrill note of my alarum-clock. Sitting up reluctantly, I groped about for the clock that I might silence its impatient ringing. Where had I put the wretched thing? Before I had disentangled myself from the folds of the mosquito net and discovered the clock on the floor the impatient screaming had terminated abruptly. "Every one in the hotel is probably awake by now," I reproachfully told myself. I listened for the angry muttering and smothered oaths that these early notes of my alarum-clock usually brought forth from disgruntled guests in adjoining rooms, but there was not a sound to be heard. It did not take me long to struggle into my flying-suit, and after a hasty cup of tea and some biscuits I joined my friends, who had arrived punctually and were awaiting me in the dimly lit hall. The native attendant had faithpage 117fully carried out my instructions, and had the thermos, filled with coffee, and some sandwiches ready for me.
We were soon on our way to the aerodrome. The white houses looked quite ghostly in the moonlight as we drove through the sleeping city, and the deep silence was only broken by the occasional distant howl of a dog. With the deserted streets to ourselves we made good progress, and soon arrived at the aerodrome. There was my passport to retrieve from the customs officer, so while the aeroplane was being wheeled out of the hangar I walked across to the control office and collected it, also obtaining a weather report for Agadir. Bidding good-bye to my French friends I climbed into the cockpit, ran the engine up, and, releasing the brakes, taxied slowly across the aerodrome and turned into wind. I carefully checked over the instruments on the dashboard once again, setting the stop-watch and air-log and adjusting the illuminated compass, which shone up at me like a circlet of diamonds from the floor of the cockpit. Switching on the navigation lights I took off.
As I gave the engine full throttle and gently pushed the control column forward the aeroplane roared across the aerodrome. The tail lifted, and as I eased the stick back the Gull rose, climbing high above the red boundary lights. Rapidly gaining height I throttled the engine down to cruising revolutions and turned to fly back across the aerodrome. Even in the darkness Casablanca looked white—almost like a fairy city with its myriads of tiny sparkling lights. Unless the lightpage 118southerly wind increased in strength I should pass over Mogador at about 6.45 a.m., G.M.T.
The time factor is a great problem on such long flights, for each place has its own local time, and as I was flying gradually westward—that is, travelling with the sun—I was actually gaining daylight. On the Australia flight exactly the opposite had been the case, for with every thousand miles I had flown eastward approximately an hour's daylight had been lost. To prevent confusion I made all my calculations in Greenwich Mean Time, and this also enabled me to know to the minute the number of hours of daylight there would be for each day of the flight. There were two clocks on the instrument-board, one which was set to Greenwich Mean Time, and the other I altered at each stopping-place to the local time, for naturally the authorities at each aerodrome had to know my estimated time of departure in their own local time.page 119