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My Life

Chapter XVII: Southward from Singapore

Chapter XVII: Southward from Singapore

A large crowd of people had assembled to see the take-off that night, and the Gull, with a maximum load of petrol, speeded past the long line of flares, and was soon circling the aerodrome to gain height.

The night was pitch black but clear, and I passed over many lights marking the many islands which dot the sea just south of Singapore. Two hours after the take-off a flash of lightning illuminated the sky, and the Gull soon plunged into a fierce tropical storm. Outside the cabin was a black void, and an occasional flash of lightning showed the rain beating against the cabin windows. Would it be possible to rise above the storm, I wondered, and giving the engine full throttle put the Gull into climbing angle. I had not slept since leaving Akyab, and was in no mood to meet such weather, and my eyes were growing tired of staring at the luminous dials of the instrument panel in front of me.

The Gull roared upward through the night, and at 9000 feet I almost despaired of ever penetrating the blackness which enveloped the machine. Suddenly Ipage 237saw a star like a guiding light, then another, as the Gull rose above the storm to fly in the security of a calm, clear sky.

Two hours later I glided down through a gap in the clouds to see the lighthouse at the entrance of Batavia harbour straight ahead. The city was a blaze of light, and I altered course for Soerabaya, at the eastern end of the island of Java. A steady head wind retarded my speed, and became even stronger as I left Java and flew over Bali to Lombok island, where I landed to refuel at Rambang.

That afternoon, on the way to Kupang, I should probably have dropped off to sleep had it not been for the violent bumps which shook the Gull as it battled against the strong south-easterly wind.

On arrival at Kupang I climbed stiffly from the cockpit to supervise the refuelling immediately. The fuel agent provided an amusing interlude when he wanted to take photographs. Desirous of having some local colour he mustered all the native children to form a group. I was busy checking the engine, and, hearing a lot of laughter and chattering, went round to the other side of the Gull, to find about two dozen small boys being arranged for the photograph.

"Ah, there you are," said the fuel agent. "Please stand in the centre."

"No, I shall not," I replied, "unless they are suitably clothed."

This was translated by the fuel agent's wife, who spoke English, and amid much giggling and tittering the dark-eyed little native women produced scarfs andpage 238sarongs. There was a great deal of laughter when the photographs were eventually taken. About twelve natives began to push the Gull quickly over the rough ground to the picketing area, for as yet there was no hangar at the aerodrome.

"Don't push it backward," I cried, when I realized what they were doing. My warning came too late, however, and there was a bang as the tail-wheel caught on some sharp stones and the rubber tyre burst. I had no spare inner tube in my equipment, and suddenly, felt terribly tired and disheartened as I threw myself down on the grass to inspect the tyre. Surely the record would not be snatched from my grasp now, when I was only 530 miles from Australia!

The fuel agent had a brilliant idea. "You leave it to me," he cried, "and I will fix it. We can fill the tyre with rubber sponges, and although heavy it will serve you for the take-off." This seemed a brilliant idea, and we quickly drove into the village and bought up all the rubber sponges available. I accompanied the agent's wife to the rest-house, while her husband returned to the aerodrome with the tail-wheel.

Next morning I bade my kind Dutch friends goodbye and took off for Australia. Apart from a slight head wind fine weather prevailed, and the Timor Sea crossing took only 3 hours 55 minutes. I landed at Darwin at 1.20 a.m., G.M.T., on October 11, just 5 days 21 hours out from England, having lowered by twenty-four hours the solo record previously held by Mr H. F. Broadbent.

There was a large crowd to welcome me back to

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Black and white photograph of aeroplane taking off.

The Gull takes off into the dawn bound for New Zealand
Associated Press Photo
[See p. 221]

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Black and white photograph of Mt Taranaki (nee Egmont).

Mount Egmont, New Zealand
By permission of the High Commissioner for New Zealand

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Australia. This record was, however, incidental to the flight, for I had by no means reached my goal, which was Auckland, 3700 miles farther on. There was still the overland flight of 2200 miles across the continent to Sydney, and then the final section of 1330 miles across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand, and another 150 miles on to Auckland. There were many congratulatory telegrams and cables waiting for me, and on the flight southward next morning I read them to pass away the time.

Very strong head winds persisted the following day as I continued my flight across the vast, lonely stretches of the Northern Territory and Central Queensland to land at Longreach, 1200 miles from Darwin. On the flight to Sydney the weather was so rough and boisterous that the Gull was flung about violently, and I had the utmost difficulty in keeping the machine level when crossing the Blue Mountains. It was very clear, however, and I could see Sydney fifty miles before I flew over it.

As I circled the city I saw the great harbour bridge and all the roof-tops black with waving people. I landed at Mascot Aerodrome escorted by aeroplanes of the Royal Aero Club of New South Wales, having established a record of 8 days for the flight from England-to Sydney. I shall never forget the full-throated roar of welcome that greeted me from thousands of people as I taxied up to the reception dai's. There was an even bigger crowd than on my first flight to Sydney. During the official reception there were numerous speeches by Government officials and aviation repre-page 240sentatives. After the reception I drove through streets lined with cheering people to the Hotel Australia.

After landing the Gull had been taken to the De Havilland Aircraft Company's works, where a schedule was to be carried out on the engine, as there was no time for an overhaul.

"The flight is not finished yet," I told the enthusiastic people who showered me with congratulations.

A great number of receptions were planned when it became known that I intended waiting in Sydney for conditions to improve over the Tasman Sea. I was reluctantly obliged to decline all invitations, as I felt in need of some relaxation after the strenuous flight to Australia. Instead, however, I spent many hours making final preparations for the next section, and considerable time at the observatory studying weather charts and conferring with Mr Mares, the Government meteorologist.

There was a considerable amount of opposition to my plan to continue the flight through to New Zealand. This was not to be wondered at, however, for the sudden violent storms of the Tasman were well known by all Australians and New Zealanders. No one, however, realized more deeply than I the hazards of this seldom flown sea, for I had carefully studied hydrographic charts of the South Pacific and learned of the high gale frequency and the abnormal number of cyclonic disturbances throughout each year. Several times I had crossed the Tasman by steamer, and had vivid memories of storms when I had awakened in the nightpage 241and listened almost fascinated to the pounding thuds as tremendous waves shook the ship from stem to stern. Great foaming sheets of spray hurled themselves across the decks, sometimes greedily taking hatches and twisting derricks in their diabolical frenzy.

My fast flight to Australia had been acclaimed with enthusiasm by the Press, and hundreds of telegrams and cables of congratulations were arriving each hour. "Why not rest on your laurels and stay in Sydney?" a friend had suggested when I received an offer of several thousands of pounds to tour Australia right away instead of flying on. This represented a vast fortune to me, and I spent a long time trying to decide for the best.

"It's all very well for you to talk of linking England and New Zealand and all that sort of thing, but what's your reward?" asked one of the men at a discussion about the offer. "You can fly the Tasman and risk your life. Then what," he added, "are you going to benefit, and what will you gain?"

"The honour of completing the first solo flight from England to New Zealand and linking those two countries in direct flight for the first time in history," I replied quietly.

As those present looked pityingly at me for throwing away such an opportunity I thought very deeply about it. Staying in Sydney meant security and happiness. Challenging the Tasman meant what? . . . Only the next few days could decide.

Hundreds of letters and messages were coming in from all parts of the country, and some trying to page 242 dissuade me from attempting the Tasman. Some were strong, vital messages assuring me of the sender's faith in my ability to succeed on the last stage of my flight. Others again expressed premonitions of disaster, and many contained only the fears and doubts of the faint-hearted. I realized only too well, as was pointed out, that I was fairly tired and that the machine had already flown over 12,700 miles from England, but thought that if I stayed even one week in Sydney resting the continuity of the flight would be broken and the main object lost sight of. I had always thought of this as one flight, and did not consider the Tasman Sea as an additional flight after the England-to-Australia one.

It had occurred to me many times during the discussions of a proposed Tasman service that if a small subsidiary line were run to link up with the England-to-Australia air service New Zealand would be merely served by a feeder line—an afterthought, which, if unprofitable, could be discontinued without disorganizing the other schedule. I foresaw the Tasman service as a vital link in Empire air communications. A through service operated by one powerful company combining the interests of England, Australia, and New Zealand would make New Zealand not merely a terminus, but an important South Pacific junction where eventually air lines from Vancouver and San Francisco would connect up with the England-to-New Zealand service.

After two days in Sydney I received a weather report that decided me to take off on the following morning.

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The engine had been carefully tested by the De Havilland mechanics, and the compass checked for magnetic deviation on all cardinal points by the veteran flyer Captain P. G. Taylor, who had accompanied Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm on several of their big flights. Permission had been granted for me to use the large Air Force aerodrome at Richmond, where the Gull would have sufficient room for the full-load take-off. Every one was most helpful, and before I took off for Richmond I received word that arrangements had been made for me to be accommodated at the officers' mess overnight.

There was very little shipping on the Tasman, and it was therefore rather difficult for an accurate weather report to be compiled. During a telephone conversation with Mr Mares I learned that indications pointed to reasonably favourable weather over the first part of the sea. I intended to steer from Sydney to New Plymouth, where lovely, snow-capped Mount Egmont, a solitary mountain, reared its peak 8000 feet above the rich pasture-land. In fine weather this should be a good landmark, and when I had arrived over New Plymouth my intention was to fly to Auckland, 154 miles farther on. There was, however, a wedge of low pressure to the north that might prevent my flying right through to Auckland. My decision to take off from Richmond added forty miles on to the distance, and, as it was 1330 to New Plymouth from Sydney and another 154 miles on to Auckland, the total distance would be 1524 miles.

On arrival at Richmond Aerodrome the Gull was refuelled and wheeled into the spacious hangar inpage 244readiness for the early morning take-off. For the first time in my life I had practically no sleep that night. This was not because of any fears for what the morrow would hold for me, but because of an over-zealous sentry. Just as I was dozing off I heard a sound like thunder, and sitting up listened intently. There it was again, and I recognized the measured tread of a sentry on duty in the corridor. Tramp, tramp, tramp, went the heavy footsteps, and at the end of the wooden passage they would halt, right about turn, and return. I tried to shut out the noise by pulling the blanket over my ears, but the even tramp was as clear as a clarion. "I might ask him to take his boots off and put slippers on," I thought, but the idea of the sentry in stocking feet was too funny, and I wondered if he carried a bayonet or a gun. At midnight I resolved to ask him, at the risk of offending his sense of duty, to go and find another corridor to parade in. Tiptoeing across the room I cautiously opened the door and looked out. The sentry had reached one end of the long corridor, and at the other an open door revealed a large crowd of reporters and photographers smoking and talking. I had no wish to be photographed in my night attire, so I withdrew my head just as the sentry thundered past again.

At half-past two I rose, and after a light breakfast of tea and toast walked over to the hangars with Group Captain Cole, who was in charge of the base and had been most hospitable, and arranged for every possible facility to be placed at my disposal during my stay at Richmond. The Gull was wheeled on to the tarmac,page 245and as the engine warmed up I said good-bye to the group of friends, including Mr Cyril Westcott, who had motored from Sydney to see the take-off, and Mr W. L. Clarke, of C. C. Wakefield and Co., who as on previous Occasions had been of very great assistance. My small kit was placed in the locker, and the thermos and sandwiches were put in the cockpit. As I sat in the cockpit running the engine up I could see dozens of photographers and news-reel camera men silhouetted against the flares.

The previous night at dinner I happened to mention to one of the officers that before leaving England I thought of taking a lifebelt on the Tasman flight, laughingly remarking that a lifebelt in mid-Tasman would be about as effective as a black cat painted on the rudder. Great was my surprise next morning when one of the officers arrived with a life-saving jacket when I was just about to take off.

"I could never get out of the cockpit wearing this," I said, as it was slipped over my shoulders and inflated.

"You could if it were half deflated," one of the officers put in.

"All right, then, just to please you all, but I wouldn't have a chance if the engine failed," I replied, tying the jacket on securely.

Leaning forward I adjusted the compass, and placed the chart, maps, and log in the leather pockets within easy reach, and switched on the navigation lights. The long line of flares was burning brightly along the runway, and lighting a path in the darkness as I taxied out to the start.

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"I want to speak to the Group Captain," I shouted above the roar of the engine, and a reporter quickly wrote down my message as he hurried forward: "If I go down in the sea no one must fly out to look for me. I have chosen to make this flight, and I am confident I can make it, but I have no wish to imperil the lives of others or cause trouble and expense to my country.

"Well, good-bye!" I shouted, smiling reassuringly at the sea of tense white faces. "I'll come back one day."