Chapter XX: Flight to England
Chapter XX: Flight to England
Dawn was just breaking as I took off from Darwin on October 19 at 6 a.m., L.T., and set a course across the Timor Sea for Kupang. The aeroplane rose easily despite its heavy load of petrol, and I left the coast feeling glad that I had waited for reasonable weather. Rambang, on Lombok island, 1100 miles away, was to be my first stop, and after refuelling I intended to leave immediately for Batavia.
Although this was my fourth flight across the Timor Sea I felt just as lonely as on other occasions. There was a slight following wind, and I sighted land just three hours fifteen minutes after leaving Australia. After passing Kupang I flew on over another 150 miles of sea to Flores island. The weather was good, although I encountered some violent bumps as I flew along the islands of the Dutch East Indies before landing for fuel at Rambang. The Administrator of Lombok was waiting to welcome me. After a cool drink and some biscuits I said good-bye to the kind Dutchmen, who insisted on giving me some sand-page 273wiches, oranges, and a bunch of bananas which nearly filled the cockpit.
The refuelling had not taken long, and I was in the air again only thirty-five minutes after landing. As I flew over Bali I met more terrific bumps, and low clouds made visibility poor. Nearing Batavia I ran into a violent thunderstorm, but was soon through it, and on arriving at the aerodrome found a large crowd waiting for me. Everything had gone to schedule, and although the day's run had been nearly 1800 miles I did not feel the slightest bit tired. Every one was most hospitable, and I was invited to stay at the home of a director of the Shell company and his charming wife.
My next landing was to be at Alor Star, 1000 miles from Batavia, and I intended flying on another 900 miles to Rangoon the same day. When I left Batavia it was a clear, moonlight night. Flying over the brightly lighted city I left Java and steered for Muntok island, off the coast of Sumatra. Although the night seemed so clear, I was not at all happy about the weather ahead. On this section I would make my fifth flight across the equator, and on all previous occasions violent rain-storms had tossed the machine about. To increase my uneasiness I had that day received a letter and meteorological report from the pilot of the mail 'plane bound from Singapore to Darwin. He had left the message at Rambang so that I should receive it and know what weather lay ahead. Part of the letter read: "I should think that you will encounter monsoon conditions with S.W.-N.W. winds, low clouds and rain between Batavia and Singapore over the last 300 milespage 274judging by our experience to-day, as we had to sit in it for nearly three hours, about 75 per cent, instrument flying."
One hour out from Batavia clouds began banking up, and I climbed to 9000 feet to try to keep above them. Wispy clouds drifted across the moon, which was soon completely obscured. The two layers of cloud between which the machine was flying gradually closed together, and I decided to go down to a lower altitude and fly beneath them. Throttling back the engine, I glided down, gradually losing height, until at 2000 feet the blackness outside was still just as dense. Giving the engine a little throttle, I groped cautiously down through the cloud, trying to find the base. At 1000 feet a flash of lightning illuminated the cabin, and I saw sheets of rain sweeping over the machine. I watched the needle on the dial of the altimeter drop lower and lower, and at 500 feet I glanced at my air-log and saw that I was two hours out from Batavia, and must be nearing Muntok island. Giving the engine full throttle, I climbed upward again. There was no alternative but to climb to a safe height and settle down to instrument flying until dawn, when I could see where I was going. It was too risky to fly low at this stage, for some of the peaks on Muntok were over 2000 feet, and only 140 miles farther on lay Linnga island, with its 4000-feet cone, invisible in the rain and darkness. The air was very turbulent, and heavy rain beat against the windows as the Gull rocked about in the darkness. It was extremely difficult at times to control the machine, and blind flying under these conditions was terribly difficult.page 275
After an eternity the darkness outside faded and dawn broke. The machine was flying between two layers of cloud. Above were dark, ominous clouds that threatened at any moment to descend in torrents on the Gull. There were only scattered clouds beneath. It was imperative that I should check up my position on some landmark, so I glided down through a gap. A thick mist covered the sea, but above it rose the peaks of hundreds of tiny islands which lie just south of Singapore. Identifying one of the islands by my chart I flew on and passed over Singapore as heavy rain commenced to fall. I saw the magnificent new civil aerodrome, and felt tempted to land and have breakfast. There had evidently been a tremendous amount of rain, for as I flew on again over Malaya I noticed that nearly all the cleared patches were under water. The head wind increased, until my ground speed was only no m.p.h., and over Lower Malaya the wind reached gale force.
More rain-storms swept across my path, and my spirits sank lower as I neared Alor Star and thought of the long flight ahead to Rangoon. From above, the aerodrome at Alor Star looked as if it was under water, so I was obliged to land cross-wind on the long runway. The sun came out and shone down fiercely, and I learned from the white residents who had assembled to greet me that on the previous day even the runway had been under water. The British Administrator who welcomed me to Malaya insisted on my accompanying him to the rest-house, where I enjoyed a light meal.
The weather improved after I left Alor Star, andpage 276apart from the head wind the flight to the Burmese capital was a pleasant one. I felt very sad flying over this section, because it was somewhere along this lonely Burmese coast that Sir Charles Kingsford Smith lost his life. It is doubtful if anyone will ever know exactly what happened at that zero hour when the accident occurred. After the sea had jealously guarded its secret for over a year wreckage definitely identified as part of Kingsford Smith's aeroplane was found near the island of Aye, just south of Moulmein. A relative of Kingsford Smith had written asking me to ascertain whether the island was marked on my map of this territory—a map similar to the one used by Sir Charles. It is now thought that in the darkness his machine struck this island, which rises sheer from the sea to a height of some hundreds of feet. The maps of this part of the world are of a very small scale and not very detailed. The island of Aye is not marked on either the 40-miles-to-the-inch-scale map of this territory or the larger 15.75-miles-to-the-inch-scale map. I discount this new theory of the accident (unless there was a mechanical or structural failure at this point) because of Kingsford Smith's superb knowledge of the England-to-Australia air route, which was impressed on me during the many talks we had together.
When I arrived at Rangoon it was raining heavily, and from the air the aerodrome appeared to be partially under water. I flew round to select a dry patch on which to alight. On landing, however, I found the red gravel surface excellent and quite firm. As I taxied towards the hangars I saw a group of English andpage 277Burmese people waiting to greet me, and recognized several friends whom I had met on previous flights to Rangoon. The Gull was refuelled and wheeled into the hangar while I cleared customs and arranged for flares for the take-off. On the drive into Rangoon I entered up my log-books, and saw that I was already well ahead of the record. It was just exactly 1 day 12 hours 40 minutes since I had left Darwin, 3700 miles away. By arriving in Rangoon in this time I was many hours ahead of the record. To maintain this lead over the rest of the route I should have to fly night and day, and probably through weather which would ordinarily keep an aeroplane on the ground. On the following day I planned to make the longest day's journey of the flight. This was to be from Rangoon right across Burma and Bengal, to refuel at Allahabad, 1200 miles from the Burmese capital, then fly on nearly another thousand miles to Karachi. The distance was 2150 miles, and as the weather forecast predicted head winds it would probably mean a night landing at Karachi.
There were many people at the aerodrome to watch the take-off from Rangoon, and just as I was climbing into the cockpit a woman hurried forward and thrust a package into my hand, saying that she hoped I would accept it, as she and her friends all prayed for my safety and success. On opening the package I felt deeply moved to find a beautiful rosary.
The flares were lit, and the Gull took off, eager to be on the wing again. Climbing to 10,000 feet I crossed the jungle-clad Arakan Yoma Mountains in bright moonlight. As dawn broke a strong north-page 278westerly wind sprang up, and as I altered course at Chittagong to cross the Bay of Bengal it swung round to westerly, retarding my progress to the extent of 30 m.p.h. Nearing Calcutta I encountered thick mist, and had to waste time climbing above it, where the wind was even stronger. At last Allahabad appeared ahead, and I landed, having taken almost nine hours thirty-five minutes to complete the 1200 miles from Rangoon. This was fairly slow progress for the Gull, and I learned from the weather report that the head winds were even stronger farther on, and between Jodhpur and Karachi were over 40 m.p.h. It was impossible to arrive at Karachi before dark, so I telegraphed my E.T.A. (estimated time of arrival), and also a request for the floodlights.
After only thirty minutes on the ground to refuel I took off and continued my flight across India. The sun burned down fiercely, and at times the heat was almost unbearable. The air coming into the cockpit through the ventilators was like the blast from a furnace, and the crepe soles of my shoes melted and stuck to the rudder-bars. It would have been cooler at a higher altitude, but I flew very low, sometimes only 500 feet above the ground, in an effort to minimize the effect of the head wind. Strong vertical currents rose from the hot, parched earth, and at times the machine would be carried up several hundreds of feet, only to drop suddenly immediately afterwards. Some of the bumps were particularly fierce, and my shoulder ached righting the machine after them.
As time wore on I grew increasingly tired, and notpage 279far from Jodhpur a terrible desire for sleep nearly overcame me. All day I had been flying into the sun, and the terrific glare was very trying. The sun, beating down on to the huge steel auxiliary tank in the cabin, made it so hot that it was impossible to touch, and the air in the confined space of the cockpit was pervaded with the odour of petrol fumes. There had been little opportunity for rest since I had left Australia, and my eyes, swollen from the glare, felt like red-hot coals. All these factors were conducive to sleep, and it was only sheer will-power and the fact that I was so superbly fit that kept me awake.
At Jodhpur I felt tempted to land while it was still light, for I was in no mood to risk a night landing at Karachi, and in any case I doubted if I could keep my eyes open much longer. Taking out a bottle of eau de Cologne I soaked my handkerchief and bathed my burning head, and, cupping my hand just outside the cabin window, managed to direct some fresh air on to my face. After an orange and some black coffee I felt considerably better, and decided to continue to Karachi and draw even farther ahead of the record.
The heat across the Sind Desert was scorching, and I was relieved when the sun finally set and the air became cooler. The stars came out and the wind dropped a little as I neared the edge of the desert, but by this time I was so sleepy that I leaned my head against the side of the cockpit, and held one eye open at a time. This terrible longing for sleep might not have been accentuated if it had been possible to communicate with the outside world, for a radio would have kept my interestpage 280up. I felt so completely shut off, and would often long to hear the sound of a human voice or see some sign of life on the territory over which I was passing. A copilot would have been a tremendous help, and I often thought how wonderful it would be to have some one to take over the controls occasionally and share the responsibility of the navigating.
At last the lights of Karachi appeared ahead, and the air beacon was a welcome sight. On landing I was greeted by a group of enthusiastic people, who congratulated me on the flight from Burma, and I learned that this was the first time the Rangoon-Karachi flight had been accomplished during one day by a solo pilot. Every one was most helpful, the machine was refuelled, formalities speedily completed, and the precious bill of health supplied within a short space of time. When arrangements had been made for an engine schedule and lights for the take-off I decided there would be time for about four hours' sleep before flying on. Once again I was the guest of Commander and Mrs Watt, and surprised every one that evening by falling asleep at dinner.
Four hours' sleep refreshed me, and when the alarum-clock rang I quickly dressed, and after a cup of tea and some biscuits hurried across to the hangar. Despite the big load of petrol for the next section of 1350 miles to Basra, the Gull was soon off. As usual the additional weight of the additional fuel decreased my speed to 140 m.p.h. for the first few hours until some of the petrol in the rear tank was used. It was just 9.45 p.m., G.M.T., when I left Karachi. Flying along the Persianpage 281Gulf I landed at Basra nearly ten hours later, after flying against head winds all the way.
My log-book was stamped, and on receiving the meteorological report I saw that head winds and sandstorms were predicted on the desert crossing to Damascus. There was no time to lunch at Basra if I was to arrive at Cyprus, 1000 miles farther on, before sundown, so when the refuelling was completed I climbed into the cockpit to fly on immediately. My throat felt parched after the hot, tiring flight from India, and I longed for a large glass of iced soda-water. There was none to be had at the aerodrome hotel, however, and kind English people who had come to welcome me telephoned the town for some, but I could not spare the time to wait for it. Just as I was about to take off a taxi arrived, and a native servant ran out to the aeroplane with a huge glass of iced soda-water on a tray. Throttling back the engine as the glass was handed to me, I drained it, to the astonishment of all present, and felt as refreshed as a parched flower after rain.
Over Iraq a strong westerly wind whipped the sand up into high columns which whirled across the desert, and visibility became less as I neared Ramadi. Altering course at Lake Habbaniya, which I could only dimly distinguish through the dust, I steered for Rut-bah Wells. Head winds still retarded my progress, and when I reached the Lebanon Mountains they were covered with rain-clouds. The sky was leaden, and heavy rain fell as I crossed the mountains. There was just sufficient daylight left to make Cyprus, but as I flew on the weather became worse, and half-way across thepage 282mountains I wheeled the machine round and started back towards Damascus.
Even to this day I cannot say what finally decided me to turn back, and it seems almost uncanny in view of what transpired. At Basra I had been unable to obtain a report farther than Rutbah, and I had no idea what weather lay ahead, as the Gull was not fitted with wireless. The first person to greet me at Damascus when I landed was the President of the Aero-Club de Damas, who handed me a telegram from Cyprus. The telegram read: "Urgent advise Jean Batten not to land here aerodrome temporarily unserviceable." It appeared that there had been a cloudburst that afternoon, completely flooding the aerodrome at Nicosia. A terrible storm was raging over the Mediterranean, and waterspouts were reported off the Syrian coast. When it was learned that I had passed Damascus heading for Cyprus many of the kind Cypriotes had gone to the aerodrome with picks and shovels to try to drain some of the water off. Photographs I later received show that my decision to turn back was a wise one, for had I landed at Cyprus it would not have been possible to take off again.
The people at Damascus were very hospitable, and I decided to stay for twelve hours in the hope that conditions over the Mediterranean might moderate, although meteorological reports were not promising—low cloud, rain, and the possibility of further cloudbursts were forecast. The Mezze Aerodrome, where I had previously landed twice, had been improved immensely, and was now an excellent modern airport with lightingpage break page break page 283
equipment. A good sleep refreshed me, but as I taxied out to take off I felt uneasy about the weather ahead, which was reported as very bad between Beirut and Athens. The kind French authorities offered to keep the aerodrome lighted until dawn in case I was forced to return.
The Mezze Aerodrome is 2000 feet above sea-level, and it was frightfully cold as I took off and climbed to 10,000 feet before setting off across the mountains. The weather was clear as I passed over Beirut and steered over the Mediterranean for Nicosia, Cyprus, 150 miles distant. The air became very turbulent as I left the coast, and twenty-five miles out I encountered a storm of such intensity that to this day I wonder how the Gull weathered it. A fierce rain-squall tossed the machine about so violently that it was almost impossible to control it, and flying entirely by instruments was a terrific strain under such conditions.
A flash of lightning suddenly penetrated the blackness, and I was horrified to see a thin blue circle of light round the metal hub of the propeller. This recurred at short intervals, and the Gull was thrown about like a tiny boat in a rough sea. Water was pouring through a leak in the roof of the cabin, and the flashes of lightning temporarily blinded me, so that I could not see the instruments on the panel in front. It became impossible to fly on, and I managed to turn the machine round and plough back through the storm. Suddenly through the sheets of rain I saw a lighthouse on the Syrian coast piercing the darkness with its friendly beam, and it was almost as though an unseen hand had guided thepage 284machine back to safety. "Should I return to Damascus?" I wondered, but the thought of losing the record was too terrible, and instead I decided to fly north in an attempt to avoid the worst of the storm area, which appeared to lie between Beirut and Cyprus.
When dawn broke it was still raining, but the air was calm, and as I flew northward up the Syrian coast I wondered if after all it would be possible to make Athens. Once more I turned the nose of the machine seaward, and the Gull speeded towards the storm like a charger going to battle. Until nearing Rhodes I flew through some of the most atrocious weather I have ever experienced, and at one stage I saw the black, sinuous column of a water-spout ahead. This was a new experience, for I had never seen a water-spout from the air before, although a big one had appeared in the Darwin harbour the day before my departure. It was a weird though fascinating sight to see the great column of hundreds of tons of water revolving between sea and cloud. I was glad when the machine had passed the vicinity.
Towards Athens the weather cleared, and I arrived in sunshine. On hearing of my experience the people at the Tatoi Aerodrome told me that the worst storm for many years had raged over the Mediterranean the previous night, and I had been exceedingly fortunate to make Athens.
That afternoon I crossed the Adriatic Sea to Italy, and flew on over the Apennines in more bad weather. At Naples the weather was fine, although the sky was leaden and rain seemed imminent. As I flew on topage 285Rome rain fell heavily and visibility became very bad. Flying low along the coast, I made good progress, but twenty-five miles from Rome at a height of less than fifty feet the Gull plunged into low cloud and misty rain. It was too dangerous to continue in such conditions, and so I reluctantly turned the machine round and flew another hundred miles back to Naples. This again proved a wise decision, for on landing at Naples I heard that visibility at Rome was less than 500 yards. Strangely enough I did not feel very tired, and as I taxied up to the tarmac was delighted to see several people waiting to greet me.
"How did you know I would land here?" I asked Mr Meuser, the representative of K.L.M.
"We didn't," he replied. "We came here to meet the mail 'plane, but the weather is very bad over Europe, and it has turned back to Paris. Never mind," he added, laughing, "you have arrived instead."
The President of the Aero Club of Naples arrived to welcome me, and with charming hospitality which I have always experienced in Italy invited me to be the guest of the Aero Club during my stay. My new friends stayed up till late that night getting weather reports and taking telephone calls for me from England and the Continent, answering eighteen calls after I had retired. Very bad weather was reported over Europe, and from the meteorological reports it seemed rather doubtful if I should be able to fly through to England on the following day.
Rain fell steadily in the night, but as we drove to the aerodrome in the morning the weather had improved.page 286
Everything depended on this last 1100-mile section to England, and yet as I studied the meteorological reports it seemed that I was not to achieve the record without a final battle with the elements. The weather was bad in the Mediterranean, with low cloud and rain over Corsica, but, apart from head winds, fairly good between Marseilles and London. The best plan, we agreed, was for me to fly round the Gulf of Genoa via Pisa, and thus skirt the low-pressure area. There appeared to be a bad patch between Spezia and Genoa, but from there on it was fair. This long detour would add about sixty miles on to my journey, but I did not mind as long as it was possible for me to fly through to England. It was just 4 days 18 hours since I had left Darwin, and my new friends were most enthusiastic and anxious that I should gain the record, which was now almost within my grasp.
Leaving Naples, I set off for Marseilles, but northward the weather became steadily worse. Rain fell heavily as I neared Pisa, and visibility was so poor that I had the utmost difficulty in keeping the coastline in sight. Flying very low, the Gull suddenly plunged into low cloud, and I completely lost sight of the coast. It was too dangerous to fly on in the vicinity of such mountainous country with visibility practically nil, so I swung the machine seaward and flew back until I located the coast again. "Should I land at Pisa in the hope that the weather would improve?" I wondered. The thought of losing the record was not to be tolerated, so I decided to fly direct across the gulf to St Raphael.page 287
Leaving the Italian coast at Livorno I climbed to 3000 feet, and flew entirely by instruments for over an hour through cloud. When the weather cleared and I emerged from the clouds it was just like flying from night into day. St Raphael was bathed in sunshine, but a strong westerly wind caused violent down-draughts from the Alps, and when I crossed the mountains to Marseilles at times the Gull seemed to be making no progress at all against the head winds.
At Marseilles there was quite a large crowd to welcome me, and I was presented with a lovely bouquet and a large box of sweets, which were put in the already crowded locker.
After the extremely bad weather I had experienced that morning it was like a tonic to hear that, apart from slight head winds, the weather to London was favourable. A cup of coffee and all the good wishes of the kind French people dispelled my tiredness, and with renewed enthusiasm I wearily climbed back into the cockpit and set off for England. France certainly had put on her best weather for me, and I flew up the Rhone valley and over Lyons in brilliant sunshine. The continual bad weather during the flight and the lack of sleep had made me dreadfully tired—much more so than I cared to admit. It seemed centuries since I had taken off from Darwin, and I had practically lost count of time. When I left Australia it was spring-time, and the trees were in blossom; now, as I looked down on woods, I saw that the trees were tinted with the gorgeous reds, orange, and golden brown shades of autumn. It was forcibly brought to my mind that I hadpage 288flown from spring into autumn in the space of five days.
As I passed Paris and drew nearer my goal my feelings were indescribable. When at last I sighted the English Channel and then the white cliffs of Dover it seemed almost too good to be true that the record was actually within my grasp.
Circling Lympne Aerodrome to land, I saw that a great crowd of people had assembled to greet me. On the smooth green surface the wheels of the Gull came to rest on English soil on October 24, exactly 5 days 18 hours 15 minutes after leaving Australia, and I realized that I had lowered the existing solo record by more than fourteen hours.
As I taxied towards the hangars a great crowd of cheering people surrounded the Gull. On climbing from the cockpit I was carried triumphantly to the customs office, where my precious journey log-book was officially stamped.
Only twenty minutes after landing I taxied out again, and took off for Croydon with an aerial escort. My mother, who had always been my inspiration and the guiding light of my whole life, would be there to welcome me, and probably a few friends, I thought. Not for one moment did I expect the tremendous welcome which awaited me. When I flew over Croydon the most amazing sight met my eyes. The boundaries of the aerodrome were black with people and a huge crowd had assembled to greet me. As I glided down to a landing, then taxied up to the tarmac, I felt deeply moved by the spontaneity of the welcome, which far outshonepage break page break
anything I had ever before experienced. It seemed more like a homecoming than just the final landing of a record flight.
When the Gull paused on the tarmac and I switched the engine off for the last time and stepped out on to the wing a great roar of welcome greeted me. I saw my mother smiling up at me from the sea of faces round the machine, and Mr Jordan, the High Commissioner of New Zealand, standing beside her. Thousands of cheering people were surging across to the Gull, which was soon surrounded. A huge bouquet of flowers was thrust into my hands, and I found myself being carried on the shoulders of two stalwart policemen. Remarkable scenes of enthusiasm were enacted, and I felt that it had been worth while flying all the way from Australia to receive such a royal welcome from my warm-hearted English friends.page 290