Chapter III: Flight to Australia
Chapter III: Flight to Australia
Although I only arrived back in England from Rome on May 6, 1934, I,set off again at dawn on May 8, accompanied with the good luck that has flown with me ever since.
The aeroplane which I flew was by no means a modern one: in fact, it was fifth-hand and nearly five years old. I had bought it for the modest sum of 260, and after spending a considerable amount on having the engine overhauled and a number of modified and new parts fitted thought it capable of flying the 12,700 odd miles to Sydney without failing me. On looking through the log-books I had found that the history of the aeroplane was an extremely interesting one. The Gipsy I Moth had been purchased from the manufacturers in 1929 by a Flight-Lieutenant. He was stationed at Amman, in Transjordania, and flew the Moth across Holland, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Syria to his base. It was kept there for some time, and frequently visited Baghdad and Cyprus, and made various flights over the Holy Land. At one stage it was flown to Baghdad,page 33where the wings were removed and transferred to an aeroplane that had crashed in Persia. It was afterwards sold and flown back to England by Flight-Lieutenant Atcherley, of Schneider Cup fame. In England the Moth changed hands again, being on this occasion bought by an aircraft firm, who in turn sold it to the French airwoman Madeleine Charnaux, who did a considerable amount of flying with the machine. Later the Moth was damaged at Marrakesh, in Morocco, and eventually found its way once again to England, where it was traded in to an aircraft firm as part payment for a new machine. The aeroplane was used for passenger flying and instructional purposes in Wales, where an accident befell it. When it was being reconditioned I heard of the machine, and, thinking the Moth the bargain it ultimately transpired to be, bought it with the limited funds at my disposal.
The cruising speed of this veteran was only 80 m.p.h. Therefore the schedule of fourteen days which I had set myself was a fairly ambitious one. The route I planned to follow differed from that taken on previous flights to Australia. Instead of calling at Aleppo, in French Syria, as I had done on my flight to India, I intended to fly along the Mediterranean to the eastern end and land on the island of Cyprus, then cross the Lebanon Mountains to Damascus and the Syrian Desert to Baghdad. From there I would fly along the usual route to Australia via Persia, India, Burma, Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies. This route was about five hundred miles farther than the route across Central Europe, and entailed the crossing of considerable stretches of water.page 34
I looked forward to visiting Cyprus, and planned to make the first direct solo flight to that historic island from England.
Britain's only possession in the Levant, the island of Cyprus had always intrigued me, and as a child, reading of the Crusaders, I had looked at it on the map of the world, where it appears as a tiny red dot at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, and resolved to go there if ever I had the opportunity.
On the take-off from Lympne my heavily laden Moth climbed gallantly above the boundary of the aerodrome and over the misty Channel towards the coast of France. It was bitterly cold sitting in the open cockpit and exposed to the icy blast of the slipstream from the propeller. Despite the fact that I was wearing a leather helmet, goggles, a heavy lined flying-suit, and fur gloves, I felt the cold dreadfully. South of Paris I was obliged to fly at 7000 feet, owing to low clouds on the mountains, and very soon my hand gripping the control column became numb with the cold. After a cup of coffee from the thermos flask I felt better, and my spirits rose as I passed over Lyons and the sun came timidly from behind the clouds. Away to the east I could see the great snow-capped peaks of the Alps, and as I flew down the Rhone valley I began to enjoy the flight. Valence, Montélimar, and Avignon slipped beneath the wings of my Moth as I flew southward. At times I would almost lose sight of the Rhone as it made great sweeping curves, as if loath to leave any of the pasture-land ungraced by its beauty.
On arrival at Marseilles six and a half hours afterpage 35leaving England I cleared customs while the machine was being refuelled, and had a welcome cup of coffee with my friend M. Fournier, controller of the aerodrome. The weather report was fair, so within an hour I took off for Rome. My course lay over the Étoile Mountains to the French coast, thence over the Mediterranean and the island of Corsica to Italy. After I had left sunny St Tropez, on the Riviera, it seemed almost an eternity before the majestic snowy peaks of the mountains of Corsica came into view. Very soon I passed over the rugged coast and the little town of Bastia, with its white houses clustered together, then out over the sea again. Pianosa island lay ahead, and to the north I could see the island of Elba, and to the south the island of Monte Cristo. As I neared the coast of Italy I realized it was going to be a race against the sun if I were to arrive in Rome before dark.
The sun sank rapidly lower as I speeded towards the Italian capital. The little white villages over which I passed at intervals soon became enveloped in the purple shadows, and here and there a light gleamed through the misty veil which furtively spread itself over the countryside. At last. There were the lights of Rome ahead, and as I flew over the aerodrome I was relieved to find the landing lights already on for me. It was nearly 8 p.m., local time, as I landed and taxied up to the tarmac, where I found my Italian friends waiting for me. I had flown a thousand miles, for I had left Brooklands before clearing customs at Lympne, and had been in the air for thirteen and a half hours, so I enjoyed the luxury of the new aerodrome hotel, and fell asleep thepage 36moment my head touched the silken softness of the pillow.
The Littorio Aerodrome is large and beautifully appointed, but owing to its proximity to the river Tiber there is frequently an early morning mist covering its smooth surface. The air was quite clear next morning, however, and a clear sky gave promise of a fine day. The large hangars are raised above the level of the aerodrome and approached up a wide concrete ramp.
Although I had been at Littorio before, I always experienced a distinctly unpleasant sensation when I watched my aeroplane being wheeled from the hangar to the edge of the ramp. The two Italian mechanics pointed the nose of the Moth down the centre of the ramp, then gave the machine a push, whereupon it ran swiftly down the fairly steep incline and came to rest on the tarmac below. The mechanics laughed at my anxiety. "Why don't you sit in the machine? " I had asked one of them. "Oh, no," he answered, laughing, "it might run over the edge." This method of pushing the aeroplane down the ramp was the usual procedure at Littorio, and I have seen aeroplanes of all sizes run down the steep ramp unattended, and have never heard of one running over the side.
While the engine was warming up the customs officer arrived with my journey log-book, which he had retained overnight together with my Certificate of Airworthiness, registration papers, my passport and carnet de passage. I accompanied him over to the control office, where I paid the landing and hangar fees, signed the declaration forms, cleared customs for Greece, andpage 37obtained a weather report for Brindisi and Athens. This was the usual procedure with slight variations at each stopping-place on the way to Australia. Few people realize that flying an aeroplane to different countries is similar to sailing a ship to foreign ports, and at most places the same declaration forms and customs manifests stating the name of the captain of the vessel, passengers, crew, freight, destination, etc., are used for ship and aeroplane.
The weather report on this occasion was a very detailed one and written in Italian. After puzzling over it for a few minutes I grasped the main text: fair with low cloud on the Apennines and the wind N.N.W. at 15-20 m.p.h. Putting the report into my pocket, I decided to read it again on the flight to Naples. All these formalities took time, and were always most distasteful so early in the morning. However, I silently blessed the officials for arriving punctually at such an unearthly hour and completing them comparatively quickly. The Moth had been refuelled the previous night in accordance with my usual procedure, so there was only the engine to check and test before I took off. Bidding good-bye I was soon in the air, speeding on my way to Naples.
Rome looked very lovely in the early morning light, although the streets were still deserted owing to the earliness of the hour. I recognized parts of the city with which I was familiar. On a previous visit I had spent seven delightful days as guest of Mr Reason, secretary of the Air Attache, and with Mrs Reason had visited most of the famous beauty-spots. Manypage 38unforgettable hours had been passed marvelling at the excavations and admiring the exquisite beauty of the gardens. It was most intriguing to walk through the streets of Rome and see the high rush screens which Signor Mussolini ordered should always be placed round an area where excavations were in progress until the work was finished and the beauty discovered revealed in full. In one of the main streets I had seen two large coloured panels depicting the maps of the Roman Empire as it was at the height of its power and as it is to-day. The contrast, of course, was very striking, and evidently intended to create a desire in the minds of young Italians to rebuild the Roman Empire. There was the place of St Peter with its fountains, the Colosseum, the Capitol, the ancient Forum, and the Arch of Constantine, under which Marshal Balbo and his companions had driven in triumph after their flight across the Atlantic. All these sights I was able to identify again as I flew over Rome towards the Pontine Marshes. As I flew southward I glimpsed the Appian Way, leading like a slender ribbon towards Naples. The sight brought back memories of a most enjoyable drive along that ancient highway. We had driven slowly over the strong white cobblestones and stopped occasionally to gaze in wonder at the ancient monuments and tombs which stand like sentinels on each side of the Appian Way. Some of the tombs, crumbling with age, had been built up with cement into which had been pressed fragments of pottery and exquisitely carved broken pieces of terra-cotta and marble. It seemed to be the general rule in Rome that any piecespage 39
of carving or pottery unearthed during excavations were to be preserved in this fashion on the site of their discovery. So it was that one would come upon new blocks of flats or houses with assorted fragments discovered during the building artistically decorating an arch or the side of a wall.
I always enjoyed the flight from Rome to Naples, and this occasion was no exception. The beauty of each successive scene, framed by the silver wings of my Moth as I looked from the cockpit, suggested a great painting, for the colours seemed too vivid and the range too great to be real. Flying along the coast I would cross occasional headlands and come suddenly upon a silvery strand of beach on which small fishing-boats would be drawn up and groups of fishermen busily engaged in spreading their nets. Little villages dotted the coast, and the cluster of white houses formed a striking contrast to the sapphire-blue of the Mediterranean, and the great purple, snow-capped Apennines towered away into the distance. Soon I saw the grey pennant of smoke from Vesuvius, and, arriving over Naples, altered course to cross the Apennines. I had been to Naples before too, but I never appreciated its beauty from the ground as I did from above. Seen from the air at sunset just as the tiny white lights outline the bay and the last rays of the sun tint the snowy mountain peaks, Naples beggars description. Low cloud shrouded the highest peaks, and the early morning mist had not yet cleared from the valleys. I flew high above the clouds where only an occasional peak was to be seen piercing the white carpet beneath me. Once across thepage 40mountains I met good weather, and landed at the San Vito dei Normanni Aerodrome, Brindisi, to refuel.
After lunch with the charming Italian Air Force officers I took off for Athens. Leaving the Italian coast at Otranto, I set a course over the Adriatic Sea to the island of Corfu, seventy-five miles away. A strong north-easterly wind whipped up the sea into a thousand white-capped waves, and I knew there was a rough flight ahead when I neared the mountainous coast of Greece. Visibility was good, and twenty miles away I could see the island of Corfu, and very soon the great snow-covered mountains of Greece. The magnificent grandeur of Greece impressed me deeply, and the steep mountains, rising in places sheer from the intensely blue sea, and the majestic snow-covered ranges of the interior against a background of fleecy clouds formed an unforgettable sight. Giant rocky peaks towered above me as I flew along the coast, and a small series of bumps was a sample of what was ahead.
When I rounded a rocky promontory to fly over the Gulf of Patras I experienced a bump of such intensity that had I not quickly grasped a metal longeron on the floor of the cockpit I should probably have been thrown out of the machine. For the rest of the flight to Athens I clung to the metal longeron with one hand and the lower part of the control column with the other, as the Moth was buffeted about like a feather in the boisterous wind.
Passing along the Gulf of Corinth, I felt that every mile over which I flew had played some important part in ancient history. There was rain ahead, and I flewpage 41through a severe squall when nearing the end of the Gulf.
At this stage, having passed through the squall, which was only of short duration, I had the remarkable experience of flying through a rainbow, and could see the lovely colours quite distinctly on the silver wings of the Moth. As I left the Gulf I flew over the Corinth Canal, which, although not very long, is cut from solid rock and was actually commenced by Nero, and over the little town of Corinth, to the inhabitants of which St Paul wrote his epistles.
The wind strengthened as I flew northward and approached Athens, surely one of the most beautiful cities on the face of the earth. I had been flying into the teeth of the gale and averaging only about 40 m.p.h. ground speed and at times the aeroplane seemed almost to stand still. The aerodrome of Tatoi is in a valley fourteen kilometres north-west of Athens, and after circling a few times I was relieved to see two Greek mechanics running towards the centre of the landing area, where they stood waiting to catch the wing-tips of the Moth when I landed. As I closed the throttle to glide down to a landing the machine made scarcely any progress, and finally I was obliged to fly on to the ground. Strong arms caught the wing-tips, and the two mechanics ran alongside the Moth as I taxied into the large hangar. The wind was so strong that later when I walked along the tarmac to the customs office I was nearly blown off my feet.
My friend Mr Hill was waiting to meet me, and after all customs formalities had been completed and thepage 42engine schedule carried out we drove into Athens. On a previous visit to Athens I had stayed with Mr and Mrs Hill, and once again I enjoyed their hospitality.
At dawn the following morning I left Athens and flew over the Aegean Sea to the island of Rhodes, where I altered course for Cyprus. Athens had looked very lovely in the pale light of dawn, which softened the brilliant whiteness of the city and threw into relief the sombre green of the many cypress-trees and deepened the purple shadows of the surrounding mountains. Looking back at the sleeping city I remembered a previous visit when I had driven round Athens at night and seen the ancient and beautiful city at its best, when the great colonnades and majestic architecture had been bathed in the magic light of the full moon.
The sun rose in a blaze of gold as I flew over the many little islands of the Aegean Sea. My thoughts of ancient Greece and the mighty Colossus of Rhodes, wonder of the Old World, were dispelled as I flew over Rhodes itself and looked down on the very modern seaplane base. There was a large French flying-boat moored on the sheltered waters. A little later I passed over the island of Castelorizo, just off the Turkish coast and another possession of Italy with an equally good seaplane base. To the north the great snow-covered mountains of the Anatolian coast of Turkey towered into the sky. Seven hours out from Athens a faint smudge on the horizon resolved itself into the island of Cyprus, and as I drew nearer I experienced that sense of elation that I always feel when flying to a place new to me. The island of Cyprus is about 140 miles frompage 43east to west, and the greatest breadth from north to south is only sixty miles. Because of its geographical position Cyprus is undoubtedly destined to become an air base of strategic importance to Britain.
Crossing the limestone hills of Kyrenia I flew inland over the large plain of Mesaoria, which looked dry and parched for want of rain. It was extremely hot, and strong upward currents made the flight to Nicosia unpleasantly bumpy. On one occasion the Moth gained over a thousand feet in less than a minute, only to bump down hundreds of feet the next.
The aerodrome at Nicosia is really a natural landing-ground, and the red earth surface, blending with that of the surrounding country, would make it very difficult to distinguish were it not for the white corner markings and circle. The surface was sparsely covered with scrub, but there were no trees or buildings to hamper the approach; therefore it seemed much larger than 600 square yards, which were the dimensions given on my diagram. As I circled to land I noticed that a wind-indicator had been erected, and there was a little crowd awaiting my arrival. On taxying over the ground I noticed large flat rocks here and there, but fortunately protruding only an inch or two above the surface.
Every one was most helpful, and soon refuelling was being carried out, while I busied myself with the engine work, although I felt very hot and dusty and tempted to retire to some cool, shady spot with an iced drink. Eventually all work was completed and the Moth securely picketed for the night. When I had notified the Cypriote authorities of my intended flight topage 44Nicosia, in addition to arranging for the wind-indicator, for which I had incidentally to pay an extra ten shillings, I stipulated for a police guard over the aeroplane at night, as there was no hangar.
While we had been working on the engine a number of soldiers arrived, and they were soon busily engaged pegging down tents, while another group arrived with chairs, tables, cases of food, and general camping equipment. "They must think I intend staying for a month or so," I had remarked laughingly to the petrol agent. It had not been possible to drive the screw pickets into the hard ground, so we had tied the ropes to petrol-cans filled with rocks, and thus secured the Moth for the night. Every one was very pleased when the work was finished, especially Mr Ridgeway, the fuel agent, who had completed the back-breaking task of refuelling the machine with sixty gallons of fuel from four-gallon tins, which were handed up to him as he perched precariously on the wing.
As night fell I drove into Nicosia with Mr and Mrs Ridgeway, who proved good friends on this and subsequent flights to Cyprus, and at whose charming home I stayed the night.
Cyprus, I learned, numbers among its 350,000 inhabitants many Mohammedans, Armenians, and Orthodox Greek Christians, and the languages spoken include English, Turkish, French, Arabic, Italian, and modern Greek. Tobacco, cigarettes, wines, cottons, silk, oranges, raisins, flax, and cereals are the main products of this rich island, and the fact that Cyprus has changed hands so often probably accounts for the many and variedpage 45peoples living there. Richard Cœur de Lion, the Crusader, first took possession of Cyprus for England in 1191, and it was here that he married Berengaria, Princess of Navarre, thus making her Queen of England. Within a year Richard had sold the island, and it was not until seven hundred years later that Cyprus was occupied by British forces. Even then, although a British High Commissioner took over government by a convention between Britain and Turkey, the island was still really a Turkish possession. Only after the entry of Turkey into the Great War in 1914 was Cyprus annexed to the British Crown. In 1925 the island was formally recognized as a British colony.
All too soon I left Cyprus. Dawn next morning found me bidding farewell to Nicosia and setting off for Damascus. Passing over the port of Famagusta, with its palms and Byzantine churches, I saw the ancient citadel known as Othello's Tower, for it was there that the Moor was supposed to have murdered his Desdemona.
Although Cyprus is only approximately sixty miles from the Syrian coast, the direct route to Beirut took me over a hundred miles of the blue Levant. Away on the distant horizon I could see what looked like a great bank of cumulus cloud, but as I flew on I realized it was the great snow-covered range of the Lebanon Mountains. My altitude was 2000 feet, and approaching Beirut I tried to gain more height. The down-draughts from the mountains were so violent, however, that any height that the Moth gained was lost in the succession of terrific bumps which shook the machine.page 46
Circling around Beirut for some time, I tried to gain sufficient height to cross the mountains, but it was not possible, so I flew along the coast, passing over ancient Sidon and Tyre where the great range gradually slopes away towards Nazareth. Eventually I came to a valley between hills festooned with terraces which looked so ancient that they might have been there even before Solomon took the cedars for his temple from the forests of Lebanon. On the hundreds of terraces I could see the most beautiful gardens and orderly-looking fruit-trees and vineyards. Following the valley, I came to the Sea of Galilee. To the south I could see the river Jordan, and soon approached the edge of the Syrian Desert, which stretched before me like an endless sea of sand. In the distance Damascus, on the fringe of the desert, looked like a lovely city in the centre of a vast lake. Such was the illusion created by the river Barada, on the banks of which Damascus stands, and its many tributaries and irrigation canals, which reflect the intense blue of the sky.
The French Air Force officers at Mezze Aerodrome, where I landed, were very helpful, and I lunched with the commander of the base while my aeroplane was refuelled. We discussed the next part of my flight across the Syrian Desert from Damascus to Baghdad. "Suivez la piste," advised the commandant as he spoke of the dangers of this lonely 530-mile desert stretch where sudden dust-storms and wandering Arab tribes add to the hazards of a lone flight. The track, however, was not marked on my map, nor was Fort Rutbah: in fact, nothing relieved the smooth, even yellow ofpage 47several sections of the map save a few Arabic names and wadis, or dried-up watercourses. "You can use my map," he said, "and post it back to me from Baghdad." It was with gratitude that I took the map, for it was already past midday, and by the time I was once again in the air there might not be sufficient daylight left to make Baghdad before dark, in which case I could stop at Rutbah.
It was very hot, and my heavily laden aeroplane after covering a considerable part of the sandy surface of the aerodrome rose reluctantly above the date-palms at the far end. Skimming the tops of the palms, I flew for miles trying to coax the aeroplane to a reasonable height. The machine had risen very well considering the weight of sixty-one gallons of petrol and all the equipment aboard and the rarefied atmosphere of the aerodrome, situated as it is at 2000 feet above sea-level.
Amid the profusion of date-palms surrounding Damascus, which is reputed to be the oldest city in the world still occupied, I glimpsed white domes and turrets, and here and there a lovely garden half hidden by the leafy shade of the trees. There was a dust-haze over the desert, and it grew increasingly difficult to follow the track after I had located it at Adhra. The glare from the desert was very strong, and my throat became parched with the heat and dust. There was nothing to relieve the barrenness of the wilderness over which I was flying save an occasional clump of thorn-bushes or a stray herd of camels.
A little over three hours out from Damascus Fort Rutbah appeared through the haze. A solitary whitepage 48building and a compound, a wireless mast, and rows of black Arab tents comprised this tiny French outpost. It did not look very inviting, so I continued on towards Baghdad. Flying lower and lower as the sun became merely a black disc through the sand-haze, I tried to keep sight of the track. A great yellow cloud swept across my path, and the air was filled with stinging particles of sand, completely blotting out everything, so that I was unable to see even the wing-tips of the Moth. Turning back I flew on a reciprocal course, and was overjoyed when at last I once again picked up the white tower of Fort Rutbah.
Just ten minutes before the sand-storm swept over Rutbah I landed on the barbed-wire-enclosed square of the desert that was the aerodrome. The aeroplane was quickly wheeled up to the shelter of the compound, and there was only time to peg it down and tie the canvas covers on the engine and cockpit before the storm whirled like a great wave of sand over the outpost.
On learning that petrol was six shillings per gallon at Rutbah I felt very pleased that the Moth had sufficient fuel to fly through to Baghdad.
The rest-house was quite comfortable, and when I sat down to dinner it was difficult to believe that I was in the middle of the Syrian Desert, for the cuisine would not have disgraced any London West End hotel. My companions at the meal were the pilots and passengers of a Dutch air liner which had also been forced back to Rutbah by the sand-storm. None of my fellow-guests appeared to speak English, and I felt too tired to attempt a conversation in French, so we just exchangedpage 49friendly nods and smiles at intervals during the meal. It was with great relief, however, that I took off into the fresh, clear air next morning, for I found the close proximity of the camels and the Arab encampment distinctly unpleasant despite their picturesque appearance. Good weather favoured me on the flight to Baghdad. The line of demarcation between the arid and the cultivated land was very distinct as I approached the river Euphrates and flew on towards Baghdad, on the palm-fringed Tigris. Baghdad, city of the Caliphs, is a very different place now from when Haroun al Raschid ruled there, but from the air it still seems to retain a certain magic of its own. When I first sighted it in the distance I thought I had seen a mirage. From the air it appears a city of white with minarets of blue and alabaster, mosques and temples of exquisite architecture, the gleaming whiteness relieved only by the intense green of thousands of date-palms clustered thickly along the banks of the swift river Tigris, which, seemingly indifferent to the beauty of its surroundings, flows swiftly on its way to the Persian Gulf.
On approaching the city I could see many camel caravans wending their way across the desert, and wondered where they were bound for and how long they would take to reach their destination. Months probably. Some were going in the direction of Aleppo, and I thought of the time when Aleppo was the principal trading town in Syria. Hundreds of years ago camel caravans used to journey from Baghdad to Aleppo and Damascus along the same tracks that are used to-day. Their cargoes were rich, for Baghdad was once thepage 50capital of Babylonia and the principal seat of learning in the East. Long lines of camels with trappings of red and purple edged with tinkling bells and laden with fabulous wealth would arrive at Baghdad, where gold, frankincense, myrrh, ivory, and jewels used to be bartered in the market-place for exquisite fabrics from Kashmir and diaphanous silks from China, tea from Ceylon and opium from Turkey. Baghdad at the height of its glory must have been even more wonderful than the descriptions we read of it. To the north of the city I could see the great golden-domed mosque of Khadi-main glittering in the sunlight. I stayed only long enough to refuel at the large aerodrome, with its modern spacious control building and hotel. Within an hour of landing I was winging my way over Iraq towards Basra.page 51