On a wing and a prayer

I’m a week late for the 110th anniversary of Blériot’s cross-channel flight but this annecdote about the pioneering French pilot is worth sharing anyway. It comes from Harry Harper, a newspaper reporter who was at the start line for the great event. He recalled that….

Blériot himself, when one tried to get any information from him, proved a little disconcerting. He was a dark, strong-featured man, with a rather dour and grim expression, and with astonishing little to say. When questions were fired at him he was apt to shrug his shoulders, and answer rather abruptly.

He took off and flew a few circuits to test the weather conditions for his tiny aircraft and then…

…. after a few minutes in the air, skimming to and fro above the sand-dunes, Blériot came down and said that, though the wind was certainly troublesome, he felt fairly confident of being able to get across to Dover before conditions grew much worse.

Bleriot_pre-takeoff-25_July_1909-2

So, pale but composed, he took his seat again in his cockpit, and made ready for the great adventure.

There was a truly dramatic moment just before he took off. Standing up in his little machine, a lonely figure, he peered out across the Channel with a rather perplexed expression. Then he turned to his friend Leblanc, and others standing just beside his machine, and asked:
“Where is Dover?”
Eager hands pointed in the approximate direction. …..
‘My Fifty Years in Flying’, Harry Harper. Associated Newspapers Ltd., 1956.

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Pioneers at Brooklands

aeroplane at brooklands

One portion of Aerodrome Brooklands showing motor track. No hangers shown although plenty up the other end.

The banked race track at Brooklands in Surrey, England, opened in 1907 and was the first purpose-built motor racing circuit in the world. The land inside the track was used by pioneer aviators for their flying experiments and became an aerodrome in 1909.

The message on this old postcard has no signature or date but the mention of “plenty” of hangers suggests a date of about 1912 when there were several flying schools based there.

I can only guess at the aircraft’s make and model. All suggestions welcome.

The Great Air Race

air race 1934On October 20th, 1934, the eve of the Air race from England to Australia for a £10,000 prize, the King, the Queen and the Prince of Wales appeared at Mildenhall, where mechanics laboured to have the machines ready for the start at 6.30 the next morning. Seconds were so precious that special permission was asked for repairs to the D.H. Comet (flown by Cathcart Jones and Waller) to continue while the Royal party were shown round the sheds. The Queen – behind whom stand Mr. and Mrs. Mollison – had never stepped inside an aeroplane until this visit to Mildenhall.
‘The Reign of H.M. King George V’, W.D. & H.O. Wills. 1935.

The Comet in the background is ‘Black Magic’ flown by Jim and Amy Mollison. This was considered the race favourite but they were stopped at Baghdad by a seized engine.

DH88 Comet 2The third day of the great air race from Mildenhall (England) to Melbourne (Australia) for the MacRobertson Trophy given in connection with the Victorian Centenary celebrations finds the leaders, Scott and Black, in their D.H. Comet, actually in Australia and more than half-way across the continent to Melbourne, their arrival having been announced at Charleville, Queensland, 787 miles from Melbourne, at 8.42 a.m. Australian time. This is a magnificent performance.

Douglas DC2Some hours behind Scott and Black flies the majestic Dutch Douglas [DC2] airliner, piloted by Parmentier and Moll, and carrying three passengers. It is reported to have reached Darwin this morning.

The record of comparative freedom in this race from serious mishap to pilots has been broken unfortunately by the tragic deaths of Baines and Gilman, the first an Englishman who learned to fly in New Zealand and the second a New Zealander born and a popular officer in the Royal Air Force in England. They met disaster in the Apennines in Southern Italy. Their machine crashed and took fire, and both were burnt to death. [Corrected later to “killed on impact”.]
‘The Evening Post’ (Wellington, N.Z.), 23 Oct 1934.

United Press Association—By Electric Telegraph—Copyright. MELBOURNE, October 23.
DH88 CometBefore the gaze of a great crowd C. W. A. Scott and T. Campbell Black crossed the finishing line on Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne, in their red de Havilland Comet, and claimed for Britain the £10,000 prize in the MacRobertson Air Race. The great race finished in torrential rain, at 3.24 p.m., Mr. Scott’s time for the Mildenhall-Melbourne journey being 70 hours 54 minutes, or 1 hour 6 minutes less than three days. After passing the finishing line the aeroplane went on to land at the R.A.A.F. depot at Laverton. One hundred and fifty thousand people gathered at Flemington to witness the finish of the race, despite the ominous clouds of an approaching thunderstorm.

As the Comet swept into view, swooped down and crossed the broad calico line of the finishing mark the crowd burst into cheers. The Comet rose, circled again, then swept away towards the landing ground at Laverton 10 miles away.

Interviewed, Scott said:— “A dreadful trip. That’s praising it. Neither of us had a wink of sleep. We had to be on the job all the time. We were feeling done in on the run down, but are better now we are here. We thank the people for the marvellous welcomes on our progress through Australia. We are jolly glad we have arrived. We received the scare of our lives when the port engine stopped, and prepared our lifebelts. The last two and a half hours to Darwin were a nightmare. Had the two engines kept going the race would have been mine earlier.”

At Charleville when the aeroplane was overhauled by mechanics for the last stage to Melbourne, it was found that a sticking exhaust valve on the port engine was causing the trouble.

CometMr. Geoffrey de Havilland said: “Scott and Black have done better than we expected. The machine was hardly ready for such a flight. There wasn’t time to try it out thoroughly. Actually it only had fuel consumption tests during the first hop to Bagdad. A little more time would have enabled us thoroughly to test the Comets and ensure that all three reached Australia. As it was, the Mollisons and Cathcart Jones had bad luck, but some of their troubles could have been avoided had we had more time.”
‘The Evening Post’ 24 Oct 1934.

Newspaper reports have been edited for length.

Scott’s Comet, ‘Grosvenor House’, is still flying as part of the Shuttleworth collection and the Mollison’s ‘Black Magic’ is being restored at Derby.

Big Bird

Friday Flashback gets airborne.

Air New Zealand took delivery of its first Boeing 747 in May 1981. Two more arrived in June. I flew up to Hawaii in one of them in August. It still had that ‘new car smell.’

Air NZ 747 4

 In showroom condition at Honolulu airport.

As luck would have it, a distant cousin was a flight attendant on board. She might have been called a stewardess or hostess back then, before the word police neutered the language. When the safety drills had been drilled and we were all safely in the air, she dropped by for a chat.

Air NZ 747 3Would I like to visit the flight deck?
You could do that in ’81 if you knew the right people. They hadn’t yet seen a need to fortify the cockpit to protect pilots from crazy passengers. And they certainly hadn’t foreseen a day when passengers might sometimes need protection from crazy pilots. Simpler times. She didn’t have to ask twice so Distant Cousin went off to have a word with the Captain, promising she would give me the nod later in the flight.

She came back an hour later looking disappointed. The Captain sent his apologies but he would have to cancel my visit. One of the engines was surging periodically and he needed to concentrate on that with no distractions. I suspect this isn’t the kind of information cabin crew normally share with passengers. I said nothing but tried to fake an expression that showed I was totally cool with a malfunctioning engine at 35,000 feet over the Pacific on a dark night. D.C. could see through that.

“Oh, don’t worry,” she said reassuringly, “we’ve got three more.”

That was the closest I ever got to a ‘Jumbo Jet’ flight deck. And now they’re gone. Air New Zealand retired its last 747 in 2014.

Air NZ 747 2

This was my ride home, ZK-NZW, the second Boeing 747 to join Air New Zealand’s fleet – on 9th June 1981 to be exact. It was sold to Virgin Atlantic after eighteen years service.

 

 

The Tui tops up.

Friday Flashback 3.

DH Dominie

 Filling the fuel tank of a DH 89 at Hood Aerodrome, Masterton, New Zealand in 1985.

De Havilland’s DH 89 first appeared in 1934 and quickly became a popular short-haul aircraft with airlines around the world, seeing service from the ’30s to the ’50s and even into the early 1960s.

DH 89“The D.H. Dragon-Rapide is a medium-sized eight-passenger air liner resembling a twin-engined version of the D.H. 86. It has the same general features, including tapered wings, undercarriage faired into the engine nacelles, and is of the same type of construction. It is fitted with two 200 h.p. D.H. “Gypsy-Six” engines, which give it a cruising speed of 140 m.p.h.”

A military version, called the Dominie, was developed for navigator training and, after World War Two, many were sold to civilian operators – like the one in the top picture. This was delivered to the R.N.Z.A.F. in 1943, bought by the National Airways Corporation for its Northland (north of Auckland) service three years later, christened Tui*, and was retired at the end of 1962.

DH 89B

When these photographs were taken at Hood in 1985, it was locally owned and had just emerged from a two-year major rebuild.

The Tui now lives at Mandeville aircraft museum in the South Island and is still available for tourist flights. Watch a video here.

*A tui is a New Zealand native bird.

The start of an era

DH.4A

“This machine is fitted with a special covered in saloon comfortably furnished, with sliding windows, and is used as a passenger machine by the Communication Squadrons of the Royal Air Force. It has also been in constant use between London and Paris for conveying Cabinet Ministers, &c., to and from the Peace Conference. This machine designed and built by The Aircraft Manufacturing Co. Ltd., [Air-Co] Hendon, London, N.W. 9.”
Postcard caption, 1919.

Described as a passenger carrying biplane for one pilot and two passengers – or 360 lbs of freight in a 47 cubic foot space, the 4A had been adapted from a WWI light bomber. The rear gunner’s position had been removed and a small cabin fitted, giving the plane a humped back look. When the conference concluded in mid-1919, some of these aircraft were sold to private companies and, on 25th August, one of them had the honour of opening “the world’s first daily aeroplane service for passengers and goods between London and Paris”.

Claustrophobia Airways.
The “comfortably furnished saloon” image was encouraged by the manufacturers and operators to give the impression of a luxury air taxi where an executive and his secretary could continue to work during their 2½ hour flight. The reality, of course, was a little different. You will have noticed a ladder on the side of the plane – but no door. That was on the top of the cabin. Air correspondent Harry Harper gives an eye witness account.

“I remember, quite clearly, seeing a couple of passengers, resigned but still somewhat apprehensive, being packed into one of these small aeroplanes like sardines in a tin. There seemed barely room for them to sit in the tiny cabin facing each other. And then when they had been tucked into their places, and seemed incapable of doing more than moving their heads slightly, a sort of metal lid was shut down with a clang and fastened into position above their heads. And so they flew to Paris. Not more than a few feet in front of them was the big engine, and the noise it made was so terrific, combined with the shriek of the propeller, that even if you put your head close to a fellow passenger’s ear, and shouted with all your might, it was doubtful whether he would hear you, and the best thing to do was to scribble a message on a piece of paper and pass it across the table.
‘The Romance of a Modern Airway’, Harry Harper, Sampson Low, Marston & Co., Ltd. 1930.

The hatch was “unscrewed” by ground crew at their destination. I wonder if they knew the petrol tank was conveniently located between the cabin and the pilot? Or if they thought about what might happen to them in a crash landing?

The 4A deserves its place in aviation history but its career as a passenger carrier was mercifully short. Comparitively bigger aircraft, adapted from bigger bombers, replaced it. The aircraft in the picture, F5764, was sold to Handley Page Ltd in April 1921 and scrapped the following year.

 

The Future of Aviation

British journalist Harry Harper (1880-1960) claimed to be the “World’s First Air Correspondent.” He was in France to see Blériot take off for that historic crossing of the English Channel and lived long enough to write about the Viking rocket and satellites. His enthusiasm made him an evangelist for the aviation industry at times. Almost ninety years ago, he wrote this about his vision of the future.

Flying will grow cheaper and cheaper. Already we have our air excursions to Paris and to the sea-coast, and to big race-meetings and football matches. And what I see dawning, now, is an even more wonderful era than that.

HP42I can see the day coming when, thanks to this magic carpet of the airway, we shall live a wider, fuller life than we do to-day. ….. Picture to yourself the day when great oceans as well as continents are spanned regularly and safely by huge air machines. And then imagine the wonderful scope which you will have when the time comes for you to take a well-earned holiday. With business pressure what it is to-day, none of us can spend much time on our vacations. But all of us like to go to new places and see new scenes. And here it is that the all-embracing airway will unfold such fresh vistas before us.

ScyllaNo longer shall we be pinned, say, to a trip down to the seaside, or a rush across to the Continent. Embarking in some great air express, and paying a fare well within our means, we shall sweep high above land and sea, flying thousands of miles where formerly we only travelled hundreds, and being able to reach distant beauty spots which, were it not for the speed of the air machine, it would be impossible for us to visit in the time at our disposal.

HP.42colour

But the world at large needs to be reminded again and again that there is this new facility of aerial transport. …. We want to tell the public, and particularly the business world, to fly when they are in a hurry, to send their letters by air when the time factor is important, and to transmit by airway any parcels or merchandise which are required urgently by those to whom they are despatched. And we want to tell them this, time after time, until an air habit has been acquired, and the use of the airway has become a matter of ordinary routine.

Our aerial future, in fact, lies before us as a future of immense and widespread progress. …. We must now go forward without hesitation into our great universal era of the air.
‘The Romance of a Modern Airway’, Harry Harper, Sampson Low, Marston & Co., Ltd. 1930.