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.

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Flying to Milford

Friday Flashback

M_Queenstown airport-2

This is New Zealand’s Queenstown airport in August 1979, ten years before the first jet aircraft arrived. Much of the business then relied on tourist flights in small ‘planes like these. I had something bigger for my flight to Milford Sound

M_Britten-Norman Islander-3

but not by much. I was lucky enough to get a seat beside the pilot after the Britten-Norman Islander had been refueled at a mobile Mobil station.

Milford flight 1-4

Queenstown is a mountain resort so the views of the Southern Alps are spectacular if you fly there. I don’t know about you but when I’m faced with a magnificent scene like this, with the natural environment stretching away to the horizon in all its awe-inspiring grandeur, I can’t ignore the little voice inside that says …..
“If anything goes wrong with this aircraft, there’s nowhere to land”.

Milford flight 6-2

A view to the left from the cockpit.

MacKinnon Pass

Approaching MacKinnon Pass on the Milford Track. It’s the little snow covered ridge in the foreground. Once over the pass, turn left.

M_Sutherland Falls-3

Fly directly at Sutherland Falls – the highest in the country with a 580 metre (1908 feet) vertical drop – until the cliff face ahead completely fills your windshield then pull up for a glimpse of Lake Quill, flick the ‘plane on a wingtip to execute a 180 degree turn, and continue to Milford Sound.

M_Mitre

Images of Mitre Peak have become something of a tourist cliché but you can’t fail to be impressed when you stand in its presence. It dominates the landscape and demands your attention.

Unfortunately my visit was cut short. I barely had time to fire off a couple of cliché’s and get bitten by the infamous sandflies when the pilot called us back to the aircraft. A nasty weather front was heading our way from the Tasman Sea and it would be best if we got out ahead of it. You should expect this in Fiordland where conditions can change rapidly, especially in winter.

We piled back into the Islander and he flew us to the seaward end of the Sound. It was part of the flight plan we’d already paid for, and maybe he wanted to prove there really was a nasty front out there. And there really was. Dark cloud, rain and, no doubt, turbulence rolling towards us. Time for another one of those 180 degree wingtip turns.

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 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.

Parachute training

parachuteParachutes are to the airman what lifeboats are to the sailor; the service pilot of to-day has one for use in emergency. More than 100 lives have been saved since they were introduced into the R.A.F. ten years ago. Training in their use is given to all pilots in the Service, and a mass descent demonstration has been a feature of the annual display at Hendon for several years past. We show a cheerful parachutist on the wing of an aeroplane, waiting to pull the ripcord which will release his parachute and draw him backwards into space.
Cigarette card, Ardath Tobacco Co., 1936.

If this caption is accurate, parachutes were first issued to R.A.F. pilots in 1926, so they took their own sweet time in handing out the “lifeboats”. You can read more about the Service’s shameful attitude to parachutes here.

Pulling the ripcord before jumping sounds like a good way to get the canopy wrapped around the aircraft’s tail, but we have to assume they knew what they were doing. Don’t we?

You can see a British Pathé newsreel of the 1937 Hendon air display on Youtube.

Boats and ‘Planes

This photograph came to me in an auction lot of miscellaneous images labelled “ships”.

Competing seaplanes in the 1929 Schneider Trophy air race.

Granted, there is a large motor yacht in the middle of the shot (flying an R.A.F. flag at the stern) but the real interest in the picture is the group of five streamlined seaplanes in the foreground. It didn’t take long to realize that these are the competitors in the Schneider Trophy air race held on the South coast of England in 1929. The two farthest from the camera are British Supermarine aircraft and the trio in the foreground make up the Italian team of Macchis. It’s a pity the photograph isn’t in colour, the Italian machines were painted bright red.

The Schneider Trophy.The trophy had been presented to the Aero Club of France by Jacques Schneider in 1912 for a competition open to all types of seaplane over a course determined in advance. This could be either in a straight line, a broken line, or over a circuit of not less than 150 nautical miles. A competitor winning three times out of five consecutive contests would keep the trophy permanently. The first race in 1913, won by France at just over 45 miles per hour, was a fairly low key affair but the contest soon attracted world wide attention and became the symbol of advanced technology and speed in the air. Soaring development costs eventually demanded government sponsorship and winning the trophy became a matter of national prestige. The Royal Air Force formed a special team, the High Speed Flight led by Squadron Leader Orlebar, to achieve that goal.

Britain had won in 1927 against an Italian team and, with the withdrawal of America, Germany and France in 1929, the stage was set for a rematch. The winner was aircraft number 2 in the picture, a Supermarine S.6 flown by Flight Lieutenant Richard Waghorn, followed by the Macchi M.52R of Warrant Officer Tommaso Dal Molin (number 4), and, in third place, the Supermarine S.5 (number 5) of Flight Lieutenant (later Air Commodore) D’Arcy Greig. David Masters described the scene in his book ‘On the Wing’ (1934).
“There must have been 1,000,000 people watching all round the course on September 7, 1929, which luckily turned out to be an ideal day. …..
One of the most thrilling moments was when Waghorn, seeing Dal Molin just ahead on a turn, sped after him and overtook him…… It was Waghorn’s race, with an average speed of 328.63 miles an hour, but he himself did not at first realize it. He was under the impression that he had another lap to go, so he went roaring on like a destroying demon”.

The ‘demon’ ran out of fuel and was forced to land short of his imagined finish line. When his support crew reached him – “He was cursing like anything over what he thought was his hard luck – “swearing like a trooper” is the way Orlebar described his language – and his relief can be guessed when he learned he had tried to do an extra lap”.

Tragically, 26 year old Waghorn and 28 year old Dal Molin would both die flight-testing aircraft before the next trophy race in 1931, which Britain won by default. France and Italy were unable to get their machines ready in time for the start so it was left to Flight Lieutenant John Boothman to fly the course on his own in a Supermarine S.6b, pushing the record to 340 m.p.h. and winning the trophy outright.

British Supermarine S6B racing floatplane. Winner of the 1931 Schneider Trophy.

Supermarine S.6b. “There really is very little sensation of speed even when flying low, because one cannot see vertically downwards even if one wanted to, owing to the bulge of the fuselage”. (Squadron Leader Augustus Orlebar).