The following guest post article has been kindly contributed by Geoffrey A. Pocock, author of Outrider of Empire: The Life and Adventures of Roger Pocock (University of Alberta Press) and One Hundred Years of the Legion of Frontiersmen (currently out of print). His own blog can be viewed at www.frontiersmenhistorian.wordpress.com and his website is www.frontiersmenhistorian.info
The first British attempt at flying round the world, 1922
The 2015 attempt to fly round the world in a solar-powered aeroplane has caused much attention in the media, but nowhere near as much attention as the plans and attempts in the first half of the 1920’s to be the first to fly round the world. British newspapers took great interest in British attempts, but in the customary British way these attempts were made by enthusiastic amateurs who had to raise private funding. When the first successful flight was achieved in 1924 by the United States of America, they had the benefit of the full support and backing of the U.S. Navy. The first British attempt in 1922 was one which veered at times from near-farce to near-tragedy.
It is going to be done sometime and I am doing all in my power to ensure that the British Empire shall be the first to do it.
(Sir Sefton Brancker, Director of Civil Aviation, in a letter to Air Commodore Webb-Bowen, Air Officer Commanding, India, 1922)
Britain held the advantage of possessing most of the world’s finest pilots of the time: men who had learned their craft in the skies over war-torn France. Britain was the first country to start serious plans in 1922 with two pilots, Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith, who had been knighted as the first men to fly from Britain to Australia. Had Ross Smith not been killed in a tragic accident, they might have achieved the flight around the world before any other country had a chance even to make plans. Eventually, fliers from Italy, France, Portugal and Argentina as well as Britain and America had their eyes on the greatest of all early prizes in long distance flight. Ross Smith suggested to aeroplane manufacturers Vickers that, as suppliers of the Vimy plane used on the fight to Australia, they might be interested in sponsoring a world flight. Vickers were convinced that, due to the wide expanses of ocean to be crossed, only an amphibian could succeed. The Smiths wanted a large 3-engine plane, but Vickers would only supply a single engined Viking. It was when testing the Viking in April 1922 that Ross Smith crashed it and was killed. All over the country everyone with flying connections was discussing the Smith tragedy and many a scheme was dreamt up over drinks in the club. Every snippet of information about any proposed attempt was featured in the Press. A movie film of the flight would be sure to attract the increasing numbers of film-goers attending cinemas.
Enter Major Wilfred T. Blake, aeronautical correspondent for the magazine Modern Transport. Blake was an accomplished journalist and became the author of a number of books. He was certainly a brave and resourceful man, but certainly not tactful. He could be very brusque with anyone he considered socially or militarily his inferior. If things did not go his way he lost no time in forcefully expressing his opinion. Blake was financed by a consortium headed by a shadowy figure known only as “J. Neale”. The Air Ministry were curious about Mr. Neale and his consortium. All they seemed to know about him was that he had been an Admiralty contractor. The other backers contrived to keep their names secret. Were they concerned that the venture might fail, or were they just patriotic? In any case the money provided was very limited – and was to prove to be far too limited.
Blake put his ideas to the Air Ministry. The flight would start on Empire Day, May 24th 1922, giving him hardly a month to prepare. The Smith organisation were unimpressed with Blake and told the Air Ministry they would not give permission for their patiently acquired information to be passed to Blake. Blake’s first choice of plane was a Supermarine Seagull. Supermarine had one available but it was on order by the R.A.F. and the Air Ministry would not release it. The second choice was a Fairey 3D, but in this case there were problems with the manufacturer of the engines Blake wished to use. The only possibility was to purchase planes ‘off the shelf’. The Aircraft Disposal Company had many First War surplus planes for sale at knock-down prices. Blake bought three D.H.9 bombers, one for the flight to Calcutta, one for the trans-Canada section and a reserve plane. He also acquired a Fairey seaplane for the most dangerous section between Calcutta and Alaska. For the final section across Canada and on to England he bought a F3 flying-boat.
The whole impression left by the venture…is that one has to be very watchful of touring world aviators or one may find the gold stoppings removed from one’s pet American tooth.
(Unsigned letter in Air Ministry files)
The Air Ministry was not happy with Blake’s planned expedition. They thought the chosen planes were unsuitable and, despite the urgent preparation, by the time the flight was due to leave they considered the season was too far advanced. Before the flight could reach India the monsoon would be well under way and the North Pacific section would have to be flown in deteriorating weather running into autumn. In the end, the Air Ministry decided to give basic assistance as to refuse help would leave them open to an accusation of hindering the enterprise. Blake had made a number of visits to the Air Ministry to make arrangements for the loan of maps and equipment. His organisation was asked to make a deposit of £350 against the petrol and possible spares the R.A.F. could be asked to supply along the route. The monocled Sir Sefton Brancker, Director of Civil Aviation, personally told Blake that he did not think the expedition had any chance of completing the flight.
Blake needed a pilot, and here he was to choose probably one of the best available in Britain. Had he chosen one of less ability, disaster could easily have struck very soon into the attempt. The previous year the Aircraft Disposal Company had provided Blake with a plane and pilot, Norman Macmillan, to fly to Morocco to view and report on the Spanish war with the Riffs. They even succeeded in visiting the battlefield and, what must have been a strange sight, wandering up to the front line dressed in country tweeds. Each man was impressed with the other’s coolness in the face of danger. In the Spring of 1922 Macmillan was employed in training the infant Spanish Air Force, but when he received Blake’s invitation to pilot the world-flight plane Macmillan accepted at once. As well as having a distinguished record, which continued into WW2 when he ended as a Wing-Commander, Macmillan soon gained a reputation as a knowledgeable author on aviation matters. The story of his First War adventures Into The Blue was still in print forty years after its original publication in 1929. Among his many books Macmillan was to become Brancker’s biographer after that man’s death in 1931 in the R101 airship disaster. Macmillan and Blake knew the most hazardous section of the flight was the North Pacific section and the waters round the Kuril and Aleutian Islands, an area still barely charted. Even as late as 1983, Dick Smith, who made the first ever flight around the world by helicopter, could only solve the problem of this area by landing half way across on a ship specially placed for the purpose.
Blake’s answer to the problem was to take with them Lt.-Col. L.E. Broome who was an expert on this problem area. He was also something of an amateur cameraman. The Daily News had bought the British news rights of the story of the flight, which helped the finances, and Blake had made arrangements for cine film to be sent back from regular dropping-off points on route. Macmillan later discovered that, rather than negotiating national film rights, the organisation had only signed for one cinema and an aerial panorama to be provided weekly at the Polytechnic Cinema, Regent Street, London.
In their original form the DH9s to be used were two-seaters, so they had to be converted to seat three and fitted with additional petrol tanks and oversized oil tanks. The alterations to the Fairey Floatplane were too expensive to be completed before the starting date and so the seaplane was to be shipped to Calcutta. The F3 flying boat was to be used as standard so it was to be shipped to Montreal. There was no time for Macmillan to test the planes properly. He was most unhappy about this, but Blake had already publicised the starting arrangements. Macmillan only agreed to proceed if the companies concerned gave a full guarantee that everything would be tested to the highest standards. This was the first of many disagreements between Blake and Macmillan. The plane registered as G-EBDE was to be the starting plane with G-EBDF as the back-up plane. G-EBDL was the plane to be shipped to Canada, but as the flight never got that far it was sold to Laurentide Air Services in Ottawa and operated for several years. The DH9 was a versatile plane, but had a poor record as it was underpowered and its Siddeley Puma engine unreliable. If Macmillan was not already aware of this he was soon to find out. The main advantage of the DH9 to Blake and his backers was that it could be bought very cheaply. Its range was no more than about 400 miles. The DH9 was not ready for a test flight until the evening of May 23rd – even then the final coat of paint had not been applied. On the morning of 24th the mechanics were still feverishly putting finishing touches to the plane. On 24th the Daily News made a big feature of the start of the flight and the back page carried a full-page advertisement for Bovril, endorsed by Major Blake. There were press conferences, photographers and map-maker to see, a general hurly-burly. The Daily News organised a lunch at the Hotel Metropole Croydon with a magnificent send-off. By the time the lunch was over, Blake was getting worried as there was no sign of Macmillan. Blake started telephoning around until eventually Macmillan turned up. He had discovered that his pilot’s licence needed renewing and had been to the Air Ministry to be medically examined. Brancker, accompanied by officers of the R.A.F. and officials of the Air Ministry went to Croydon to see the plane off. Among the telegrams and telephone messages, Blake received a telegram from King George V wishing the expedition success.
Broome was a large man, considerably bigger than both Blake and Macmillan. Somehow he was squeezed into the back seat with Blake in the centre and Macmillan in the front. In addition to the three standard petrol tanks there were two wing tanks, oversized oil tanks, the spare wheel and a kit of tools. The cine-camera, powered by a compressed air cylinder, and its equipment with spare films weighed over one hundred pounds – and then there was the crew’s personal kit. Blake thought desperately as to what could be left behind. He unwisely decided to leave the wireless equipment borrowed from the R.A.F. and asked for this to be sent to Canada for use in the larger F9. Fortunately the weather was perfect and the DH9 lumbered into the air with a man actually giving a final dab of paint to the fuselage as it started to taxi off. There was much cheering, waving and clicking of cameras from the large crowd as Macmillan circled the aerodrome several times to gain enough height. He immediately realised that the plane was impossibly tail heavy, but headed for France flying with great difficulty and blessing the kindness of the weather. Flying over Dover, the amateur cameraman found his camera had jammed. He opened it up, wasting many precious feet of film and losing all the compressed air. Broome then had to fix a handle and hand crank the camera, giving the first eagerly anticipated reel a most jerky appearance. After just over three hours of flight the plane reached Le Bourget. Macmillan immediately telephoned the Aircraft Disposal Company, who sent a mechanic with the necessary tools and equipment. It would have been impossible to continue as things were, as they did not carry the tools for the major adjustment that was needed. The crew stopped at Paris as guests of people who had an interest in the flight and next day attended an aerial fete at Le Bourget. By the next morning the plane was ready, but the weather had broken.
That highly regarded flying journal Aeroplane appeared to have little respect for the Blake expedition or for its chances of success. It began printing each week a delightful cartoon and satirical spoof based on a then popular children’s cartoon serial Adventures of Pip Squeak and Wilfred in the Daily Mirror. The Aeroplane called theirs “The Adventures of Mac, Broome and Wilfred” and seemed to have its satirical knife particularly into Major Blake.
My Dear Pilots and Ground Wallahs,
As you see Mac, Broome and Wilfred have started safely on their adventurous tour. You will be pleased to know that they had a great send off at Croydon and all were pleased to see Wilfred disappearing in the distance. Mac did not seem to like the crowd and growled ominously, and Broome did not seem too pleased, but Wilfred squeaked with delight to see the Wilfred Protection League in such numbers and was photographed in all positions. Broome was busy fitting an instrument that recorded how many times the machine flew round the world…
On Friday, Wilfred was to be presented to the President at Le Bourget, but at the critical moment Wilfred got mislaid and the President went home to his Elysian Palace. Wilfred ran after him ever so hard, but could not catch him…
(The Aeroplane, May 31st 1922)
Blake had been supposed to be presented to the French President, but had missed him. There is more truth in the satire than Blake would have cared to admit. In the early stages of the flight the satire did not come to the attention of Blake or of his organisation in Britain. On leaving Le Bourget they set course for Turin, but had to divert towards Lyons as the clouds over the Alps were too thick. Their heavy load, including the weight of Broome, made climbing over the high passes impossible, so they diverted further off course to Nice. This had not been foreseen and they had no maps of the area. None of the crew knew where Nice aerodrome was and shortage of petrol made them divert even more to Cap Marseilles. They could not locate that aerodrome either so made a forced landing in the only suitable spot, the Parc Borelly racecourse. A light coloured mark across the course appeared to be a footpath. Unfortunately, the path was raised some two feet above the course and they hit this. With a loud crack one of the wheels collapsed and the propellor was smashed. Even when the plane was repaired there was no way they could take off again, so the plane had to be dismantled and taken by road to the aerodrome some thirty miles away. Blake was furious, and after the flight was over suggested that the Air Ministry had given insufficient information. In fact Air Ministry records show that on his visit to the Air Ministry Blake had “declined to go into the question of aerodromes around Marseilles”. In transporting the plane the French were rather careless and inflicted more damage on it. Macmillan sent a telegram for spares and Blake left for Paris to speed these through Customs. It was by then quite obvious that Broome’s bulk and limited camera skills would become an even greater problem, so he left the expedition to travel to Japan and plan the tricky North Pacific route from there. When the plane was repaired they were held up by the Mistral wind which blew for three days. Eventually they took off, but had to return as the engine was vibrating badly. They discovered that in dragging the plane off the racecourse the French mechanics had tipped up the nose and dug up dirt which had entered the sump. The engine was now damaged beyond local repair. The only course of action was to send for the back-up plane G-EBDF. As they had already shot very many feet of film, they cheated by changing the registration with a stroke of the paint brush to the original G-EBDE. Even then the oil they wished to use was contaminated. Macmillan was not at all pleased with the French mechanics.
My Dear Pilots and Ground Wallahs
Once again the pets are at Marseilles…I cannot tell you how many times round the world they have been, but as it is three weeks since they left Croydon you can imagine that they must have been at least once, ‘cos it would not take world-fliers all that time to go from London to Marseilles, because the Mediterranean is a nice big landmark and they can count it each time they pass, and so know the number of times they have been round the world.
Anyhow, as I said in the beginning, I say now and probably still shall say, we will leave them at Marseilles, where they probably still will be next week unless they scurry home incognito.
(The Aeroplane, June 14th 1922)
To be continued in Part 2:
The first flight over an active Mt. Vesuvius and
The tale of the Skeikh’s daughter of El Jid.
This article is the subject of ongoing research, so Parts 2 and 3 will follow in a few weeks.