Wings Around the World, Part 3 (Guest Post 5)

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

For part one, please see the previous entry here: Wings Around the World, Part 1.
For part two, please see the previous entry here: Wings Around the World, Part 2.


Seaplane at Calcutta

Seaplane at Calcutta

Flying through India in the monsoon and how two of the flyers came close to losing their lives.

As they flew on, so the temperature rose, and at Shaibah a Flight Sergeant soldered on an extra hundred and sixty inches of radiator. There were many sorts of problems to be faced. The result of dry desert heat being followed by Persian Gulf humidity was that the fabric of the starboard lower main plane broke away on the leg of the flight between Bunder Abbas and Charbar. This they repaired with the only suitable material they could find in Charbar stores which they claimed was British Government red tape. They arrived at Karachi becoming only the fourth ever flight from England to India and the first ever in the height of summer. Summer meant monsoon rains and many diversions as they made their way to Calcutta. Relations between the three men became very strained, with Blake antagonising the other two as well as many Indian officials by his behaviour. Many forced landings tested Macmillan’s skill and his brilliance as a pilot was never better shown than on one take-off which he achieved down a narrow tree-lined road in a cross wind, and with only four feet of clearance each side of the wings. The flight nearly ended at Agra with the engine ruined by piston failure, but the Maharajah of Bharatpur owned a number of aeroplanes and lent them a spare D.H.9 engine and mechanics to fit it. They arrived at Dum Dum under overcast skies to complete the first aerial crossing of India during the monsoon. Enthusiastic crowds accompanied them to Calcutta where the D.H.9, every inch of which was covered by the signatures of those they had met on the way, was auctioned for the benefit of their funds. It was bought by a newspaper proprietor and presented to the University of Benares. Blake then went down with appendicitis and was rushed to hospital for an operation.

Proposed full route

The proposed full route.

Macmillan and Malins were in for a considerable shock when they went to examine the Fairey Seaplane that was due to take them to Canada. Although the aircraft had been well-tested in England, it had been shipped to India as deck cargo and the changing climates had wrought havoc with the plywood outer covering of the floats. Testing the seaplane on the Hugli River, they found that it listed badly after only fifteen minutes on its floats. There was no time to wait for new floats because they had to complete the North Pacific section before the onset of winter so, having got thus far with the aid of simple patching materials, they decided to go ahead after doing what they could to the floats with pitch, tar and caulking. This was a very big gamble as the starboard float in particular was badly damaged, but it was a gamble dictated by their desperately limited funds. In the light of following events, Macmillan and Malins were fortunately well looked after by the Port Health Doctor who dosed them with quinine and all necessary medications.

The seaplane left on 19th August 1922 to fly the 320 miles to Akyad. When the time came for their departure, a friend who was to bring their food supply had not arrived. Later they were to discover that he had been struck down by a sudden bout of fever. As they had managed more than the distance to Akyad without food many previous times without difficulty, Macmillan and Malins unwisely decided to carry on. They believed the flight would be quicker as they had a lighter load without Blake who was still in hospital. An air lock in the petrol forced them down near a lonely island, Lukhidia Char, where they were stranded by storms for two days. A native was persuaded to take a clearly explanatory telegram for Blake to the nearest Post Office some 25 miles away. When they did manage to take off, another air lock forced them down in choppy seas after only 15 minutes. This time the seas made it impossible for them to take off again and the starboard float began to fill with water ending all ideas they had of taxiing back to Lukhidia Char. Over the following hours, the aircraft slowly turned over and the two men were left clinging to the runners of the port float, an area some eight feet by three, while hammerhead sharks circled around. For three days they clung there and nearly abandoned hope, especially when a native brig which had approached them sheered off, believing the two ragged apparitions to be some form of devils.

On receipt of Macmillan’s telegram, Blake had sent one himself to Chittagong. Macmillan’s cable had asked him to advise Chittagong to keep a lookout for the aircraft as his petrol was short and also the strong adverse wind had decided Macmillan to alter his destination. Blake’s telegram had little urgency and said nothing about Macmillan’s forced landing and difficulties:

MACMILLAN MALINS LEAVING LUKHIDIA CHAR TODAY FOR CHITTAGONG. PLEASE OBTAIN PETROL AND CABLE ME ARRIVAL.

It was not until the full text of Macmillan’s telegram to Blake was published in The Statesman (a newspaper that did not reach Chittagong until the day after its publication) that the authorities there realised the full seriousness of Macmillan’s plight and sent out a launch, Dorothea, to search. On its final sweep and ready to return to Chittagong, the Dorothea had a closer look at what it first thought to be native fishermen, and so Macmillan and Malins were saved from a death which must have been all too close. The London Daily News headline had been “CAPT. MACMILLAN MISSING” on August 21st and a week later the whole story of terrible sufferings in the Bay of Bengal written by Macmillan, although Blake was their official correspondent, was splashed across the front page of the Daily News.

The World Flight attempt was over – camera, maps and equipment were at the bottom of the Bay of Bengal and the rift between Macmillan, Malins and Major W. T. Blake was complete. A 1924 British expedition with two Royal Air Force pilots, MacLaren and Plenderleith, was also to fail in the Bay of Bengal. Lt.Col. Broome appeared again as consultant to that expedition regarding the troublesome North Pacific section, but wisely not as a passenger. It was to be an American team who completed the first world flight in 1924 with full U.S. Navy support and Government backing.

The reverberations of the Blake flight brought statements, counter-claims and letters speeding to India and back. Air Commodore Webb-Bowen, A.O.C. R.A.F. in India, was most upset with Blake. A statement in India’s Pioneer Mail of September 29th 1922 credited to Webb-Bowen said:

There is an immense amount of feeling amongst both officers and men at the return they have received from Major Blake for their efforts on his behalf.

In a hand-written letter to Sir Sefton Brancker dated November 13th 1922 Webb-Bowen commented:

Blake showed himself as a little gutter boy throughout India. He abused everyone and everything. We got such a dose that finally I had to get into print. Between them they did a good deal of damage to aviation either by preposterous statements or foolish actions.

Needless to say the expedition had left many debts to be the subject of argument during following months. Blake wrote to Brancker in his own defence in May 1923 to claim that he was £3,000 out of pocket and had personally spent practically every penny he possessed. Webb-Bowen had no doubt who the culprit was:

That infernal fellow Blake has played the absolute……. out here. Every type of Indian official has been called names. He has put Civil Aviation back five years in this country. So much for cinema stunts! He had not even a map of India when he landed at Karachi. He lived on charity and even borrowed clothes to wear.

Even Capt. R.H. Page, the late Assistant Managing Director of Handley Page Indo Burma Transport Ltd. weighed in with a few pithy comments:

Blake seems to have quarrelled with his ‘co-piloteers’ and they have all gone home by different boats. His show in my opinion was an absolute farce. If he had not given up but managed to continue I presume his grandchildren would have eventually completed the flight.

(Quotations are from documents in files AVIA 2 126 and AVIA2 129 in the British National Archives)

In spite of upsetting so many men influential in aviation circles, Blake continued to make his living writing both on aviation matters and travel books. He also broadcast for the B.B.C.. Only Macmillan came out of the disaster with any credit. His flying was first-class and he alone studiously avoided the most controversial publicity. He became Fairey’s test pilot in 1923. The whole expedition was hastily arranged, ill-equipped and ill-prepared. British Governments of all political persuasions have always been prepared to give moral support to any project that might bring glory to the country, but ready to wash their hands of all responsibility should the project fail. British history has contained a number of stories of Great British amateur failures.

S Y Frontiersman photo courtesy Peel Special Collections Library, University of Alberta

S Y Frontiersmen (photo courtesy Peel Special Collections Library, University of Alberta)

Was this to be the end of Macmillan and Malins’ involvement in attempts to fly round the world? Certainly it was not. In 1923 they were players, albeit minor ones left home in Britain, in another ill-fated attempt. This ended in farce and in Britain looking very foolish in American eyes. When they returned to London they still wanted to be the team to achieve that first world flight. Organising planes and sponsorship should be no problem for such well-known and regarded men. The problem was the little-known and often fog-bound island-hopping journey across the North Pacific from China and Japan. Not wanting to link up again with Broome, they sought out one man they thought could help, a renowned world-traveller and author, Roger Pocock. Pocock had been the Equipment Officer in 1918 when Macmillan flew from R.A.F. Chattis Hill. Macmillan and Pocock had become friends and Macmillan had invited Pocock to join those seeing him off when the attempt had taken off from Croydon. Although in his late fifties, Pocock was full of boyish enthusiasm, saying that the achievement must be British with great publicity for the aircraft industry. He also told them that he had good friends and contacts in Greenland who could be utilised for the final stage across from Canada to Britain. He quite logically pointed out that the North Pacific leg would be impossible without the support from the sea by laying down stores and giving back-up. In this he was quite correct, as the Americans who achieved the world flight in 1924 had the back-up of the U.S. Navy. Pocock was appointed geographer to the proposed expedition and set about raising money to buy and equip a ship to sail ahead of the flight. He gained the support of the Legion of Frontiersmen, which he had formed nearly twenty years earlier but had maintained only limited contact. So the S.Y. “Frontiersman” sailed after a blaze of publicity and words of official support in June 1923. Macmillan and Malins were supervising the supply of planes and were to leave in February 1924, by which time the ship would have laid its supplies and be patrolling the northern Pacific area.

What could go wrong? Almost everything. After a series of disasters each stranger and sometimes more ludicrous than the other, the seaborne expedition came to an ignominious end in California, infuriating the Americans. If you wish to read about the amazing failure of another Great British attempt at glory, you will find the whole story inside Outrider of Empire by Geoffrey A Pocock, published in 2008 by the University of Alberta Press and still generally available.

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About Windows into History

Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com Administrator of frontiersmenhistorian.wordpress.com
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