Category STORY


Early man was perfectly at home on land. But water and air remained hostile.

Water could not hold him back where it was shallow. He just waded across. But he was scared to take on rivers in spate or lakes and seas. It took him quite some time to learn to swim. By flexing his limbs, he stayed above water and steered himself across. But this was tiring.

He watched logs of wood floating in water. That gave him an idea. He sat atop a log. It stayed afloat. He rode a log and forded a river in spate. It was easy. It did not tire him out. Thrilled by that experience, he shaped logs into small canoes. Canoes gave him room to sit and work the oars. He made boats of wood or reeds and sailed the high seas. Then came ships that sailed by wind power. Soon mo­tor boats and steamships took man across high seas. Water didn’t limit his movements any longer.

Man watched birds in flight. "If only I could be as deft as birds, wing my way to where I want to go!" he wished.

Man studied birds. Many facts came to light. He made a note of them: "Every bird has wings. It flaps the wings and flies up or down. The kite flaps its wings, soars to great heights, spreads its wings, stops flapping them and glides gracefully".

His studies gave wings to his imagination. He shaped angels after the human form, and lent them wings. For he believed that wings held magical powers. Those with wings could fly.

Greek mythology tells us of Bellerphon. He rode Pegasus, the winged horse, and flew toward Mount Olym­pus, the abode of gods. This place was out of bounds for man. But Bellerphon ignored the rule. Zeus, the Greek god, sent shafts of lightning. Pegasus lost its wings and thus its ability to fly. It crashed to the earth, taking Bellerphon to his doom. He became lame and blind and wandered aim­lessly till death.

Another tale tells us of Daedalus, a great inventor and engineer and a favourite of King Minos. But no one remains a favourite at court, forever. The King took offence, at a few casual comments of Daedalus, and sent him and his son Icarus into exile in the Island of Crete. Daedalus gathered feathers and used wax to glue the feathers together. He pre­pared two pairs of wings, one pair for himself and another pair for his son. He warned his son not to fly too high since the wax would melt in the sun’s heat. The feathers would drop off, the wings would be damaged and flight would become impossible.

The two took off. Icarus kept right behind his father, for some distance. Then he let caution to the wind, dipped and rolled, had fun time. How high could he fly? He wanted to find out. He soared, higher and higher, and got closer to the sun. The wax melted. The feathers flew off and Icarus crashed to his death.

In Indian mythology, Ravana abducts Sita in the Pushpak Viman. We think of it as a flying chariot. In the fa­mous work, Arabian Nights, there is the reference to the fly­ing carpet.

These tales have their roots in man’s desire to fly. Wings held the key to flying, man concluded. He worked on this idea.

In ad 1130, the Benedictine Monk Elmer of Malmsbury, Wiltshire, attached wings and took off from a mount. He crashed and broke his legs. He was lucky. Not so lucky was

Giovanni Battista Danti. In 1530, he tried to fly with wings, but came down a cropper. He paid for his misadventure with his life. Men like Elmer and Danti didn’t know that wings, per se, don’t give one the power to fly. He needs matching muscle power to lift him in the air and to flap the wings to keep him in flight. Scientists now know that no animal has that much muscle power.

Подпись: Fig. 1.1: Francesco de Lana-Terzi's flying machine Leonardo da Vinci, the famous artist, was an innova­tor too. He too wanted to fly. But he was not foolhardy. He noticed that objects, heavier than air, flew for very short duration. But gravity slowed them down and forced them to the earth. He studied the design of the boomerang used by the aborigines of Australia. He read about gliders, popu­lar in China. He watched birds in flight. Slight movement of the wing or tail helped eagles glide in space on air cur­rents without flapping the wings. Da Vinci sat down and drew pictures of wings and tails of various birds. He de­signed a birdlike flying machine. Can a machine take off verticall? He tried the airscrew machine, which is the forerunner of the helicopter. He tested the design of a parachute.

Heavy objects drifted slowly to the earth when held by strings, above which spread huge cano­pies made of cloth.

In 1670, Francesco de Lana-Terzi guessed that objects needed im­mense buoyancy to resist gravity. He designed a ""’ying mac’ ine wi ’ a ship’s hull, a mast and
four globes out of which air had been pumped out to make them lighter. It didn’t fly. But he was on the right track (Fig. 1.1).

Man didn’t have enough muscle power to flap the wings fast enough to gain buoyancy. Could machine pro­vide the power needed to fly?

Подпись: Fig. 1.2: George Cayley Sir George Cayley got a bright idea. "Success in flight would come", he said, "by making a sur­face support a given weight by the application of power to the resist­ance of air" (Fig. 1.2). In 1853, he built a glider. Its wing surface was 200 square feet. It had three pair of wings and a tailpiece. The wings curved more on top than on the bot­tom. (This design was backed by Bernoulli’s principle. An object, with a flat base and a curved top, reduces air pressure on top. This results in upward thrust). Cayley mounted the glider on wheels. It had room for a man. Cayley’s coachman got on to the glider. The glider was pulled fast across a vast open ground. It gained the speed needed to take off.

image6William Henson hailed him ‘The Father of Aviation’. He improved the design of Cayley by adding two pusher propellers and managed a short flight. He dreamed of air travel to Egypt and beyond. That ended as a pipe dream. He moved to America and spent his life advocating further research into aviation.

Alphonse Pen produced working models, powered by twisted rubber Fig. 1.3: Otto Lilienthal motors. They had only one flaw. They


Fig. 1.4: Otto Lilienthal’s design bears a close resemblence to the hang glider that are popularly used today.

didn’t remain stable while taking turns. For that he needed moving wings. Otto Lilienthal (Fig. 1.3) shaped gliders whose wings could be bent and manipulated to maintain stability. He prepared a ‘Flying Hill’ of bricks, about 12 m high, to serve as his launching pad. He said he could fly regardless of wind’s direction. He made over 2000 flights. His flights were photographed (Fig. 1.4). All went well till 9 August 1896. On that day, Otto took off in the glider. He soared into space. Suddenly the air current weakened and the glider lost movement. Otto shifted his weight, hoping to gain support for the glider from the air current. The glider nose-dived. Otto suffered grievous inju­ries and died that night. His last words were: "Sacrifices must be made".

In 1896, Samuel Langley made two models. They gained lift with the help of a houseboat steaming down the Potomac River. The models flew well under normal condi­tions. In 1903, Langley built a full-size machine. It had a wingspan of about 15 metres and was powered by a gaso­line engine. Langley tested it twice, once in October and again in December 1903. On both occasions the engine failed. The flying machine was dumped into the river. Langley came very close to success. But success eluded nim.

Yet within a few days of Langley’s unsuccessful at­tempts, two young men, Wilbur Wright and Orville Wright, sons of a priest, reached the winning post.


Father Milton Wright, the Bishop of Dayton, Ohio, fumbled with the latch of the wicket gate with one hand while clutch­ing a fairly large – sized parcel in the other. His sons Wilbur and Orville noticed him, raced to the gate, lifted the latch and held the gate open.

"Thank you, my boys", Father Milton Wright beamed a happy smile, handed the parcel to Wilbur and said, "That is for you, boys". Wilbur and Orville ripped the packet open. They screamed with joy when their eyes fell on the toy heli­copter. They played with it. Its movements roused their cu­riosity. Their quest for more information on flying led them to mythological stories and from there to reports and records of the work of pioneers who had taken the quest forward.

On an earlier occasion, Father Milton had gifted bicy­cles to the two boys. Cycling had become an obsession with them. They cycled the countryside, sped along the alley­ways. They hardly found time for regular studies.

"What do you propose to do?" Father Milton asked them, once it became clear that they didn’t do well at school.

"We plan to open a cycle repair shop", Wilbur replied.

"Whatever you do, try to be the best. Be honest in your dealings. Be friendly to people. Earn a good name", the Bishop gave his assent.

Wilbur and Orville set up a shop. They always did a good job. They were polite to the clients. Their charges were reasonable. So their business flourished.

In their spare time, they fabricated more efficient bicy­cles. They had easy access to wheels and spokes and ribs to create new designs. Often they rode their new designs, over long distances, getting a measure of the resistance that wind exercised, when the vehicles moved fast. These escapades gave them clear insight of wind force and air currents. This knowledge stood them in good stead when they set out on the quest to fly.

They got a copy of the book, Progress of Flying Machines by Chanute and read it several times. It taught them how to prepare models of kites and gliders.

In May 1900, Wilbur wrote to Chanute, "For some years, I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My disease has increased in severity and I feel it will soon cost me an increased amoun.^of money, if not my life".

Chanute encouraged him to continue the work.

The Wright brothers spent all their spare time, testing gliders. They conducted more than a thousand test flights. Some of these tests were in wind tunnels, specially made to match the behaviour of gliders under varying wind condi­tions. These experiments taught them the importance of the direction of the wind and the speed of the air current in controlled flight. Their success would depend on choosing a suitable site where wind conditions would be favourable.

From the United States Weather Bureau, they obtained a list of ‘windy, treeless, level’ sites. They examined the suit­ability of each of the sites. Finally they selected the sandy Kill Devil Hills, 6 km south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

On 5 September 1900, Wilbur and Orville rode to the site and set up camp. Wilbur observed birds in flight, for several days. He noted how birds adjusted to wind direc­tion and air currents. They tilted the wings to change flight path or to take turns. That gave him the idea for moveable wings. "Thus the balance could be controlled by utilising dynamic reactions of the air instead of shifting weight",

Wilbur noted. This led to ‘wing warping’, a concept in use on aircraft even today. Wilbur and Orville patented this de­sign later.

"Can’t we mount a gas-driven internal combustion engine on a glider? It should work", Wilbur turned to Orville and Charles Taylor, a friend. He was also a good mechanic, who helped the brothers in their experiments.

"It should", Charles replied, spontaneously.

"It should, if the engine is light and hardy", added Orville.

The three men searched for long for a suitable engine. None was available. So they set down to fabricate an en­gine. They cast the engine’s body and the crankcase out of a single piece of very thin, light aluminium-copper alloy. It was a four-cylinder 12 hp engine, fuelled by gasoline.

Wilbur and Orville prepared the blueprints for the airplane and started fabricating it. It was a model with four wings. (That made it a biplane. Monoplanes have two wings). The wings were made of wood and covered by tough linen. Reinforced wires joined the wooden struts. The wires ran from a cradle-like device, on the lower wing. The cradle provided room for the pilot. It served as the cabin. He could lie in this cradle and shift his weight around to move the tips of the wing up or down. A tail rudder was added to provide stability while taking turns. Two pusher propellers were linked to the engine by bicycle chains.

At last, the brothers were ready to fly the crude con­traption. They called it, The Flyer. Preparations began in right earnest for the flight. Hard wooden rails were laid on the sloping hills. On it rested a trolley with wheels. The airplane was loaded on it. A cable connected the trolley to a pulley on top of a tower. Its free end ran over the pulley and was held down by weights. Once the weights were removed, the trolley would slide down the slope, pick up speed and provide the necessary thrust for the aircraft to get airborne.


Fig. 2.1: The Wright brothers’ Flyer (1903)—first man-carrying powered sustained flight.

On 14 December 1903, Wilbur climbed on to the lower wing and lay flat on his stomach. His hips slid into the pad­ded wing-warping cradle. Orville made the last-minute ad­justment to the motor. The propellers provided immense thrust. Orville and a friend, Will Dough, released the weights. The trolley rolled on, picked up speed. Orville ran beside the plane, balancing it with one hand.

The Flyer lifted off (Fig. 2.1). Wilbur pulled the elevator sharply upward. (The elevator is the control mechanism that helps the pilot gain or lose height according to need. Lay men refer to the elevator as the rudder.) The aircraft surged to a height of 4.5 m before losing height. Wilbur was not quick enough to turn the rudder down. The aircraft sank to the ground, its nose up in the air. It had been in the air for just 3.5 sec. In the excitement, Wilbur forgot to shut the en­gine off when it hit the ground. The Flyer dug deep into the sand, splintering a strut and also a brace of the elevator.

This was too brief a flight to bring cheer to the two men from Dayton. They set out to repair the aircraft and make it fit for another trial. It took them two days.

"We are ready", Orville looked up, picking a few strands of wire that lay on the sand dune.

"Tomorrow will be our day", Wilbur came from under the belly of the aircraft, after making the final check of the wheels.

"I’ll alert John Daniels, Will Dough, Adam Etheridge and Bob Westcott to be present. This time, the aircraft, I hope, will stay up for a longer duration", Orville expressed his wish.

That night, they could not sleep. Their thoughts hov­ered around the grand show, scheduled for the morrow. They tossed around in their beds, dreaming of the future.

Gusty cold winds marked the dawn. But, by 10 a. m., the wind speed fell to about 30 kmph. Orville, Wilbur and the four witnesses hurried over to The Flyer, which rattled in the wind. "Heads I win. And tails you go", Wilbur pulled out a coin and tossed it up. The coin spun in space, came down and rested ‘Tails up’.

"Congratulations, Orville. You fly first today", Wilbur smiled at his younger brother.

Orville climbed on to the lower wing, lay flat on it, and pulled the bicycle chain that started the engine. The

12 hp Wright engine


Fig. 2.2: The wing warping system.

propeller roared. The plane purred with life. Wilbur ran long, while Bob Westcott clung to a stopwatch. Daniels adjusted the camera, ready to record the historic flight. Etheridge and Will Dough removed the blocks in front of the skids of the trolley. The trolley picked up speed. The aircraft’s propeller rotated fast, giving the necessary thrust. The Flyer rose with a shudder. Soon it gained a height of about 3.3 m. For 12 sec it remained airborne, covering a distance of 36.3 m (Fig. 2.2).

The aircraft was taken back to the starting point. Now Wilbur got on. He flew a distance of 53 m. The timing could not be recorded. Orville flew next, covering 55 m in 15 sec. On the fourth attempt, Wilbur flew 200 m in 59 sec.

Next day, The Virginia-Pilot reported the event in head­line:



The sub-heading read:





The report began with the words, "The problem of aerial navigation without the use of a balloon has been solved". It described Wilbur as ‘well-groomed, raven-haired and swarthy with piercing blue eyes’. Orville was ‘sandy­haired, with sparkling blue eyes’ (Fig. 2.3).

It was a small beginning. Yet it was a major triumph. Years later, Orville noted, "I would hardly think today of making my first flight on a strange machine, even if I knew that it had already been flown and was safe. After these years of experience, I look with amazement on our audacity in attempting flights with a new and untried machine".


Fig. 2.3: Wright brothers

Who would have heard of Wilbur and Orville if they had not been audacious and had lacked the courage to try the untried? If they had not dared, the credit for such a flight would have gone to Alberto Santos-Dumont. But that is another story.



Santos-Dumont had already won the Deutsche prize of 1,00,000 Francs, flying an airship (balloon), around the Eif­fel Tower (Fig. 3.1). He now turned his attention to gliders and kites. Could he install a motor and steer them along? How would such flights be different from those on dirigi­bles (balloons powered by motors)? The possibilities seemed immense. So Santos-Dumont resolved to master the art of flying a giant kite, powered by a motor. He read all avail­able material on kites and gliders. Soon he was familiar with their designs.

Among his friends were professors and engineers. They educated him on the role of aerodynamics in designing kites. They suggested a box-type kite. The frame would be made of wood. The body would be covered with muslin. The en­gine would be suitably mounted. The kite would fly tail first.

Santos-Dumont spent a huge sum, designing the kite. Alas! He didn’t know that the Wright brothers had beaten him in the race for honours. In September 1906, he was ready to fly a giant box-shaped kite. It had two sets of wings and was mounted on bicycle wheels. This, the designer said, would facilitate smooth landing. An eight-cylinder Antoinette engine was installed. The kite got airborne. It flew, tail forward, for 8 sec, covering a distance of 11.3 m. The landing was smooth. On 12 November 1906, Santos – Dumont repeated the experiment. He flew 155 m in 22 sec.


This won him a prize of value Rs. 20,000. (Quite a tidy sum, in those days.)

Everyone hailed him as a pioneer. Santos-Dumont be­lieved he had created history. He basked in the limelight, but this euphoria did not last long. He learnt of the Wright brothers and of their flight, at Kitty Hawk, in December 1903. He had struggled against all odds, only to come second in the race. That was a severe blow.

But he was the first man to circle the Eiffel Tower in a dirigible. That gave him some consolation. It assured him a place in the roll of honour in the history of aviation.

In 1909, Lord Radcliffe of The Daily Mail, London, of­fered a prize (value about Rs. 1 lakh then) to the first man who flew an aircraft across the English Channel. Many young men considered the offer, but backed out when they became aware of the grave risks.

No standard aircraft was available. So anyone who wanted the prize money had to prepare a flying machine on his own. Few people had the skill and the money to do that. Moreover the weather over the English Channel was
unpredictable. Gusty winds and spiralling air currents could toss the aircraft around, tear it apart; or the engine could get flooded with gasoline and stop working.

Подпись: Fig. 3.2: Louis Bleriot The risk was worth taking, thought Louis Bleriot, of France (Fig. 3.2).. Flying was his hobby. He was a daredevil. Many were the tum­bles that he took during his previous flights with kites and gliders. He had broken his skull; pulled his calf mus­cle; limped for a fortnight after being thrown out of a glider, as it came in to land; received hard knocks and se­vere bruises on several occasions.

These painful experiences, however, did not dampen his love for flying. He returned to fly after periods of enforced rest, after the mishaps.

Bleriot heard about the prize. He designed a mono­plane. (Each wing had a span of 7 m), mounted on three wheels, two in front and one in the rear. A three-cylinder Anzani engine provided the power. It was ready by the middle of July 1909. Bleriot made plans to take off from the open ground at Le Baraques, Calais.

Hubert Latham, a leading flyer of France, too was after the prize money. He set out from Sangatte near Calais on 19 July 1909. The engine developed trouble while flying over the Channel. It spluttered, coughed, went into convulsions and then ceased to work. The aircraft lost height. Latham landed on choppy waters. A French naval vessel rescued him. He tried and failed.

Latham would try again, thought Bleriot. He was still on crutches, after a recent accident. Yet he decided to take the challenge. He told his friends, "It’s only a short flight. It shouldn’t take more than forty minutes. So please keep watch. When the weather holds good, I shall fly".

Bleriot was still in bed at 3 a. m. on 25 July 1909, when he was woken up by sharp knocks on the door. He sat up in bed. The pounding on the door continued. It took Bleriot some time to get hold of the crutches, adjust them and hob­ble to the door. Framed against the door stood a friend.

"Good Morning. We’ve been told that the weather shall hold today. So…" the friend walked in.

"Wonderful. I shall be ready in a minute", Bleriot hur­ried to the bathroom.

Bleriot took the monoplane, the BLERIOT XI, on a test flight, circled the ground twice and came back for gas. After filling the fuel tank, he restarted the engine. His friends crowded near the cockpit. He shook hands with them. As they drew back, he pulled the throttle. The aircraft rolled on, picked up speed and took to the air gracefully (Fig. 3.3). The men on the ground cheered. Someone checked the time. It was 4.35 a. m.

The aircraft flew at a height of 75 m. A French naval ship sailed the Channel, keeping an eye on the aircraft. It was assigned to help Bleriot in case his aircraft developed trouble and he was forced to land on the waters.

Bleriot felt right on top of the world as the aircraft flew


Fig. 3.3: First flight across the English Channel by LouisBItriot іГнїЗГ©:

over the Channel. He flew so fast (64 kmph) that the ship was left far behind. He had no compass and did not know whether he was heading in the right direction. He was half way through when the engine hissed. It was getting heated. A nameless fear gripped him. Would the engine fail him, force him to down his aircraft in the waters of the Channel?

He felt a blob of water on his cheek. He reached out for it, and his hand became wet with raindrops. The rain came just in time. It cooled the engine. The aircraft flew on, without any further trouble. Bleriot sighted the cliffs of Do­ver, to the west of his flight path, and changed the direc­tion. The aircraft now pushed against the wind, headed to­ward Dover. Bleriot touched down on a green field, at Northfall Meadow, just behind Dover Castle. (It was close to the spot from where two balloonists, Dr Jeffries and Blanchard, had undertaken the first balloon flight across the Channel, more than hundred years back). Bleriot won the prize and the laurels.

A month later Bleriot entered the Great Air Meet at Reims in France. He competed with more than 30 pilots. But he lost. Glenn Curtiss of the United States recorded a speed of 77 kmph and won top honours (Fig. 3.4). It was one more feather in Glenn’s cap. Earlier he had bagged prizes offered by the Scientific American and the New York Aero Club.

The organisations wanted to find out how much con­trol man had gained over the aircraft. Could anyone fly on a day, specified in advance? Could he cover a distance of at least 1 km? Such a man deserved the prize. Curtiss accepted the challenge. He announced in advance that he would fly on 4 July 1908 (National Day of the United States).

But, 4 July 1908 turned out to be a wet and rainy day. Yet a large crowd collected at the venue. They waited, with umbrellas, raincoats and parasols protecting them from the rain. It rained the whole day. Only around sunset did the
sky clear. Curtiss climbed into the cockpit of his plane, the June Bug. He started the motor, opened up the throttle and nudged the aircraft into flight. He groaned when the flight ended after covering less than 1 km.

Подпись:He tried again. This time, he covered nearly 2 km. Sweet were the fruits of success. Curtiss savoured his victory.

He had proved that one could fly at any time of one’s choosing.

Could the aircraft help national defence? Experts studied the possibil­ity. But they didn’t bring a sense of urgency to the task. For the world was at peace. There were minor skirmishes, but they didn’t streak the sky with war clouds. An assassina­tion whipped up the power needed to herd in the clouds to darken the scene.


Peace claimed its victims. The victims were young, daring fighter pilots. They were demobilised, knocked out of ac­tion. But the knocks did not leave them down and out. Many of them found new areas of activities.

John Alcock and Arthur Witten-Brown had served the Royal Air Force as fighter pilots (Fig. 5.1). They did not like being grounded. How could they get a chance, once again, to fly?

Alcock heard, while spending an evening at the club, in late 1918, with a friend, of a prize of 10,000 pounds of­fered by the Daily Mail to the first person to fly non-stop across the Atlantic.

image22"This is one flight I can undertake. If only I can find a sponsor, who gets me an aircraft and also provides funds to equip it…" Alcock didn’t complete the sentence.

"That shouldn’t be a prob­lem", the friend mumbled.

"So, where do you see a problem?" Alcock said edgily.

"It’s a mission fraught with danger", the friend warned.

"That’s the least of my Fig – 5.1: John Alcock and worry", Alcock Smiled wryly. Arthur Witten-Brown.

"I’ll make a bid, if I get necessary backing", Alcock replied.

He discussed the matter with Arthur Witten-Brown, a former RAF fighter pilot, and asked, "If I ask you to fly with me?"

"I’ll jump at the offer", Brown responded with joy.

"That’s a deal", Alcock reached out for Brown’s hand.

A checklist of possible patrons was prepared. This list helped them find support for their project.

Which aircraft should they fly? They remembered the Vickers Vimy biplane, which they had flown during the war on bombing missions. It was a large plane, powered by two Rolls-Royce engines. It had speed and strength.

"WeTl have to fly from the American end", pointed out Brown.

"I know. Air currents make a flight, across the Atlantic, heading toward Europe, easier", Alcock smiled.

The two got hold of a bomber, dismantled it and carted it, in sections, to St. John’s, New Foundland, and set up camp (Fig. 5.2). The site for assembling the aircraft lay at an open ground called Mundy’s Pond. The two secured assistance of a handful of enthusiastic mechanics and reassembled the aircraft. They attached additional fuel where the aircraft once ’ carried bombs. Some space for storage of fuel was provided in the wings too (Fig. 5.3).


Fig. 5.2: Vickers Vimy bomber

While these preparations were under way, the Ameri­can Navy launched a hopping flight across the Atlantic. Curtiss co-ordinated the technical details of the flight. Lt. Commander J. H. Towers led the group of four seaplanes.

Seaplanes and flying boats take off and land on water. Due to lack of runways, normal airplanes could not operate as passenger carriers. The seaplanes and the flying boats, therefore, were used extensively to transport people around till about 1950.

The seaplanes set out on 8 May 1919. One of the planes developed problems and dropped out. The others, after a few halts, reached Lisbon on 20 May. A week later, they flew to Plymouth, England. It was not a non-stop flight. So Alcock and Brown were not unduly upset.

Cause for worry came from another source. At St John’s, two daring pilots, Harry G. Hawker and Mackenzie Grieve, were making the final preparations to fly a single-engine Sopwith biplane across the Atlantic. They set out on 18 May 1919. Alcock and Brown cursed their fate. Had they come so far, only to be beaten in the race by their competitors? That thought nagged them, while they waited for further reports of the flight of the Sopwith.


Harry G. Hawker and Mackenzie Grieve flew toward the Irish coast. The engine coughed and spluttered after covering about 1,800 km. The deep blue stretch of the sea menacingly closed in as the plane lost height and tumbled into the waters. A tramper rescued the bobbing men from the waters. Thus ended their bid for the prize.

The news lifted the spirits of Alcock and Brown. They hurried with the final preparation.

14 June 1919 was a bright sunny day. Reports indicated that the weather would hold, for some time. Of course, no­body took such predictions seriously. The weather could turn bad, suddenly, without warning. The two pilots got into the cockpit. Alcock started the engine. He pulled the throttle. The aircraft raced along the bumpy, uneven field. The wings, laden with fuel, drooped. The aircraft lifted off, sluggishly, just a few feet before it reached the block of trees that cir­cled the field. The aircraft skimmed inches above the trees.

For a couple of hours, the aircraft was nudged faster by the tailwind. That gave an added 64 kmph to the normal cruising speed of 145 kmph of the aircraft.

The first setback for the fliers came when the radio conked off. Thus the plane’s communication line was snapped. Soon, the airplane began to rattle. A quick check by Alcock made him shiver. The exhaust of the right engine had cracked. It was quivering as if mad, while tongues of flame danced around the crack. For a moment, Alcock thought it marked the end of their mission. Then hope surged up. He told himself, "We’ve weathered many a storm, during the days in the RAF. So, even this threat may pass".

It did pass. But soon the plane ran into massive air turbulence. Vertical air currents spun the plane, viciously. The plane lost height. It came as close as 20 m of the sea. Alcock pulled at the stick, frantically. The plane quivered. Then its nose rose and Alcock and Brown sighed in relief. The plane regained altitude.

John Alcock steered the plane above the clouds and the fog. The plane faced a new danger. Sleet and snow hit the plane.

Подпись:The roar of the en­gines was loud.

The two men could not even talk to each other, find out how they could face the threat.

Brown acted on his own. He grabbed a knife and climbed out of the cockpit, crawled over the right wing, got close to the engine and scraped the blocks of ice that coated the engine (Fig. 5.4). Back he went to repeat the operation with the sec­ond engine. It was a very risky operation. A sudden gust of wind, a surge of air current would have sent Brown plum­meting into the icy waters, below.

Alcock decided to fly at a lower altitude. The fog had cleared. For seven hours, the weather tested the limits of endurance of the pilots.

At last, it was day. Visibility was good. Brown scanned the scene ahead of him. Suddenly the southern tip of Ire­land came into view. Brown could not contain his joy. He screamed, above the roar of the engines. But, Alcock could not make out what he was saying. He could only notice Brown holding out the hand, pointing toward a hazy curved line beyond the waters. The sea seemed to be kept back by the hazy line. Beyond the line lay land, the Irish coast. That

awareness touched his lips with a thin smile.

Alcock checked the maps, read the compass and made quick calculations. The plane was heading toward the small town of Clifden, some distance off Galway, the original tar­get the pilots had set.

Alcock circled the land. Brown spotted a vast ‘open ground’. Alcock started the descent. The aircraft touched down, in the centre of a muddy patch. The wheels of the aircraft lay buried in mud. Quickly, the two men on board the aircraft got out, splashed their way through the mud and reached firm ground. "That’s it", Alcock hugged Brown. The two stood, with tears of joy streaking down their cheeks. It was their moment of triumph. They had crossed the At­lantic without a halt in between.

This triumph made them heroes. Wherever they went, large crowd mobbed them. Young boys and girls crowded around them, seeking autographs. Cameras clicked, catch­ing their profiles on films for eternity. They received the prize money. That cheered them. But happier still were they when the King of England knighted them, at a special function at the Buckingham Palace.

In 1914, the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was assassi­nated. The tragedy rocked the whole of Europe. War clouds gathered. Efforts to avert a war failed. The Astro-Hungar – ian Empire, Germany and Turkey, formed a group. Pitted against them were the Allies, composed of Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Japan and the United States. First World War broke out.

Nations at war have, since time immemorial, adopted many strategies to gain their ends. Among them, the effort to gather information about the enemy’s strength and for­mation remains vital. It was so during the First World War too.

Field scouts fanned out, sneaked, as close as they could, to the enemy lines. They stayed beyond the firing range of the enemy, watched through telescopes and gathered infor­mation.

Manual scouting almost ended when machine guns, invented by Fliram Maxim, came into use. The enemy de­fended his camps with machine guns. The scouts could not get close enough to gather information.

On earlier occasions, balloons had been used for aerial survey of enemy positions. Could not aircraft perform the job better? The possibilities seemed immense. Both sides started working on this idea. The existing aircraft were re­designed. Additions and alterations made them sleeker, faster and easier to fly. The cameras on board recorded

enemy formations and camps while the aircraft flew at heights well beyond the range of guns on the ground. Aerial reconnaissance became the order of the day.

How could enemy snooping be stopped? Instructions were issued to designers of aircraft to come up with ways and means to stop the predators. They considered various options and finally came up with a single-seater fighter air­craft, equipped with guns, to intercept and down enemy aircraft, engaged in aerial survey.

image15This was just the beginning. Soon came a brilliant idea. Can’t single-seated aircraft fly over enemy territory and drop bombs? That marked the birth of bombers. New designs improved the speed and manoeuvra­bility and fighting power of the air­craft.

The air was no longer a safe place. In March 1915, Raymond Saulnier invented a bullet deflection device (BDD). It was tacked to the propeller of a monoplane. Powered by a rotary engine of 110 hp, it had a maximum speed of 165 kmph and flew at an altitude of 2000 m. The


BDD timed the gun to fire when the Fig. 4.1: Rolland Garros


Fig. 4.3: Fokker monoplane

rotating blades were not in the way of the gun. This device proved very effective. Roland Garros (Fig. 4.1), a French pi­lot, used this device to shoot down three enemy aircraft during one mission (Fig. 4.2).

The Germans were not far behind. They developed the Fokker, a small aircraft (Fig. 4.3). Its top speed was 130 kmph. A fleet of 50 such aircraft went into action against the Al­lies. They turned out to be a real scourge. Aerial bombing caused severe damage to people and property. The English and the French reeled under the attack.

German designers produced special types of aircraft to serve specific needs. Training for pilots became scientific


and systematic. Pilots mastered the art of flying in forma­tion. This led to development of Squadrons with defined duties. Repair centres were also set up. Germany continued to make headway in exploiting the air power.

Britain and France found the answer to the Fokker air­craft in new designs. In 1915, Capt. Geoffrey de Havilland produced the D4-2. It could fly at a speed of 140 kmph. The Fokker could not match it in speed and dexterity. The Germans, in turn, improved on the French aircraft Neuport and produced Albatros D-l (Fig. 4.4). It had dual machine guns, with double the fire power, mounted near the cockpit. The Albatros carried out attacks on Britain in April 1917. (Historians refer to the period as Bloody April). England lost 151 planes; Germany just 51. German bomb­ers, called Gothas, carried out aerial bombing even during the day. The Allies were unequal to this assault. The chances of holding back Germany looked bleak.

Then came the turn of fortune. The United States joined the Allies. Britain designed the Sopwith Camel, an excellent fighter aircraft (Fig. 4.5). The Bristol Fighter and Spad XIII were two new aircraft that strengthened British air strength. Germany refined the Fokker to produce the Fokker D VII,


with a maximum speed of 192 kmph at an altitude of 7,000 m.

Most of the aircraft had limitations. The Gothas were tail-heavy. So pilots had trouble keeping the aircraft steady at landing. The lower wing of the Albatros twisted easily while the aircraft dived. All aircraft shared one danger. Of­ten the fuel tank caught fire. Pilots didn’t have parachutes. So they could not bail out when their aircraft were hit. They faced a fiery end. Often they shot themselves before the fire got to them.

The War proved the importance of air power in war. The men who headed Britain’s War Office realised this and held meetings to debate the issue. These deliberations led to the formation of the Royal Air Force on 1 April 1918.

That marked the culmination of a small, hesitant start made in 1908. In the same year, on 16 October, the first British Army Plane, designed by Cody, flew a distance of 410 m. That was just a flash in the pan. After the flight, a cost study was undertaken. The project had cost over 2,500 pounds. That was considered too high. Further work on the aircraft was shelved and the factory shut down.

However, within a year, Britain received a new jolt. Louis Bleriot flew across the English Channel. That flight was an eye-opener for the British. For centuries, the people had looked upon the English Channel as a God-given defence, a natural moat. It had warded off attacks by sea, on several occasions in the past. Bleriot’s crossing of the Channel marked the end of the Channel’s invincibility. The Channel could not provide any defence against air attack.

Around this time came reports of progress by France and Germany in aviation. Bleriot, Deperdessin, Morane and Farman, four French companies, took the lead in the pro­duction of aircraft. Britain could buy French aircraft. But that would leave Britain dependent on the French. Self-reli­ance became the need of the hour.

The old factory was re­started. Geoffrey de Havilland, who had the requisite expertise, joined the factory as designer and test pilot (Fig. 4.6). He de­veloped the two-seater biplane model B. E. 1. It was improved and developed as the B. E. 2 (Fig. 4.7).

Подпись: Fig. 4.6: Geoffrey de Havilland The formation of the Royal Air Force came months before ■’ – y J d. В t, ‘ the brief span, the newly designed fighter aircraft hunted down

enemy submarines and ships, and carried out heavy bomb­ing of enemy installations and formations.


The War ended. The Allies won. Peace returned. Hu­man development needed more funds. Investment in de­fence came in for pruning. Would it affect the progress of aviation? It could have but for the farsightedness of Winston Churchill (he later became Prime Minister of England and

led the nation to victory in the Second World War), who was the Secretary of State for both War and the Royal Air Force (RAF). He backed the RAF to the hilt, encouraged es­tablishment of schools to train pilots. Mock fights and air stunts won public backing to the Air Force.

The pilots did not remain idle. The RAF saw action in campaigns against tribals in British colonies. It flew in to contain troubles in Iraq in 1922. In 1928, tribal groups of Afghanistan, led by Kabibullah Khan, rose in revolt. The men surrounded the British Legation at Kabul and took 586 people as captives. How could the captives be rescued? The terrain was mountainous, rugged, mostly snow-covered. Wild winds swirled around. The Royal Air Force was as­signed the task of airlifting the captives. The pilots rose to the occasion. The operation was truly hazardous. The weather was unpredictable. The terrain was hostile. Yet the pilots completed the rescue, despite ceaseless gunfire from the ground.

Each successful operation gave a stimulus to research in aircraft design. Powerful engines and new designs en­hanced the speed and range of aircraft. The First World War had given a big boost to aviation.


The success of Alcock and Brown was historic. Now came the question: Could anyone fly the Atlantic solo? Charles Lindbergh accepted the challenge (Fig. 6.1). He made all preparations and arrived at New York in May 1927. He was keen to fly his aircraft, the Spirit of St. Louis, across the At­lantic, all the way from New York to Paris, solo. He had set his heart on it. But bad weather had forced him stay put for about a week. All through the night of 20 May he tossed in his bed. He could not get a wink of sleep.

image26Many friends asked him why he wanted to stake his life on the risky venture. He laughed off their fears. "I’ve designed this plane. It can carry enough fuel to last me for the journey. I may have some to spare too, at the end of the journey. As regards my decision to fly solo, well, I’d be bet­ter off with more asoline than an extra man", said Lindbergh.

"Yet, it’s risky", said his friends.

That was true. Rene Fonck, a veteran of France (he had been a fighter pilot during World War I), had tried and failed. His plane crashed at take off. Noel Davis and Stanton Wooster, two Americans, died in a mishap during a test flight. Charles Nungesser and Fig. 6.1: Charles Lindbergh

Francois Coli, two war heroes of France, took off from Paris on May 8, 1927. They vanished into thin air. Nobody knew what happened to them.

These failures didn’t scare Lindbergh. They only spurred him on, strengthened his determination to go ahead with his plan.

He was just 25. He was ready to dare and act. He wanted to be the first to fly an aircraft, solo, across the At­lantic. It was truly a quest he loved. Success would bring him name and fame. There was also the lure of the prize money ($25,000), offered by a rich hotel magnate Raymond Orteig.

These were factors that weighed with him. But hardly anyone guessed why he was so hell-bent on executing this plan. Years later, he shared it with the whole world, "I have never been aware of the need to prove myself… . My im­pression is that I have done what I have done because I enjoyed doing it or because I thought it led to some desir­able or necessary end".

He fell in love with flying after he watched an air show at Fort Meir. "How exciting would it be to soar freely, up in the air, like birds?" thought Lindbergh. From then on, fly­ing became a passion. Lindbergh chose flying as a career. He told his father of his decision. The old man demurred, "Flying is dangerous and you’re my only son". Lindbergh pleaded. Finally, the old man agreed.

Lindbergh’s mother was more understanding and sup­portive. She patted him and said, "If you really want to fly, that’s what you should do". Lindbergh danced with joy.

From then on, nothing could hold him back. He trained to fly. There was money in flying. He earned his living, car­rying passengers around. He hopped around, flying mail. In between he found time to practise parachute jumping.

Every success in the field of aviation thrilled him. Each report fired his imagination, gave wings to a desire.

He resolved to strike yet another milestone in the history of aviation.

But what could he do? The answer came to him while flying an airmail sortie in the fall of 1926. Suddenly he re­membered the prize money offered by Orteig to one who flew an aircraft solo across the Atlantic, all the way from New York to Paris and set a new record in the annals of aviation.

One major problem stood in his way. He didn’t have enough funds to take on this project. All that he could raise were $2,000. He needed more than $35,000, to get an airplane and to make other preparations.

Where would the funds come from? There were many rich businessmen and industrialists who often sponsored such endeavours. They had the money and the will to give liberally to help the daring.

Lindbergh approached a few rich friends and acquaint­ances. He explained what he had in mind. He handed over to them detailed break-up of the funds he needed and justi­fied every item of expense.

Many people showed interest initially. Most of them, however, shied away. Finally, Harry Knight and Harold Bixby of St. Louis gave him the green signal.

The search for the ideal airplane began right away. Lindbergh was clear of what he wanted. He noticed that earlier attempts by experienced pilots, who flew double­engine aircraft, had failed. He decided, then, to fly a single­engine airplane. He decided on a Ryan monoplane.

He sent a wire to Ryan, the airplane builder of San Diego:


Ryan discussed the finer details. Lindbergh explained "I would like to carry maximum fuel. I’ve to fly a distance of about 3,500 miles (5,400 km) nonstop. If I run short of fuel, I’ll be in trouble".

"What about safety?" Ryan asked.

"Safety at the start of my flight means holding down weight for the take off. Safety during my flight requires plenty of emergency equipment. Safety at the end of my flight demands ample reserve of oil. It’s impossible to in­crease safety at one point without detracting from the other", Lindbergh defined his analysis of safety.

Ryan understood. Lindbergh was giving maximum at­tention to safety at the end of his flight. He was hinting that he would sacrifice safety at take off and during flight to ensure he reached his goal. He would take as much fuel as he could. If some safety equipment had to be offloaded, so be it. The radio set, used for communication, became the first casualty. That provided space for 35 kg of fuel. The sex­tant was discarded. "I’m on a solo flight. Where will I’ve the time to adjust and read the sextant?" he asked.

Reducing weight became an obsession. Lindbergh ripped spare pages off his notebook. He cut holes in the world map, clipping out places not on his route. He pro­cured special lightweight shoes. He didn’t take a parachute along. That gave room for 9 kg more of oil. He cut down on the food and water supplies too. He carried only five sand­wiches and a quart of water. That was very frugal fare for a long flight of about 35 hours. Lindbergh knew it. Yet he opted for it, saying, "If I get to Paris, I won’t need any more; and if I don’t get to Paris, I won’t need any more".

The fuel tank went in front. It blocked his vision. Lindbergh didn’t consider this a major problem. In those days, the airspace was uncluttered. No aircraft flew the route. However as a measure of caution, he fixed a periscope. It poked out on the left side. The view taken by the periscope was displayed on the instrument panel. Lindbergh believed that he would be safer, with the fuel tank in front of him. A

Wing fuel tank


clock, a compass, an altimeter and an air speed indicator were the other equipment he had on board (Fig. 6.2).

At 2.30 a. m., on 20 May, Lindbergh looked out through the window. The star-studded sky winked at him. Was it a signal to him to set out on his historic flight?

He jumped out of bed, took a quick bath before driv­ing down to New York Airport. He checked the airplane, the Spirit of St. Louis, before taking in fuel (Fig. 6.3). "Load it up to the last ounce", Lindbergh grinned.

He got into the cockpit, started the engine, pulled the throttle. The aircraft started off, slowly. It picked up speed, but till it neared the end of the runway, it looked as if it might not get airborne. The ground crew gasped in fright. But the miracle happened. To the relief of everyone, the air­craft lifted off, just at the last moment. It flew inches above electric poles and trees, before gaining height.

A mild easterly wind held course. Lindbergh headed toward Nova Scotia, and thence to Cape Breton Island. Heavy rain, fog and turbulent weather made flying

difficult. For a moment, Lindbergh was tempted to consider whether he should call off his mad plan and seek security at St. John. Beyond St. John lay thousands of miles of sea. Once he left St. John behind, he would have no option but to fly ahead to his destination or be ready to be dumped into the Atlantic.

With grim determination, he circled St. John and flew out toward the sea. He sighed in relief. He saw the advan­tage that this choice held out. "A pilot, who has 2,000 miles of sea ahead of him, can’t park his plane on a cloud bank to weather out a storm or heave over a sea anchor like the sailor and drag along slowly down wind. He’s unable to control his speed like the driver of a motor car in fog. He has to keep his craft hurtling through air, no matter how black the sky or binding the storm", he told himself.

He rose to 10,500 feet (3,250 m) to get above the fog. The air around was very cold. Icy clouds were all around. "They enmesh intruders. They’re barbaric in their methods. They toss you in their hailstones, poison you with freezing mist. It would be a slow death, a death one would have long minutes to struggle against—climbing, stalling,

diving, whipping, always downward toward the sea", Lindbergh recollected about this experience. Quickly, he got out of the icy clouds. He descended before ice coated the wings and made the airplane heavier.

After 17 hours of flying, Lindbergh felt terribly sleepy. His eyelids drooped. He pulled the window so that ice cold wind hit his face. He slapped himself. Once he dozed off. The plane took an ugly roll, jerking him out of sleep. He saw illusions—of bottomless seas, of towering mountains, of rolling cascades. He feared of straying off the route.

The sun rose. With it came a sense of relief and confi­dence for Lindbergh. He had been airborne for 24 hours. The sleepiness vanished. He felt fresh and full of energy.

He flew on. Two hours later, he saw a seabird in flight. Then he saw a few native boats, sailed by fishermen. For Lindbergh that was a welcome sign. Land could be close by. Was he heading toward the Irish coast? He flew lower, hoping to find out from the fishermen on the boats. He shouted, "How far is the Irish cost?" Nobody heard his call.


After circling around the boats for a few minutes, Lindbergh realised it was a waste of energy. He was burn­ing up fuel on a futile quest. Swiftly, he changed course and headed toward his goal. Soon, he flew over the Irish coast. He was two hours ahead of schedule. That meant he had enough fuel to fly beyond Paris. Should he fly to Rome?

Fig. 6.4: Lindbergh’s route across the Atlantic

For a moment, he toyed with the idea. Then he gave it up. He had set out for Paris. To Paris would he go (Fig. 6.4).

Joy filled his heart as he neared Paris. In ecstasy, he told himself, "The Spirit of St. Louis is like a living creature, gliding along smoothly, happily, as though a successful flight means as much to it as to me. We love this flight across the ocean, not I or it".

The airplane circled the airport, lit by a thousand lights (Fig. 6.5). However, darkness obscured the aircraft till it de­scended and came within the range of the lights. The touch­down was smooth. Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlan­tic had taken 33 hours and 39 minutes.

A large crowd encircled him as soon as he got out of the cockpit. "Thousands of men and women were breaking down fences and flooding past guards", he recollected in his memoirs.

Walter S. Ross described the scene, "Lindbergh opened the door to climb out, but he didn’t set foot on ground.


Fig. 6.5: The darkened runway in Paris was illuminated by the headlamps of cars.

Hands reached out and pulled him out. He was spread – eagled on top of the crowd like a captive tortoise". Two French pilots, Detroyat and Delage, quickly snatched the soft leather helmet of Lindbergh and made a tall American, who was standing a little away, wear it. The crowd mistook him for Lindbergh and encircled him. That gave the chance to the two pilots to lead Lindbergh away to a Renault car waiting to take him away.

He received a hero’s welcome in European capitals. President Coolidge honoured him with the Distinguished Flying Cross. Time-Life Books, in their series, This Fabulous Century, covering the period 1920-1930, wrote, "When a lanky, soft-spoken youth named Charles Lindbergh made the first solo airplane flight nonstop from New York to Paris, America pulled out the stops. As he was escorted up Broadway, jubilant crowds showered the returning hero with 1,800 tons of shredded paper".

The accolade was his by right. He had flown solo across the Atlantic, proved that man could overcome every chal­lenge that came his way. However there was still one chal­lenge to be met. Nobody had flown across the Atlantic, from Europe to America.

In May 1927, a Parisian newspaper carried a report, claiming that the L’oiseau Blanc, piloted by Francois Coli and Charles Nungessser, of France, had crossed the Atlantic, fly­ing East to West. This turned out to be wrong. The aircraft vanished shortly after take off. There was no trace of the aircraft or the men on board. Undaunted by this tragedy, Hermann Koehl, a former German Air Force pilot, under­took the flight. The Junkers Airplane company placed an all-metal low-wing W-33 monoplane at his disposal. Baron Gruenther von Huenfeld offered financial support on con­dition he was taken along as passenger. James A. Fitzmaurice, an Irish pilot with immense experience agreed to be the copilot.

The aircraft, called Bremen, took off, shortly after dawn, on 12 April 1928, from Baldonnel Airport, near Dublin. Strong headwinds slowed down their progress. Through­out the night, the aircraft was adrift in fog. Even after the day broke, the fog held on. The plane drifted too far north. Then came a blizzard. For four hours, the plane was tossed around. When it abated, the engine developed a leak. Koehl checked. The fuel gauge hovered around the empty mark. New York, their original target, was far away. So the pilot opted to land at Greenly Island, a barren stretch between Labrador and New Foundland. The three men had flown the Atlantic, from East to West. They had put yet another challenge down under.

Then came the daring dame, Amelia Earhart. She proved that women could match the men in grit and tenacity.


"There’s a call for you", the telephone operator, at Denison House, Boston, informed Amelia Earhart, a social worker.

"I’m too busy to attend to the call just now. Ask who­ever is calling to try again", she told the operator.

"But", said the operator, "he says it’s urgent."

Reluctantly, she picked up the receiver. Over the phone crackled a male voice, "Hello, you don’t know me. My name is Railey… Captain H. H. Railey. Could you come to my of­fice for an interview?"

"Not till I know what it’s all about", Amelia shot back.

"I’m thinking of a flight across the Atlantic. Would you be interested?" the man enquired.

Amelia’s heart instantly gained a faster beat. This sounded too good to be true. Amelia had done some flying. She believed that the true skill of a pilot lay in how one handled the airplane. She showed her control, at air shows, while performing breathtaking stunts.

Despite all these she had never thought of flying across the Atlantic.

"I’ll come", she told Railey.

The two met. Railey was taken in by her confidence and bearing. She reminded him of Charles Lindbergh. He rolled the name, in his mind, "Lady Lindy". That name stuck.

He told her of two experienced pilots, Wilmer Stulz and Louis Gordon, who would be flying a Fokker tri-motor

called The Friendship. Would she like to go along with them? "It’s a chance of a life time. You’d be the first woman to fly the Atlantic", Railey pointed out. Amelia agreed.

Подпись: Fig. 7.1: Amelia Earhartimage32On 27 June 1928, The Friend­ship set out on the historic flight from Trepassey Bay, New Foundland. The plane ran in and out of fog and clouds, storms and cold icy winds. The radio didn’t function properly. One of the en­gines caused problems. The pilots got a scare when the fuel gauge indicated that the plane would remain airborne only for a couple of hours more. But luck favoured them. They touched down at Burry Port, in South Wales, England. They had covered 3420 km in 24 hours

40 minutes.

Amelia became, overnight, a celebrity (Fig. 7.1). How­ever, much she tried to share the credit with Stultz and Gordon, she received more accolades than the other two. President Coolidge sent her a message, "to you the first


Amelia asked herself, "What have I done to deserve all this?" The Editor of Flight, the leading British aviation magazine, expressed the same thought, "Well, the first lady passenger has crossed the Atlantic, by air, although what special merit there is in that is not altogether easy to set— The crossing of the Atlantic as a passenger doesn’t seem to us to prove anything in particular".

Amelia resolved, then, to prove herself. That chance came four years later.

One day, in 1932, Amelia and her husband George Putnam were having breakfast. She lifted her head, smiled
and asked George, "Would you mind if I flew the Atlantic solo?"

He smiled. "If you want it, dear", he replied. He felt elated at the spirit of adventure of his wife.

"I’m awfully proud of you. You could have tried to dissuade me. You trusted my judgement. You know I won’t attempt anything that I didn’t think I could do", she stretched out her hand tenderly. He pressed it warmly. That was the seal of approval.

Amelia consulted Bernt Balchen, a close friend, who was good at readying an aircraft for such a flight. Balchen reshaped the wings and the cabin to take in more fuel tanks so that the plane could take 1400 litres of fuel and fly a dis­tance of 5100 km without refuelling. The plane was equipped with a drift indicator, and a set of compasses.

Amelia practised flying solely by instruments. She spent hours with a friend learning how best to draw fuel from various tanks so that the weight would remain bal­anced all through.

On 20 May 1932 (the date is significant. On this date, in 1927, Charles Lindbergh had started on his historic crossing of the Atlantic), she set out from Harbour Grace, New Foundland. The first test of her ability came within an hour. The altimeter failed. That was a major blow. She would never know the height at which she was cruis­ing. Without that knowledge, it was difficult to fly by the instruments.

Within 4 hours came another problem. The exhaust pipe began to rattle. The vibrations made the flight eerie. Amelia peeped back and saw flames around the exhaust. Doubts began to creep in her mind. Should she turn back? She killed that thought, instantly. The plane flew into heavy clouds. To avoid them, Amelia ascended, only to find herself in the grip of icy winds. The plane slowed down, as ice gathered on the wings. Without warning, the plane began to spin.

During the spin, the plane lost about 940 m of height. Amelia recollected later, "How long we spun, I do not know. I do know that I did my best to do exactly what one should do with a spinning plane and regained flying control as the warmth of the lower altitude melted the ice. As we righted and held level again, through the blackness below I could see the whitecaps, too close for comfort".

From the icy region, the plane slipped into the clutches of clouds. Lower down lay fog. Each one was an enemy to the plane’s progress. Yet Amelia held on, all through the night.

Dawn came. With it came new problems. She turned on the reserve fuel tank. Then she noticed the leakage in the fuel gauge. Drops of fuel dripped into the cockpit. That was truly scary. The fire raging around the exhaust could ignite the dripping fuel. The plane could go up in flames. The vi­bration too was severe.

Amelia decided to end her flight as soon as she sighted land. Soon the plane flew over a railway track. After a few passes, she landed in a long sloping meadow. She climbed out of the plane. A farm worker ran to her. She asked him, "Where am I?" He replied, "In Gallegher’s pasture". (This was in Londonderry, Ireland. Paris, her original destination lay far away. However that didn’t matter. Amelia had crossed the Atlantic solo.)

"Have you come from afar?" he asked.

"From America", she replied.

She received a tickertape welcome, wherever she went. In London, she became the toast of the town. Paris spread the red carpet for her. In Belgium, the King and the Queen decorated Amelia with the Chevalier of the Order of Leopold. America honoured her with the Distinguished Fly­ing Cross.

No longer could anyone twit her as a ‘passenger’. She had truly lived up to the name, ‘Lady Lindy’. She was the first woman (and the second person) to fly solo over the Atlantic.

"I admire your courage", an admirer told her.

"How can Life grant us the boon of living… unless we dare the soul’s dominion? Each time we make a choice, we pay with courage to behold the restless day, and count it fair", she noted.

Amelia could not sit on her laurels. There were new fields to be explored. Five years after her historic flight across the Atlantic, she decided to fly round the world, to take the longest possible route East to West. "Roughly it is from San Francisco to Honolulu; from Honolulu to Tokyo; (or Hono­lulu to Brisbane); the regular Australia-England route as far west as Karachi; from Karachi to Aden; Aden via Khartoum across Central Africa to Dakar; Dakar to Natal; and thence to New York on the regular Pan American route", she wrote to President Roosevelt.

A Lockheed Electra, a ten-seater aircraft, was chosen for the mission. The seats were removed. About half the cabin was filled with additional fuel tanks. It was equipped with modern gadgets to aid flight and communication. These included a periodic compass, a bubble sextant, a Pioneer Drift indicator, three chronometers, altimeter, air speed in­dicator, temperature gauge and a Benedix Direction finder as also flares, smoke bombs and special maps prepared to help the flight over regions, so far not clearly charted.

President Roosevelt directed the US Navy to ‘do what we can’. The Navy instructed the coast guard cutter S. S. Itasca, stationed at Howland, to maintain radio communi­cation with the aircraft when it headed toward the narrow strip of land.

Amelia was fully conscious of the risks. She wrote to her husband, George Putnam, "I know that if I fail or if I am lost, you will be blamed for allowing me to leave on this trip; the backers of the trip would be blamed and everyone connected with it. But it’s my responsibility and mine alone".

On 1 June 1937, she set out from Miami, on the Electra. Fred J. Noonan was her navigator. The flight progressed, as per schedule. They reached Lae airport at Papua New Guinea, covering 35,000 km. There were two more laps, from Lae to Howland and Howland to Hawaii, a distance of 11,000 km to go.

On 2 July the plane took off from Lae Airport of Papua New Guinea for Howland Island, 4,200 km away. The time was 10 a. m. local time (12.30 p. m., 1 July, Howland time). The plane was expected to reach Howland Island in about 18 hours.

Howland is a narrow strip of land, about 32 km long and 1.2 km wide. Its greatest height above sea level is 4.5 m. It remains a speck in the ocean. The Naval ship S. S. Itasca waited at Howland. It remained in constant radio commu­nication with the aircraft.

At 7.40 a. m. (Howland time) the aircraft contacted the ship. "Gas running low. We are flying at an altitude of 1,000 feet (300 m)". At 8.45 a. m. came the last message. "We are in line of position 157-337. We are listening on 3210 kilocy­cles".

That was the last message from the plane. Then it van­ished into thin air.

What happened? Had the plane overshot the mark and crashed? If so, why was the wreckage of the plane not found around Howland, where a combing operation was organ­ised? Or was there something more to it? Nobody knows. All that remains are the memories of the triumphs of Lady Lindy, the first lady of aviation.


Adventure was what Lt. Commander Richard E. Byrd of the American Navy sought. Young and spirited, he loved to pit his strength against angry seas and howling winds. When he had had his fill of these, he turned to the polar region.

The year was 1925. Spring was in the air. Byrd was busy at his office. Spread before him were a few wireless messages. He was studying them when a very senior naval officer knocked at the swinging door and walked in. Byrd stood up, saluted him and politely held his hand toward a vacant chair.

"Have you heard of Donald B. Macmillan’s scheduled expedition to the Poles? The main task of the expedition is to locate unknown islands in the icy region, around the North Pole", the senior explained, while taking the seat.

"It would be fun to be part of that expedition. I envy the members of the team", Byrd sighed.

"You must then envy yourself", the senior laughed.

"In what way, Sir?" Byrd’s voice quivered with excite­ment.

"Accept my congratulations, Rich. The Naval High Command has nominated you to head the aviation activi­ties of the expedition. I shall relieve you of your present duties, this weekend. You’ll get in touch with Donald, pre­pare the plan for aerial survey of the remote region," the senior stood up, shook hands with Byrd and strode off.

The expedition sailed off from Wiscasset, Maine, US,

heading north, on 20 June 1925. It was Byrd’s first visit to the polar region. Wherever he turned he saw snow. The entire area wore a cloak of pure white. The air was clean and refreshingly cold.

Byrd fell in love with the terrain. He flew into the icy wilderness, conducted surveys and returned with excellent inputs.

During the trip, he heard of Roald Amundsen, a pio­neer of expeditions to the icy continents. In 1911, Amundsen had reached the South Pole, after trekking the vast expanse of snow. In 1925, he undertook a flight to the North Pole. With him went Lincoln Ellsworth. The two flew up to 160 km off North Pole in an aircraft. They were heading toward the target. Then came trouble. The winds became vicious. Mist and sleet caused low visibility. The engine of the air­craft coughed, shuddered and then conked off. So Amundsen and Ellsworth were forced to give up the mis­sion.

Their failure roused Byrd’s interest. He decided he would try.

On return home, after the end of the Expedition, Byrd contacted Easel Ford, son of Henry Ford, and John D. Rockefeller Jr. He shared with them his grand plan. He had the skill and the confidence. All that he needed were funds. If Ford and Rockefeller backed his program, he would earn laurels for his country.

Was it not a hair-brained idea? Why should they pour money into a seemingly impossible task? They raised a mil­lion questions. He had an answer for each one of them. His enthusiasm won them to the cause. Byrd received the nod. Ford and Rockefeller promised to finance his expedition.

Then began the search for a suitable aircraft. Byrd in­spected a number of models, available in the market. Fi­nally, he set his eyes on a Fokker transport aircraft. He made necessary changes in the structure. Chief among them was


the fixing of skis to serve as landing gear. Byrd named the aircraft Josephine Ford, in honour of Ford’s daughter. He engaged the services of Floyd Bennett, a veteran pilot. The two reached Kings Bay, Spitsbergen, on 29 April 1926.

Amundsen was also there. He was planning a flight over North Pole by a dirigible, called Norge. (A dirigible is a balloon powered by a motor (Fig. 8.1.) It was specially equipped for the polar flight. The members of the team were Ellsworth and Umberto Nobile. Nobile was an expert bal­loonist.

Which team would fly over North Pole first? It was anybody’s guess.

It was 9 May 1926. Byrd turned the drum containing the lubricant over a raging fire, so as to thin it. Bennett was busy chipping and pounding the snow so as to provide a level ground for take off. At last they were ready. They got into the cockpit. Bennett pulled the throttle. Byrd asked, in a hushed tone, "Remember, on three previous attempts, the aircraft had skid into snow banks. The skis got splintered. Now the aircraft has crude skis, made out of boat’s oars. Will they hold?" "You bet", Bennett concentrated on the task of getting the aircraft airborne.

The aircraft rolled over the patch of level snow. It ran, swaying from side to side. Bennett fought the drag. Then he felt the upward swing of the plane, reached out for Byrd and clutched Byrd’s palm. "We didn’t skid. We’re now fly­ing," Bennett could not contain his joy.

The Josephine Ford headed north. All went well till the aircraft was about 160 km short of the target. Bennett was at the controls and Byrd at the log. Then they heard a hissing sound. Bennett examined the engine and spotted an oil leak in the engine.

"That can prove dangerous", said Bennett.

"I know. But we have come close enough to our goal. We can’t go back, now. This is our only chance to create the record and to steal the honours", Byrd argued.

"Let us do or die", Bennett said, in a grim tone, mak­ing yet another check of the leaking engine.

Byrd sat, stern and silent, checking the position of the aircraft from time to time, with the help of the compass. Then he shouted, "We’ve done it, we’re flying over North Pole. Circle the spot once and then we’ll start our return trip".

"Congratulations", Bennett let a smile light up his face.

The aircraft limped back to Kings Bay, after a flight of 15 hours 30 minutes, covering a distance of about 2,470 km. They were the first men to overfly the North Pole.

Among those who greeted Byrd and Bennett were Amundsen and his two colleagues. Amundsen warmly hugged Byrd, held him close and mumbled, "You have beaten us. But my men and I are full of admiration for you".

Byrd plunged into more exciting travels.

On 29 June 1927, he set out, along with three compan­ions, on a flight across the Atlantic. The Fokker monoplane, named The America, took off from New York. Byrd planned to fly to Paris, emulating the feat of Charles Lindbergh. But dense fog hung over Paris. The aircraft could not land. The pilot set the aircraft toward the Channel coast. The fuel gauge hovered around the empty mark. Left with no choice, the pilot decided to land. It came down in the surf near the village of Ver-sue-Mer.

Within months of this triumph, Byrd began to feel restless again. He wanted yet another challenge. He thought of flying over the South Pole. If he succeeded, he would become the first man to have flown over both the Poles. He organised an expedition to the Antarctica. It was broad- based. Some members of the party would survey the land. Byrd would undertake a flight over South Pole.

The base camp was established at the Bay of Whales on top of the Ross Ice Shelf. Byrd named the camp Little America.

He chose a Ford Tri-motor aircraft with an all-metal body. It had been tested and found to be hardy and tough. Byrd named it Floyd Bennett, after the pilot who had flown the Josephine Ford in 1926. (Bennett had since died.) How­ever it got a nickname Tin Goose.

The aircraft set out on the historic flight on 29 Novem­ber 1929. Bernt Balchen piloted the flight. Harold June came in as the radioman, to maintain the communication line. Ashley McKinley handled the aerial camera. Byrd kept logs and monitored the aircraft’s position.

The aircraft climbed sluggishly, because of the heavy load of fuel on board. The engine made loud notes. So the men could not talk to each other. They tied a long wire. Messages were written on paper, tied to the wire that was pulled forward or backward when messages were to be ex­changed.

The aircraft approached the Queen Maud range of mountains. The peaks stood out. Some of them were about 4,200 m high. The pilot tried to gain altitude to clear the peaks. But the aircraft did not respond to the command. Balchen turned to the team members, made them under­stand the need for quick action. Byrd raised his head from behind the log book. He stared, with shock, at the peaks of the mountains, which stood in the way. He rolled a barrel of fuel out. McKinley helped in dumping yet another bar­rel. In all 500 gallons of fuel dropped out of the aircraft. It

was then the turn of food cartons to go overboard.

Smiles lit up their faces when the aircraft rose and cleared the peaks. Around noon, Byrd made some calcula­tions, checked the readings of the compass, wrote, "We’re over South Pole", and sent the message, over the wire, to others.

Balchen circled the area, once, got hold of an American flag, bound it to a stone, picked up from the grave of Floyd Bennett, and sent the flag floating down to the South Pole.

Harold June wired to base camp about the success of the mission. Soon the whole world heard about this great feat.

The US Navy promoted Byrd to the rank of Rear Ad­miral. The US Congress honoured him. Asked to comment about his success, Byrd shot back, "One gets there and that is all there is for telling. It is the effort to get there that counts".

An effort, equally thrilling, was carried off successfully by a British team on 4 April 1933. The team flew over Mount Everest (8,648 m). Two Westland planes took off from Lalbagh Airfield in Eastern India. The planes had open cock­pits. The men protected themselves with goggles and hel­mets and leather jackets, gloves and boots, carried para­chutes and heated oxygen cylinders. Pipes ran from the cyl­inders to the masks so that the men on board could breathe normally. A dust haze hung over the airport. The two air­craft lifted off at 8.15 a. m. Soon they rose to a height of 5,790 m. The settings here were cool and clear. The aircraft headed toward Mount Everest, about 80 km away. The men got a grand view of the snow-clad peaks, glistening in the sun.

Trouble struck as the planes zoomed higher. Clydesdale, the pilot of the lead plane, struggled for breath. The pipe carrying oxygen got tangled. His vision became blurred. Severe cramps gripped his feet. Clydesdale clutched, frantically, at the emergency oxygen tube. Col Blacker, the leader of the Expedition, stepped in to help. He held the tube while the pilot inhaled deeply. Clydesdale now felt better. Colour returned to his cheeks. Blacker resumed his photo mission.

Bonnet was the cameraman on board the second plane. While adjusting the camera, he accidentally stepped on the oxygen pipe. It cracked. Bonnet tied a kerchief round the crack and continued to click shots of Everest, which now lay very close. But he fainted. McIntyre, the pilot, quickly grabbed the camera, took a few shots, while getting closer to Mount Everest.

The planes flew through the snow plume blowing over Mount Everest at about 10 a. m. Five minutes later, the planes cleared Mount Everest. McIntyre brought the aircraft down to lower heights, immediately, to help Bennett regain his breath.

These flights were historic. For they were flights over the world’s most perilous regions. They were flights over ice caps.


The First World War ended, but not man’s interest in avia­tion. Britain, France and the United States continued invest­ment in the field. Aircraft held the key to faster mode of travel and transport. The prime need was to improve on speed and design, comfort and safety. Industrial houses re­alised the commercial possibility. They provided financial backing to engineers and designers and researchers. The experts came up with ideas and projects aimed at further development of new aircraft. All of them displayed abiding interest in taking aviation to great heights.

Civil aviation began with cargo transport and mail. Then it got on to transporting people. The designs of air­craft changed rapidly. Aircraft gained smart new look. They were sleek, better shaped to fly faster and smoother. Intro­duction of coolant instead of water and in-line cylinders led to leaner snouts. This meant considerable reduction in the drag.

In the United States, three companies, Douglas, Lockheed and Boeing, came up with new designs. Boeing 247 (Fig. 9.1) had Tow wings, twin engines’ and was shaped elegantly to reduce air resistance. It took off on its maiden flight, with ten passengers on board, on 8 February 1933. It flew at a speed of 240 kmph. On 17 December 1935, the DC 3, produced by Douglas (known to us as the Dakota) carried 21 passengers and cruised at a speed of 290 kmph.

Britain and France too developed commercial aircraft.


Fig. 9.1: Boeing 247

The designs underwent sea change. New material, new de­signs and new fuels were tested. Those that stood the test were incorporated into the next lot of aircraft. Wooden spars and fabric covering and wire bracing gave way to thin metal sheeting, stretched over frames suitably shaped to reduce air resistance. The quest for greater speed led to the clean, more streamlined monoplane. These planes proved their superiority, winning the Schneider Trophy Races (these were open to all nations), in 1927, 1929 and 1931.

The search for greater speed and efficiency continued. The piston engine limited the speed of rotation of the pro­pellers. A new form of propulsion had to be found. It took the seekers time to remember a basic law, defined by Sir Isaac Newton. He had asserted that action and reaction are equal and opposite.

This is demonstrated easily. Blow into a balloon till its swells up. Hold the air in by pressing the mouth with the fingers. Take the fingers off, quickly. The balloon flies back­ward, taking a zigzag path.

Frederich Stamer and Fritz von Opel (both of Germany) and Frank Whittle of England saw the cue that Newton’s law held, almost at the same time. They developed the turbo­jet engine. Air entered the engine through the air intake. It

was compressed, before fuel was injected and burnt to pro­duce hot gases. These gases worked the compressor and then rushed out, providing the thrust for the aircraft.

Experiments with the internal combustion gas turbine showed that the speed of rotation to the blades of the tur­bine increased manifold. However, the design churned up a new problem. The high speed of rotation resulted in very fast overheating. The available metal frames could not stand this heat. That problem demanded more study. Nobody showed the will or the confidence to undertake this study. The potential of the turbine engine was not readily accepted. So further work on this idea did not gain priority. Not till the Second World War broke out in 1939!

At the end of the First World War, in 1919, a Peace Treaty was signed. The defeated nations were barred from work­ing on military aircraft. So said the Treaty. No treaty remains valid forever. Not the Treaty of 1919 either. It ended with the rise of Nazism in Germany. Hitler came to power, pre­senting a new agenda. He wanted to make Germany a Su­per Power. For that he needed a modern defence force.

In 1934, he started rebuilding the nation’s military ca­pability. The Air Force, the Luftwaffe, was modernised. New aircraft with advance techniques like the Dornier and the



Fig. 9.3: The Hurricane

Condor were developed. In 1935, Hitler told the world that he had built up modern aircraft with immense speed and range. He proved his point in 1938. The Condor, with 26 passengers on board, made a record breaking round trip to New York and back.

Germany modernised its Air Force. It produced JU 52, suitable for bombing missions. Then came the BF 109, Ger­many’s fighter aircraft. It was the best among piston-engine fighter planes. Britain came up with the Hawker, the Hurri­canes and the Spitfire to counter the danger (Figs. 9.2 to 9.4). The US developed the Hawk 75 and then the P-36 and P-40 fighters.


Both sides watched, with bated breath, the gathering war clouds.

In 1938, Hitler quietly added Austria to his Empire. Czechoslovakia was his next target. Both Britain and France protested. Hitler decided to go slow and lulled the fears of Britain and France with false assurances. The Munich Pact was signed. It assured the sovereignty of Czechoslovakia. But this proved to be a brief reprieve. It only deferred the take over of Czechoslovakia by a few months.

Finally, on 1 September 1939, the Germans started a Blitzkrieg (Lightning War) on Poland. The German air power proved deadly. Within three weeks, Poland surrendered. Hitler’s forces targeted Belgium, Holland, Norway, Denmark and then France.

Britain was next in the line of fire. However, the nation was not totally unprepared. It replaced Chamberlain with Winston Churchill. He was the man to lead the nation in the crisis. He surveyed the Air strength, released funds to produce modern fighter aircraft and bombers and invited companies with the skill and expertise to help the war efforts.

Initial advantage in air battles lay with Germany. The Royal Air Force suffered heavy loss of men and aircraft in daylight attacks on enemy warships or on military estab­lishments. Germans shot down the outdated aircraft before they could complete their missions.

Britain felt the heat in the autumn of 1940. German fighters and dive-bombers swarmed in hordes, targeted even the civil population. Thousands died or received severe burns and wounds. Churchill breathed strength into the nation, declared that thd nation would defend itself to the very last.

This was no rhetoric. The people backed their leader to the hilt. Manufacture of fighters and bombers became para­mount. Thousands of young men enlisted in the Air Force.

Many women worked at the assembly lines. Their efforts thwarted Germany’s hope of an early victory. But the War was far from over.

The entry of aircraft carriers marked the next stage of aerial war. (Aircraft carriers are ships with huge runways on the deck. They also have room to house fighters and bombers. The ships sail close to the terrain or target on land chosen for attack, put in anchor at a safe distance from the shore. The aircraft take off from the deck, carry out the as­signed task and return to the carrier. The aircraft fly mini­mal distance. So they escape early detection by the enemy. Selection of targets for attack becomes easier. That increases the margin of safety and also the success rate of the air strike (Fig. 9.5).) The Allies inducted aircraft carriers in a big way. German submarines swung in to check them before they got into position to launch attacks. The British Navy succeeded, on most occasions, to detect and destroy the U-boats. In this battle on the seas, the hunter often became the hunted.


The tide changed when Japan sent its bombers to destroy US ships at Pearl Harbour, on 7 December 1941. That drew the US into the War. US Air Force planes hit the enemy in the West and the East by unleashing its air power. Factories in the US worked, round the clock, to turn out aircraft with marked superiority. The P-51 Mustang fighters were more dexterous and manoeuvrable, while engaged in air battles. B-17 bombers could fly, at high speed, into en­emy territory and drop around 2750 kg of incendiaries and explosives. B-29 and the Grumman F6F Hellcat too were inducted into the war. They were sleek and fast. They man­aged to duck and dodge the enemy interceptors and com­plete their missions.

Germany reeled under the concerted assault. However, Hitler’s hopes revived with the development of the success­ful testing of the world’s first operational jet aircraft, the Meserschmitt (Me-262). That was the last flicker of Germa­ny’s fortune. The Allies pressed forward. They closed in on Berlin. Germany surrendered. Hitler chose to take his own life.

The Air Force had played a major role in the final victory. Churchill complimented the men: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few".

After the end of the War, old warplanes were retrieved for civil use. But interest in the development of military aircraft did not weaken. The emergence of the Soviet Union as a Super Power made it imperative for the Americans to be in the race. This confrontation, known as the Cold War, continued till the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Many German scientists and engineers moved to the United States and to the Soviet Union. Their services took aviation to great heights.

Armament industry received a big boost. It became the key to economic development too. MIG-15 of the Soviet


Fig. 9.6: The Lockheed XC 35

Union and F-86 Sabre of the United States saw action in the Korean War.

In the meanwhile, the turbo jet engine proved its worth. This boosted civilian flights. In June 1947, Panam started world service with L-749 Constellation, produced by Lockheed (Fig. 9.6). Boeings too commenced civilian flights. In 1952, Britain introduced the jetliner, The Comet. Boeing 707 appeared on the scene soon after. In the 1960s, aided by computer, Boeings designed improved versions, B-727 and B-747.

Civilians with enough funds demanded small aircraft that they could own. This led to the development of small aircraft like the Cessna and the Piper.

No aircraft flew faster than the speed of sound (this is defined as Mach). Could any aircraft attain a speed more than 1 Mach? Jet powered aircraft seemed capable of break­ing the speed limit. Several attempts were made, by intrepid flyers. But they failed. Finally on 14 October 1947, a B-29 soared into air space over the Majove Desert in Nevada. On board was an orange Bell X-l, a small rocket-powered air­craft, powered by methyl alcohol and liquid oxygen. It had stubby wings and could withstand 18 times the force of
gravity. The aircraft soared to a height of 11,000 m. Then the Bell X-l was air dropped. At the controls was Captain Charles ‘Chuck’ Yeager (Fig. 9.7). The aircraft flew faster than the speed of sound. Chuck Yeager had created a record. Now the Concorde flies at speed of more than 2 Mach.

Подпись: Fig. 9.7: Charles Yeager Every time a barrier is broken, a new challenge comes into focus. This time, the challenge revolved around the question, "Can anyone fly an aircraft non-stop around the world?"


It was 14 December 1986. The afternoon sun was weak. It could not kill the chill in the air over the Mojave Desert of California where the Edwards Air Force Base is located. However the cold did not dampen the enthusiasm of the men who scurried around the tarmac, in a state of excite­ment. The centre of their attention was ‘a weird and won­derful aircraft called The Voyager which looked like a de­formed letter of the alphabet and carried its fuel in wings which could flex 30 ft (9 m) either way’.

It was a strange looking aircraft, no doubt. Yet it seemed just right for the grand trip round the world, nonstop, that Dick Rutan and his girlfriend Jeana Yeager had planned.

The idea for this daring trip was born about six years back while Dick, Jeana and Dick’s brother Burt sat at a bar, one evening.

Dick had been a fighter pilot. He had seen action in Vietnam, carried out several bombing sorties before his plane was downed. Luckily he was dumped into the South China Sea and picked up by a US rescue boat. After he retired from the Air Force, he joined his brother Burt, who was improv­ing and experimenting with new designs for aircraft. Dick tested the new machines. Often he performed stunts at air shows. At one such show he met Jeana. She was an ace sky – diver and was preparing to fly helicopters. They became friends and then lovers.

Dick and Burt remembered their days in Oregon and

California, of their childhood obsession with flying, of the happy times they had designing and flying toy planes. The talks veered round to the challenges that aviation of­fered. Dick referred to a record set by US pilots in 1962. They had flown, non-stop, a distance of about 12,500 miles (20,000 km).

"That record can be broken," Burt lowered his voice.

Both Dick and Jeana looked up. Then came a funny idea. How about circling the earth non-stop in an aircraft? Burt calculated the distance that the aircraft would have to cover. It came to anything between 40,000 to 42,000 km. That was double the distance (slightly over 20,000 km) recorded by Air Force pilots in 1962. Yet Burt felt it could be done. He said he would design a special aircraft. It would have to be light, yet strong and sturdy. It would carry enough fuel to power the flight around the earth. That would make the aircraft a virtual ‘flying fuel tank’.

Dick looked at Burt, winked at Jeana and grinned, "Jeana and I shall fly the aircraft, try to girdle the earth non­stop". Dick later recollected, "I knew from that instant that we were going to do the thing or die trying".

Burt had built several sail planes and sports aircraft. He took just a few minutes to mentally conceive a design of the aircraft that could possibly make the round trip possi­ble. He pulled out a paper napkin and drew the design on it. Dick and Jeana examined it. They felt a little uneasy about the weird design, but they kept their fears to themselves. Burt detailed his plans. Over the weeks, the design started gaining clarity. Burt spoke of using graphite fibre and alu­minium frames to make the aircraft very light. He estimated its weight at about 900 kg.

Room for fuel gained top priority. The aircraft would need to take along 3,100 kg of aviation fuel. Burt said he would fix 17 fuel tanks. They would be placed wherever space could be found—under the wings, in the fuselage, even in the outrigger booms that firmed up the wings. That set severe pressure on space. The squeeze on space led to a cockpit, hardly 7.5 feet by 3.5 feet (2.3 m x 1.1. m). Here, Burt grinned, Dick and Jeana would have to work, eat, sleep and relax, spend around 10 days. Irene Rutan, mother of the two boys, took one look at the cabin and snapped, "You didn’t design that with people in mind". Burt softly purred, "No, Ma, I didn’t. I designed it to go round the world".

To reduce weight, Burt cut down on the oxygen needed to keep the fliers in comfort while flying at altitudes rang­ing from 8,000 to 12,000 ft (2,400 m to 3,600 m) to the mini­mum; scrapped insulation needed to make the aircraft soundproof, cut down on heavy fuel gauges. Burt, however, offered to power the aircraft with twin engines. That was the only concession he offered.

Dick and Jeana winced at the hardships that they would have to face. It was not going to be easy, they agreed. Records could not be broken nor created the easy way.

Burt estimated the cost of the aircraft at $2 million. That was a fabulous sum. Where would the funds come from? Burt had gained a reputation in the field of aviation. That stood him in good stead when he passed the hat around for financial and material help. Every donation was hailed as assistance coming from a VIP (Voyage Important People). Many corporate bodies donated instruments, tools and gadg­ets to equip the aircraft.

It took the team six years to produce the weird aircraft. It was named The Voyager. It cost the team less than $2 mil­lion. Burt joked, while showing his creation to the member of the press, "It would have been $400 million if a Pentagon contractor had built on a cost-plus and over-time basis".

In July 1986, Dick and Jeana carried out a test flight, flew a distance of 18,600 km, non-stop. It took them four and a half days and just half the fuel on board to complete the flight. This success emboldened them.

They waited for setting out on the historic flight round the earth. Burt carried out rigorous check of every part of the aircraft. Finally he declared it airworthy.

The date for the final takeoff was announced.

On 14 December 1986, Dick and Jeana shook hands with friends and officials on the tarmac and climbed into the cockpit. Dick sat behind the controls, started the engines, waited till they gained enough thrust and then let the air­craft cruise along the runway. The aircraft picked up speed, but the wings, heavy with fuel, dipped and dragged. Burt who was following The Voyager, in a spotter plane, got a shock. The Voyager was not gaining the requisite lift even after covering most of the runway A crash seemed inevita­ble. He warned Dick over wireless to abort the flight. But the message did not go through. Burt watched, his heart in his mouth, when the miracle happened. The aircraft rose in the air with just about 200 metre of runway to spare. Burt’s hopes rose, only to sink almost instantly when he noticed that the tips of the wings had been damaged. He advised Dick to sever the tips off. That was a risky operation. But Dick managed to reach out of the cockpit, donning a para­chute, and clip the damaged tips off.

The first day’s flight was smooth and uneventful. The wings, even though chipped, did not pose a problem. On the second day, while over the sea near the Philippines, the aircraft faced a cyclone. Dick swerved, kept out of the eye of the cyclone with wind speed of 75 miles (120 km), taking a longer route, often gaining extra speed from the tailwinds. Then came a new danger. The aircraft had to be steered through a narrow corridor that lay between hostile Vietnam­ese airspace and dangerous weather pockets. The pilots managed to get through, safely. On the fourth day, the air­craft flew over Kandy in Sri Lanka. The pilots enjoyed the grand sight of sunset from their lofty flying perch. They flew over Africa on the fifth day. Weather forecasts indicated air turbulence at lower levels. So Dick and Jeana flew at 20,000 ft (6,000 m), using both engines to gain the required lift.

The deafening noise produced by the aircraft was wrecking their mental balance. The constricted space trou­bled them. Time seemed to stretch into infinity. Every hour they spent on the aircraft seemed to be as long as a day. They wished they had room enough to stretch their legs. They craved for a good long undisturbed sleep. But these luxuries lay beyond their reach. That often left one or the other of them sulking, at times, and often, in bad mood. There were times when they cursed themselves for being so foolhardy. Once, even Dick, who usually never grumbled, let the guard down and told his brother, Burt, who was moni­toring the flight from the ground: "I’m tired. I want to go to bed in California. Vector me home". But Jeana cheered him, told him that they were almost home, more than halfway through! When fair weather held, the two joked, sang to­gether old ditties, felt confident of completing the mission. But often the weather turned foul; or the aircraft developed trouble. They however clung on, determined to do or die.

They received a fright during the last lap of the jour­ney. The gauges indicated that the rear engine was getting overheated. What had caused the trouble? It didn’t take them long to realise that they had not replenished its oil supply in time. They took quick remedial steps. The engine began to behave normally.

Every passing day made life more miserable. How the two wished their ordeal would end! Yet this was an ordeal they had chosen to face willingly. They could not drop out, midway. They had covered more than four-fifths of the gir­dle. "This too would pass", they drew courage.

While flying over Brazil, the aircraft ran into a turbu­lence, heeled over, one wing pointing at the sky above, one at the sea below. Dick and Jeana were tossed around for a considerable period. They worked at the controls, managed to lift the aircraft beyond the turbulence. Bad weather over the Caribbean forced them to reroute the flight over Panama and the West Coast of Mexico.

Finally, on the ninth day after take off, The Voyager zoomed over the sky, touched down at the Air Force Air­port at Mojave Desert. The tyres screeched when the brakes bit into them and forced them to stop whirling. Then the aircraft came to a dead stop.

Dick quickly grabbed a cowboy hat, set it at an angle on his head and emerged from the cramped cockpit, flash­ing the victory sign. Right behind him appeared Jeana, beam­ing a smile that reflected the abiding joy within. Instantly the two were sucked into a cheering crowd of admirers and friends, and reporters. Thousands of flash bulbs blew their tops off recording the tumultuous scenes at the airport.

It marked their finest hour. They had flown an aircraft, girdled the earth non-stop and thus created a record. This record would remain forever. Dick struck the right note, af­ter the historic flight, "Life is an opportunity. It’s only lim­ited by what you can dream about".

Ronald Reagan conferred on Dick, Jeana and Burt the Presidential Citizen’s medal and noted, "When we saw you coming home—so ungainly yet so graceful—well, that’s about the best present America could have had". Dick re­plied, with a merry chuckle, "This is done by individual citizens of this great country who had the freedom to pur­sue a great dream".

The three had truly made a great dream come true.


Indians were late entrants to the field. But we have made up for lost time, to a large extent. Of course, we are still much behind the developed nations. Finance stands in the way, not lack of spirit or enthusiasm or commitment. Yet many Indians have overcome the limitations, created avia­tion history. It is impossible to refer to all of them. However the feats of three Indians, detailed in this section, make us swell with pride.

The first Indian to dare to fly was Jahangir Rattanji Tata. He was drawn to it when he was hardly ten. He stood at the beach, on the French Coast, close to where he lived with his parents and let his eyes rivet on a small plane in flight. The drone of the aircraft became louder as it came near, started to descend and touched down on the sand. The pi­lot hopped out of the cockpit.

"Uncle", Jahangir screamed when he identified the pilot, Bleriot, a neighbour and a family friend. He was the first man to fly across the English Channel. Jahangir held him by the hand and looked at him with admiration. "How I wish I too could fly!" the boy turned hopefully to the elder.

"Meet me here tomorrow at 10. I shall take you on a joy ride", said Bleriot.

Next day the boy had his first flight. "Some day, Uncle, I shall fly my own plane", said the boy.

"Why not!" Bleirot gave the boy an encouraging nod.

"Can I fly planes?" the boy asked his parents, later in the day.

"Of course! Flying can be a hobby," his father, Ratanji Dadabhai Tata, held him in a warm hug.

In 1929, Jahangir received the pilot’s licence. In 1930, he made a bid for the Aga Khan Trophy, offered to the first Indian who flew solo from India to Britain or from Britain to India, in the shortest time. Jahangir (better known as JRD), entered the race, took off in a Puss Moth aircraft and flew West, heading for Britain. Around the same time, another young man, Aspi Engineer, set out from Britain and headed for India.

JRD ran short of fuel, while flying over Egypt, and force-landed in the desert. He trekked to an outpost at Rutbah Wells, once an important stop on the Imperial Air­ways’ route, gathered fuel and returned to resume the flight. At the next stop, on the desert route, he met Aspi Engineer. JRD greeted him warmly. Aspi grinned, but his eyes wore a beaten look.

"What is troubling you, Aspi?" JRD asked.

"I need spares, but where will I get spares in this desert? I think I have to drop out of the race", Aspi scowled.

"Cheer up, Aspi. I have some spares with me. Come, take what you want", JRD gently picked up Aspi’s hand.

Aspi jumped with joy, thanked JRD, picked the spares he needed, carried out the repairs and tested the engine. "Good luck", said JRD.

Soon both resumed their flights. JRD headed West; and Aspi flew East. Both completed the trip. But Aspi recorded better timing and won the race.

"I owe my success to JRD", he said. "But for those spares, I would never have made it".

Aspi was at the airport when JRD landed at Karachi. JRD stepped out of the cockpit and ran into the warm hug of Aspi. His eyes opened wide when Aspi asked him to
accept a guard of honour, presented by a group of boy scouts. Aspi had specially brought them to the airport to make the welcome memorable. That was perhaps the best homecom­ing that JRD ever had!

Many years later, JRD noted, "I am glad that Aspi won because it helped him into the Air Force". Aspi rose to high ranks, retired as the Chief of the Indian Air Force.

Подпись: Fig. 11.1: JRD Tata JRD joined the family’s busi­ness house (Fig. 11.1). In between, he took time to fly planes. Around that time, the Imperial Airways planned a flight between London and Calcutta via Karachi. A friend,

Neville Vintcent, a dare devil flier from Britain, saw a golden chance.

He suggested to JRD, "Why don’t you start an airline service linking Bombay with Karachi?" JRD dis­cussed it with Uncle Dorab. "No",

roared the old man. But JRD kept up pressure. Finally he received the green signal. Tata Aviation service was formed.

The service started with a solo flight by JRD on 15 Oc­tober 1932. He took off from Karachi, in a single-engine Puss Moth, flew solo, bringing mail to Bombay. It was a historic flight. The Airlines grew in strength. In 1948, it became Air India International. After nationalisation, the government appointed JRD as the Chairman.

In 1982, he celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his first flight, flying the same route in a De Havilland Leopard Moth. That was indeed a record.

Vijaypath Singhania, a 49-year-old industrialist of Kanpur, chose another track to create a record. He too loved flying, knew how aviation had grown through the years since the

flight by the Wright brothers in 1903.

One day, while going over the records in aviation, he felt depressed. ‘India does not have any aviation records’, he moaned. How he wished someone would accept the chal­lenge and create aviation history? Then it struck him. Why shouldn’t he himself accept the challenge?

Easier said than done. But Vijaypath was equal to the task. He resolved to carry out the plan. His search for possi­ble records to create or break led him to the feat of Brian Milton, a journalist. Milton had flown a microlite aircraft, solo, from Britain to India, in 34 days. Could he fly the dis­tance in lesser number of days and thus create a new record? That seemed a target he could achieve.

He looked out for a microlite aircraft that would serve him well. Finally, after going round Aircraft factories all around the globe, he chose an aircraft manufactured by a British firm. It weighed just under 150 kg (6.4 m long; wing­span 10 m and maximum sped of 60 knots). He named it L’esprit d’lndian Post.

Preparations began in right earnest. The aircraft was readied for the 9600 km flight to Delhi. The maximum dis­tance that the single engine aircraft could fly, non-stop, was 960 kmph. The route and the scheduled halts enroute were meticulously chalked out. Medical facilities were lined up at the halts to provide for emergencies. Landing permits at various proposed stops were obtained. Due note was also taken of the dangers posed by the turbulence over the Medi­terranean Sea and over the Gulf of Oman.

On 15 August 1988, Vijaypath took off from Biggin Hill, outside London. Clouds blinded him while he flew over the Alps. He had to descend below the clouds, fly rather very low, hardly 100 m, along the coast of Italy, to avoid the mist. The fuel tank cracked and gave some anxious moments. But he safely landed at the next stop and set it right. While crossing the Mediterranean, he had his life jacket on and
carried a shark repellant. "Every time I would spot a ship, I would start calculating how long it would take the vessels to reach me if I fell", he joked.

The aircraft ran into a crosswind and was tossed around, giving him many anxious moments. Overflying the Saudi desert, the plane got caught in sandstorms. It required all his skill to steer the plane through. When he landed, the wind was so strong that the aircraft came to a dead stop in just under 4 m. Occasionally technical snags delayed his plan. At one stage, he was behind the time set by Milton by about two days. But he made up for lost time, thanks to some fine weather. He landed at Ahmedabad, 21 days after taking off from London, to a rousing reception. He had beaten Milton’s record by 11 days.

The nation hailed his feat. JRD was at the tarmac of Safdarjang Airport, on 11 September, to welcome him. Milton too was present. He complimented Vijaypath on breaking his record. Vijaypath had raised India’s image.

Harji Malik was one of the first Indians to be commissioned in the Royal Air Force. After independence, the Indian Air Force came into being. It played a major role in defending the nation. The officers and men displayed exceptional gal­lantry on the battlefield. Among them the name of Flying Officer Nirmaljeet Singh Sekhon stands out (Fig. 11.2).

image42It was 14 December 1971. India was at war with Pakistan. A Gnat detachment was moved to Srinagar. A 25-year-old ace pilot, Sekhon, who had flown the Gnat on several missions, was standing at the window of the duty room at Srinagar. He drew the collar closer as the chill wind wafted in. Then he heard the deafening scream of the siren. He noticed four Fig u 2. sekhon

Pakistani Sabres zooming toward the airport. Behind these planes came two more. The enemy aircraft bombed the air­port. Four of the ten aircraft held at the airport were dam­aged.

"I will get you, for sure", Sekhon swore, while he sped to the hangar. He neared one of the gnats that had not been damaged. He found Srawan Singh, an airman, bleeding, badly hurt, yet boldly checking the aircraft, and asked him, "Is this aircraft fit to fly?" The man nodded his head.

Sekhon got into the cockpit. "Take my advice. Don’t go after them. There are six of them. You can’t hunt them down", the man warned, before collapsing.

Sekhon started the engine. He got clearance to take off and was soon in flight. He went after the Sabres. He spot­ted two of them, flying low, almost scraping the tops of trees. He took them by surprise. His guns boomed before the en­emy knew what was happening. The two Sabres were hit. They spun like leaves, caught in a storm, and crashed.

Sekhon steadied the Gnat at a height of 200 m and looked out for the remaining four Sabres. He knew that he no longer enjoyed the advantage of taking them unawares. He saw in the rear mirror three Sabres coming after him. He quickly set the Gnat on a back roll. The enemy pilots didn’t anticipate that move. They banked to the right. Sekhon got just enough time to shoot one of them down. The other two regrouped and charged. This time Sekhon could not avoid a direct hit. The tail of the aircraft burst into flames. The engine went dead. The left wing caught fire and fell off. Sekhon took a deep breath as the plane started to plunge. Then his eyes lit with joy. He noticed the tracers fired by ack-ack guns on the ground, tearing the bellies of the Sa­bres. He was still savouring this sight when his plane hit the ground. Sekhon died with a smile on his lips.

The nation honoured him with the Param Vir Chakra.