Escapes, by John Buchan


The Flight of Lieutenants Parer and M’intosh Across the World

In the Great War there were thousands of hurried journeys made by airmen in the course of their military duties, and since November 1918 there have been many adventurous flights against time, in competition for this or that prize. But the story I propose to tell is, to my mind, wilder and more inconceivable than any episode in the history of aircraft in the War. It was not strictly a journey against time, for though the two airmen began by intending to compete in the Australian Flight competition, they were not able to leave Britain till Sir Ross Smith had reached Port Darwin. But the element of haste was not wanting, for all they possessed was a condemned comic-opera machine, which was rapidly going to pieces on their hands. Mr. Kipling has told the story of the tramp Bolivar, and of how that unseaworthy hulk was brought across the Bay in a state of impending dissolution. But if the Bolivar “ bluffed the eternal sea,” D.H.9 for seven months bluffed the powers of the air and flew, a derelict ‘bus, 15,000 miles over land and water, It seems to me the craziest adventure that ever, by habitually taking the one chance in ten thousand, managed to succeed.

Lieutenant Raymond John Paul Parer was the son of a shopkeeper in Melbourne, a small, slight, dark man with a considerable turn for mechanics. During the War he was employed at training aerodromes in Britain, and was accustomed to fly new machines across to France. Lieutenant John Cowe M’Intosh was a large, raw-boned Scot from Banffshire with a rugged masterful face, who had served through the War with the Australian forces. To begin with he knew nothing about air mechanics, and picked up the science as he went along. The two, being in England after the Armistice, made up their mind to fly back to Australia. They had no money, and it occurred to them that they might earn the 10,000 prize by entering for the Australia Flight competition. They received very little encouragement from the Air Ministry, for both men were wholly unpractised in long-distance flights, and had no previous knowledge of the route or of any language bmt their own. They managed, however, to raise from a friend a little money, and with this they purchased from the Disposals Board a single-engined two-seater D.H.9 bombing machine, their intention being to carry extra petrol in place of bombs. The engine was a Siddeley–Puma of 240 h.p. Complete ignorance in their case was the parent of courage. They were roughly aware of the possible stages by which they might take their route, and resolved to nose their way from one to another and trust to luck, It was like a man in an ill-found and leaky small boat starting to cross the stormy Atlantic. Almost every part of their machine had some bad fault or other of which they were vaguely aware and expected further news.

They were not long in getting it. On January 8, 1920, they left Hounslow, intending to make the first landing at Paris. But a contrary wind and a thick fog forced them to land at Conteville, and when they reached Paris their petrol pump failed and compelled them to wait three days. After that they flew to Lyons, where the pump gave trouble again and delayed them another two days.

Then came the Gulf of Genoa. But they had hardly started when their oil ran out and they were compelled to return and fiy 100 miles along the Italian coast without oil pressure, looking for a landing-place. Italy presented a series of mischances. The weather was abominable, and they crossed the Apennines at a height of 14,000 feet. There they were almost frozen, and for two and a half hours could see nothing of the ground. Later, at an altitude of 3,000 feet, their machine caught fire, and they were compelled to cut off the petrol and side-slip to land.

Brindisi was at length reached, and they had to face the crossing of the Adriatic. Somehow or other they reached Athens, where they had more engine trouble, and then staggered on to Crete. From Crete they flew the 220 miles of the Mediterranean to Mersa Matruh in Western Egypt, and eventually, on 21st February, reached Cairo.

The scheduled flying time from England to Cairo is under forty hours; but the trip had taken them forty-four days. They had now established the routine of their journey, which was to break down every day or two, and then patch up the machine with oddments sufficient to carry it to the next landing-place, where it fell to pieces again.

For four days at the Helouan aerodrome the two laboured at their crazy ‘bus. Their propeller was defective; there were endless carburation troubles; the bolts propeller, bearer, and cylinder were always working loose; magnetos, oil filters, everything, were imperfect; the instruments were always failing, especially the air-speed indicator. And they had flown all the way to Egypt without cleaning their plugs!

On 26th February they set off again, making a beeline for Bagdad a direct flight which no airman had ever before accomplished. For the enterprise, and still more for the continuation of the journey to Australia, they had no assets whatever, except a letter of authority from the General Officer Commanding R.A.F. Depots, which entitled them to draw for petrol on any depot along the route between Cairo and Delhi. It did not seem on the remote edge of possibility that much use would be made of that letter.

Nevertheless that day they crossed the desert of Sinai and landed safely at Ramleh. Thence they shaped their course across Arabia, an adventure in which, as we have seen, they were in the strictest sense pioneers. The weather changed to their disadvantage, and they drove on into head winds and heavy sheets of rain. A breakdown in the midst of the desert meant either starvation or robbery, and probably murder, by Arab tribes, a&d sure enough the breakdown came. They were compelled to make a forced landing in the evening, and Lad to spend the night on the ground by their machine. In the early morning they observed a crowd of Arabs approaching with obviously hostile intent. But the two airmen, having dared so much, were not to be awed by casual Bedouin. They happened to have some Mills bombs aboard, and with these and their revolvers they routed the enemy and kept bJTn at bay until such time as they could start again.

Bagdad was reached eventually, entirely by luck and not at all by good guiding. There they were welcomed by the British air posts, and speeded on their way across Baluchistan and the Gulf of Kutch to Karachi, which they reached without mishap on 8th March. In India they fell in with.Captain G. C. Matthews of the Australian Flying Corps, and in his Sopwith machine “ Wallaby “ he accompanied them across the peninsula to Delhi, where they had a busy time patching up D.H.9. The old relic was suffering from almost every ailment to which an aeroplane is subject. For one thing the central section was beginning to rise above the level of the wings, and they could only remedy the defect by packing with iron washers. The fabric, through constant exposure, was rotten, and the coats of ordinary motor-car paint with which it had been treated were peeling oS^in great patches. It was breaking away, too, all along the ribs, and they had to renew it there as best they could. Their first propeller had been damaged by taking ofi from the desert sands and had been renewed at Bagdad. Every assistance was given them by the R.A.F. officers in India, but it was not easy to patch up the unpatchable.

From Delhi they flew safely across the Bay of Bengal to Rangoon, but were compelled to make a forced landing in thick forest on the bank of the Irawaddy river, which did not improve the condition of D.H.9.

On 4th April they reached Rangoon and flew on another hundred miles to Moulmein. There, however, DJEL9 struck work. It crashed, and was so seriously damaged that they had to sit down quietly for no less than six weeks before they could resume their journey. Everything all at once seemed to dissolve into its parent elements. Their compasses were crocked; their radiator was in pieces; the under-carriage had at last collapsed completely, and the new propeller acquired at Bagdad was destroyed. Happily they managed to get a propeller of the Caproni type from. a depot established there by the organizers of the Rome–ToMo flight. But the propeller had been designed for a 300 hup. Fiat, and the result of fitting it to a 240 h.p. Siddeley–Pinna meant a serious over-running of the engine. It was found, too, that the diameter of the Caproni “boss” was much larger than that of the D.H.9 shaft, so the gap was blocked with a Burmese wood which is so heavy that it will not float and so hard that it blunts the sharpest tool. A new under-carriage was constructed out of a tough, close-grained native timber, which they bought from a local Chinaman. The wood was seasoned in an oven, and the new under-carriage was modelled from the assembled debris of the old one. They improvised a new radiator by taking a couple of ordinary “Overland” motor-car radiators and bolting them together!

Thus equipped, after six weeks’ delay they started again, but presently they had another crash a nose-dive in Batavia. This meant another delay, and a fourth propeller was got through the efforts of the British consul and the Dutch authorities. But before they left Dutch territory they had still another mishap, and a fifth propeller had to be found. Here the Dutch Air Force came to the rescue. They sent to their depot 400 miles away for spares, and provided a new under-carriage. Moreover, they lent the travellers two air mechanics, who worked under their supervision and managed to bring D.H.9 into some semblance of working order.

Meantime through these weeks of sojourn in tropical lands the machine had been converted into a sort of menagerie, and various strange animals made the fuselage their home, and only showed themselves in mid air. Among the beasts which thus added themselves to the party were bear cubs, a selection of lizards, several snakes, a whole congregation of rats and mice, and a baby alligator!

The next stage of the journey the flight to Australia over 400 miles of sea was the most anxious of all. It began unpromisingly, for D.H.9 had great difficulty in getting over the mountains of the island of Timor. When the ocean was reached the travellers discovered that they had lost their bearings; but the intrepid pair pushed on boldly into the unknown. For eight hours they journeyed in the void, and when their oil was almost run out they were at last greeted by the sight of land. On the last day of July, #ith one pint of petrol left, they landed at Fanny Bay in the Northern Territory. Next morning, the 1st of August, they reached Port Darwin.

They had achieved the journey to Australia, but their troubles were not over. They struggled on to Sydney, where, at the Mascot aerodrome on 22nd August, they were welcomed by an immense crowd of nearly 20,000 people. But Melbourne was their goal, and on the journey to Melbourne DJEL9 met its doom. At Culcairn it nose-dived into the earth at a speed of 70 miles an hour, and only the amazing luck of the travellers saved their necks. Another machine was provided for them, and on 31st August they finished their journey of 15,000 miles by reaching Flermngton Racecourse at Melbourne. Accompanied by the battered remnants of D.H.9 they were officially welcomed by Mr. Hughes, the Commonwealth Prime Minister, to whom they presented a bottle of whisky, which they had brought with them intact from London. A day or two later they were formally received in Parliament Buildings and each presented with 500.

“ The world is richer and better for what you have done,” Mr. Hughes told them, and he spoke the truth. Their achievement was like the attempts to ascend Mount Everest utterly useless in any prosaic sense, but a vindication of the vigour and daring of the human spirit. The history of aircraft is only beginning, but it is not likely that it will show any feat more wildly temerarious than that of these two amateurs who drove a crazy machine through every type of weather and over every type of country from the snowy Apennines to the Malayan forests always in difficulties, always resourceful and undaunted, till by sheer resolution they forced reluctant Fortune to yield to their importunity.

It seems to be the fate of great airmen, after daring the apparently impossible, to meet disaster in humdrum flights. Lieutenant M’lntosh was to go the way of Sir John Alcock and Sir Ross Smith, for on 29th March of the following year he was killed through his machine crashing in a sir all town in Western Australia.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32