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My Life

Chapter X: Shocks at Thies

Chapter X: Shocks at Thies

My original plan before leaving Lympne had been to fly to West Africa, rest for a day or two and await favourable weather, then attempt to lower all records for the fastest flight across the South Atlantic Ocean. If I were to fly straight on across the Atlantic to Brazil there was every possibility of my lowering by almost a day the record for the only other solo flight from England to South America.

"You will rest in Thies for a few days before continuing your flight?" asked one of the officers.

"No, I have decided to fly straight on, and if the weather is not too bad will take off before dawn tomorrow morning," I told the astonished officer.

"We have no night-flying equipment here," they told me, in answer to my request for a flare path. "You should have gone to Dakar: they have all facilities there, and good all-weather runways."

Before leaving England I had made exhaustive inquiries as to the best aerodromes along the route, and had been told that the runways at Dakar were not yet completed, and it seemed that the military aerodrome of Thies, forty-five miles inland, was the most suitable.

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On good authority I had been told that Thies was exceptionally large, and as the aeroplane would be heavily laden with petrol for the Atlantic flight of almost two thousand miles it had seemed the better of the two for my purpose.

I looked across the aerodrome, which was sparsely covered with long grass. It had been large at one time, but it appeared that since the Air France company had moved their headquarters to Dakar only a square in the centre of the big aerodrome had been kept cleared, and the rest was now overgrown and covered with scrub and hillocks. Yes, it was only too plain now that I should have gone to Dakar, for it was also on the coast, and would have shortened the flight to Brazil by forty-five miles. The fact that Thies was so much farther inland meant that by leaving from there I was really handicapped by approximately fifteen minutes for the record which I hoped to establish for the Atlantic crossing. It was too late now to fly on to Dakar, for the sun had long since set, and if I were to lower the England-Brazil record I should have to take off in the dark hours before dawn to arrive at my destination before nightfall. Special permits had been granted for me to land at Thies, and I had arranged for fuel supplies to be sent there for me. Great was my surprise and disappointment on being told that no supplies had arrived.

"They must have thought you would go to Dakar," said one of the officers.

"No, all arrangements for me to land here were made months ago," I protested. "Would you pleasepage 135telephone Dakar for me?" I asked the officer, giving him the telephone number and name of the agent, which I had fortunately obtained before leaving England.

Just then a motor-car drove up, and out stepped the Commandant of the base, who proved to be as kind as he was efficient. As soon as I had explained the situation to him he ordered the officer to telephone immediately. It was imperative that the fuel should arrive that night if I were to lower the record, and this delay only made me more determined than I might otherwise have been.

"Would you care to have something to eat, and are you not in need of rest?" inquired the Commandant.

"Yes, I would like some sandwiches," I replied, but rest was out of the question, for there was the engine schedule to be done and the throttle lever to be adjusted, I explained.

"The military mechanics will help you," said the Commandant, calling up three smart-looking men.

I was determined to arrange everything in readiness for the early take-off before leaving the aerodrome.

The officer arrived back to say that the agent had not expected me so soon, and that the supplies would arrive in the morning.

"That's no good!" I cried. "They must start immediately. It is imperative that the supplies arrive tonight. I don't care if they do have to drive sixty-five kilometres from Dakar in the darkness," I said, as the thought occurred to me that there were probably wild animals lurking in the dark green jungle I had seenpage 136from the air. "I haven't flown three thousand miles to be held up by a wretched agent," I continued. "Anyway, this will teach them a lesson."

It was difficult to control my anger, for I was tired and hungry, and this hold-up was quite unexpected.

"I will speak to the agent myself," promised the Commandant, "and we will have the supplies here for you to-night somehow or other."

As soon as he had left I walked over to the aeroplane, where the mechanics were waiting for me, and removed all the cowling from the engine, which was still warm. "I think we will start with the filters," I said, taking the tool-kit from the locker and handing a pair of pliers to one of the mechanics. "You fetch an oil-tray and drain the main tank," I told the second man, "and you can help me remove the oil-cups from the cylinder heads," I said to the third. We were soon hard at work cleaning jets, petrol-filters, oil-filters, and removing plugs, adjusting magneto points. Progress was a little slow, for no one spoke English, and although I managed to make myself understood quite well in ordinary conversation it was difficult to explain the technical terms in French to the mechanics. However, we managed quite well, and when the Commandant returned he found us all busily working. "They are starting immediately with the supplies of fuel," he said, "and expect to arrive in about four hours, so tout est bien qui finit bien" he added with a smile.

I put down the set of clearance gauges and got up from my position under the engine, wiping the oil from my hands with a piece of waste cloth. "It was verypage 137kind of you to speak to the agent for me," I told the Commandant. "I do indeed feel grateful to you."

"There is no need for you to do the work on the engine yourself; you must be tired," he said, calling up two more men. "We have many mechanics, and you can sit down by the engine and supervise the work."

A box was brought, and I was thankful to sit down and eat the sandwiches which had arrived from the Commandant's bungalow.

At about 10.30 p.m., when the engine schedule was almost completed and one of the mechanics was in the cockpit adjusting the throttle, we heard the throb of an engine, and a vehicle pulled up outside the hangar. The big doors had been shut to keep out the night insects, and when they were now pushed back they revealed a lorry, from which stepped the agent and a number of native boys, who commenced lifting down the big petrol-tins which contained the precious fuel supply.

Overjoyed at their arrival I unfastened the caps on all five tanks, and refuelling operations were soon in full swing. It was a slow business though, and took quite an hour, for the tanks had to be filled by means of a hand-pump, which the native boys took turns at working.

At last the work was completed, and all the native boys crowded into the lorry, where it was decided they should sleep for the night, as it was too late for them to go to the village. The headlights of the lorry couldpage 138be requisitioned too, and with those of the Commandant's car would help to light a path for the take-off. The tanks were filled to their capacity of 140 gallons of petrol, and I felt anxious about taking such a heavy load off the aerodrome, which was barely big enough to allow as long a run as I should have liked.

The night was very calm, and the wind-sock on the hangar hung limp and motionless. "If only a wind would spring up it would help the take-off tremendously," I said, looking up at the sky. The moon had risen, and was shining down through a gap in the clouds, which pressed in unending procession across the sky. The air seemed very still and almost foreboding.

"Do you think there will be a storm?" I asked the Commandant.

He looked up. "I think it will rain," he answered; then, as if to reassure me, added, "but it will probably pass over before you are ready to start. Anyway, if there is no wind you can take off from corner to corner, and that will give you a much longer run."

I was not at all happy about the take-off. We must lighten the machine somehow. Climbing into the cockpit I removed the heavy signal pistol, my revolver and the rockets and cartridges, and the torch. Putting the things on the floor of the hangar, I opened the locker, and very soon all the movable equipment was in a heap on the ground. I had decided to leave everything except absolute necessities at Thies. The two firearms, cartridges, tool-kit, and spare engine parts alone weighed many pounds. The big water-drums I presented to thepage 139Commandant. Smiling at my own optimism I surveyed the assorted collection and selected two evening dresses, which weighed practically nothing, and to the surprise of all present put them back into the locker. After all, if I crossed the Atlantic successfully they would be more useful than the tool-kit, I explained to the Commandant. If I didn't—well . . . He turned away, and I bent once more over the varied assortment. Only the log-books, the emergency rations, thermos flask, and my little bag of personal effects went back into the aeroplane. The agent, who proved a good friend, took charge of the jettisoned equipment, and promised to send everything back to England for me.

All was now in readiness for the start. It all depended now on a steady hand and accurate navigation, for I was sure that the engine on which I pinned my faith would not fail me, and every inch of the sturdy silver wings of the aeroplane looked the very essence of power itself.

Stepping into the car I drove with the Commandant to his bungalow, where it had been arranged I should stop for the night, as the village was too far away and I had not forgotten the declaration about the plague which I had so eagerly signed at Casablanca. It was only a few minutes' drive to the white bungalow, and as we stepped up on to the veranda a negro boy hurried forward to open the double wire-gauze doors, leading into a room much more comfortably furnished than I had expected. It was good to rest on the soft divan while the Commandant prepared a cool drink for me and ordered the native servant to serve dinner. I shouldpage 140have been quite happy to go to sleep immediately, but the Commandant wisely insisted that I should eat first. Reluctantly I rose to my feet, and taking my bag went into the tiny bathroom. A curtained-off corner of the room disclosed a tiled square on which was a large can of water with a dipper. This was something like the baths I had encountered in Java, where the water-containers had been much larger and of stone, and there had been two dippers, with which one tipped the water over oneself. Feeling decidedly refreshed after the bath I slipped into a white frock and put some sunburn cream on my face, which was hardly recognizable in the mirror.

At dinner the Commandant told me how much he was looking forward to his leave, when he would return to France and see his wife and children. The dinner was excellent, and when we had finished the Commandant asked if I would like to see the cook. All the native boys in the kitchen had been very excited at my arrival, he explained, and it was only their good manners which prevented them from satisfying their curiosity by peeping through the grass curtain in the doorway to see the white woman who had flown all the way from England.

"Yes, I would like to see him," I said, and at a word from the Commandant the chattering in the next room ceased, and the bamboo curtain parted to reveal the tall figure of the cook. He was a negro boy pure ebony in colour and quite six feet in height, and smiled shyly, disclosing a perfect set of white teeth. Clothed in a white tunic with a red sash, he was barefooted, and Ipage 141could hardly believe my eyes, for on his curly head was a pale pink turban.

The Commandant spoke to him in his own tongue. "He thinks you are very brave," said my host, who had evidently told the boy that I intended to fly on across the ocean, for the cook rolled his big, soft, expressive eyes at me with such a look of terror that the Commandant hastily changed the subject by calling for the rest of the staff. Three ebony faces came from behind the curtain. None of these boys was quite as tall as the cook, and their close-cropped curly heads were bent as they smiled shyly at me and stood nervously changing from one foot to another, until the Commandant dismissed them and they hurried back to the kitchen, where, said my host, I should be the main topic of conversation for some time to come.

It was agreed that the Commandant should have my alarum-clock, which we set at 3 a.m. so that he could rise first and receive the weather forecast which was to be sent through by Air France from Dakar, and also arrange for some sandwiches to be made up for me and the thermos filled. "That will enable you to sleep for half an hour longer. You must have all the sleep you possibly can, and I won't wake you until the last minute."

It was midnight when I turned out the lamp. Lying down on the divan I fell asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow.

The piercing note of the alarum-clock, which must have resounded throughout the wooden bungalow, failed to wake me, and it was 3.30 a.m. when I sleepilypage 142opened my eyes to see the Commandant lighting the oil-lamp, which slowly flickered to life. For a moment it was difficult for me to think where I was as I lay watching the flickering shadows on the ceiling; then, as the Commandant left the room, the full realization of the flight I was about to undertake dawned on me. "If only I could have slept for another hour or so," I thought, rising reluctantly from the divan and pulling on my flying-suit.

Going to the wire-gauze door I looked out. The night was very dark, for low clouds hid the moon from view, and by a ray of light from the oil-lamp I saw that fine, misty rain was falling. This was terribly disappointing, for had I not waited a whole month so that the flight would coincide with the full moon, which I had hoped would help light me on my way? How different this was from the night I had pictured for the take-off across the Atlantic! I had imagined a lovely tropical night with a sky like dark blue velvet, studded with millions of stars like diamonds, and a bright full moon to guide me.

"Do you think it will clear?" I asked the Commandant, joining him at the light breakfast the cook had prepared.

"The weather forecast states that this extends for several hundred miles from the African coast, where you will have dull but fair weather for a stretch until ten degrees north of the equator," he replied.

"What then?" I inquired. "May I see the report?"

He spread it on the table, and for a few minutes we both read intently. The report, which was written inpage 143French, gave an approximate forecast and the probable velocity of wind to be encountered for every 200 kilometres across the' Atlantic. The worst section appeared to be in the doldrums, or region of calms just north of the equator, where a deep depression was located.

"I had intended to fly low in any case on account of the drift," I said, pointing to the passage which read, "Depression entre equateur et 10 degres nord et entre 18 degrés et 32 degrés ouest. . . . Intérêst à voler bas jusqu'a 4 degrés nord." This was evidently the region which the French pilots had named the "Pot au Noir," and it seemed a vivid and unpleasant memory to any people with actual practical experience of South Atlantic flying conditions, for, as its name implied, the region was one of black storm-clouds and heavy rain. With radio it would be possible to make a detour round the centre of this permanent depression, which apparently moved up and down in that region, but my funds had not extended to a radio-set, and to deviate a fraction of a degree from the corrected rhumb line I intended steering might have spelled disaster. To try and fly round bad weather in mid-Atlantic, then attempt to regain the original course, was unthinkable, and would probably mean complete loss of bearings. "Anyway, the weather is much better near Brazil," I said, putting the report in my pocket and finishing a cup of tea.

The Commandant went to start the car, and hastily collecting my belongings I joined him, and we set off for the aerodrome. "The cook has prepared a nicepage 144lunch for you," he said, indicating a neat parcel, which, to my delight, proved to contain some sandwiches and a whole chicken. I smiled as I visualized the cook in his pink turban preparing the chicken at midnight.

It was still raining when we arrived at the aerodrome, and the mechanics pushed back the big hangar doors while I put my things in the aeroplane and by the light of the torch gave the engine a final check over. The machine was wheeled out on to the wet tarmac, and after flooding the carburetters I climbed into the cockpit. One of the mechanics turned the propeller over two or three times, and at the word "Contact" swung the airscrew once again; the engine started with a roar. I could not afford to waste a drop more of the precious petrol than necessary, so, leaving the engine just ticking over to warm up, I climbed out to make final arrangements about the take-off. The Commandant ordered two of the mechanics to go ahead with torches and guide me to the far corner of the aerodrome and as near the rough ground as was possible. "I will drive the car to the other end," he told me, "and turn it so that the headlights will point towards you. The lorry will do the same, and you should have a good idea of the distance you will be able to run the aeroplane before trying to lift it off the ground. We shall be right back against the boundary, so don't think you can run any farther," he added. "If the machine doesn't lift by the time you are almost level with the lights you had better switch off and try to stop it as best you can."page 145Rain continued to fall, and clouds still hid the moon from view, and there was not a breath of air even to stir the long grass on the aerodrome. I was feeling really anxious about the take-off, for, although I had realized before leaving England that taking off with such a big load of petrol in the rarefied air of the tropics would require all the skill I possessed, I had not counted on an overgrown aerodrome and a total lack of wind. Supposing the machine would not lift? Quickly putting the thought out of my mind I determined to give the Gull as long a run as I dared before even trying to take it off the ground. "Au revoir et bonne chance, mademoiselle!" shouted the Commandant above the roar of the engine as he grasped my hand and I climbed back into the cockpit.

The needle of the revolution-counter rose as I ran the engine up, until at full throttle it wavered at 1830 revolutions per minute. "Good, that's more than usual," I thought, glancing at the oil-gauge, which registered a steady 42 lbs. pressure. Bending down I adjusted the compass. The magnetic course was exactly 242 degrees, 15 minutes. Strange how my daily life for some time past had seemed almost to revolve round those figures, and at last I was actually setting the course for the flight to Brazil. Flashing the torch round the cockpit I placed the charts, maps, and notes well within reach. The light fell on the notebook, and I read, "1/2 degree of deviation to north or south of magnetic track = error of approximately 17 miles." "There isn't going to be any error, for I shall steer the machine straight as an arrow," I decided, releasing the brakes and taxying slowlypage 146behind the two mechanics, who walked in front with torches.

Turning the machine round when they stopped I pointed the nose a little to the left of the headlights, which shone towards me from the far corner of the aerodrome. "Can't I go farther back?" I shouted to the mechanics.

"No, it's bad there—no good!" they shouted in reply, gesticulating and shaking their heads to make sure I understood.

Holding the control column fully forward I gave the engine full throttle, and the Gull roared towards the lights. Would the tail never lift, I wondered, as we plunged across the dark aerodrome. At last, as I felt it rise, I tried to lift the aeroplane off, but it sank heavily back to the ground. I had to think quickly now. . . . "Forward with the control column again, and give it the full length of the aerodrome," I decided, keeping the nose still pointing to the left of the lights, which we were rapidly nearing. The Commandant's words rang in my ears: "If the machine doesn't lift by the time you are almost level with the lights you had better switch off and try to stop it as best you can."

The aeroplane roared on through the darkness, and just as the car headlights flooded the cabin, almost dazzling me by their nearness, the wheels lifted as in a final effort I heaved the machine off the ground. I kept the nose down for a few seconds to gain flying speed, then eased the aeroplane up into a gentle climb and rose above the dark shadow of the jungle. Just skimming the tree-tops I flew for miles before gainingpage 147sufficient height to turn the aeroplane back towards the aerodrome. As I searched the darkness beneath it seemed that I had lost the aerodrome completely, until in the inky blackness I saw the lights of the Commandant's motor-car as he drove back to the hangar.

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