Chapter XI: Across the South Atlantic
Chapter XI: Across the South Atlantic
A dreadful feeling of loneliness almost overwhelmed me as I left the African coast and steered the aeroplane out into the blackness of the Atlantic on a course for Brazil, nearly two thousand miles away. To the north I could see the blurred gleam of the lighthouse at Dakar sending its friendly beam out into the night. I switched off the navigation lights, for the lighted cabin seemed to make the darkness outside more intense as I peered vainly through the windows trying to distinguish the horizon. "It must get light soon," I thought, glancing at the clock, to realize that it was only twenty minutes since I had left Thies. It was no use looking at the clock, I decided: it only seemed to make the time pass more slowly. What was that? Did I imagine it, or were there really lights in that black void below? Yes, it was a ship. "Looks like a steam-yacht," I thought, glancing down at the small lighted vessel. I flashed the navigation lights on and off a few times, hoping for an answering signal, but there was none. They seemed very close to the coast, and must have been makingpage 149for Dakar, and I envied the sleeping passengers on board.
The rain continued to fall, and thick clouds at a thousand feet forced me to fly low, so that all my concentration was focused on keeping the machine level and straight on its course while I patiently waited for the dawn to break.
Gradually and almost imperceptibly a grey light stole into the cabin, and I began to distinguish the white tops of the waves beneath. The rain had ceased, and as the light became stronger the scene which unfolded itself before my eyes in that grey dawn was one of majestic beauty. The sky was completely overcast, and in every direction there stretched the vast blue expanse of the mighty Atlantic. Not a ship in sight, nor any sign of life whatever. My only company was the roar of the engine as the aeroplane winged its way low over the ocean like a solitary bird. So completely isolated did I feel that to all intents and purposes I might have been the only person in the world.
The clouds began to break up, and soon the sun shone down from a clear blue sky with such fierceness that the heat in the cabin became quite suffocating. Visibility was good, for the horizon was a deep blue against the paler blue of the sky, and by the white-capped waves I saw that a north-east wind was blowing. Not that I should benefit very much from it because of the low altitude at which I was flying, and I knew it would drop completely as I neared the doldrums region.
The engine purred faithfully on, and with everything going so smoothly I was able to relax and eat some ofpage 150the sandwiches that the Commandant had given me. The weather was too good to last, however, and a hundred and fifty miles out from Africa the sky became flecked with clouds and gradually completely overcast. Great black, ominous clouds were banking up ahead, and in the distance the leaden sky seemed to merge with the grey sea. The wind had by this time dropped altogether, for the sea was calm, looking almost as if oil had been poured on the angry waves, and all was still except for a long swell which gently rose and fell.
My position was 200 miles north-east of the equator, and I was entering the doldrums, or region of calms which had always been such a nightmare to mariners in the days of sailing-ships. As a child I had listened spellbound and thrilled to the tales of how my own grandparents had set sail for New Zealand. Their ship, after being becalmed in the doldrums for weeks and encountering a fierce storm, had run aground, nearly being wrecked on a reef off the coast of Brazil. The ship had been floated off, however, and undaunted they had continued their voyage. During a terrific storm off Cape Horn, when giant seas had swept the decks of the little ship and the sails had been torn to shreds, the captain had died. After further adventures the ship had eventually arrived in New Zealand six months out from England.
The heavy rain-clouds ahead seemed to open and pour their contents down with such force that the rain resembled a great black curtain. The Pot au Noir. . . . Could I go round the storms? I wondered how far south they extended. No, that was out of the question.page 151
Altering course without radio to check one's position would only result in being lost in mid-Atlantic. Could I fly above that dark mass directly in my path? I remembered the weather forecast: "'Intérit à voler bas." Either go back now while there is time or go through it.
Before I could think any more about it I had plunged into the pouring rain. Flying so low that at times I must have been less than fifty feet above the surface I tried vainly to keep the sea directly beneath in view, but suddenly lost sight of it altogether. For one terrible moment I thought the aeroplane would plunge into the water before I gave the engine full throttle and pulled the machine up into a climb. If I had to fly completely blind I should do so at a reasonably safe height.
The Gull roared up through the dark mass, until at 1000 feet I put the machine on an even keel and flew on. With both feet braced against the rudder-bar and my hand firmly gripping the control column I concentrated all my attention on the blind-flying instruments and the compass. Relaxing my grip on the control column every now and then so that I should not in my anxiety over-correct any slight error in steering, I flew on, unable to see a yard outside the windows, against which thundered the heavy rain, almost as if bent on destruction. Every minute seemed like an hour. Would I never penetrate that dark curtain of rain which seemed drawn round the machine?
Suddenly I saw the compass needle swinging slowly round the dial. "It must be imagination," I thought.page 152
Drawing my hand across my eyes I felt the tiny beads of perspiration on my forehead as the needle continued its ghastly movement. I was lost. ... If I followed the compass now I should go round in a circle. "It is all up now," I thought frantically. The compass had swung round about 180 degrees. If only I could see the light instead of this terrible blackness enveloping the machine. I almost prayed to see the sky and sea again. No, I should not give in now: there were still the blind-flying instruments, and the machine was flying a straight course by the bank and turn indicator. "I must not lose faith now," I told myself. My eyes were staring at the turn indicator, but I realized that unless the compass righted itself it would not be possible to steer another thousand miles to Natal on that alone. This was torture. The strain was terrific. The perspiration was trickling down into my eyes, and every muscle and nerve in my body was alert. . . . Were my eyes again deceiving me, for slowly but surely the compass needle was swinging back to its former position? Thank God I was saved, and within a few minutes the darkness outside the cabin gave place to light, and once more I saw the calm sea beneath.
All the muscles that had been taut for so long relaxed, and I sank back in the seat breathing a prayer of thanks. Taking out my handkerchief I mopped my forehead, and throwing open the windows let some air into the stifling cabin. I saw the compass needle steady, and once more thanked God for my preservation. I realized by my clock as I entered up the log that I had crossed the equator during the storm. The sky was stillpage 153overcast, and my spirits sank as I saw more storms looming ahead. Very soon I plunged once more into a succession of heavy rain-storms, and although they were not so thick through, it was a strain blind-flying for so long. As soon as I would emerge into the light again from the nerve-racking experience of one storm it was to see another ahead. They looked something like huge black mushrooms, seeming to come up from the sea to join the clouds, resembling photographs I had seen of cloudbursts.
When at last I entered a fine zone I felt thoroughly worn out, but after some lunch and a drink of black coffee felt quite refreshed again. My altitude was 600 feet, and I calculated my position as about 1100 miles out from Thies. That meant approximately another 800 miles to the coast of Brazil.
The sun had penetrated the clouds, and was burning down on to the blue sea, which had lost its calm look and was now capped by myriads of white-topped waves. The sea became more turbulent, until at last huge waves left great trails of spray, which the wind caught and carried along like thousands of streaming white pennants. The strong south-easterly wind was now increasing in strength, and by aligning the nose of the aeroplane against the waves I could see that the machine was drifting northward. Even at the low altitude at which the Gull was flying I calculated that the present rate of drift would carry me well off my course. There was not another aerodrome north of Natal for hundreds of miles, and the petrol margin was not great enough to allow for any but the smallest error in navigation.page 154
Apart from this there was the record to consider, and any error meant loss of time, for as I was endeavouring to break the record of a multi-engined flying-boat equipped with radio and a crew of experienced men every mile I drifted northward of the course meant precious time wasted.
I spent the next few minutes trying to ascertain accurately the amount of drift, and calculated it at eight degrees to starboard. I decided to alter course eight degrees to port to compensate for the drift. This should take me to Cape San Roque, where I expected to make landfall. Leaning forward I unlocked the compass verge ring and set the machine on its new course. Vainly I searched the horizon for some sign of a ship, but there was no trace of any vessel. Time slipped by, and I felt very lonely, but comforted myself with the thought that after my terrible experience in the storms it was good to see the sun, the sky, and the sea again. "Nine hours out from Thies," I wrote in the log, and hopefully thought that if visibility were good I might see the coast of Brazil in under four hours.
Scanning the horizon for the hundredth time I caught sight of a small dark object in the distance. Were my eyes deceiving me or was it really a ship? Yes. As I drew nearer it was possible to distinguish the masts and funnel of a boat. It seemed too good to be true. For almost eleven hours I had been completely isolated from the rest of the world, with no one to talk to, no sign of life. The blue sea everywhere made me long for the sight of other human beings, a ship, orpage 155anything to relieve the monotony of the vast blue waste stretched before me. Jungle or desert stretches would be a pleasure to fly over compared with this.
The sea was becoming rough, and huge waves seemed to rise beneath the Gull, as if stretching up in an effort to grasp the machine which flew contemptuously out of reach on its lonely way. The ship was quite near now. It was a cargo vessel, evidently bound for Dakar, and my course lay right along the ship from tip to stern. I was almost breathless with joy, for the ship must have come from Natal, in which case I was absolutely on the right course. "Unless it is from Pernambuco," I thought, and a shade of doubt entered my mind, for perhaps the drift was not as strong as I had estimated and eight degrees' compensation was too much to allow. Glancing at my chart I saw that Pernambuco was 160 miles south. No, it was unthinkable that I should be that much off my course. The ship was definitely from Port Natal, I decided. As my altitude was still only 600 feet it was quite easy for me to see the name of the vessel, which I read with such joy and eagerness that it must be stamped on my heart for all time. The name painted on the bows read Belgique.
Figures on deck were waving wildly, so taking off my scarf I held it out the window and let it trail in the slipstream, and also dipped the aeroplane in salute over the ship. How I longed to circle, for although the crew must have been excited to see a small silver monoplane winging its way over their ship so far from land, their feelings were not to be compared with mine, so overjoyed did I feel at sighting the vessel. "Wish I hadpage 156radio and could ask them what port they are from," I thought longingly as another doubt assailed me that they might be from Ceara or Maranhao, both hundreds of miles north of Natal. Thrusting the doubt from my mind, I decided not to let anything mar my joy at seeing the ship and at the realization that I was only about three hundred miles from land. Several times I looked back, until the ship was merely a speck in the distance.
Time seemed to drag terribly now, but perhaps soon I should sight Fernando Noronha island. This small volcanic island was shown on my chart as being about twelve miles long, with a cone rising to a height of over a thousand feet. In good weather it should be visible from a great distance, although, looking closely at the chart, I saw that it lay almost fifty miles south of my course and about a hundred and fifty miles from the Brazilian coast.
The sky was growing once more overcast, and I was not going to reach the land without another battle with the elements. For the next two hours I flew through one tropical deluge after another, until I felt terribly disappointed at missing a sight of Fernando Noronha island, and very tired at the continual blind flying, which after twelve hours in the air seemed even more difficult than ever.
Emerging once more into the light after a particularly heavy downpour I saw a faint yellow line on the horizon ahead. Was it really land, I asked myself Glancing round the skyline I saw a similar line, and realized that the intense glare from the silver enginepage 157cowling coupled with the strain of staring at the blind-flying instruments was tiring my eyes.
Twelve and a half hours out from Africa.. . . Surely I would see land soon. Vainly I searched the horizon for some sign of the coast. Bending down I switched on to the last petrol-tank. Petrol for only one hour more, and still no sign of land. . . . Even though I was flying so low, surely I should be within sight of land now.
What was that faint yellow line? Surely my eyes were deceiving me again. No, this time it was real. Land ... land ... I shouted aloud for sheer joy. Nearer and nearer the land drew, until it was possible to distinguish the sand-dunes on the lonely coast of Brazil. Very soon I was within gliding distance of the undulating sandy coast, and at last flew over the long line of foamy white Atlantic rollers sweeping up on to the beach. About half a mile to the north I saw a slight promontory ... a sandy stretch covered with coconut-palm trees. . . . "Cape San Roque!" I cried, hardly believing my eyes. It seemed too good to be true that after steering for thirteen hours over almost two thousand miles of ocean I had made landfall within half a mile of the point I had been aiming for. But was it Cape San Roque? My chart showed a lighthouse; there was none to be seen here. Silhouetted against the sandy background I saw the wire framework of a red-painted structure which evidently held the fixed light—a strange, lonely-looking edifice, but nevertheless a lighthouse, I decided. Yes, it was Cape San Roque—an exact likeness of the little photograph in my pocket that Ipage 158had taken from a book. During the last few months I had looked many times at the lonely palm-fringed point depicted in the photograph, and at the last minute had thrust it into my pocket for a mascot. Now that my position on the Brazilian coast was quite definitely fixed
1turned southward for Port Natal. "Only a few minutes now," I thought, skimming low along the line of sand-dunes as the sun sank lower in the western sky.
Crossing a hilly part of the coast I suddenly came upon an inlet and a white lighthouse, then saw the buildings of a town. "Port Natal!" It was like a dream to see real houses and civilization, and passing over the town I gave another shout for joy.
"Aerodrome, 15 kilometres S.S.W. Natal, near Lake Parnamiram," read my notes, as I steered the machine past the outskirts of the town and over the jungle, where I quickly picked up the large clearing in the dark green tropical vegetation. Having circled the aerodrome, I shut off the engine and glided down to land. Immediately the wheels touched the ground I checked the stop-watch, which registered 13 hours 15 minutes, my time for the flight from Thies Aerodrome. It was exactly 7.45 p.m., G.M.T., on November 13, so my total elapsed time from England to Brazil had been 2 days 13 hours 15 minutes. A wave of pleasure overwhelmed me as I realized I had lowered the record from England by a margin of almost a day, and had also crossed the Atlantic in the fastest time in history.
As I climbed out of the cockpit all my tiredness left me, and I was immediately surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd which had been awaiting my arrival.page 159
There were a number of the Air France pilots and mechanics, who warmly shook my hand, and I realized they were genuinely pleased.
Their enthusiasm surprised me. It was not until later, when I had met more French people and had come to love France almost as if it were my own country, that I fully realized what wonderful sports the French are. In their earnest desire for the advancement of aviation they realize that speed means progress and competition prevents stagnation.
On hearing of my terrible experience in the doldrums when I thought my compass had failed me one of the pilots assured me that in the electrical storms peculiar to that region he had known of similar experiences.
The group of people assembled to welcome me included an Englishman and his wife, who were overjoyed at my arrival and invited me to stay with them at their home. "We had not been out here at the aerodrome very long when we heard the roar of an engine, then suddenly saw your silver aeroplane fly over Natal," said the Englishwoman. "It was a wonderful sight," she kept saying. "To think that a little over sixty-one hours ago you were in England!" and her eyes glistened at the thought of her beloved country.
"We are very proud that it's a British machine," put in the Englishman as we walked across to the hangar.
When the refuelling was completed we left the aerodrome and drove towards Natal. The car was well sprung, and sinking deep into the comfortable seat I breathed a sigh of relief. Closing my eyes, I couldpage 160still hear the roar of the 200-h.p. engine, and it was difficult to realize that the flight was over and I was really in South America, and not still over the ocean. The terrible storms seemed a long way off now. I must have slept for a few minutes, for on opening my eyes I saw that we were driving along a track above which the dark green trees of the jungle towered like a great arch. The road was not good; it was fortunate that the car was so well sprung. At one stage to pass another car we had to mount the bank by the roadside and drive along at an alarming angle.
"What a terrible road! Is it the main one, and do they drive the air line passengers along this to the aerodrome ?" I inquired.
"There aren't any regular passengers," said my companions. "You see, the transatlantic 'planes don't take passengers—only mail—and the Clipper ships of the Pan-American Airways are flying-boats, and they land down at the port."
As we were about to enter Natal the car was stopped by an armed guard. My friends were closely questioned. I was very glad that I had left my revolver at Thies, for in all probability it would have been confiscated. It appeared that special precautions were being taken because of recent trouble and the imminent possibility of a revolution. On being assured that the car contained no firearms the soldiers allowed us to drive on into the town. We stopped outside a large house, and traced our way through a garden the beauty of which I did not realize until next morning, when daylight revealed it in all its glory. After a refreshing bath Ipage 161changed my flying-suit for a frock and joined my friends, who were genuinely surprised at the sudden transformation of the tired aviator.
"If you listen to the radio you may hear the announcement of your flight being broadcast from London," said my host, looking at his watch. "It's just about time for the news broadcast," he added.
Drawing a chair close up to the radio-set I sat down and listened intently. I could still hear the roar of my engine, which had made me practically deaf.
"There it is," said my friend, and through the roaring far, far away I heard a voice speaking. There was a pause, then quite clearly the voice came through again: "Miss Jean Batten successfully completed her flight from England to South America by landing at the aerodrome at Port Natal, Brazil, this afternoon. Her total time for the flight from England was 61 hours 15 minutes, and this lowers by almost a whole day the record previously held by Mr James Mollison." The voice paused again, then continued broadcasting the rest of the news.
I turned to my host. "It is wonderful to think that within a few hours of the landing the news is being sent out from London." Until I heard the voice broadcasting the news it had all seemed unreal and more like a dream, but now the realization that the flight was accomplished came to me, and I experienced once again the greatest and most lasting of joys: the joy of achievement.page 162