While researching the Indian Air Force’s first flight over Everest, I came across some material that I couldn’t resist sharing, as it typifies a courage and daring that characterized the early pioneers of aviation. The fact that the story takes place in India makes it even more interesting. One of the central characters in this story was Dame Fanny Lucy Houston, an incendiary nationalist and suffragist. After donating £100,000 to Supermarine to help them win the Schneider Trophy in 1931, two years later she set her sights on India – Mount Everest in particular.
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The idea of photographing Everest was presented to him by Squadron Leader Douglas Douglas-Hamilton (Lord Clydesdale), Commanding Officer of No. 602 Squadron RAF – then the RAF’s youngest Squadron Leader and later the fame of Rudolf Hess. The project had however been conceived earlier by Lt Col LVS Blacker in 1932.
Everest lies half in Tibet and half in Nepal and was more than 100 miles from the border of British territory. These two independent kingdoms had fiercely protected all European influence for centuries despite British efforts. It took more than diplomacy to get there.
The £15,000 promised by Lady Lucy bought the team a Westland PV6 (Regn G-ACBR) and a PV3 (G-ACAZ) – both privately owned and cousins to the IAF’s Wapiti aircraft. Featuring an open front cockpit and an enclosed rear seat, the aircraft featured a larger propeller, an oxygen system, and an electric heater for clothes.
The PV3 had the highest rate of climb of any aircraft at the time, but was only selected after the team first focused on one engine. The engine thus selected was the highly supercharged Bristol Pegasus IS3. Air-cooled, with a displacement of 28.72 liters, it developed a maximum of 575 hp.
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Propelled by a two-bladed wooden fixed-pitch propeller, the PV3 could tow its maximum weight of 2.3 tons at a maximum speed of 260 km/h. The photographic equipment used during the expedition was the Williamson Automatic Eagle III surveillance camera which produced a photo mosaic of the area.
Dramatis Personae: While Hamilton and Blacker flew in the lead plane, the second plane was piloted by 602 Squadron Warrant Officer Flight Lieutenant DF McIntyre, with Sidney Bonnett – a cinematographer for Gaumont British News – filming from behind. The 17-man team was led by Air Commodore Fellowes, accompanied by his wife.
Blacker arrived in India in February 1933 to begin preparatory work and liaised with Lieutenant Colonel Ismay (MS to Viceroy) and the Commissioner of Bhagalpur. Initially, Ismay thought of this as a “wacky scheme” that “may work well”, with the hope that Blacker “doesn’t kill himself and others”!
But the project found itself major backers, with the Viceroy receiving a letter from the Air Ministry commending Hamilton as ‘a great friend of ours and a remarkably good pilot’. All the machinery of the Raj came into action, Bhagalpur being the hub of all the rapprochements.
A ceremony was planned, with the viceroy and his wife receiving the two planes from Karachi. Arriving there by ship, the planes were offered to be escorted by two flanked Moth planes. It is likely that they would have landed at Wellington Airport in March 1933.
The Bhagalpur commissioner had secured overflight clearance from Nepal, while an RAF Avro 10 was secured as a transit aircraft for the expedition. The Purnea race course was chosen as the launch airfield, with Burmah Shell providing fuel for the high altitude flight. All systems were gone!
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Clad in several layers of heated sheepskin, the two planes took off at 8:25 a.m. on April 3, 1933, with Hamilton and Macintyre at the controls and Blacker and Bonnett filming from behind. Braving strong winds, Hamilton’s tail skidded the Makalu-Everest ridge line, but they pulled through.
On the other plane, the two Bonnett hoses separated. While he managed to tie it up with a handkerchief before being knocked down, his pilot also lost the oxygen supply but managed to squeeze his mask over his face while descending rapidly at 8,000 feet. Hamilton spent around 15 minutes near Everest – even crossing it.
But the resulting photos were stained with dust. Thus, a trial outing was made by Fellowes at Kanchenjunga. But the weather delayed a second attempt, as did an imbroglio due to “people in England … neither qualified nor authorized to insert their fingers into our pie”.
Lady Huston’s telegram also warned of “evil mountain spirits”. But Blacker and Co chose to proceed “on our own initiative in the spirit of field service regulations and we were off…before anyone…knew…or could stop us”. Even Fellowes was kept in the dark.
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On April 19, 1933, the crew found most of Nepal covered in clouds. Winds were 80 mph at 24,000 feet, which the crew overcame by maneuvering and positioning at lower altitudes. This time Macintyre flew over the ridge while Hamilton circled the Makalu ridge line.
The photographs this time were perfect, but the team – after receiving a bite out of Fellowes – didn’t announce their achievement until 24 hours later. These plates were used by Hillary and Tenzing when planning their climb. Later, a film, Wings Over Everest, won an Oscar in 1951.
Hamilton was awarded an Air Force Cross (RAF) for his gallant action and was also later mentioned in dispatches. Blacker continued to serve in the army and designed the PIAT – a famous anti-tank weapon. After dabbling in fascism, Lady Lucy died alone while Macintyre found a career in civil aviation.
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But the fearless spirit of Airmen wanting to do more and better meant that there were others who duplicated this feat. The Kiwi, Squadron Leader CG Andrews DFC flying over Everest in a Mosquito plane in July 1945 on an unofficial flight.
On 16 June 1945, in PR34s of 347 (PR) Wing RAF, Flt Lts G Edwards and Jack Irvine flew north from Alipore to the summit of Makalu, Nepal and then to Mount Everest. Edwards circled the mountain for 20 minutes, taking pictures with cameras mounted on wing tanks.
Wg Cdr Pearson of No 681 Squadron also flew over Everest on 26 May 1945 in a Spitfire, causing a diplomatic row when details were released to the press. It was explained that the aircraft had been lost due to cloud cover and could only determine its position by reconnoitring the mountain.
In March 1947, NCO Pilot Kenneth Neame of No. 34 Squadron RAF, flying a Spitfire XIX, was assigned to photograph Kanchenjunga for an expedition. He also decided to visit Mount Everest without permission and clicked on the pictures. This was the last “recorded” “unauthorized” attempt on Everest. In 1953, the Indian Air Force will launch a daring mission to Everest.
The author is a finance professional, currently the CEO of a private equity firm, and comes from a military family. He is deeply interested in Indian aviation history and has regularly contributed through platforms on Indian Air Force history. You can check out his work on Twitter: @AnchitGupta9
Last updated September 8, 2022 at 3:23 PM IST