My funny-looking map attempted only to map a strip within five to 10 miles of the track, with bits of hills hachured in here and there. I doubted if the map would be any help to me. However, according to my mental dead reckoning, I should arrive at some hills marked on the map with a watercourse running through them, with the track 3 or 4 miles on the other side. I flew up to some hills that answered the description. Then, suddenly, there was the track – quite different this time. Several wheel ruts showed clearly. I wanted another check; the landing-ground D should be a few miles back. Sure enough the D turned up as expected. I turned right about, and set off for Baghdad singing a song about Antonio. I saw no sign of animal or plant life of any kind, until 200 miles from Ziza I came across an Arab caravan with a flock of sheep. I wondered how they could exist. I had an extraordinary sense of freedom and a feeling of well-being flying low over the desert.
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I landed at Rutbah Wells after six and three-quarter hours in the air to cover 526 miles (without counting the diversion), a speed made good of only 75 miles an hour. Rutbah Wells was a romantic spot in the middle of the desert, a large square fort with buildings backed up inside to the high walls. There were camel caravans inside, and a squad of Iraqi infantry. Here, the track which I had followed, and which they said was rarely used, joined the motor-coach route between Baghdad and
Damascus. There was an Imperial Airways mechanic stationed at Rutbah, and I finally coaxed him to help me grind the valve of my dud No. 2 cylinder. We pushed the Moth through the barbed-wire entanglements into the fort and drew her up to the window of the mechanic’s room, so that he could fasten an electric inspection lamp to a blade of the propeller from a switch in his bedroom. We took off the manifold and piston head to find the exhaust valve badly pitted. I produced a new one that I thought would take less time to grind in. It began to freeze. We finished the grinding, and put the cylinder back, but the compression was worse than before. We tried to puzzle out what could be wrong. I was tempted to leave it, in the hopes that it would get right when the engine was warmed up next day; it was getting late, and I was very tired. However, I decided that we had better take it off again. The valves looked and seemed all right, and we fitted them back once more. We filled the cylinder head up with petrol and the valve seatings held the petrol, so they simply must be all right. This time the compression was excellent.
When I got to bed at last in an Iraqi officer’s room I lay listening to some delightful music. I could distinguish flutes, quietly tinkling bells and some outlandish instruments that I had not heard before. When I was having breakfast at 5 o’clock next morning I asked the manager, Fraser, who had played this music last night. ‘Music?’ he said. ‘There was no music here.’
It was wretchedly cold, and the motor would not start. The mechanic and I took turns at swinging the propeller, and got worn out at it. The motor would fire once, but had not enough power to overcome the friction of the frozen oil. It was not until 7.30 that it suddenly started with a roar, and I took off. Yesterday’s unique feeling of isolation was now lost because the desert was crowded. In the first 100 miles I saw two motorcars and several Arab caravans, with black tents and flocks of sheep.
At Baghdad the aerodrome manager, Phelps, was the most efficient I had come across. I told him that I would have been along three weeks earlier if he had been in charge of each of the airfields where I had refuelled. He had medical, Customs and police authorities waiting, who cleared me immediately; he fed me, had the Moth refuelled with forty-three gallons of petrol and two gallons of oil, wrote his name on the fuselage, and got me into the air again within fifty minutes of my touching down. He had also procured me a weather report that forecast a 35mph favourable wind at 5,000 feet, so I climbed up straight away to that height.