My cousin Pat was a burly man who had been heavyweight champion of the RAF and was known as ‘Firpo’. He had a gruff voice and a hug like a bear.
Next morning a telegram from Cairo arrived, ordering me to return there to clear Customs because I had not landed at Mersa Matruh. I had to sign that I had received this order. I detested having to turn back and retrace my route. I took off thinking, ‘I’m damned if I’ll go back,’ and I set off towards Jerusalem along the trail of Moses when he fled from Egypt, (later I was reprimanded for this, and ordered to apologise in person to the Egyptian Prime Minister the next time I visited Cairo).
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Before leaving that morning, I had checked over my motor and had found that the compression in No. 2 cylinder was bad. Evidently a valve seating there was defective. When I landed at Gaza to refuel before crossing the desert to Baghdad, I found that this cylinder was pretty bad. It would have to be fixed that night at the latest. After leaving Gaza I made a mistake in navigation which gave me a shock; when I reached the Dead Sea, with its still surface deeply bedded in hill land, I was 18 miles too far south. A mistake like this could be serious when over the desert, and I could not puzzle out the cause of it. I flew on and picked out Ziza. There were only two or three shacks there, but I could see the scars made by aeroplane tail skids. I altered course to head into the desert. I looked for the wheel tracks of a convoy that had motored through, because I had been told that I would see these, and also some furrows ploughed in the sand here and there beside the track for guidance. Also, there were emergency landing-grounds spaced 20 miles apart along the route, and marked with the letters of the alphabet.
The track came down from Amman to the North, and I was to strike it 20 miles east of Ziza. I concentrated on watching the ground, but after 20 miles I had seen no sign of a track, and on looking round could see nothing in any direction but brown sand and desert, and a few hills far away on the northern horizon. Every mile I covered without spotting signs of anything I grew more anxious. Some 33 miles from Ziza I was wondering if I must turn back and start afresh, when I suddenly sighted a square building. I turned at once and flew over it. With no windows or doors, it was like a solid block of stone. I circled it, and found some tail skid marks in the sand but I could not find the letter C which should identify the first landing-ground. I found two wheel tracks, and began following them. I had to twist about to follow the faint tracks, and concentrated on keeping them in sight. The landing-ground D ought to have shown up 73 miles out, but there were no signs of it. After 85 miles and still no sign, I began to get worried. I had to determine the direction of those tracks. This was difficult, because the aeroplane was drifting hard to the left or north in the strong southerly wind, and the track was swinging from side to side through an arc of sixty degrees. I decided that we were flying in the direction of 110 degrees.
‘Good Lord,’ I thought, ‘I should be headed 84 degrees. I’m probably headed for Mecca !’
I told myself that I must keep cool, for a desert was no place in which to lose one’s head. I began reasoning things out as I flew along, and finally reckoned that I must be 30 miles south of the correct route. I ought to retrace my path and start afresh, but I hated turning back. I turned north, and headed across unmapped desert. I dropped down close to the ground and watched it so closely that I think I would have seen a rat on it. I crossed dry depressions, dry water courses, dirty black hills and sandy mud, all dull, bare and lifeless. I was excited and thrilled; this was the stuff that life was made of.
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