Australia Road Trips

Night fell, and at last the air became calm again. I plodded on to Pisa, where I could see the aerodrome a long way ahead splendidly lit with a searchlight signalling me. I flew up to it, and cut my motor three times to let them know on the ground that I had arrived, and then shut off to land. Close to the ground I found that it was not an airfield, but bright lights illuminating a long, L-shaped hoarding, half a mile long at the corner of two streets. The searchlight was a powerful beam from a motorcar.

I soon recognised the airfield as a big black space, but there was not a single light showing except from some barracks at one end. My first shot at landing in the dark was a dud; I bumped and went round again. However, at my next shot I landed well and started to taxi in, but the wheels got bogged in the mud. A swarm of soldiers seemed to spring out of the ground and pushed the Gipsy Moth out of the mud, breaking one or two of the ribs in the leading edge.

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I asked in French about the lights, and they said that they had expected me to circle for half an hour while they went to find the light operator. The Italians were extremely kind and helpful, but everything had to be discussed at great length. It took four and a half hours of solid talk and argument before I had refuelled, checked over the motor and satisfied the Air Force, Customs and police authorities. They lent me a campbed and I tried to sleep at 10 o’clock, but I was too tired. I had started tired, had put in a strenuous 20 hours, of which 12 had been spent flying 780 miles. I only had two and a half hours sleep before getting into the air again at 1.45 a.m. I took off in the dark with no lights on the airfield, so that I had landed and taken off from an airfield that I had never seen. It was a lovely, fine night when I reached Naples. The sky became overcast, and I was flitting along under the ceiling of a low, wide-roofed cavern. Vesuvius was a magnificent sight with dark, billowy smoke rolling slowly from the cone, and a million sparkling, twinkling lights clustering round the bay at the foot of the volcano. I flew over the Gulf of Salerno into pitch darkness. I could see nothing ahead or below. Presently, flashes of lightning from a black storm cloud lit up the whole area. I was able to dodge this, but later flew into a rain-cloud. I could not see six feet ahead, and glided down until I could distinguish land by its utter blackness in comparison with the less black sea.

I was now flying beside a barren, mountainous country, apparently uninhabited, because there was not a single light visible anywhere. Daybreak was approaching and as the tatty grey storm clouds began to outline the mountains, sleepiness became an agony. I moved anything I could, waved my arms, jumped up and down in the seat, stamped my feet. If I jumped up I was asleep before I landed in the seat. I was primitive man looking at a stark, primeval scene, the black masses of towering mountains, the rugged grey precipices of rock dropping sheer into the sea and the dull surface of the sea flitting out of sight under threatening cloud. Each time I slept I heard separate motor explosions, usually about four, with an increasing interval of silence between them. Then silence, and I woke with a jolt, petrified with fear that the motor had stopped. The first few times this happened I felt certain it had; it was worse when I realised that the motor was still firing steadily at 3,600 times a minute. I no longer had the fright that kept me awake for a few seconds. I took off my flying-helmet and stuck my head into the slipstream. I tried watching the cliffs, but my eyes would not align properly; I saw double. At last day came; I had been flying for six hours. I was tempted to look for one of the three emergency landing-strips on the beach where it widened, for the desire for the aeroplane to roll to a standstill so that I could loll my head against the cockpit edge and go to sleep was overpowering. I had already passed the first of these landing-strips; when I came to the second it was half washed away. Then, at the toe of Italy, sleepiness abated, and I flew on for another age across the straits and on to Mount Etna, looking enormous and solid in her snow cap. I landed at Catania and was stuck there for three hours. Petrol and a Customs officer had to be fetched from the town. When I had everything ready I found my journey log-book was still in the town and I had to wait another hour for it to turn up.

I managed to get in fifteen minutes sleep, which was a godsend. It was obvious now that I could not reach Africa before dark, so I asked carefully about night-landing facilities at Homs. I was assured that the airfield there had everything that could be desired in night-landing facilities. Then I flew over Malta. I thought of stopping there, but I had made up my mind to reach Africa in two days. I flew through a curtain of stinging hail, and a terrific flash of lightning near by made the aeroplane rock. After that, most of the 285-mile sea crossing was in fine weather. The sun set magnificently.

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