I was thrilled by my first sight of Africa, but surprised to see by the twinkling lights that the terrain sloped steeply up from the sea, whereas I had expected a broad, level sand desert. When I reached Homs it looked small, no more than a village, and there was no sign of an airfield. I thought I had made a mistake, and flew on for 6 to 8 miles to the next promontory of the coast. Looking back, I saw a large reddish light, stronger than any other. When I reached the headland there was not a light in sight ahead, so I returned to investigate the red light. I was disgusted to find that it was a big bonfire in a deserted area of the country. I did not realise that it was lit to indicate a landing-place. I decided to head for Tripoli, 70 miles to the west. If I did not find a landing-ground before that, I knew that Tripoli was an Italian air force base.
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There were no lights visible along the coast. Presently I flew into cloud, and could see nothing. I did not like it, with no blind-flying instruments, and no altimeter. Later, I spotted a searchlight ahead, flashing at regular intervals. I thought it was an airfield signalling to me, and it cheered me up. After flying on another 20 miles I could see a magnificent cordon of light, and thought that the airfield was really well lighted up. I began to sing. Later the light appeared to be just as far away. When at last I arrived I found that the airfield was the harbour, and the searchlight was the lighthouse, on the Mole. I circled the town in the dark, but could not see any airfield. Then a starry light flashed 10 miles to the west of the town, and I flew over to that. I could see no airfield boundary lights, and glided down close to the ground, when I found that a motor-car was switching its lights on and off, trying to overtake another one.
Then an unmistakable searchlight appeared in the sky to the east of the town. There were no boundary lights, just the one searchlight which was lowered to the ground as I approached. It was pointing right at the hangars. If I landed along the beam, I should be heading right for the hangars, and I judged that there was only 200 yards between the light and the hangars. I could not be sure of a good landing in the dark after so long in the air. I circled the field, and could see a fine square of flat ground, surrounded by trees. I decided to land on this, short of the searchlight. I glided in steadily until suddenly, wonk! I was jolted forward and found myself held into the cockpit by my harness. The Gipsy Moth had tipped on to its nose. I had an empty feeling of utter failure; it was the end of my flight and my foolish dreams. I was aware of the dead silence that succeeded the motor roar, yet the rhythmic engine beat continued, not only in my brain but in every part of my body. I scrambled out of the cockpit, stepped on to one of the inter-wing struts and from there jumped to the ground. To my amazement I landed with a splash. ‘Good God! I’m in the sea.’ I listened but could hear no waves. The water only came to my ankles. I started towards the searchlight; a few steps and I floundered on to my knees. Then, stumbling forward, I touched a bank, and climbed up it (it was only a foot high). I felt like Puss in Boots in my long sheepskin boots. I stopped there, filled my pipe, but could not get the cigarette lighter to light.
The searchlight beam started moving, flickered round and settled on the aeroplane. I could see waves in the fabric of the top and bottom wings, and a tear in the wing with the strut sticking through. ‘Complete write-off,’ I thought, and looked the other way. I tried to light my pipe. I was astonished to see the silhouette of a war dance on the wings of the Moth. Dozens of people dancing hard with their legs lifting like marionettes. Presently I heard the thumping of many feet. Then thirty soldiers came running to the ditch separating them from my bank. They rushed off to the side, found a crossing, then rushed up to me all talking to me at once, and pawing me as if unable to believe I was alive. I borrowed a match and set off with them for the searchlight. The commandant took me to a room in the empty mess and produced some wine. I kept on falling asleep as I drank. An orderly took me off to sleep in the room of a pilot away in the desert. Later I woke up and found myself groping along the wall, dreaming that I was flying, and suddenly all visibility vanished and I could do nothing but wait to crash.
Next morning I went out to find the Moth being wheeled in by a number of soldiers. The NCO in charge, Marzocchi, spoke French, and told me that the aeroplane was undamaged except for a front inter-wing strut and a broken propeller. I just did not believe him; but he was right. My amazement was only exceeded by my joy. I had landed in a dead flat salt pan, covered with four inches of water. It was so flat that coming in steadily I had not known I was down. The wheelmarks could be seen for thirty-five yards before the plane nosed over. This was due to my keeping the tail up in gliding trim.
I had been flying for twenty-six hours out of the forty hours since I left England, and flown 1,900 miles to Tripoli. Of the fourteen hours when I had not been flying I had had two and three-quarter hours sleep, and the rest of the time had been very strenuously occupied working on the aeroplane and clearing formalities. On top of that I had had little sleep after the strenuous day before leaving Croydon. To put it bluntly, I could not achieve what I had set out to do. My only hope would have been to carry more petrol, and make a twelve and a half hour non-stop flight of 1,000 miles each day. The fatigue and time lost during the midday landing made my plan impossible to carry out.
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