Finally, I picked a shorter run across the field, where the trees at the end would be slightly easier to clear. I pushed the throttle wide open. The Gipsy Moth gathered speed so slowly that it seemed an age before even the tail skid began to lift from the ground. The plane just crawled across the field, and was still firmly sticking to the ground when I reached the wire fence at the end. At the last instant I yanked the nose up and hurtled over the fence in stalled condition. That was only one step. Straight ahead, a wall of palms. Again I kept the nose down till the last second in an attempt to get up more speed. I was wondering if she could clear them. I yanked her up again, and jumped the trees. Stalled, she just made it. This escape ruined the day’s flying for me; it was just pure luck that I had got away.
I made a non-stop flight of ten hours to Singapore, and after an amusing evening in the mess of No. 205 Flying-Boat Squadron I took off next morning for Batavia. During the 80-mile crossing to Sumatra I climbed above the clouds, which were then covering about seven-tenths of the sky. They were steadily growing thicker and higher. At 9 o’clock, when I reached Sumatra, the sun was scorching the side of my neck, so I pulled out a topi which Russell of Victoria Point had given me, but it blew overboard, and I had to watch it twirling down, down through the air.
Round Trip Australia Gallery Photos
Round Trip Australia
At first I was contented to be floating among the billowy white masses of cloud and sunshine, but when their tops were above me at 7,500 feet I thought that I had better not climb any higher and zigzagged down between them, finally shooting through into clear space beneath. The bottoms of these tall sugar-loaf clouds were flat, 2,000 feet above the land. It was like flying into hot steam. The map had the same symbols here as for the salt marshes in North Africa, but when I looked round for marshes I could see nothing but solid jungle to the horizon in every direction. There was no sign of life, and not even a single break for a river. Steam was drifting from patches of the dark green treetops. I could not imagine a more solitary place. A column of rain was pouring from the middle of each cloud, and soon it was like weaving through a forest of giant dirty-white mushrooms. Occasionally the sun broke through, brightening a green patch of the forest tops. While traversing these I could see blue sky through a 7,000-foot high chimney of blowsy cloud.
I altered course and made for the foothills, where the map showed a railway line. I was sidling or crabbing across a 50-mile wind, zigzagging to dodge the rain columns. Gradually I was forced lower. The big raindrops stung like hail. After flying over jungle for 200 miles, I came on a river with a narrow strip cleared along one bank, perhaps 100 yards wide, where a dozen native huts were squatting. They had dark thatch, and overhanging eaves. Close by, I came to a narrow cutting through the jungle, with a pipeline in the centre twisting through the forest as far as I could see. Suddenly I came on a town with a landing-ground, a railway and some roads that fixed it as Lahat. Here, the cloud came right down to the ground at the edge of hills, and I was forced to turn about and fly east to escape. Except for Lahat, during six hours’ flying I had seen only one spot where I could possibly have put down the plane in an emergency.
I had been flying seven and a quarter hours when I reached the south-east coast of Sumatra. The storm clouds were heavier, and there was one big black cloud ahead, but as it was not raining underneath, I held my course. As I got under the middle of the big cloud the bottom seemed to drop out; it was the heaviest rain I had ever known. I whirled round at once to get out, but I was still in the turn in a nearly vertical bank when visibility disappeared, and I was flying blind. As I was already accelerating in the turn, I could not regain a sense of direction or altitude. I sat tight, and checked each acceleration as smoothly as I could as soon as I identified it. If the speed increased till the struts screamed I eased up the nose. If the acceleration built up sideways I rolled to what I thought was level trim. If that put me upside down I looped. I tried not to overcorrect the control movements. I kept looking as nearly as possible in every direction; I knew that I was coming down, but I could not tell how. Suddenly, the sea appeared dead ahead – I was diving straight into it. I flattened out above the water, and tried to press on through the rain, but the visibility was so bad and the air so rough, that I turned back. I emerged abruptly from the wall of rain, flew 5 miles out to sea along the side of the storm, and got round it.
I could now see hills on the western corner of Java, and set course straight across the sea for them. Java was entirely different; the rain was normal, and every square inch of the ground was cultivated. I could see thousands of little squares of water where the rice fields were flooded. I landed after eight hours thirty-eight minutes in the air, for a 660-mile flight.
To my surprise I found that I was on a modern airport, and surrounded by a lot of handsome Dutchmen speaking perfect English.