Round Trip To Australia

Cape in jagged lines of white surf. That meant I could not expect protection from the swell behind Norfolk Island.

A week before this I had worked out a fine system of navigation. I had found that I could follow an invisible curved path to the island by taking sextant shots of the sun every hour; this was based on the fact that measuring the height of the sun above the horizon with a sextant enabled one to calculate the distance of the seaplane from the spot vertically below the sun on the surface of the earth. Having calculated beforehand how far the seaplane would be from the point vertically beneath the sun (if on her right path) at that time, the actual sun sight when the time came would reveal if the seaplane was, say, 5 miles to one side or other of the invisible path. Unfortunately all this depended on leaving the north tip of New Zealand early in the morning, which in turn depended on flying up there the night before. Not starting from Auckland till the morning had ruined this carefully computed system. As I flew along I thought up a replacement, and began afresh.

Round Trip To Australia Photo Gallery

I estimated the time when I should arrive, and I computed the distance of the island from the sun position an hour before that time. Then I marked a spot on the chart 90 miles to the left of the island that would be the same distance from the sun position at that time. This was my first target. By the height of the sun a sextant shot at the time would then tell me if I had reached the spot or not. As soon as I reached the spot I would turn and keep the sun abeam, which would bring me to the island. I had to aim well to one side of the island in case of an error in the dead reckoning, caused by a faulty compass reading, or undetected wind effect should put me on the wrong side of the island. And the island being out of sight, I must be certain that when I turned to the right I was turning towards it, and not away from it. This system was afterwards dubbed by one of my friends as ‘my theory of the deliberate error’. I estimated that I should reach the turn-off spot at 4 o’clock (1600 hours) and computed for that time.

After 160 miles I flew over a deserted island of bare brown rock and had some trouble in locating it on the map. It gave me a shock to find that it was a third of the width of Norfolk Island. So far there had been no sign of any sun or a break in the grey-black clouds, but at 8.40 a.m. I spotted a shaft of light ahead, which cast a small circle of brightness on the dull sea. At 8.49 I struck the edge of the sunlight, and shot the sun four times before I was across. This was my last chance to check my astro-navigation. I worked out how far I was from the point under the sun and compared it with my position according to the chart. The observation was 140 miles out. For a second I felt panic. Then I found that I had forgotten to allow for the error in my watch. I felt desperate at thinking of all the blunders of this kind I could make. However, I recovered; the work required extraordinary concentration. It had been easy enough in a car driven at 50mph by someone else; in the seaplane it was at first difficult to concentrate enough while attending to the five instrument readings, maintaining a compass course, reducing the sun sight, and solving the spherical triangle involved. The 90 to 100mph wind of the propeller slipstream, which struck the top of my head just above the windshield, made concentrating difficult; so did the pulsating roar from the open exhausts.

While all these thoughts went through my head, the Moth flew on, and looking over the side I found that I was passing Parengarenga Harbour. I skimmed round, looking for a place called Te Hamua where my petrol was. There were no other buildings to be seen except a group of three or four wooden huts in a small clearing by the shore with a great stretch of stunted scrub all round. I flew low to inspect, and fowls scattered in all directions madly flapping. As I throttled back, I was glad to see one or two people waving to me. I was just about to alight, when the pebbles, shell and weed showed so clearly that I feared there was no water; I knew that this part of the harbour dried at low water, so I shied off, and went round again. I noticed a dark streak of deeper water in a channel farther out, and alighted on that. The floats settled with a sizzling swish, the seaplane swaying slightly in a way that was a sheer delight. I cut the motor, and as soon as the seaplane lost way it began to drift rapidly downwind. There was a snappish breeze, and I threw out the 3% lb anchor with its 2 lb chain, and paid out the full length of line. After watching for a while I realised that the anchor was not holding, and that the seaplane was drifting rapidly on to a lee shore. I looked round anxiously, but there was no sign of anyone. Then I looked at my watch, 9.30, I had been down a quarter of an hour already. I could not stay long. It was doubtful if the sun could be observed during the last hour before sunset, and I ought to have a reserve of time in case of a headwind. Also I needed some time up my sleeve for finding a place to moor on arrival. I ought to leave by 10 o’clock.

A man strolled on to the beach looking towards the plane. Then a boy followed, and they sauntered down to a dinghy that disappeared behind an anchored boat. This turned out to be a launch that moved away from its mooring, and swept round in a wide arc, dinghy in tow, to a point some 200 yards to windward of the seaplane. By the time the man and the boy had dropped into the dinghy they were 300 yards away; the seaplane was moving two yards to their one, and I anxiously watched the shore drawing nearer. At last I had to swing the prop, and as the plane moved forward I hauled in the dripping anchor line, precariously standing on a float behind the propeller blades. The launch moved away at full speed, and the two in the dinghy rowed like mad. Near the dinghy I switched off the motor and threw out the anchor. The rowers rested on their oars, staring speechless. They were Maoris.

‘I want an anchor,’ I bawled. No answer. ‘Have you got an anchor?’ No answer. ‘I must have an anchor.’ No answer. This went on until at last the man said, ‘Py corry, he want te anchor, I tink, hey?’ The boy agreed, and without saying anything else they set off leisurely for the launch, and after a long discussion on board the launch set off leisurely for the shore. My three- quarters of an hour ran out. At last the launch started again, just as I was forced to restart my motor and taxi back to the channel. When the dinghy arrived I persuaded them to make fast their anchor to mine, which they did after sweeping for my anchor line with an oar.

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