TRIPOLI TO SYDNEY
While I was waiting ten days for a new propeller to arrive, the Italian air force pilots were good to me. They amused me, and I think I amused them. There was Vallerani, for example, who, when he discovered that this was the third propeller I had smashed in four months, suggested a rubber one – perhaps a clever idea. Vallerani was in charge of the engineering section which carried out all the repairs on the aeroplane for me free of charge. There was Guidi, who looked like Adonis with a perfect modern tailor. I called him Topsy. He had a hairnet. I don’t know who fascinated me more, the gorgeous Guidi or the ravishing beauties whose signed photographs covered his table and walls.
At last my new propeller arrived, and the Gipsy Moth was ready to fly. I dreaded this moment. The flight out from London to Africa had been almost beyond my powers, and my nerve was shaken. I had never flown in Africa in daylight, and was scared by all the stories I had heard about the air being so thin near the ground that an aeroplane would drop the last ten feet like a stone. The aerodrome officials did not like my going up, partly because there was a fresh wind blowing and the air was sand-laden, and partly because of all the crashes which had occurred since I arrived. The wreckage of Lasalle’s aeroplane had been found along the coast, and the bodies brought to Tripoli.
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Lasalle had set out to fly from France to Indo-China. The Italians gave him a tremendous funeral in Tripoli. All the pilots were there, all the consuls, a large squad of soldiers, a troop of Fascists in their black shirts and tasselled caps, and a big band. The coffins were mounted on gun-carriages, and three Italian Romeos flew slowly up and down above the procession. The French consul asked me to represent British aviators, which I did, feeling sheepish because I only had one suit with me (with plus-four trousers), and every other civilian was dressed in a top hat and long tail coat. In the cathedral where the Bishop of Tripoli conducted an impressive service there was a field-gun, machine guns, and crossed propellers, all covered with wreaths. One of the four censers caught alight, and after burning fiercely for a while exploded with a loud bang which added to the impressiveness.
There had been three other crashes in the same week; Jones, Williams and Jenkins were killed on a flight to South Africa; Andre, a Swede, and one of their own Tripoli pilots came down in a Romeo whilst looking for Lasalle (the last two pilots had escaped alive).
My first view of Africa from the air was wonderful; the sea was bluer than I had ever seen it, and away to the south I had my first view of the desert looking like brown liquid which had overflowed from beyond the horizon. I sighed; I wondered if my Gipsy Moth was as strong as before the repairs. There was one way to find out; I started doing aerobatics. I went into one loop too slowly. The Moth stood on its tail and stuck there, then started sliding backwards. I imagined the elevators and rudder tearing off, and kept the controls steady. At last the Moth fell over slowly backwards. It was the worst loop I have ever done. I put the Moth into a spin, but she refused to come out of it, and went on spinning. I thought the controls must be jammed. But it was only my bad flying, and at last I coaxed her into a dive. Finally I had to land over the top of the hangars with only 275 yards between them and an open ditch dug across the airfield. A month earlier I would have thought this a joke; but now my nerve was bad, and I was scared of the ten-foot drop I had heard about. I came in too fast, and overshot. I pretended that I had come down only to look at the airfield, and went around again. By now the whole aerodrome staff had turned out to watch the fun, which made me more nervous. At last I side-slipped between two hangars, with the hangar roofs above me at each wing tip, and landed safely. When the watchers ran out and swarmed round the Moth I thought they had come out to see what was wrong with me, and I felt a fool. When they told me they thought I had given a wonderful exhibition of stunting I burst out laughing. Perhaps that foozled loop had looked spectacular!
On 9 January, 1930, I was up before dawn, bursting with impatience to get started again. The night duty officer said he had not slept a wink, because he was worried about seeing me away safely. I was not properly sympathetic, having slept like a log myself. A mechanic and I pushed the Moth out of the hangar in the dark. I christened my fourth propeller by smashing on the boss a bottle of the best cognac I had been able to find (I felt that champagne was not strong enough). I started the motor, and waited impatiently. The duty pilot arrived at the double to say that I could not start because of a sand-storm at Syrte. I objected; but they refused to let me start, so I went back to my room and had another sleep. At 8.30 I asked them to get another report. Conditions at Syrte were improving, and they reluctantly let me leave. I was in the air fifteen minutes later.