Flight path to adventure
Flying from Brisbane to London may be routine in 2016, but in 1933 it was a vastly different story. Lores Bonney did it solo in her Gipsy Moth My Little Ship and, as a new biography records, it was far from plain sailing.
A new book traces the exploits of Brisbane aviator Lores Bonney
BRISBANE TO DARWIN
Lores attended a grand send-off at the Queensland Aero Club on April 9, 1933, where the president, Dr Frederick Hope-Michod, passed on the club’s best wishes for every success. There was, however, an element of backhandedness in his speech. He remarked that it was wonderful to see that women were tackling what would be a big undertaking even for a man. Knowing full well that Lores hoped to better [pioneering British aviator] Amy Johnson’s effort, Hope-Michod advised that “the only means of cutting down the time was by putting a tremendous strain on the nervous and physical system of the pilot”. He and every club member were “anxious that she should not push too much the idea of creating a record”. Later that day, Lores wrote in her diary that she felt “very nervous and sad” during the gathering (perhaps unsurprisingly, given the president’s comments). She craved a quiet afternoon and evening but was constantly interrupted. “Telephone very bad, no rest.”
A crowd of about 150, including close friends and aero club members, assembled at Archerfield aerodrome in Brisbane’s south-west on April 10. Lores’ face looked pale and drawn; she had had a sleepless night. Even so, she was “feeling all OK”. According to The Daily Mail, her husband gave her a “last word”. Snugly attired, with a scarf draped around her neck and a belted leather coat covering a blouse, she exchanged a few brief words with a wellwisher. Final farewells complete, the aviatrix climbed into My Little Ship. She tried to adjust the harness, but it sat awkwardly so she thought she would remove it at Longreach. The Movietone people were there to add her take-off to the footage they had shot earlier. According to The Brisbane Courier’s journalist, who “wondered at and admired the courage of the frail little woman in what, to the lay mind, was a frail little machine”, My Little Ship then coasted across the aerodrome as the club’s escort formed up behind. The Moth looked good as it sped into the air but, for Lores, the fuel and luggage-laden machine was “hard [to] get off”. At 8.30am, she “led the way into the upper air, and, after circling, was lost to view”.
Initially, all seemed to go well, but it was “rather bumpy out of Toowoomba”. After climbing to 5000 feet, it was “much better”. Lores arrived at Charleville at lunchtime and was brought a hamper and a bottle of whisky. The whisky was the traditional gift of the owner of the Charleville Hotel, who presented it to all pilots about to depart Australia. He “asked me deliver same – empty – in London”. She was expected to drink it on the way. This was an important gesture. Unlike HopeMichod, the hotel proprietor had treated Lores as the equal of her male peers.
It was then nonstop to Longreach and a less than easy landing: “Just pulled up in time … very pebbly ground and strong surface wind”. A comfortable hotel and a warm telegram from her family awaited her. “Our sincere wishes for a successful flight,” it said. “May the Lord bless and guide you with all our love and kisses.”
It was rough out of Longreach on the 11th. Lores “went bush along wrong telegraph line out of Winton for 40 minutes, came back sat on compass. Clock on dash went wild. No good”. She landed well at 2.10pm and was assaulted by the heat. The
local Shell representative met her; he was “very kind”. After a little shopping, a rest, and dinner with the Shell man, she retired to bed.
The next day, Lores went to the aerodrome to ready her machine. She left for morning tea and returned at noon, posing for several photographs before taking to the air once more. The preliminary stages were undemanding but, later on, Lores noted “terrible bad visibility”. Beyond Mount Isa “was most difficult and twice nearly lost Mr Tapp”, the Qantas mail plane pilot who was accompanying her. As Russell Tapp remembered it 50 years later, Lores, who had taken off before him, had mistakenly headed towards the Simpson Desert. When he caught up to her he waggled his wings to indicate the correct direction. Back on track, Lores “was glad to see Camooweal” in north-western Queensland. Again, she “made bad landing, heavy ground wind which varied”. She put the Gipsy Moth behind the Qantas shed and organised a watchman. At the hotel, she received a cheery telegram from fellow Queensland Aero Club pilot Peggy Doyle, who noted her “good progress” and wished her “all luck in world for Saturday onwards. All very proud of you”.
Lores left Camooweal on the 13th in the company of another commercial aeroplane. “Got off OK,” she wrote. “Much easier following Kirk than Mr Tapp.” She reached Brunette Downs Station, in the Northern Territory, in under two hours. There she encountered rocky ground. After refreshments at the homestead, Lores “filled up to go non-stop to Darwin”. She left at 10.10am during a dust storm which obscured her view. The air quality continued to be “shocking” as she pushed through bushfire smoke. Reaching Darwin at 4.50pm, she “landed safely”. She had flown about 2000 miles [3220km].
Up to this point, Lores had not admitted to any fears in her diary. It is likely, however, that she felt pressure to succeed, and a clue to her feelings appears in one entry. “Was very thankful,” she observed, to have had a good landing, “as know if crashed before leaving Australia people would think I did it on purpose because I was afraid to go on”.
After unpacking and rearranging her luggage, Lores headed to “dear old Victoria Hotel”. There she was greeted by a reception committee and accorded a great honour: she was accommodated in the Aviators’ Room, which was used by all pilots – Bert Hinkler and Charles Kingsford Smith included – hopping off from Darwin or arriving from foreign climes. Before retiring, she was handed a clutch of telegrams, including one from the Honorable William Francis Forbes-Sempill of National Flying Services Ltd, who advised that he was arranging an “official reception at London Air Park Hanworth”. This was a mark of considerable respect; the air park was renowned for aerial tea parties, pageants and races, such as the 1930 King’s Cup, and had hosted celebrity pilots including Hinkler, Amy Johnson and American Amelia Earhart.
It was another busy day on April 14. Being Good Friday, much of Darwin had closed down. Lores headed to “customs re maps”, then visited a doctor to obtain a bill of health, an official statement attesting that she was fit, healthy and free of contagious disease. After a spot of sightseeing and lunch, Lores returned to the aerodrome. There, she gave My Little Ship a final once-over, supervised the refuelling and ensured that “the water was changed in my water-containers”. She also checked the collapsible boat. It was just a large rubber tube with a tin water bottle in the centre which was kept in place by a wide strip of rubber. She was “greatly disappointed” as it was not self-inflatable. Lores would have to use a bicycle pump to fill it, which would be impossible if she force-landed in the sea. Indeed, it proved unreliable even on land. During a practice run, the aviatrix discovered that the pump wouldn’t work properly. A new connection had to be secured. Once the boat began to inflate, Lores found a large hole that needed patching. Even then, it took 15 minutes to blow up. As she later told the story: “much laughter was caused as we talked of the position in which I should find myself, were I forced to use it, with a boat and pump both out of action”.
The airwoman detected another fault. “It was only when cleaning out my petrol filter, after I had disconnected the petrol flex from the carburettor, that it was found to be perished”, and leaking badly. She didn’t have a spare. Where on earth could she get a new flex on Good Friday? Fortunately, Reverend Keith Langford-Smith, Superintendent of the Roper River Aboriginal mission, was on hand. Langford-Smith had gained a sound reputation in the Northern Territory as he carried his missionary work to the remote reaches of Arnhem Land courtesy of Sky Pilot, his Gipsy Moth. Along with noted author and explorer Dr Sidney Broomfield, he had intended to escort Lores to Melville Island. “Mr Langford-Smith came to my aid by giving me the new [flex] … from his machine, and fixing it for me.”
After returning to the hotel that evening, Lores enjoyed “a cheery party” with friends over dinner, followed by a musical evening in one of their houses. Then, she “came home to prepare for big hop”.
CAUGHT IN A MONSOON
“Very bad storm near Seremban [and] Penang but got through … bad passage to Alor Star, one storm after another and very rough going.” Lores arrived at 1pm, refuelled, grabbed a bite to eat and within half an hour was making for Victoria Point, in the southernmost part of Burma. By this stage, she was “sick” of the weather, and would “be glad to have some good Aussie sunshine”. She was, however, denied anything resembling a fine Brisbane day. Three hours out of Alor Star, she was “enveloped in it”. Buffeted by strong winds, she struggled to maintain control.
The sky darkened dramatically. Soon the gusts were so fierce “it became almost impossible to correct the bumps” and Lores was terrified that “my wings would be ripped off”. The Moth was “tossed about like a leaf in the gale”. One moment, it was “racing, nose down at breakneck speed”. The next, the airwoman was thrown onto the right side of the cockpit, then the left. Within a blink, “in a violent upward current”, the Moth was practically vertical, seemingly suspended from its upright nose; the machine was “hanging on her prop”. It was getting darker and darker as My Little Ship blundered through the monsoon. Clinging to the controls, Lores used all the strength of her petite frame and every skerrick of flying skill to maintain stability – and to stay airborne.
Lores battled for about 20 minutes, then “lost all visibility”. She was “flying very low” and “was afraid of barging into the many small islands” that dotted the sea in the Mergui Archipelago. “I suddenly felt a vigorous jolt as though I had struck something. I found myself well over on my right wing, and it took me all my time to bring her back again.” It may have been “just one of those violent currents” but it made the airwoman feel “very uncomfortable”. Indeed, she was “decidedly terrified”. It was 5.30pm, with heavy lightning ahead. She was only about 30 miles (48km) from Victoria Point but, with a sky “as black as ink”, she thought it best to land.
The aviatrix flew over a coastline. She “circled several times and decided the beach was best” as there were “too many bushes on the land”. There
were several buffalo about so she “side slipped down between the herds”. Lores was “just flattening out” when she saw the “buffalo walking right into the path of the plane”. There wasn’t enough room to take off again to avoid them. As she landed, she “tried to swing a little to the left, but unfortunately the beach sloped away … the wing caught the water and swung her round, the next thing I felt was the wheels dragging and big spray came up; I felt a terrific bang on my forehead and my face was under water.”
My Little Ship had flipped over. Lores was trapped. It was a terrifying moment. “I tried frantically to get the pin out of my harness but for several jerks it would not release.” The split pin had bent and wouldn’t budge. An appalling thought flashed through Lores’ mind. “What an inglorious finish – to be drowned in my cockpit, upside down.” Her fingers continued to fumble. “Then at last it came away. Fortunately I was only under water as the waves broke, so that I was able to breathe between times. I scrambled out.”
Scrutinising the damage, the airwoman “thought my heart would break”. My Little Ship had suffered many times during its short flying life but not even Cedric Hill’s crack-up on Atamboea [the previous owner of the plane had crashed there in 1930] had been as bad as this. Lores “… sat on the beach, my clothes soaked, and looked at My Little Ship. I had failed, and my aeroplane was severely damaged and in fairly deep water, upside down. I was so distressed at my failure that I felt for my revolver.”
She usually tucked the pistol into her high flying boots, within easy reach in case of wild animals or threat of “molestation”. It wasn’t there; it had probably fallen into the water. This was just as well, as “I do firmly believe I would have used it”.
Lores couldn’t despair forever. “I seemed to get a little of my nerve back.” She took off her leather coat and helmet, “looked round for some sign of life” and spied “some natives in the distance” but they were “too shy to come when I called, and in fact walked in the other direction. I ran after them, then they seemed to understand. I kept beckoning, then many came from every direction. I explained by gesture and then drove them in front of me.”
The villagers turned around and headed away, but Lores hurried them towards her stricken Moth. She indicated that it had to be shifted to above the waterline, but that she could not do it herself – she needed their help. Showing them what she wanted as waves broke on the shore, “she started a sort of war cry and shoved” the aircraft “with all my might”. Then “all would turn to watch the breakers and all would start my war cry, and in this manner we moved her inch by inch … until she was clear of water.”
Leaving the Moth on its back to drain out, Lores removed her things from the lockers, including the Charleville whisky bottle. The recoil from banging her forehead in the crash had resulted in a sore neck, probably a whiplash injury. The bottle would come in handy as a compress. The villagers “were so kind. They offered me everything!” Lores was given a small corner of their communal hut which she screened with a sarong. They tried to bring her food but Lores didn’t like the smell of it, and instead relied on her rations. One woman in particular seemed to take to her. “From that moment,” Lores recalled, “she became my shadow, a self-appointed bodyguard. She would allow no-one else to do anything for me … I nicknamed her SOS, short for Soul of Sympathy … she did everything humanly possible to distract my mind and make me happy.”
Estimating that she had crashed about 30 or 40 miles (48-64km) from Victoria Point, Lores tried to work out her location. She laid out her maps and, with a combination of pointing and uttering the Malay place names, eventually determined that she was on an island close to Koh-Pha-Yam or, as it was known in English at the time, Delisle Island, and Koh Jang or Saddle Island. Contemporary maps indicate that she had crashed on Khao Bang Ben (Khao means island). Armed with this information, she wrote a letter explaining what had happened, and encouraged one of the villagers to take it to “some white people”.
Location identified, letter written, it was time to turn in. “My emotions,” wrote the airwoman, “can hardly be expressed. I was lucky to be alive and amongst friendly and sympathetic natives. On the other hand, my record was impossible, my machine beyond repair without assistance. I did not know how long it would take for word to filter through, and I felt desperately unhappy to think I was causing Billi so much anxiety.”
“I was lucky to be alive … On the other hand, my record was impossible, my machine beyond repair without assistance.”
FLYGIRL … LORES BONNEY WITH HUSBAND HARRY IN 1932 AND ( OPPOSITE, OPENING PAGE) IN HER BELOVED GIPSY MOTH, MY LITTLE SHIP.