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.

The Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - INSIDE THIS WEEK -

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.

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