Fly­ing 'the Hump' one last time

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - RJ VOGT rj.vogt@mm­times.com

DUR­ING World War II, more than 600 Al­lied air­craft went down over Myan­mar while try­ing to de­liver sup­plies to China. The planes were fly­ing a treach­er­ous route from As­sam, In­dia, to Kun­ming, a route that led them over the eastern peaks of the Hi­malayas.

Al­lied forces, in­clud­ing troops from the US and Aus­tralia, nick­named the route “the Hump” in ref­er­ence to the ma­jes­tic peaks that form the bor­der be­tween north­ern Myan­mar and south­ern China. Though not widely known, many his­to­ri­ans credit the route with sus­tain­ing Chi­nese gen­er­alis­simo Chi­ang Kai-Shek and the Fly­ing Tigers in their bat­tle against im­pe­rial Ja­pan. Ex­tremely dan­ger­ous and suc­cess­ful, the Hump de­liv­ered up to 10,000 tons of cargo per month.

No­body has flown the Hump in a cargo plane for 70 years, but on Au­gust 15, Tom Clay­tor is go­ing to tackle the route one last time.

An Amer­i­can bush pi­lot, Clay­tor has spent the past 26 years on what he de­scribes as “a jour­ney” – a trip criss­cross­ing the world to wit­ness and doc­u­ment undis­cov­ered ar­eas. His videog­ra­phy over the plains of cen­tral Africa in 1994 led to a Na­tional Ge­o­graphic film, Flight

over Africa, and he later starred in the Thai film First Flight, which pre­miered at Cannes Film Fes­ti­val in 2007.

Along the way he’s col­lected a host of sto­ries and footage from re­mote tun­dras, jun­gles and deserts, and picked up 12 lan­guages, in­clud­ing Burmese. As he sits in a teashop in down­town Yan­gon, he ges­tures con­stantly as he de­scribes his lat­est ad­ven­ture.

“This was the key con­nect­ing us to them,” he says, al­most whis­per­ing with in­ten­sity.

Clay­tor is de­scrib­ing how his “Fly­ing the Hump” mis­sion be­gan, when he vis­ited the Fly­ing Tigers Mu­seum in Kun­ming in the late 1990s. He was struck by the mu­seum’s re­spect­ful trib­ute to the Hump and the men who flew over it, and when the mu­seum pur­chased a World War II-era Dou­glas C-47 cargo plane to fea­ture as its cen­ter­piece, he was quick to vol­un­teer to de­liver it.

The US$150,000 air­craft, which was pre­vi­ously owned by a col­lec­tor in Aus­tralia, has been re­fur­bished and out­fit­ted for the long jour­ney north. Along with a crew of six, Clay­tor will fly through In­done­sia, Malaysia, Thailand and Myan­mar – a trip of more than 5600 nau­ti­cal miles.

Along the way, the air­craft will col­lect footage from north­ern Myan­mar to as­sist the US gov­ern­ment in its search for the re­mains of 600 air­craft and 740 Amer­i­can crew mem­bers that were shot down or crashed dur­ing the war. Clay­tor hopes to part­ner with the Myan­mar Air Force on the mis­sion.

“It is very dif­fi­cult to find pis­ton avi­a­tion fuel in Asia these days. The Myan­mar Air Force still has PT-6 pis­ton air­craft for flight train­ing in Meikhtila. We have asked the air force if we can buy some of the 90 Oc­tane fuel that they use for their train­ers,” he said.

“This is a tremen­dous op­por­tu­nity for ‘US-Myan­mar friend­ship’ to hon­our the brave pilots who flew these mis­sions and the Myan­mar peo­ple who as­sisted with the mis­sion in World War II.”

As for whether he is scared about the up­com­ing flight over the Hump, Clay­tor said the en­tire crew in­stead feels “a lit­tle nos­tal­gic” about the jour­ney.

“We don’t look at the danger, we look at the ex­cite­ment. The more modern and so­phis­ti­cated air­craft be­come, the more you lose touch with the el­e­ments around you. This is an an­tique air­craft with orig­i­nal in­stru­ments ... In the air, we have no com­put­ers, so we have to mon­i­tor the in­stru­ments and nurse the en­gines,” he said.

“We will be wind­ing our way amid 18,000-foot peaks. Over 600 air­craft were lost mak­ing this jour­ney dur­ing the war. This will cer­tainly be on our minds, but I think even more we will be think­ing of those who sac­ri­ficed their lives at that time to win the peace, and how im­por­tant it is to­day to main­tain the friend­ships be­tween na­tions charged with keep­ing the peace.”

Photo: Sup­plied

The vin­tage Dou­glas C-47 mil­i­tary cargo plane is ready to fly again.

Photo: Sup­plied

They don’t make them like this any more: the cock­pit of the C-47.

Photo: RJ Vogt

Tom Clay­tor de­scribes his lat­est ad­ven­ture.

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