How a dash­ing Scot­tish aris­to­crat be­came the first man to fly over Everest is a re­mark­able story of tri­umph against seem­ingly in­sur­mount­able odds, dis­cov­ers Morag Boot­land

Scottish Field - - CONTENTS -

How two Scots be­came the first men to fly over Mount Everest

Eighty-five years ago, two brave Scots pi­lots flew over the 29,029 ft sum­mit of Mount Everest in open cock­pit bi­planes. On 3 April 1933 they be­came the first men to look down on the snow-capped peak of the world’s high­est moun­tain from a dis­tance close enough to make even to­day’s most skilled avi­a­tors break out in a cold sweat.

The gen­e­sis of this am­bi­tious feat of avi­a­tion could well have been a plot from a movie, or plucked straight out of Boys Own Ad­ven­ture Sto­ries. De­spite flight be­ing in its in­fancy, Bri­tain held records for fly­ing the great­est dis­tance at the great­est speed and for fly­ing at the high­est al­ti­tude.

When Scot­tish au­thor, politi­cian and his­to­rian John Buchan heard that the Amer­i­cans had suc­cess­fully flown over both the North and South Poles he was in­censed and swiftly hatched a plan to en­sure that the Brits were once again head and shoul­ders above our transat­lantic cousins in the avi­a­tion stakes. Buchan was the Union­ist Party Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment for the Scot­tish Uni­ver­si­ties. It was in the House of Com­mons in June 1932 that he ap­proached Dou­glas Dou­glas-Hamil­ton, MP for East Ren­frew­shire and per­suaded him to be chief pi­lot on a flight that would break records and push the bound­aries of avi­a­tion. The Hous­ton Mount Everest Ex­pe­di­tion was born.

Buchan’s am­bi­tious plan aimed to en­sure that the first plane to fly over the sum­mit of Mount Everest, the world’s high­est peak, was a Scot. Dou­glas-Hamil­ton, 14th Duke of Hamil­ton or Lord Cly­des­dale was the el­dest of four broth­ers who made mil­i­tary his­tory, all of them be­ing ranked Squadron Leader or above at the out­break of World War Two.

Born in Lon­don, he was ed­u­cated at Eton and Bal­liol Col­lege in Ox­ford be­fore be­com­ing com­man­der of 602 City of Glas­gow Squadron of the Royal Aux­il­iary Air Force and later Fly­ing Of­fi­cer, flight lieu­tenant, squadron leader and wing com­man­der.

His fel­low pi­lot for the Everest ex­pe­di­tion was 28-year-old Flight Lieu­tenant David Fowler McIn­tyre. Born in Go­van in 1905, McIn­tyre would go on to de­velop the air­line in­dus­try in Scot­land, found­ing Scot­tish Avi­a­tion at Prest­wick in 1935 and suc­cess­fully man­u­fac­tur­ing the Prest­wick Pioneer and Twin Pioneer air­crafts. As well as be­ing a mat­ter of na­tional pride, the flight, which was bankrolled by phi­lan­thropist and well­known suf­fragette Lady Hous­ton, aimed to find proof that British climbers Ge­orge Mal­lory and An­drew Irvine had reached the sum­mit of Everest on their at­tempt to be the first men to reach the peak in June 1924, be­fore they per­ished on its slopes.

Four­teen months of care­ful plan­ning and in­ten­sive tech­ni­cal work went into the ex­pe­di­tion which would be led by Air Com­modore Pere­grine Fel­lowes. Dou­glas-Hamil­ton was ac­com­pa­nied in his air­craft by ob­server and pho­tog­ra­pher Colonel Ste­wart Blacker, while McIn­tyre was joined by an ex­pe­ri­enced aerial pho­tog­ra­pher named Sid­ney Bon­nett. De­spite the many months of care­ful plan­ning and the count­less ex­perts who had worked on the air­craft, the fact was that the mis­sion was en­tirely at the mercy of the weather. Any­thing other than un­usu­ally favourable con­di­tions would lead to fail­ure.

The open-cock­pit planes car­ried only enough oxy­gen for 15 min­utes and at such high al­ti­tude the men had to wear elec­tri­cally warmed clothes to pre­vent them from freez­ing to death. They car­ried no para­chutes. The air­craft could travel at 140mph, but with winds reg­u­larly in ex­cess of that, if the wind di­rec­tion wasn’t favourable then the planes would make lit­tle to no head­way.

Ahead of the ex­pe­di­tion they be­lieved that it would take around an hour-and-a-half to reach Everest, leav­ing enough fuel for them for only 15 min­utes of flight over the jagged peaks be­low. The odds were firmly stacked against them.

Buchan hatched a plan to en­sure that the Brits were head and shoul­ders above our transat­lantic cousins

The mod­i­fied West­land bi­planes took off from Lal­balu aero­drome Purnea in In­dia and Dou­glas-Hamil­ton wrote of his first sight­ing of Everest from around 50 miles away at 19,000 feet: ‘the dust haze, com­pletely ob­scur­ing the foothills, rose well above the snow line with the re­sult that this arc of great moun­tains ap­peared de­tached from the earth and sky.’

Bat­tling cramp, Dou­glas-Hamil­ton climbed to an al­ti­tude of 31,000 ft but just a short dis­tance from the sum­mit he re­alised they had been blown off course and were ap­proach­ing Everest from the wrong side, leav­ing them at the mercy of strong down­draughts.

As the planes were sucked down into the jagged teeth of the moun­tain range, Blacker was work­ing over­time with the cam­eras, de­scrib­ing the power of the down­draught as feel­ing like ‘drop­ping through space’.

At one point, Bon­nett, the cam­era­man who ac­com­pa­nied McIn­tyre in his plane, lost con­scious­ness due to a frac­ture in his oxy­gen line. Only his quick think­ing in ty­ing his hand­ker­chief around the frac­tured line when he first felt faint saved his life.

McIn­tyre’s mask broke and Dou­glasHamil­ton’s sup­ply was mal­func­tion­ing as they ap­proached Everest. It was only thanks to a last-minute up­draft that the planes cleared the sum­mit by

around 500 feet. The con­grat­u­la­tory tele­grams be­gan to flood in and the British press re­ported on ‘the un­con­quer­able spirit of man’, ‘epic qual­i­ties of the flight’ and the ‘splen­did achieve­ment’. The mis­sion had suc­ceeded in tak­ing the first pho­to­graphs of the sum­mit of Everest, but due to poor vis­i­bil­ity and mal­func­tion­ing sur­vey cam­eras they had not been able to com­pletely map the area that the planes flew over. It was de­cided that a sec­ond flight was re­quired to gather the sur­vey in­for­ma­tion and film the footage re­quired to cre­ate a film on the flight.

The sec­ond flight came with Air Com­modore Fel­lowes in his sick bed with a fever. He had not sanc­tioned an­other flight over the sum­mit, only of the sur­round­ing ar­eas in or­der to map them. But on 19 April 1933 the pi­lots risked their lives again and flew once more over the world’s high­est peak in or­der to fully com­plete the mis­sion that had taken them to In­dia, Nepal and to the roof of the world.

The re­sult­ing footage would later be used in a British short doc­u­men­tary film di­rected by Ge­of­frey Barkas and Ivor Mon­tagu. Wings over Everest won an Academy Award in 1936 for Best Short Sub­ject.

Clock­wise from top left Dou­glas Dou­glasHamil­ton (left) with Richard El­li­son, the re­serve RAF pi­lot; Dou­glas-Hamil­ton and Ste­wart Blacker ready for their first flight over Everest; Flight Lieu­tenant David McIn­tyre; Lady Hous­ton, who bankrolled the ex­pe­di­tion.

Pre­vi­ous spread: The Hous­ton-West­land as it ap­proached the South Peak on 19 April 1933, just min­utes be­fore it be­came the first plane to fly over Mount Everest’s sum­mit.

Left: The Wal­lace over the Hi­malayas. Above: Map of the route to In­dia from Bri­tain. Be­low: High al­ti­tude fly­ing gear.

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