ON TOP OF WORLD
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
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.