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Aid by aeroplane for stranded travellers, isolated communities and patients requiring medical treatment


A MONOSPAR AIR AMBULANCE IN FLIGHT. This machine is modelled on the Monospar Universal, and has two Pobjoy Niagara III engines of 95 horse-power each. It was awarded the Magyar Cup in a competition for air ambulances at Budapest in 1937. Great Britain, Romania, France and Spain are countries in which Monospar ambulances are in use. On 72 per cent of its power, the cruising speed of this aircraft at sea level is 115 miles an hour.

MANY lives have been saved and much suffering has been alleviated by the use of air transport.

Isolated communities, inhabitants of areas affected by earthquake, flood and famine, individuals stranded in the desert, victims of accidents, patients in urgent need of medical treatment: all may have reason to be grateful for the timely arrival of an aeroplane.

Success in emergency rescue work demands great skill, initiative and resource on the part of the pilots concerned. When operations are on a large scale, the officer in command must be a capable organizer. Medical aid by aircraft has proved so valuable that it has developed into a regulated service in which doctors and nurses cooperate with aviators. Machines designed specially for ambulance work are now available.

In February 1938 a radio message was received from Rathlin Island, a few miles off the coast of County Antrim, Northern Ireland, asking for food and fuel. For several weeks gales had prevented vessels from bringing supplies from the mainland to the inhabitants of the island. Bad weather had stopped fishing boats and almost the only food was meat, which was being eaten raw, as there was no fuel for cooking.

The weather continued to be severe, and Viscount Craigavon, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, sent a request for help to the Royal Air Force aerodrome at Aldergrove, Co. Antrim. No aeroplane had previously landed on the island. Flying Officer D. E. Gillam, who knew the locality, was selected to make the attempt to land with stores.

A message was sent to Rathlin that an attempt to land would be made, and the islanders were asked to light signal fires to aid the pilot. Flying Officer Gillam arrived over the island and landed without damage, bringing his machine over a wall and alighting on a field measuring 200 by 300 yards and bounded by stone walls. He stayed for about half an hour while the stores were being unloaded, and then took off. Soon after he had left, a machine piloted by Flight Lieutenant R. W. L. Bryant, manager of Ards Airport, landed successfully with stores. On the following day Flying Officer Gillam brought further supplies.

The most extensive achievement of large-scale relief by aircraft in difficult country was the evacuation by the Royal Air Force of 586 persons from Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Not one life was lost, although the operation was conducted in adverse weather, over mountainous country.

In December 1928 a message from Sir Francis Humphrys - then British Envoy Extraordinary - was received through the Afghan radio service that he wished to evacuate the women and children of the British Legation as soon as possible, and asked for a reconnaissance flight to be made. The message ceased abruptly during transmission. As communications were cut, and as the country was in a state of civil war, it was not known whether aircraft could land at Kabul or what reception aircraft would get. It was imperative to avoid any accusation of intervention in the affairs of Afghanistan. All weapons were removed from the aircraft detailed for the operations, and the personnel did not carry revolvers. Cameras were also removed. Pamphlets explaining the humanitarian mission of the aviators were carried and were to be dropped over the centres of the disturbance.

The first stage of the operations was to reconnoitre and establish communication with the Legation. Flying Officer Trusk and Leading Aircraftman Donaldson flew from Peshawar to Kabul to drop a message and a Popham Panel, a device for communication. The pilot saw signals telling him not to land and to fly high, but he had to fly low to ensure dropping the message. Heavy fire was opened on the machine, damaging the engine and compelling it to land.

The officer sent out a message that the machine had been hit and then landed on Sherpur Aerodrome, Kabul. The panel was taken by Afghans to the Legation. Later the officer and the aircraftman went to the Legation, where they remained. There were fourteen

bullet holes in the machine, a DH 9A. A second aeroplane made the venture. Although it was hit, the pilot dropped a panel and flew back, reporting that ground strips on the lawn of the Legation spelled out the message, “Do not land. Fly high. All’s well”.

Other flights followed, and a signalling lamp was dropped successfully under fire. Plans were made to drop a radio transmitting set. Two machines were to undertake this task, one to drop a dummy set to draw the fire of the Afghans so that the other would have a better chance of dropping the radio into the grounds of the Legation. Fortunately the Afghan wireless service was reopened. Communication was established and this closed the first phase of the operations.

To Safety at 10,000 Feet

The next phase was to evacuate the women and. children of British, Indian, French, German, Italian and other nationalities and to install a short-wave radio set in the Legation so that direct communication was maintained throughout the period of evacuation between India and Sir Francis Humphrys. Sherpur Aerodrome was used. With the evacuation of the women and children

the situation became easier. A mail service was begun and the third phase opened quietly, but in January King Amanullah abdicated in favour of his brother Inayatullah, whose reign lasted only a few days. Trouble was feared, but Sir Francis Humphrys arranged for King Inayatullah and his family to be evacuated by air. After this it was decided to withdraw the British, German, French and Italian Legations, and the fourth stage of the operations, completed on February 25, 1929, ended in their evacuation by air.

In all, 84 flights were made, 586 passengers and 24,193 lb of baggage were carried, the total weight being 92,482 lb. A distance of 28,160 miles was flown during the operations, and the preliminary flights brought the total to 33,930 miles. The height of the mountains caused the average flying altitude to be 10,000 feet.


EVACUATION OF KABUL BY THE R.A.F. In December 1923 civil war in Afghanistan made necessary the evacuation of the women and children of the British and other Legations. This was successfully carried out, and later the personnel of the Legations were evacuated also. Troop-carrying machines were used, and 586 people were flown to safety. Conditions of extreme cold and the hostility of warring Afghans made the task a difficult one.

Intense cold caused the loss of one machine, a Vickers Victoria, and added to the difficulties of the evacuation. Flight Lieutenant R. Ivelaw-Chapman, accompanied by Flying Officer A. R. S. Davies, was on the outward journey to Kabul, at about 3,500 feet, when both engines began to fail, as the carburettors were blocked by ice. The machine lost height and then the engines stopped. The fliers succeeded in landing on a small plateau, about 60 yards square, with a 200-feet precipice on three sides, but the machine was wrecked by the boulders on the rugged ground and Flying Officer Davies was injured.

Although the country appeared to be deserted when viewed from the air, the machine was surrounded in a few minutes by excited but friendly Afghans. The two aviators were taken to a village. Later, a Bristol Fighter landed, but this machine was damaged on the rough ground. Repairs were made with the aid of an Afghan carpenter. Fighting occurred between rival bands of Afghans, and the aeroplane came under the fire of both parties, but it was not damaged. It could not accommodate two passengers; so the pilot took off with the injured officer and returned later for his comrade.

As soon as the effect of the cold was realized steps, were taken to prevent further trouble. Fuel was filtered twice before the tanks were filled. At the end of the day’s flying the petrol filters were cleaned and the tanks were filled overnight. Before proceeding to Kabul each machine made a short test flight, after which the petrol filters were again cleaned. No trouble was experienced after these precautionary measures had been instituted.

The types of machine used were Vickers Victoria, Westland Wapiti, DH 9A and Handley Page Hinaidi. At the beginning of the operations the Royal Air Force in India had only one transport machine, the Hinaidi; so the cooperation of the Iraq Command was secured. Vickers Victorias flew from Iraq to India, and a squadron to replace them flew from Egypt to Baghdad.

No corner of the world deters aviators from rescue work. The search for Polar explorers offers problems of particular difficulty. A noteworthy example of international cooperation was the search made in the Antarctic for the American explorer Lincoln Ellsworth and his British colleague, Herbert Hollick-Kenyon. Ellsworth and his companion took off in the aeroplane Polar Star, to fly 2,000 miles across the Antarctic in November 1935.

Antarctic Adventure

Radio messages from the aircraft ceased on the day following. Weeks passed and no signals were heard. Ellsworth had arranged, in the event of an accident, to try to reach the base in Little America which had been established by Admiral Byrd’s expedition and there to await the arrival of Sir Hubert Wilkins in the expedition’s ship, the Wyatt Earp.

After the passing of weeks there were fears that disaster had befallen the two men. The British research ship Discovery II was diverted to Melbourne by arrangement between the British and Australian Governments. At Melbourne she embarked two officers of the Royal Australian Air Force with a Moth and a Wapiti aeroplane. These machines had been fitted with gear to enable them to land on ice.

The Discovery II went to New Zealand to receive other gear and then sailed for the Antarctic. Having made a quick passage through the ice of the Ross Sea, she arrived at the Bay of Whales. A tent was seen on the face of the barrier ice, but signals from the ship were not answered. Lieutenant Douglas took off in the Moth, sighted the explorer’s aeroplane and saw Hollick-Kenyon. After having dropped a parachute the aviator returned to the ship.

Ellsworth and his companion were soon on board the vessel. They explained that almost at the end of the flight of the Polar Star, and when only about twenty miles from Little America, their fuel was exhausted. The aviators landed. Their radio transmitter failed and this was the cause of -their silence. They loaded food on to the sledge they had carried in the Polar Star and proceeded to the base, as arranged, to await the Wyatt Earp.


THE SEARCH FOR ELLSWORTH, the explorer, was assisted by this Moth seaplane, when he was missing in 1935. Ellsworth, with Hollick-Kenyon, set off in November 1935, to fly 2,000 miles across the Antarctic. After the first day, no news of him was received. Several weeks later the Moth seaplane took off from the Bay of Whales and sighted Ellsworth and his machine Not long afterwards the two explorers were safe on board the research ship Discovery II.

An outstanding rescue by aircraft in conditions which made it impossible for the machines to land was that of Brig.-Gen. A. C. Lewin and Mrs. Lewin from the Nile swamps known as the Sudd, in October 1937. Brig.-Gen. Lewin, at the age of 63, had gained second place in the King’s Cup Air Race. He was flying to his home in Kenya in his Miles Whitney Straight, but had passed

beyond Malakal, in the Sudan, where there is an aerodrome, because of a compass error and the breaking of his time-of-flight clock. His petrol tailed when he was over the swamp.

He selected what appeared to be the driest patch on which to land. The landing wheels were entangled by the tall grass and the machine turned over, injuring both occupants.

The injuries were not serious. Husband and wife sat on the upturned aircraft and considered their plight. They had only one gallon of water and a small packet of sandwiches. They were off the track and unlikely to be located for at least a week. They realized that the only thing they could do was to wait and keep alive. The rear end of the machine was clear of swamp water and they prepared to spend the first night in this shelter, for rain was threatening and the mosquitoes were swarming round them. They draped mosquito netting inside the aeroplane and crept into the shelter, without eating any of the sandwiches, hoping for a night’s rest.

At sunset the mosquitoes penetrated their shelter and made sleep impossible. The water rose inside ttie aeroplane and made it impossible for the occupants to sit or lie. The heat was intense. The stranded travellers could not speak without swallowing mosquitoes and, although they killed handfuls of the insects, they had no respite. They dared not leave the aeroplane, fearing that the pests outside would be worse. The couple were exhausted when they crawled out at sunrise. They drank water but they could not eat a sandwich.

Stranded in a Trackless Swamp

With an umbrella and a waterproof they rigged a shelter on top of the machine, but Brig.-Gen. Lewin preferred the sun to the flies. He searched in vain for a dry spot, but everywhere was swamp into which he sank up to his knees. Meanwhile Mrs. Lewin sewed the mosquito netting into a bag, leaving an opening through which to enter. This mosquito sleeping bag was effective.

On the fourth day their food was exhausted, but they were too thirsty and feverish to feel the pangs of hunger. They strained the green slime from swamp water and drank to assuage their thirst. At noon Brig.-Gen. Lewin was roused by the sound of an engine. Looking up he saw an aeroplane. He fired a Very light, used one of his eight matches to light a fire and flashed a mirror - all to no purpose. The signals failed to attract attention. The aeroplane disappeared.

Within twenty minutes hope was revived again as they heard the sound of another machine, Imperial Airways flying boat Cassiopeia, piloted by Captain Caspareuthus. They renewed their efforts, this time with success. The flying boat flew low and dropped food and a message for them.

The food revived the marooned couple. They knew that rescue would be difficult and perhaps impossible. All night they wondered if it were possible for an aviator to find them again in a vast swamp with no landmarks.

The overturned machine of Brig.-Gen. Lewin, in the Nile swamps

WAITING FOR THE RESCUE PARTY. This picture shows the overturned machine of Brig.-Gen. Lewin, in the Nile swamps. He was flying to his home in Kenya with his wife, seen on the aircraft, when he ran short of petrol, and made a forced landing. The general is standing on the right. The machine was seen from an air liner which later guided R.A.F. aeroplanes, carrying supplies, to the spot. There were no suitable places for landing in the vicinity, but aeroplanes were able to guide a rescue party of natives to the general and his wife.

Having dropped the food, Captain Caspareuthus turned back to Malakal. He stopped there all night while No. 47 Squadron of the Royal Air Force, under the direction of the Acting Governor at Malakal, Mr. Macphail, prepared to leave at dawn. Then Captain Caspareuthus took off and led the eight Service machines in the search. By accurate navigation he led them to the location and they saw mirror signals flashed by Brig.-Gen. Lewin.

Landing was out of the question. The rescuers dropped water, food, blankets, ground sheets, medical stores, and a pole and flag, so that the position could be marked to guide a ground search party. They also dropped a message picking-up apparatus used for army cooperation exercises.

The plight of the couple was still perilous. They were in a trackless swamp as large as Great Britain, and hidden by grass from 4 feet to 8 feet high. They were twenty miles from the nearest village, Kongor, and 150 miles from the nearest white man. They were located: the problem of extricating them remained to be solved. Mr. Marwood, District Commissioner at Bor, ordered the police to organize a search party. This set out, but torrential rain and hunger compelled a return. A second party, composed entirely of Dinkas from the Bor district, tall and primitive natives, set out to cross about seventy-five miles of swamps. They were organized by messages dropped from aeroplanes, and were guided by aeroplanes.

Mrs. Lewin wrote a message and attached it to a line suspended between two poles. An aircraft pilot swooped low and the message was picked up. Mrs. Lewin wrote that she did not think they would be able to make the journey to safety unless they could be carried in hammocks or on stretchers. Stretchers were dropped by parachute. On the tenth day the Dinkas reached the couple. Then the ordeal of the journey began, but both survived it.

The Australians have developed the medical service which tends isolated communities, the pioneer being the Rev. John Flynn, Superintendent of the Australian Inland Mission. At the time of writing there are three organizations in Australia. That of the pioneer, the Australian Inland Mission, has its base hospital and “flying doctor” at Cloncurry, in Queensland. At Darwin, on the north coast of the Northern Territory, is the headquarters of the service established by the Commonwealth Government. Four bases are operated by the Aerial Medical Service, one at Broken Hill, the mining centre in New South Wales, another at Croydon, Queensland, one at Wyndham, at the head of Cambridge Gulf, on the north coast of Western Australia, and another at Port Hedland, also on the north coast of Western Australia. Today it is claimed that no settler in the “out-back” is more than 400 miles from medical aid, which means about four hours by aeroplane.

The “Flying Doctor”

About 50,000 Australians live “out-back”, the men being mostly farmers. Until recently their isolation was so complete that many of them were unmarried, as the life was too lonely for women, and sickness or accident had to be treated without medical aid. Wireless and aircraft are altering conditions and it is hoped that development of the medical aid service will induce more settlers to make their homes away from the cities.

The Rev. John Flynn was the minister of a mission founded by a Scottish woman whose son had perished in the Never Never Land (North and West Queensland). Mr. Flynn travelled by camel through the sparsely populated “out-back” ministering to his flock. In 1912 he approached the Government and secured support in establishing nursing homes in key districts. After the war of 1914-18 he persevered with his plan for securing radio transmitting and receiving sets to enable isolated communities to get into touch with the hospitals, and to have an aeroplane available to carry the doctor to his patients or to carry patients to the doctor. In 1928 the service was inaugurated at Cloncurry. The machine was a Victory DH 50 and the pilot was Arthur Affleck. The medical officer was Dr. K. St. Vincent Welch.

An essential part of the aid scheme was to secure inexpensive radio apparatus. In the beginning no suitable set was available. After prolonged experiment Alfred Traeger, of Adelaide, produced a set capable of transmitting more than 700 miles. The main power was derived from a generator driven by bicycle pedals.

A DOOR IN THE SIDE of the Monospar Ambulance enables a stretcher to be placed in the machine

A DOOR IN THE SIDE of the Monospar Ambulance enables the stretcher on which the patient lies to be placed in the machine with the least possible amount of tilting In addition to the pilot, this machine accommodates patient, doctor and nurse in a sound-proofed cabin, the ventilation and temperature of which are controllable The remarkably complete medical equipment includes a collapsible oxygen tent and blood transfusion apparatus.

The medical aeroplanes have wireless, enabling the doctor to keep in touch with his hospital base and his patients while in flight. Each doctor works in a radius of about 300 miles, but many cover vast distances. One flew 1,250 miles to reach a patient, and then flew the patient 1,250 miles to hospital.

Dr. Clyde Cornwall Fenton, of Darwin, is famous throughout the Commonwealth. He pilots his aeroplane and keeps it tuned up. He was once at Wyndham when a message reached him that, serum was wanted by the hospital at Alice Springs, in the heart of Australia. He flew to Darwin to collect the serum, and then flew 1,000 miles to Alice Springs. Then came a call to a patient at Newcastle Waters, hundreds of miles north.

Dr. Fenton did not carry radio in his Moth because he considered that the weight would hamper him if he had to bring a patient by air over a long distance. He arranged that if he were missing no search need be made until forty-eight hours had elapsed, as he might be on the way to a patient and unable to notify his base. In September 1937 nothing was heard from him for the stipulated period. A search by aeroplanes and ground parties was organized.

Flight Lieutenant Hely, of the Royal Australian Air Force, who had made search flights and found other missing men, saw the doctor’s machine about twenty-five miles from Tanumbirini, in the Northern Territory, and the doctor near it. The officer dropped a message asking if it was safe to land. Dr. Fenton spelled out in white lint, anchored with stones, in letters several feet long, “O.K. You land”. Flight Lieutenant Hely landed. After Dr. Fenton had been given water and food he was flown to Newcastle Waters.

Dr. Fenton had intended to land at Tanumbirini, but he overshot the place and realized that his fuel was nearly exhausted. He landed to take bearings. Then he found that he had not sufficient fuel to get to his destination. He cut down bushes and flagged the area with lint. Then he used the last of his petrol for a brief flight to make sure that his signals were visible from the air. He landed again and prepared to wait.

X-Ray Apparatus by Air

In Canada aeroplanes have been used to carry sick and injured Indians to hospital and to carry medicines to remote districts. In 1937 the Indian Affairs Branch of the Department of Mines and Resources chartered an aeroplane and fitted it with a complete diagnostic outfit, including X-ray apparatus and the electrical generator to operate it. The machine was flown to the Indian residential sections where clinics for tuberculosis were conducted.

Ambulance aeroplanes have been specially built for the transport of patients, and the training of medical and nursing staff is the newest development. The Monospar “Ambulance”, made by General Aircraft, Ltd, was designed under the auspices of the British Red Cross Society. It accommodates a stretcher patient, a doctor and a nurse. Complete medical equipment includes a collapsible oxygen tent, blood transfusion apparatus, cupboards and racks fitted with medical stores, implements and instruments. Ventilation and temperature of the cabin are controllable and the cabin is soundproofed.

The stretcher is passed through a doorway 6 ft 6-in by 2 ft 6-in on the starboard side of the cabin; this large opening admits the stretcher at the least possible tilt. The machine is modelled on the standard Monospar Universal, and is powered by two Pobjoy Niagara III engines, each of which develops 95 horse-power. The landing speed is 50 miles an hour. With 72 per cent power, the cruising speed is 115 miles an hour, and the range is 419 miles. The service ceiling is 13,000 feet.

In 1937 various countries sent ambulance aeroplanes to Budapest, Hungary, for a contest in which emergency conditions were reproduced. The Monospar Ambulance was awarded the Magyar Cup. One ambulance is in service in Great Britain, and Romania, France and Spain have bought machines.

In France one surgeon is equipped with a machine fitted as a miniature operating theatre which can be flown to a serious case in an emergency. In the same country a volunteer corps of flying nurses is being trained.

STRANDED IN THE DESERT - passengers from the Imperial Airways liner Horsa

STRANDED IN THE ARABIAN DESERT for thirty hours, these passengers from the Imperial Airways liner Horsa had to take shelter under the wing of the machine. In August 1936 the Horsa made a forced landing in the dark, and the passengers had to subsist on the small amount of food and drink in the machine. They were discovered the next day by an R.A.F. pilot, who returned to the spot later with water and provisions. The plight of the passengers and crew was such that they could not have survived much longer.

You can read more on “Air Transport in Canada”, “Australia’s Civil Aviation” and “Novel Uses of the Aeroplane” on this website.

Dramas of Air Rescues