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A 20,000 miles reconnaissance round Africa in a flying boat


THE DEPARTURE. The flying-boat Singapore I took off from the River Medway on November 17, 1927. In this photograph Lady Cobham is waving good-bye and Sir Alan Cobham is at the controls. The complement of six was completed by four men—Worrall (assistant pilot), Green (Rolls-Royce engineer), Conway (assistant engineer), and Bonnett (cinematographer).

LYING head to wind in the River Medway, with her engines ticking over, the flying boat Singapore I was held at her moorings by only one line astern. The boatman who was standing by this line awaited the signal to release it. There was a wave of the arm from the pilot’s cockpit, a quick release, and a roar as the engines were opened out. A few seconds later Sir Alan Cobham eased the great craft off the water and so began his memorable survey flight round Africa.

The Singapore I was an all-metal biplane flying boat, weighing nearly ten tons and powered by two 650-700 horse-power Rolls-Royce Condor engines. She ascended from the Medway at Rochester, Kent, on November 17, 1927, passed over the Houses of Parliament and continued over the River Thames to beyond Reading, where she turned south for the coast at Hamble, near Southampton. This was the first stopping place on a flight during which Africa was to be virtually encircled.

Made possible by the support of Sir Charles Wakefield (now Lord Wakefield of Hythe), the flight was planned more ambitiously than its predecessors (see pages 278-282). The flying boat had a complement of six: Sir Alan and Lady Cobham, Worrall (assistant pilot), Green (Rolls-Royce engineer), Conway (assistant engineer), and Bonnett (cinematographer).

Lady Cobham’s role was an important one. She not only set up a record for air travel by a woman, but she also frequently acted as interpreter and, by doing all her husband’s secretarial work, freed him for important conferences at the stopping places. Conferences were numerous, for the Governments of Great Britain, the Union of South Africa, Egypt, the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, Southern Rhodesia and of numerous Crown Colonies were jointly concerned in the venture, because the African air routes pass over many territories. At numerous stopping places Government officials were to be interviewed and important questions of finance, landing facilities and supplies had to be decided.

The main route comprised a clockwise circuit of Africa — across the Mediterranean, up the valley of the Nile, and then along the shores of the Indian Ocean to Capetown. Continuing coastwise, the return was to be made along the Atlantic seaboard as far as Gibraltar. Great stretches of the route had never been flown before; scarcely any of it in a flying boat.

Subsidiary to the main flight was an experimental flight for the Colonial Office, starting from Lake Victoria. At this point, with only about a quarter of the journey done, the Singapore I was to double back on her tracks. The Colonial Office wanted to know the possibilities and difficulties of an air mail service to Lake Victoria by way of the Nile. So, after having reached Lake Victoria, the Singapore I was to fly all the way back to Khartoum and then return to the lake before resuming her main flight. The length of this detour was some 2,700 miles.

Disaster threatened the expedition at the first stopping-place. Unlike a ship, a flying boat cannot go astern. Neither can she “reduce sail” when an unfavourable wind threatens to carry her off her course; so her engines must be kept running. When the Singapore I alighted on Southampton

Water she had to be towed up a narrow fairway to her anchorage; but before the motor launch deputed for this duty could take her in tow, a well-meaning yachtsman approached and prepared to throw a line on board. If that line had merely touched the turning propellers they would probably have flown to pieces.

Thick fog delayed the start from Southampton for Bordeaux. As soon as the weather permitted, the flying boat headed out across the Channel, passed over Guernsey, and picked up the coastline of Brittany. This coastline was followed through the November mists, rain and wind until the mouth of the River Gironde was passed. One of the straightest pieces of coastline in the world runs from the mouth of the Gironde to Biarritz. This was followed until the flying boat came abreast of the French seaplane base at Hourtin, ideally situated near Bordeaux on an inland lake, and surrounded by sand dunes and forests.

Early next morning the flight was resumed, the course lying inland, first along the River Gironde, and then along the River Garonne until near Toulouse, where the river becomes too narrow for a flying boat to alight. From this point the route lay overland for about 100 miles to the shores of the Mediterranean, where the flying boat turned eastwards to Marignane, the combined aerodrome and flying boat port of Marseilles.

Some of the bumpiest flying conditions in the world are associated with the Mediterranean, but, when the Singapore I left Marseilles for Ajaccio, in the island of Corsica, a comparatively easy run of only 220 miles was expected. Instead, a violent gale sprang up, and it was fortunate that the flying boat had two pilots’ seats and dual controls, for at times it required all the strength of both pilots to keep her on an even keel.

THE AFRICAN COAST was virtually encircled in Sir Alan Cobham’s flight

THE AFRICAN COAST was virtually encircled in Sir Alan Cobham’s flight. The continent was reached at Benghazi, in the Italian colony of Libya, and was finally left at a point in Morocco opposite Gibraltar. Subsidiary to the main flight was a special test flight from Lake Victoria, East Africa, to Khartoum and back. This test flight, undertaken at the instance of the Colonial Office, added 2,700 miles to the journey. On the homeward route, Cobham left the inhospitable Sahara coast and flew by way of the Canary Isies to Casablanca.

From Ajaccio the next stage was 540 miles to Malta, over Sardinia and Sicily. On the final stretch, over the open sea, a strong gale sprang up ahead, and darkness threatened to set in before Malta was sighted. Unable to reach the seaplane base at the far end of the island, the flying boat came down in St. Paul’s Bay, alongside H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth, whose searchlight and pinnace rendered timely aid. Next day the journey to the R.A.F. seaplane base was completed.

Despite unfavourable weather the flight so far had been entirely successful. It was now to be threatened with failure and brought to the brink of total loss.

It was not in the air that trouble began, but in the handling of the great aircraft on the waters of an anchorage exposed to the sudden and severe swells of the Mediterranean, which have been dreaded by seamen since the time of the Phoenician navigators. When the Singapore I had alighted off the seaplane base at Marsa Scirocco Bay, Malta, she had to be towed by an R.A.F. pinnace across the open bay, with a heavy swell running. Although an all-metal craft, she was made of duralumin that was — in most places — only about one thirty-second of an inch thick. Her length was 65 ft. 6 in., but it was her great span — 93 feet from wing tip to wing tip — that constituted the danger in a heavy sea.

She could ride sturdily if kept head on to the rollers. But a heavy cross sea might smash her, for if a big roller lifted one wing-tip float it would tend to force the other wing tip under water, and so put violent strains on the lower planes. No flying boat built could withstand a succession of such lateral strains.

At first the tow across Marsa Scirocco Bay was successful. As a diagonal course was steered, the rollers were kept more or less at right angles; but the seas went from bad to worse. Just before the lee of the land was reached, the pinnace altered course without warning, and a big roller lifted the flying boat’s port float and thrust the starboard wing tip under water. As the Singapore I slid sideways down the roller the side pressure on the whole length of the float became insupportable. The starboard float was wrenched away.

Instantly Green, Conway and Bonnett rushed out along the footway of the opposite lower plane, thus weighing that wing down and lifting the floatless starboard plane out of the water. The plight of the flying boat was now desperate, for she could not reach her intended haven and there was no other shelter.

Sir Alan Cobham decided to turn and recross the bay to a point beyond the original alighting place, where there was a hope of more sheltered water in the lee of Delamara Cliff. He was faced with the nightmare journey across the bay again. This time his craft was crippled, three of the crew —and sometimes four — were out on the wing tip, in danger of being swept away, and the gale was increasing.

Perils of the Open Bay

Their only hope, the tow rope, was itself a source of danger; for as the biggest seas approached it had to be slackened, so that the pinnace should not pull against the forces that threatened to overwhelm them.

Slowly they headed out to sea, to meet the recurring crises of the oncoming waves. Many times it seemed that the flying boat’s structure must give way under the excessive strains imposed on it. Near the distant cliffs the worst seas of all were running, but somehow the flying boat won through to the sheltered waters.

A few days later, when the seas had abated sufficiently, the Singapore I was towed once more to the seaplane base, to be hauled up out of the water for repairs. To get her on to the cradle there dead calm was necessary. Instead, a strong south-east wind set in, creating a cross swell that rocked and strained her, even in the shelter of the jetty.

Nothing could be done except wait for a calm, and hope that the remaining float would stand the strain. While keeping watch, Worrall noticed that the float appeared to be sinking lower. He clambered on board and found that the float was waterlogged. The alarm was given and it was decided that somehow the aircraft must be beached on the slipway, to prevent her from overturning.

Sir Alan Cobham's Singapore I was powered by two Rolls-Royce Condor engines

AN ALL-METAL FLYING BOAT, weighing nearly ten tons, the Singapore I was powered by two Rolls-Royce 650-700 horse-power Condor engines. She had a length of 65 ft. 6 in., and a wing span of 93 feet. Built in 1926, she was the first metal-built flying boat to be supplied to the Royal Air Force. She was lent by the R.A.F. to Cobham for his African flight.

The swell was getting heavier and hindered all efforts, but Bonnett swam out with a line and fixed it to the aircraft’s tail. R.A.F. men, waist-deep in water, tried to guide the flying boat’s hull on to the trolley on the slipway, while another gang of men held on to a rope fastened to the nose. The united efforts were nearly successful when a huge swell lifted the flying boat and washed the trolley off the slipway. Although it weighed a ton or so the trolley was never seen again.

Without the trolley it was impossible to get the flying boat up the slipway and not damage her further. To save her from sinking, she must be dragged up the slipway on her hull — if it could be done. About one hundred men worked to save her, and finally they managed to haul her well up the slipway, clear of the waves.

Even there ill luck pursued her. For the gale became worse and washed great boulders over the slipway, threatening further damage unless she were moved higher up. As one wing was already flush with the sea wall, that wing had to be wrenched and smashed to clear the wall before the hull could be drawn up to safety. “It was one of the cruellest things I have ever experienced”, wrote Sir Alan Cobham. But it had to be done.

Soon afterwards wind and sea abated with ironical suddenness, and the expedition had a breathing space to consider its plight.

Compared with the high hopes of a few days before, the situation must have seemed desperate. The damage to the Singapore I was much too serious to be repaired by the means available locally. The crew were worn out. The “Sir Charles Wakefield Flight of Survey Round Africa” had not even reached that continent.

With inspiring tenacity of purpose Sir Alan Cobham carried on. He found that the keel of his aircraft had borne the brunt of the strain on the hull magnificently. He needed two new wing tip floats, a new lower port plane, new elevators and a general overhaul of the hull to render the Singapore I airworthy and seaworthy again. At Rochester the staff of Short Brothers worked night and day to fulfil his needs. With the aid of the R.A.F. at Malta, the flying boat was ready to be launched again in early January 1928. Test flights proved her to be perfect in every way.

Malta, however, was to provide more bad luck. A few hours before a fresh start was due to be made, a sudden gale in the night carried the flying boat away from her moorings and washed her up on the beach. Her starboard wing tip float was punctured by rocks or stones, and had to be replaced by one of the old floats, then only partly repaired.

For hours, while the repairs were being done ashore, men stood in the breaking surf, often neck-deep in water, holding the aircraft off the sea wall. Even when the float had been fixed, it seemed impossible to get the flying boat off the beach and into calm water before darkness made the further work impossible. Eventually it was done, and the next day the naval authorities assisted by lifting the flying boat by crane on to the quay, so that her bent plates could be repaired. This work was soon done, and on January 21, 1928, the Singapore I took off for Benghazi, on the Libyan coast of Africa. The misadventures at Malta — of which only the briefest outline has been given — serve to show some of the difficulties that faced the pioneers of flying-boat travel. The great surface area exposed to the wind, the lightness and comparative fragility of the aircraft, and the limited powers of manoeuvre, as compared with a boat, were at that time all combined with inadequate facilities for sheltered mooring. When the Singapore I raced down the Grand Harbour and took off from Malta she merited all the credit she received, for she was proof of what can be done by indomitable determination. Her main task, however, lay before her.

The African coastline, 450 miles ahead, was reached in exactly five hours, the compass course bringing the aircraft right over the mouth of Benghazi Harbour, Libya. This Italian settlement gave the fliers a great welcome, and saw them off early next morning for Tobruk, another Italian outpost on the north African coast. By noon next day Alexandria was sighted, and the flying boat came down ten miles beyond, on the sheltered waters of Abu Qir Bay.

Cobham's Singapore I afloat on the River Medway

AFLOAT ON THE RIVER MEDWAY at Rochester. The flying boat’s wings were formed of tubular ribs on built-up duralumin spars and were fabric-covered, as were the members comprising the tail unit. After Cobham had left Rochester he flew over the Houses of Parliament, and then followed the course of the Thames to a point beyond Reading. Thence he headed south for the coast at Hamble, near Southampton. From Southampton he flew on to Bordeaux.

The next stopping place was Luxor, which can be reached from Alexandria by train in sixteen hours; the flying boat, having circled over the Pyramids, was moored on the Nile at Luxor in only five hours. Another advantage of aerial travel was demonstrated on the next stage, to Wadi Haifa. When passing Aswan Dam, Sir Alan Cobham flew low over the great work of engineering which has removed for ever the fear of famine in Egypt. Its immensity and importance are more obvious to travellers by air than to those on the ground.

Refuelling at Wadi Haifa did not take long. Within a few hours the Singapore I was on her way along the valley of the Nile to Karima. The next day it was intended to press on to Khartoum, but about half way there a dust storm made visibility so bad that it was decided to alight at Berber for the night. Apart from this dust storm, the weather had been good, but between Berber and Khartoum it grew so hot that the oil and water temperatures were watched with special care.

It had been expected that the stages now approaching would test the flying boat to the utmost, for along this part of the route the greatest heat of the flight was anticipated. She behaved perfectly on the stretch from Khartoum to Malakal, which lies 430 miles farther up the White Nile. The next stage, to Mongalla, was possibly even more arduous, the route lying over an impenetrable swamp in which roams one of the largest known herds of elephants in the world.

While attempts were being made to take photographs of this almost legendary herd, a serious accident was narrowly avoided. Worrall, who was excitedly pointing out to Bonnett the direction in which to point his camera, momentarily forgot the giant propeller revolving only a foot behind the cockpit. While the propeller was doing 1,000 revolutions a minute, Worrall put his finger into it.

The blow was a glancing one, which caused only bad bleeding instead of disaster; for, apart from

the immediate injury, there was great danger of the propeller breaking. This danger was averted, and it was found possible to dress Worrall’s wound in the air.

At Mongalla, where Worrall attended the hospital, his smashed finger seemed but a small item compared with injuries to other patients caused by a lion. Three natives, armed with spears, had set out to kill the lion which had been raiding their flocks. One of the men was killed outright and the others were badly mauled. They killed the lion after a terrible struggle, but both died in hospital.

Having left Mongalla, the Singapore I flew over the Sudan-Uganda border, and on to an anchorage at Butiaba, on Lake Albert, for refuelling. Lake Albert is more than 2,000 feet above sea level; so the flying boat was now to be tested with a high-altitude takeoff in the tropical noonday heat. But with a slightly longer run than usual she took off perfectly for Entebbe.

At Entebbe, situated on the Uganda shore of Lake Victoria, were decided the final details of the test flight for the Colonial Office. The Singapore I was to proceed via Port Bell and Kisumu to Mwanza, on the southern shores of Lake Victoria. From Mwanza she would turn about and fly all the way back to Khartoum, and then back again.

This 2,700-miles journey, over the most difficult sections of the whole route round Africa, was completely successful. After having left Port Bell the aircraft flew non-stop to Mongalla, some 400 miles, and on to Malakal (360 miles) the same day, ready for the 450-miles hop to Khartoum on the following day.

On the return trip, the 810 miles from Khartoum to Mongalla were covered without a stop in exactly eight hours. Butiaba was the next stopping place, and thence the fliers went on to Entebbe, having taken only four days for the round journey.

Cobham's Singapore I was the first flying boat ever seen in South Africa

THE FIRST FLYING-BOAT ever seen in South Africa, the Singapore I at Durban. The harbour authorities at Durban arranged to lift the flying boat out of the water so that she could be thoroughly inspected. Meanwhile, Cobham made a tour of the Rhodesias in a D.H. Moth, lent by the Johannesburg Aero Club.

There were some varied excitements on this return visit to Entebbe. In honour of the “great white bird”, an armada of war canoes descended in a war charge on the aircraft, as she taxied to her moorings. As each canoe carries a long spike in front, and the natives paddle with abandon, there seemed every prospect of damaged wing floats. But the canoes were steered with superlative skill and, although they raced round the flying boat, they always avoided colliding with her.

Later that evening a dinner party at Government House was interrupted by an alarm from the watcher on the Singapore I; she had sprung a leak, and one of the floats was waterlogged. There was no time to lose; so volunteers in dinner jackets were soon perched out on one wing tip while another small party, similarly dressed, tackled the repairs from a skiff.

In the excitement a line was dropped into the lake accidentally. One of the volunteers from Government House immediately disappeared into the lake and retrieved it. This gentleman was a renowned elephant shot, and on one occasion he was ahead of his party when an elephant charged down on him. At that instant a question was shouted at him from behind; he called over his shoulder “Just excuse me a minute”, swung round and fired, and brought the elephant down in a heap at his feet. Afterwards, questioned about where he had hit the elephant in such an emergency, he replied “Oh, just the brain shot!”

From Entebbe the flying boat went on to Kisumu and Mwanza, and then headed over uncharted mountain ranges for Kigoma, on Lake Tanganyika. This lake is about 450 miles long. The next stopping place was Mpulungu, on its southern extremity. Some 200 miles to the south-east lies another great stretch of water, Lake Nyasa. On this lake the flying boat alighted at Vua, and at Fort Johnston. Then a 450-miles overland stretch brought the aircraft over the Zambezi River to Beira, on the Indian Ocean.

Beira was an important turning point, for it marked the end of the great inland route, along the rivers and lakes of the African hinterland. From Beira the main route followed the coastline all the way, first southwards to Capetown, and then northwards right up to the Mediterranean.

One advantage of the coastwise route was demonstrated on the next day’s run, to Lourenco Marques, Mozambique. Green became anxious about the excessively high water temperature of one of his engines. An unscheduled halt was made on the lagoon — one of a string lying along the shore, and providing ideal alighting places. The trouble proved to be merely a small leak in the radiator. As the requisite fresh water was provided by the lagoon, a more convenient stopping place for a flying boat could scarcely be imagined.

The Coastal Route Home

The next stage was from Lourenco Marques to Durban. Nobody had flown before from England to Durban, and the Singapore I was the first flying boat which South Africa had seen. Durban therefore provided a memorable welcome. The harbour authorities arranged to lift the flying boat out of the water so that she could be thoroughly inspected. The Johannesburg Aero Club lent to Sir Alan Cobham their D.H. Moth, in which to make a tour of Northern and Southern Rhodesia in connexion with air transport possibilities. After the stay at Durban the 1,000 miles to Capetown were marked by one halt at Knysna, a picturesque port shut off from the sea by mountains in the manner of a Norwegian fiord. A few hours after the fliers had left Knysna the route swung northwards towards Capetown, and the nose of the aircraft turned homewards at last.

The first stage from Capetown was 500 miles, to Luderitz, and the next 260 miles to Walvis Bay. The shorter stage was rendered difficult by fog, rolling in from the sea, and making it necessary to fly low to keep the coast in sight so that Walvis Bay should not be missed. Fortunately the harbour there was clear, and the next day the flying boat continued over the desert coastline until the two or three trees at Porto Alexandre (Angola) came in sight. These trees were the first vegetation to be seen for nearly 2,000 miles.

The Portuguese Government paid a signal compliment to the expedition at Porto Alexandre. Although the harbour is excellent for a flying boat, there are but few facilities ashore. The Government therefore sent a gunboat from Loanda, to render any assistance necessary. This involved a voyage of some 600 miles — truly magnificent courtesy.

Considerable anxiety was caused along this part of the route by a mysterious illness which had attacked Green at Luderitz. From Porto Alexandre to Lobito Bay he lay in his bunk in great pain, but after the halt at Lobito Bay he seemed somewhat better. He was carried on to the next port of call, Banana Creek (Belgian Congo), at the mouth of the River Congo.

Here the flying boat was met by a steamer from Boma, carrying a doctor courteously sent by the Belgian Government. His examination disclosed that Green must be taken back in the steamer to hospital in Boma — a severe blow to the engineer, for he had done more than two-thirds of the journey.

Green’s hardest moment came when he heard the roar of the flying boat’s engines as she took off for Libreville (French Equatorial Africa); but aviation was destined to save his life that day, for on arrival at Boma it was found that only an immediate operation could save him, and the nearest specialist was 300 miles away up river. A wireless message to the surgeon brought him to Boma by air in time to operate successfully, within five minutes of his arrival.

On the way to Libreville the flying boat ran into the rains. When half-inch hailstones threatened to smash the propellers it was decided to alight on a lagoon. This was done satisfactorily, but there was great difficulty in the take-off, for during the halt the tide went out, the level of the lagoon fell, and the hull touched bottom. There was an exciting moment when the engines were opened out; but the aircraft skimmed over the surface, rose on the step of the hull, and cleared the sandbanks safely. After Libreville the next port was Bonny (Nigeria), and then on to Lagos over the many mouths of the River Niger. There was a three-days’ halt at Lagos, during which the Singapore I was lifted out of the water. The object was to trace a leak in the hull before she continued her flight to Takoradi, on the Gold Coast. Then she flew on to Abidjean, on the Ivory Coast.

It is about 700 miles from Abidjean to Freetown in Sierra Leone, and this was to be the longest non-stop jump of the main flight. The take-off was a good one, but, before 100 miles had been covered, undue vibrations indicated that something was wrong. A hurried descent was made on to a lagoon to investigate.

Enforced Wait on a Lagoon

The result of the examination was disconcerting, for it proved that a new part was required, and this would have to be sent out from England.

A solitary native in a canoe appeared, and Sir Alan Cobham set off with him in the canoe to search for civilization. He was lucky enough to find a white man, engaged in shipping logs of mahogany from the village of Fresco.

Despite the unstinted aid given locally, it was a month before the flying boat was ready for the air again. When she arrived at Freetown it was found that her hull was a mass of barnacles and seaweed, due to her long stay in the lagoon. In three days, however, she was on her way again, the next stopping place being Bathurst, capital of Gambia.

Another stage brought her to Port Etienne (French West Africa), beyond which place the coast is so inhospitable for nearly 1,000 miles that it was decided to head out across the Atlantic to La Luz, the port of Las Palmas, Grand Canary. The take-off from here, in the narrow fairway between the shipping, was one of the tensest moments of the journey, but it was completely successful. The Singapore I headed back for the African coast and alighted at Casablanca, Morocco.

It was now but a short stage to Gibraltar, at which point the African coast — a guide for many thousands of miles — was dropped astern. Barcelona was the next port of call, and then overland once more to Bordeaux.

It was arranged that after the arrival in England, at Plymouth, a tour of the British coast should enable the public to see Great Britain’s first all-metal flying boat after her historic journey. The route planned was from Plymouth to Southampton, Rochester, Hull, the Tyne, Leith, Glasgow, Belfast, Liverpool, Cardiff, Southampton, and back to Rochester.

So on June 4, 1928, the Singapore I returned to her moorings on the Medway. She had met every misfortune entailed by 20,000 miles of pioneer flying, and she had won. Her unprecedented flight over uncharted areas will always rank as one of the most notable surveys ever made from the air.

Sir Alan Cobham made a tour of the British coast in Singapore I

AFTER HIS RETURN TO ENGLAND, Sir Alan Cobham made a tour of the British coast before finally alighting on the Medway at Rochester, on June 4, 1928. The final stages of the African flight were from Casablanca to Gibraltar, Barcelona and Bordeaux—which had been visited on the outward journey—and thence to Plymouth.

You can read more on Cobham’s Pioneer Empire Flights 1” , “Great Flights” and “Survey in the Empire” on this website.

Cobham’s Pioneer Empire Flights (2)