The Roaring Twenties were a time of economic prosperity and optimism in the western world. The horrors of the First World War had been left behind and the growth of electricity and consumer goods, along with an improvement in living standards, led to a battle of one-upmanship over peaceful achievements. One sector that witnessed phenomenal growth and advancement was aviation.
For a while the United States was the trendsetter in the aviation industry. In May 1927, a 25-year-old named Charles Lindbergh received worldwide acclaim when he flew solo from Long Island, New York, to Paris in the Spirit of St Louis, a single-engine monoplane. The record-setting 5,800-kilometre journey took 33 and a half hours and was the first solo trans-Atlantic flight. Less than two weeks later Lindbergh’s nonstop distance record was broken by fellow American Clarence Chamberlin. Chamberlin flew 6,294 kilometres from Long Island to Eisleben, Germany. The flight, which took 42 hours and 45 minutes, was the first trans-Atlantic flight with a passenger on board. Millionaire businessman Charles Levine sat in comfort in the Bellanca monoplane as Chamberlin set off to Germany.
Chamberlin’s record fell 13 months later when Italians Captain Arturo Ferrarin and Major Carlo Delprete flew from Monticello Field in Rome to Point Genipabu on the east coast of Brazil. Their 7,108-kilometre journey took a grand total of 58 hours and 37 minutes.
Before them, it was Britain that had managed to get off to a head start after the end of the First World War. In June 1919, John Alcock and Arthur Brown flew from Newfoundland, Canada, to County Galway, Ireland, on a Vickers Vimy bomber biplane that was modified after the war. The 3,040-kilometre journey, the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, took 15 hours and 57 minutes. After this initial success, the British, who had the most powerful empire in the world at that time, began to lose the aviation race to other industrially advanced nations.
In the mid-1920s, attempts by the British to fly nonstop to India failed with missions being aborted in the Persian Gulf region. A sense of urgency overcame British aviators when they heard of French World War I ace pilot Georges Pelletier d’Oisy’s plans to fly from Paris to Karachi, then a part of British India.
In June 1927, Flight Lieutenants CR Carr and PP Mackworth were tasked with flying a Hawker-Horseley aircraft from the Cranwell Aerodrome in Lincolnshire to Calcutta – a distance of 8,046 kilometres. Both pilots had combat experience during the war. Carr, who came from New Zealand to fight the war, had flown over northern Russia and had also taken part in a famous South Pole expedition led by Anglo-Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton. Mackworth, who flew bombers during the war, also took part in the Cairo-Cape-Cairo-England trip in 1926. This much-touted mission also failed, although the reasons are unclear. Newspapers of the day that reported about their plans for the Cranwell-Calcutta flight did not carry any information about their actual attempts.
A renewed push
Among those who were reading the reports of the success of Lindbergh, Chamberlin, Ferrarin and Delpetre was a young Welsh pilot who earned a name for himself during the war – Arthur G Jones-Williams. Operating bombers from the time he was a teenager, Jones-Williams was responsible for several aerial victories in the war.
In 1929, the British Air Ministry invited Jones-Williams and Flight-Lieutenant Norman Jenkins, who like his co-pilot was appointed an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, to attempt to fly a specially-made aircraft to break the nonstop distance world record. The Royal Air Force had also considered the idea of flying from Cranwell to Cape Town, but finally chose India since they were not sure about the conditions over some parts of Africa.
The Fairey-Napier monoplane, built for the journey, weighed 7 imperial tons and was driven by a single 530-horsepower engine. For the flight to India, it carried 3,785 litres of petrol. Its cockpit was equipped with a hooter that would blow into the pilot’s ear if the plane deviated from a straight course or suddenly lost altitude, preventing the pilot from falling asleep. A special 3.2-kilometre runway was built in Cranwell to ensure the plane took off with its large load of petrol.
The flight path from England to India covered Holland, Nuremberg, Wiener Neustadt (Austria), Zenta (Hungary), Pleven (Bulgaria), Constantinople, Baghdad, Jask (Persia), Karachi, Solapur, Bellary and Bangalore.
‘Greatest peacetime adventure’
On April 24, 1929, amid much fanfare and media attention, the plane took off from Cranwell, flying at an altitude that was low enough for the general public to notice.
Billed as the “greatest peacetime adventure” by sections of the international media, the journey began smoothly. The plane was spotted in European cities as it headed south and east. Twenty-seven hours in, it reached the airspace over Baghdad, covering a distance of 4,184 kilometres. Four hours later, it crossed Basra and was also spotted over Bushehr, Persia, as it continued its journey to India.
A jubilant crowd saw it in the skies over Karachi exactly 48 hours and 38 minutes after take-off from Cranwell. Bangalore, the final destination, was still 1,882 kilometres away. But two after it had crossed the city, the plane turned back and landed in Karachi. The final distance covered was 6,642 kilometres, a total of 462 kilometres short of the nonstop distance record set by Ferrarin and Delprete. “Head winds had eaten up its gasoline on the last half of the journey,” Time magazine reported in its May 6, 1929 issue.
It turned out the lack of a wireless set on the aircraft ended up costing the British duo a chance to set the world record. A New York Times article from April 27, 1929 revealed the factors behind the aircraft not being able to make it to Bangalore. “Analysis of the flight by technical men discloses two interesting facts,” the paper wrote. “First, at least 660 miles (1,062 kilometres) would have been added to the 1,520 miles (2,446 kilometres) flown in the final 22 hours of the flight, if the (British) Air Ministry had been able to tell the pilots that a 30-mile-an-hour (48-kilometre-an-hour) wind was blowing in their favour at lower levels.” The pilots, who were battling against a half gale at the height of 10,000 feet from Baghdad, could not be contacted and told to come down and “take advantage of a following wind which would have put the records easily within their reach,” the paper said.
The report added, “Second, it was revealed that their 530-horsepower engine lifted no less than 30 pounds per each horsepower developed, which is said to be a record, and as the monoplane weighing, fully laden, 16,000 pounds, climbed at the outset to 2,500 feet, it is estimated that at least 1,000 more pounds of petrol could have been carried.”
Despite not breaking the world record and getting to Bangalore, the flight was seen as a major achievement for British aviation. The little over 48 and a half hours that the aircraft took to reach Karachi compared well with the seven and a half days it took for the air mail service to reach the city from Britain. The flight set the way for air mail to reach India from Britain in just two days and onwards to Australia in about five days.
The Royal Air Force and the British government celebrated the achievement with much gusto. Samuel Hoare, who served as the air minister at the time and would go on to become the secretary of state for India as well the author of the Government of India Act, 1935, was cited by the Associated Press as saying that it was a “great day in the history of the force”.
The duo of Jones-Williams and Jenkins did not give up on their dream to set a world record. Seven months after they attempted to fly from Cranwell to Bangalore, the ace pilots once again tried to break the nonstop flying distance record by setting off from Britain to Cape Town. They died trying. On a foggy December day, the Fairey long-range monoplane they were flying crashed into mountainous terrain near Zaghouan in Tunisia. Both men were in their early 30s. They are remembered for both for their bravery and for setting the path for improved air connectivity between Britain and India.
Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.