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From the IAF Vault: Story of the first flight over Mount Everest

IAF historian Anchit Gupta stumbled upon research material that he could not resist sharing for it characterised a grit and derring-do that typified the early pioneers of aviation. That the story unfolds in India makes it even more interesting.

From the IAF Vault: Story of the first flight over Mount Everest
First Published Sep 8, 2022, 3:23 PM IST

While researching the Indian Air Force's first flight over Everest, I came across material that I could not resist sharing, for it characterises a grit and derring-do that typified the early pioneers of aviation. That the story unfolds in India makes it even more interesting. One of the central characters of this story was Dame Fanny Lucy Houston, a firebrand nationalist and suffragette. Having donated 100,000 Pounds to Supermarine to help them win the Schneider Trophy in 1931, two years later, she turned her gaze to India -- to Mount Everest in specific.

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The idea of photographing Everest was brought to her by Squadron Leader Douglas Douglas-Hamilton (Lord Clydesdale), Commanding Officer of 602 RAF Squadron -- then the RAF's youngest Squadron Leader and later of Rudolf Hess fame. The project had, however, been conceived earlier by Lt Col LVS Blacker in 1932.

Everest lies half in Tibet and half in Nepal and was well over 100 miles from the frontier of the British Territory. Both of them independent kingdoms had fiercely protected any European influence for centuries despite British efforts. It required more than diplomacy to get access. 

The 15,000 Pounds promised by Lady Lucy bought the team a Westland PV6 (Regn G-ACBR) and a PV3 (G-ACAZ) -- both private ventures and cousins of the IAF's Wapiti aircraft. Having an open front cockpit and an enclosed rear seat, the aircraft was equipped with a larger propeller, an oxygen system and electrical heating for clothing. 

The PV3 had the highest rate of climb of any aircraft at the time but was selected only after the team had zeroed onto an engine first. The engine so selected was the highly-supercharged Bristol Pegasus IS3. Air-cooled, with a displacement of 28.72 litres, it produced a maximum of 575 hp.

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ropelled by a two-blade, fixed-pitch wooden propeller, the PV3 could haul its maximum weight of 2.3 tonnes at a maximum speed of 260 kmph. The photo equipment used during the expedition was the Williamson Automatic Eagle III survey camera that produced a photo mosaic of the area.

Dramatis Personae: While Hamilton and Blacker flew in the lead aircraft, the second aircraft was piloted by 602 Squadron's Adjutant, Flight Lieutenant DF McIntyre, with Sidney Bonnett -- a cinematographer for Gaumont British News -- filming from the rear. The 17-man team was led by Air Commodore Fellowes, accompanied by his wife.

Blacker arrived in India in February 1933 to start the groundwork and liaised with Lt Col Ismay (MS to Viceroy) and Commissioner, Bhagalpur. Initially, Ismay thought of it as a 'hair-brained scheme' that 'may work out all right', with a hope that Blacker 'not kill himself and others'!

But the project found itself some important backers, with the Viceroy receiving a letter from the Air Ministry recommending Hamilton as 'a great friend of ours and a remarkable good pilot'. The entire machinery of the Raj swung into action, with Bhagalpur being the hub of all tie-ups.

A ceremony was planned, with the Viceroy and his wife receiving the two aircraft being flown from Karachi. Having arrived there by ship, the aircraft were proposed to be escorted by two flanking Moth aircraft. It is likely that they would have landed at Wellingdon airport in March 1933.

The Commissioner of Bhagalpur had secured overflight permission from Nepal, while an RAF Avro 10 was secured as a staging aircraft for the expedition. The race course in Purnea was selected as the launch airfield, with Burmah Shell providing fuel for the high-altitude flight. All systems were go!

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Dressed in multi-layers of heated sheepskin, the two aircraft got airborne at 0825 hours on April 3, 1933, with Hamilton and Macintyre on controls and Blacker and Bonnett filming from the rear. Braving strong winds, Hamilton's tail skid-skimmed the Makalu-Everest ridgeline, but they got the shots. 

In the other aircraft, Bonnett's two hose split. While he managed to tie it with a hanky before being knocked off, his pilot also lost oxygen feed but managed to clasp his mask to his face while rapidly descending to 8000 feet. Hamilton spent about 15 minutes near Everest -- even cresting it. 

But the pictures obtained were marred by dust. So a proving sortie was flown by Fellowes to Kanchenjunga. But weather delayed a second attempt as did an imbroglio due to 'people in England ... neither qualified nor authorised to insert their fingers in our pie'.

Lady Huston's telegram also cautioned against the 'evil spirits of the mountain'. But Blacker and Co chose to proceed 'on our own initiative in the spirit of Field Service Regulations & off we went... before anyone... knew... or could impede us'. Even Fellowes was kept in the dark.

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On April 19, 1933, the crew found most of Nepal covered with clouds. Winds were 80 mph at 24000 feet, which the crew surmounted by manoeuvring and positioning at lower altitudes. This time, Macintyre overflew the crest while Hamilton circled from the Makalu ridgeline.

The photographs this time were perfect, but the team -- after getting a mouthful from Fellowes -- did not announce their feat till 24 hours later. These plates were used by Hillary and Tenzing while planning their ascent. Later a film, Wings Over Everest, won an Oscar in 1951.

Hamilton was awarded an Air Force Cross (RAF) for his gallant action and was later also mentioned in despatches. Blacker continued to serve in the Army and designed the PIAT -- a famous anti-tank weapon. After dabbling with fascism, Lady Lucy died alone while Macintyre found a career in civil aviation.

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But the intrepid spirit of aviators wanting to do more and to do it better meant that there were others who duplicated this feat. The Kiwi, Squadron Leader CG Andrews DFC flying over Everest in a Mosquito aircraft in July 1945 in an unofficial flight.

On June 16, 1945, in PR34s from 347 (PR) Wing RAF, Flt Lts G Edwards and Jack Irvine flew North from Alipore to the peak of Makalu, in Nepal, then to Mt Everest. Edwards circled the mountain for 20 minutes, taking photographs with cameras mounted on wing tanks.

Wg Cdr Pearson of No 681 Squadron also overflew Everest on May 26, 1945, in a Spitfire, causing a diplomatic row when details were released to the Press. It was explained that the aircraft was lost due to cloud cover and could only fix its position by recognising the mountain.

In March 47, Pilot Officer Kenneth Neame from 34 Squadron of the RAF, flying a Spitfire XIX was tasked to photograph Kanchenjunga for an expedition. He also decided to visit Mt Everest unauthorized and click pictures. This was the last 'recorded' 'unauthorized' attempt at Everest. In 1953, the Indian Air Force would launch an audacious mission to Everest. 

The author is a finance professional, currently Managing Director at a Private Equity Firm, and hails from a military family. He is deeply interested in Indian aviation history and has regularly contributed across platforms on Indian Air Force history. You can check out his work on Twitter: @AnchitGupta9

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