On the 80th anniversary of the first-ever flight over Mt Everest by four Scottish pilots, the grandson of one of them took a commemorative flight to the world's highest mountain in a Yeti Airlines Jetstream 41 on Wednesday.
Two flimsy Westland-Wallace biplanes with open cockpits took off from Purnea in Bihar and flew a roundtrip of 500km in three hours to get to about 50 metres above the 8848m mountain on 3 April 1933.
One of the planes was piloted by Colonel LVS Blacker and Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, the Marquis of Clydesdale.
The famous picture of the Westland-Wallace with call sign G-ACAZ flying towards Mt Everest from the south-east became an iconic image of the early days of aviation and Himalayan mountaineering. The historic flight took place barely 30 years after the invention of powered flight and nine years after the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine on Mt Everest. In fact, one of the reasons for flying over the world’s highest mountains was to find proof that Mallory had made it to the summit.
On Wednesday, Charles, the grandson of the Scottish nobleman and pioneer aviator, Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, re-enacted the flight on a Yeti Airlines Mountain Flight that took the same route as the one in 1933.
"I got a sense of how difficult it must have been to fly on those planes," Charles said as his plane approached Everest on Wednesday, "here I am looking out of the window in a pressurised, heated cabin with oxygen."
That flight led directly to the development of pressurisation, heating, and oxygen in high-altitude flights. The engines were specially designed for high-altitude performance and Shell came up with an anti-freeze formula to prevent aviation fuel from getting frozen. Britain was soon engulfed by war and Hamilton and the other pilots flew in the air defence of Scotland.
It was important for Britain to set some kind of aviation record since the Americans had just flown over both the South and North Poles in 1926 and 1929. The two Westland-Wallace PV-3s were specially modified for high altitude flight, tested, and put into crates and transported by sea to Karachi where they were reassembled and flown to Purnea near the Nepal-India border in Bihar.
A black-and-white film made of the adventure shows the pilots discussing what they should do if the oxygen supply or the heating failed and whether or not they should take parachutes along (they decided not to, to save weight).
They waited for the weather to clear and then climbed on to their planes and took off, banking to the north. They struggled against 100 knot westerly crosswind and minus 50 Celsius to close in on Mt Everest.
Approaching the mountain from the south-east, flying crabwise into the wind, the pilots used the updrafts on the west side of the mountain to lift them over the summit. They inspected the top of Mt Everest, but saw no signs of Mallory. Despite punctured oxygen tubes and malfunctioning survey cameras, the planes made it back safely.
The pilots then disobeyed orders from London to do the whole flight one more time on 19 April and took the survey pictures of the southern slopes of Mt Everest that made possible the first ascent of the mountain 20 years later by Hillary and Tenzing.
The 80th anniversary event is part of the Prestwick Festival of Flight and supported by BAE Systems, which is a direct descendant of Scottish Aviation formed by Hamilton and McIntyre after their record flight. Yeti Airlines flies a fleet of eight 30-seater BAE Jetstream 41 turboprops, which are built in Prestwick.
"It was a ground-breaking and pioneering flight that led directly to refinements in aviation technology that allowed high altitude flights," explained Derek Barbour of BAE Systems who helped design the Jetstream 41 and was on Wednesday's commemorative flight.
3 anniversaries on Everest
*80th 3 April 1933 First flight
*60th 29 May, 1953 First ascent
*50th 22 May, 1963 First American ascent and traverse