*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
At the height of an era when pilots of all kinds pushed their aircraft to the limits, Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, the Marquis of Clydesdale, took his Westland PV-3 to a whole new altitude — he led a formation of Royal Auxiliary Air Force planes over the summit of Mount Everest. With the successful completion of his objective on April 3, 1933, “Lord Clydesdale” pipped a pair of German and French teams but, more importantly, made a crucial discovery for the future of aviation: the need for cabin pressurization.
In the mid-1920s, after just two decades of powered flight, men and women turned the rapidly-developing technology into a thrill ride. For every pilot like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart focused on achieving aviation landmarks, dozens more planned expeditions and performed daring aerobatic feats. It was as if man discovered a new thrilling new toy and could not help but search for different ways to play with it, much as a young child on Christmas morning.
As early as 1924, three years before Lindbergh would fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, English World War I pilot Sir Alan Cobham focused his attention on conquering Mount Everest. As he approached the steep peak, he found it difficult to breathe well below the summit, forcing him to turn back. Eight years later, American flyer Richard Halliburton took a shot, only to find out his engine could not pull the aircraft above 15,500 feet — hardly more than halfway to the top.
Pilots from all corners of the globe were stepping up the pursuit of records, particularly the British, Germans and French. Eager to conquer the mountain ahead of his continental rivals, Colonel Stewart Blacker of the Royal Air Force (RAF) secured funding from the wealthy Lucy, Lady Houston and government support from Member of Parliament John Buchan. As Halliburton’s flight failed, Blacker dove into the recruitment of a team and acquisition of supplies to give the British an edge. Much of the personal materials for the flight crews — heated flight suits, high-altitude cameras and oxygen systems — would have to be modified from existing inventory in order to make an attempt as soon as possible.
For the better part of a year, Blacker pored over the flight records of the RAF for the best pilots and equipment to handle the rigors of the Houston-Mount Everest Expedition. Conditions near the top of Mount Everest were known to be unpredictable, with winds shifting direction and speed randomly, not to mention the threat of snow — or worse, ice — at such heights. Further complicating matters, no one could be certain how the fluids necessary to keep the engine running would behave in the harsh environment.
Fortunately for the British, an RAF test pilot from Martlesham Heath Airfield managed to set a world record for altitude with a supercharged Bristol Pegasus engine in the months before. By marrying the the strong and remarkably lightweight nine-cylinder powerplant to an experimental Westfield PV-3 airframe, it seemed Blacker and his associates had created the ideal fast-climbing, sturdy plane for the flight. All he needed now was four men to sit in the two aircraft.
Air Commodore P.F.M. Fellowes took over command and control for the mission itself, using his influence to snag Clydesdale, a Member of Parliament and once the youngest Squadron Leader in the RAF, as lead pilot. As the team transitioned to British-held India in order to tackle Everest, Fellowes finessed the operational capabilities of the shipping service and connected with local leadership to ensure everything arrived on time at the airfield in Purnia.
With intelligence reports showing groups in Germany and France gaining ground, none of the British officers wanted to miss the opportunity to achieve the feat. By the end of March, all of the pieces were in place for the Houston-Mount Everest Expedition to take off. Waiting patiently on the ground, the men paid close attention to the weather forecasts. On the morning of April 3, 1933, winds at 30,000 feet were believed to be nearly 60mph — 50 percent stronger than the 40mph they agreed would be safest.
Cruising at 17,000 feet, Fellowes looked up at the mountain and reported clear skies all the way to the summit. Deciding the opportunity was too good to miss, he ordered Clydesdale and Blacker into the PV-3. The two would make their assault on the record book despite the high winds.
Chilled to the bone at an altitude of 31,000 feet, Clydesdale maneuvered through the mountain range despite challenging downdrafts. Approaching Mount Everest, he realized he was off course: his PV-3 and the chase plane were on the wrong side of the peak. Battling powerful air currents, Clydesdale managed to guide the aircraft just over the top of the mountain range guarding their objective by a margin so slim he would never reveal how close a call it was. The second crew, led by David McIntyre at the controls of a weaker Westfield Wallace airframe, scraped over behind him.
Mount Everest was now dead ahead. Boosted by an upward draft of air, both pilots pushed the Pegasus engines to full power and soared past their objective. Clydesdale continued sweeping around the peak for fifteen minutes, giving Blacker ample opportunity to photograph the rocky face of the world’s highest mountain.
Meanwhile, McIntyre was in a race against time: his observer, S.R. Bonnett, had split his oxygen hose in the excitement of clearing the mountain. Turning to check on the man behind him, McIntyre broke the strap on his mask, forcing him to hold it to his face as he carefully dropped altitude in the hopes of saving Bonnett’s life.
When the pilots arrived back at the airfield in Purnia around 11:30am, they were jubilant. Overcome with emotion at the joy of achieving such a difficult aerial feat, legend has it none of the four were able to fully describe the event for several hours. Two weeks later, both crews would make a second run, taking better quality photographs during a smoother flight.
The benefits of the mission spread across a number of industries. Meteorologists learned a vast amount about the behavior of the environment at such altitudes and geographers gained an appreciation for the chiseled peak of Mount Everest. Even watchmakers, noticing how well the timepieces functioned, could claim a victory. Above all, though, the men inadvertently proved the need for pressurized cabins at high altitudes, a major factor in air travel to this day.
Also On This Day:
33 – According to tradition, Jesus of Nazareth is crucified
1680 – Founder of the Maratha Empire Shivaji dies
1865 – Union forces capture the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, a major victory in the American Civil War
1885 – Gottlieb Daimler is granted a German patent for his engine design
1922 – Joseph Stalin becomes General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union