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  Begun 1 February 2013

Extracts from a diary:

by Simon Barber

Amelia, Lady Allworthy (neé Amelia Bourne-Phipps) & her friends
(educated adventuresses all, and warrior priestesses, some)
  fly from Newfoundland across the Atlantic to Europe - August 1937.

A Tale of Two Lidos
by Simon Barber

(Being the twenty-eighth part of Amelia’s Diaries. Having now left the Spontoon Islands in Oceania and crossed the full width of North America, the Storm Bird and its crew head to Europe. It’s Interesting Times in Europe in 1937; one hopes they won’t be too bored.)

Thursday August 12th, 1937

       Dear Diary: a doubtful start for the trip! We woke at six, having settled our bills at the Shorelands Hotel last night and having everything packed ready to pick up as soon as we strapped ourselves into our flight suits. Drawing the curtains my ears went right down at the sight outside – cold grey sea-fog, visibility fifty yards at most. Still, our weather forecast for today was focused on the distant Greenland Strait – the critical part of the flight. If things were impossible today we can always wait for a better day.

        Things still looked bleak as we met Miss Jenks and her brothers in reception, and signed out at the hotel. Flight bags in paw, we were glad we had travelled the route to Quidi Vidi Lake a few times now – it would be embarrassing to get lost in the fog before we even found our aircraft. By seven we were all giving the aircraft a final check and diligently sniffing for any petrol leaks. Fortunately the Storm Bird and the Dragon Rapide had a clear bill of health, and all we needed was the weather.

        Although Newfoundland is not the Aleutians, the weather is jolly changeable. At half-past seven the clouds above us thinned and a few patches of blue sky appeared right overhead. We are the only aircraft scheduled to take off this morning so there was little delay in the tower clearing us “at our convenience.” Ten more minutes saw the lake mostly clear; we waved to Miss Jenks to start engines and Maria jabbed a finger decisively East. All engines fired, mooring ropes were reeled in and after straining our ears for a minute listening for any unusual sounds, Helen pushed the throttles open and we were off!

        For a while it looked as if we might have been premature, as another rolling bank of fog was poised to sweep over the lake again. We beat it by a minute; both aircraft were airborne just in time and in another minute we were climbing into clear blue skies over the great white blanket torn by the higher hilltops of Newfoundland behind us. Helen piloted, Maria was co-pilot, Miss Cabot had the radio and I had the navigational charts. So, farewell to the Americas.

        Once away from land the fog thinned out remarkably, and in thirty minutes we could make out fishing boats beneath us. Miss Jenks had suggested making a safer-sounding but longer route crossing the many bays and fjords of Newfoundland and up to the Labrador coast crossing the Greenland Strait where it is narrower. This would have given us more navigational fixes, but put another two hundred miles on a flight that will be nearly a thousand as it is! Plus, much of the Labrador coast is almost uninhabited except for wandering trappers, hunters and Native furs; if we did go down there we would still be in awful trouble. A direct flight trusting in our engines and instruments is safer, even if it is cold open ocean all the way to Inquamvit.

        Once at eight thousand feet in the clear skies, we could relax a little. The Storm Bird has a four-foot directional aerial loop in the tail, and Miss Cabot set it pointing back to the Saint Johns radio station. It is no Radio LONO, but it keeps a continuous broadcast of dance music and news going to provide a nav fix for ships and aircraft. In an hour I changed places with Maria, and enjoyed the view of clearing waters unbroken from horizon to horizon.

        It was definitely an epic flight, hour after hour across the Greenland Strait, with only the empty horizon and Miss Jenks’ aircraft keeping station three hundred feet off our starboard wing. We took turns at each crew position, particularly watching our fuel consumption. Naturally the Dragon Rapide does not give its most economical cruise at the same speed as the Storm Bird – we were fifteen knots faster than our leanest speed, but we carry more fuel than they do. Still, it was a relief to see far off a white glint of ice – although we were a hundred and twenty miles away, the Greenland plateau tops out at more than five thousand feet, and we were at eight ourselves. A nice exam question to set a Songmark first-year!

        Forty minutes later we were poring over the charts looking for a navigational fix. It is an ever-changing coast, with glaciers rushing down to the sea at a breakneck pace of a yard or two a day – the ice is always moving with the seasons, and it makes it hard to say exactly where the coastline is. Solid rock is our only sure guide, and at 14:50 we agreed one particular spire poking out above the glacier must be Mount Christiaansberg, which put us sixty miles from our destination. Turning South along the coastline, we cut our speed to a hundred-and-ten knots, and began to count valleys and ridges to target while Helen tried to raise Inquamvit on the radio. This is not like homing in on a constantly broadcasting radio station; there will probably be one operator sitting in a radio shack who has hopefully been briefed to expect us. Godthab is a more usual port, but with the Danes wanting to keep this a closed land, casual travellers are getting routed to this less settled part of the coast.

        The minutes and ice-choked valleys went by, and then Miss Cabot pointed ahead. It was a freighter pulling away from the coast – and on this piece of coast Inquamvit is the only port. We traced its wake back to a narrow fjord, which after two narrow spots broadened to a mostly snow-free valley, with a jetty, a huge pile of some mineral, and a radio aerial half-way up the Western side of the mountain. No wonder they had not responded; if all their traffic comes by boat from Denmark and Iceland the radio will be pointing out to sea, not back towards the North Pole.

        With only forty minutes of fuel left, we wasted little time getting ready to touch down. First a long, slow flight along the fjord with Helen holding us steady at fifty feet while the rest looked hard for drifting ice or timbers (no trees grow around here but where there is mining there will be big solid pit-props brought in, and deck cargoes sometimes go astray) before a final turn and a straight-in touchdown that brought us “off the step” with a hundred yards to go before the jetty. We were glad the freighter had already gone; there would not have been mooring room for all of us!

        We were ready to shut down the nose engine and for Miss Cabot to climb out with the painter, when we heard an alarmed voice on the radio – Jack or Jake Jenks (they sound very similar) two hundred yards behind us, reporting they hit something and their starboard float is leaking! Opening the top hatch and looking back, I could see the Dragon Rapide still moving in but listing badly. Just then I noticed a yard-wide slab of black ice just disturbing the waves under our starboard wing – if they had hit something that size in the first seconds after touchdown, it would definitely have hurt.

        I climbed out onto our starboard float with the painter, but not for ourselves; with a burst of full port engine we spun almost in our own length to head back towards them, and half a minute later I lassoed the towing hook under the stricken aircraft. Their starboard float was half-submerged by then – but we towed them in, and beached them on a narrow shelving beach of black volcanic sand before making our own way back to the jetty.

        By this time a dozen furs had come out to help – all apparently Euros, none of the walrus or Polar bear types that make up a majority of the Eskimo. The one in charge introduced him as Mr. Anders Akessen, a waterfowl gentleman who spoke quite passable English. Just as well; despite one of the Songmark girls in the year below us hailing from the Danish West Indies, it is not a language any of us speak more than a few words. (Oddly the one I recall best is “Tandestikken” for a box of matches.) It could have been worse; the Eskimo languages are as “exotic” and complex as anything in Tillamook, but no relation.

        Anyway, an hour later we had made everything secure and paid for the pre-arranged aviation spirit that the freighter we had seen leaving had just delivered. Nice timing, for a change. Helen and I went up to the mine headquarters, which is the only substantial building in the place. In the Winter I imagine one solid block is far more habitable than smaller buildings scattered around; the entrance to the mine is right next door and covered with a steeply sloping roof.

        Talking with Mr Akessen, it turns out this development is quite new, only facing its fourth winter. He explained that despite popular rumour, the Arctic has four seasons like everywhere else – but here they are June, July, August and Winter. A good thing indeed that we did not wait around in Spontoon to watch the Air Races! We would have hardly got here before the snows arrived – he says there have been brief flurries already. The mine produces Cryolite, used in aluminium smelting, which is a quite rare commodity and one of the few things worth the expense of working here and shipping it out. Danish geologists have mapped strikes of all sorts of ores around the coast, but conditions are against developing anything unless they are right on the coast.

        I asked about the Eskimo; he confirmed that the Danish Government have a policy of preserving their culture and not allowing anyone to exploit them. So missionaries and traders are banned, and even the miners are strictly rationed as to importing things like alcohol and tobacco. I can imagine Molly’s comment would have been something like “so few cocktails, for so many ice cubes”. The shore here slopes too steeply to ever have made a good Eskimo camp, and indeed most of the level ground is artificial being made of tailings from the mine.

        Excusing ourselves, we went back to see how work on the Dragon Rapide was going. The falling tide had beached it high and dry, which was a mercy – as I could see they had needed to take three panels off the float. No actual holes were punched in the Dural skin, but the impact with the black ice had ripped a couple of feet of seams right open, popping fifty or so rivets. Not a job to be patched with sticky tape! The front end of the float is a tricky piece to work on, with a double curvature section that takes much of the strain on landing.

        Another hour of work saw the plates patched using spare sheets of 1/8 inch light alloy, bent by paw and drilled to take the pop rivets. A rivet-gun is not standard in toolkits, but we have one. It is not quite Schneider Trophy quality work, and will probably knock a knot or two off the Dragon’s speed – but when the mastic we sealed the plates with sets it should be waterproof enough for our needs. The Dragon Rapide’s floats have a “sump pump” like most aircraft, and hopefully that can keep pace with any minor leakage.

        By the time we were putting the tools away it was getting dark, the sun going down behind the high cliffs to the West. Definitely we would be spending the night here. I handed over to Mr. Akessen a few extra Canadian gold dollars to cover accommodation and food. Everything is imported here; even the seas are frozen half the year and he tells me every bean and tea leaf comes on the supply boat from Hirtshals on the Northern coast of Denmark. That one we saw leaving was the last of the year.

        The miners see few new faces while working here, and apparently they were expecting nobody till the next ship in June. The prospect of occasional aircraft crews dropping in, even just to refuel, seems to be one they are looking forward to.

        It was already definitely chilly in the shade by the time we secured the Storm Bird and joined the thirty Danes in their combined bunkhouse/office/machine shop/everything else. Miss Jenks proved to be a very welcome guest; she donated a bottle of Sapphire Blue gin and the evening went swimmingly. Around here, with mini-icebergs already floating up the fjord, that is the only swimming anyone wants to do!

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