from a diary:
A TALE OF TWO LIDOS
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
August 14th, 1937
Farewell to the not-so-green shores of Greenland! A very early start and a hurried breakfast (some interesting tinned black beans with onion and chillies, apparently a traditional dish from the Danish West Indies) and we were heading straight towards our aircraft, hoping to seize the first chance to get away. Which was just as well; although the sunrise was clear, dense banks of fog could be seen forming in the distance. The weather forecast is not encouraging.
Miss Jenks and her brothers looked over their repaired float and started the sump pump immediately. There was six inches of water in the float – not too bad for a temporary repair that has been floating all night. Twenty minutes later we had checked the Storm Bird and set our course (the metal ores around here affect the compass, but the fjord is straight and makes for a good navigation fix) and agreed we were ready to go. Those miners not on shift turned up to see us off; we might be the last new faces they see till Spring, unless some other aircraft turns up before the fjord freezes.
It was my turn as pilot, with Miss Cabot co-pilot, Helen navigating and Maria on the radio. Although the weather was closing in, I thought it wise to spend ten minutes taxiing cautiously down the fjord and back, checking for any more stealthy icebergs. The Dragon Rapide was lucky it was only a minor collision yesterday; they at least made it to the beach for repairs. That fjord was looking very deep and cold; the cliffs drop straight down till well underwater, with no more handy beaches after leaving the mine area for emergencies.
There were no more unwelcome encounters of an icy floating kind, so at 7:15 exactly we signalled Miss Jenks and opened the throttles all the way – a short take-off seemed in order what with the threats of floating ice and closing cloudbanks.
The Storm Bird handled like a dream; admittedly it is one of the noisier aircraft (what with that centre engine a foot or so past the firewall in front of our paws) but when heading out over the North Atlantic, we were all happier to have three engines rather than two. Helen still shivers when describing Lindbergh’s first crossing in a single-engine plane, all alone, both flying and navigating in an aircraft with absolutely no frontal view. She saw the great man himself ten years ago – that is, she was in the crowd and saw his motorised procession going past. Half America did, by all accounts.
Our course took us first to the very Southern tip of Greenland, then straight over towards Iceland. Looking down, through breaks in the fog we could see an occasional fishing boat, and on land once the cluster of sturdy wooden buildings of what might be a trading station.
Then – we left the last solid landmark behind us and started to head out over a fog-covered ocean, trusting to our compasses and three years of Songmark training. After an hour or so we switched places to help keep alert; there is only so much staring at an ocean of cloud one can take and stay at a hundred percent concentration. Despite our flying kit, it was chilly sitting in the pilot’s seat at five thousand feet; something we have become unaccustomed to on Spontoon. As radio operator I can at least stretch out and exercise; notably the ones Mrs. Hoele’toemi taught me from her hula championship days. They look rather un-decorous, not quite what our dear Gym teacher showed us in school!
We crossed the Arctic circle at about 9:30, and are in theory in warmer climes now. Outside, one can hardly tell. Our best schedule had us taking four hours to Reykjavik; it is almost straight East from the tip of Greenland, and a tail-wind of thirty knots at cruise height was pushing us helpfully along. Definitely the Storm Bird is not built for Schneider Trophy racing; it has power and capacity, but three bluff radials gives it rather a ‘built-in headwind’. At least being air-cooled we are spared any worries of radiator leaks, something Miss Jenks says her Dragon is prone to.
At 11:40, we spotted land ahead – that is, a towering icy plateau rising out of the fog. The problem being, unlike our Greenland landfall the peaks are not on the coast as handy landmarks, and the coast is just what we need. With an hour’s fuel remaining, we needed to get down and find Reykjavik; hunting up and down fjords in the fog all afternoon is not an option.
After a quick discussion, I radioed Miss Jenks on our plan. According to the maps, the glacial plateau was likely to be Thorisjokull, forty miles inland and to the North of the capital – so we might well be approaching the coast already, and it is deeply indented with fjords. Looking down, that cloud looked absolutely solid, and there is no guarantee it has any clear space at all above the water. A very cautious descent in formation was agreed on, and Maria throttled back as we slowly sank towards the cloud tops.
At two thousand feet we were suddenly in the cloud, and visibility was nil. Both planes were flying on compass course and as steady on the throttle as possible; hopefully keeping safe distance. If anything loomed out of the mist, we were to climb and break starboard while Miss Jenks broke to port – cutting the chances of at least hitting each other, whatever headland or sea-stack might need dodging.
It was a nerve-wracking descent, feeling our way down watching the altimeter and all too aware a sudden change in the weather could have put it a hundred feet out. It was still reading two hundred feet when we saw the first hint of white-capped waves below – the cloud and fog is all the way down to the water! Maria’s reflexes were excellent, and she pulled us up level and throttled back further; keeping a straight compass bearing, hoping to find better visibility before some cliff looms up ahead seconds away. There was no sign of Miss Jenks, but on radio she confirmed she was down in sight of water and was following our course.
In ten minutes we breathed a sigh of relief, hitting a clear patch – that is, a quarter mile of merely mist-covered water. Just in time, as a rocky headland soon showed up to starboard, and white breakers showed where hidden rocks were just underwater. Not the sort of coast for surf-riding, even if it is August! I felt a twinge of regret imagining the sun-drenched beaches of Spontoon right now, with the Air Races soon to start.
In another few minutes cliffs appeared to port as well, and we were evidently heading into a fjord. Exactly which of several candidates on the map, was hard to tell. I could get nothing on the radio useful for a navigational fix, and thought longingly of Radio LONO, whose cheerful hulas on a strong signal had guided us home so many times. Behind us, there was the welcome sight of the Dragon Rapide appearing from out of the murk, keeping good formation.
One advantage of a flying boat over a land plane is it is much easier to stop and ask directions. In ten minutes we pulled up on a gently shelving beach of black volcanic sand, where two fishing boats were already landed, and a scatter of turf-roofed houses sheltered in the lee of a tall crag rearing up into the fog. It was just after noon when our floats grated on the sand, and Miss Cabot jumped out with the mooring rope. Land indeed – Iceland!
We all of us breathed a sigh of relief as the engines switched off and the only sound was the breaking waves and the slow tick of cooling metal. The Dragon Rapide pulled up on the beach alongside us, and we all turned out to see what could be seen.
From what we could make out through the fog, we were at the end of a West-facing fjord, its steep rocky sides loud with the roar of a dozen waterfalls coming down off the plateau. Chilly indeed, but at least we are back in green grass and heather country, rather than rock and ice. Naturally, we had attracted some attention – two deer furs and an Icelandic Pony mare, were hurrying down the hill to receive visitors as soon as we landed.
It is a good thing for us there is a ‘Vikingstown’ on the North coast of Spontoon! Although our Songmark course had no formal exams in languages, as a matter of daily life I think any graduate would have acquired about a hundred chosen words in ten or a dozen languages. Danish was one of mine (one of the second-year Songmark girls is from the Danish West Indies), and the equine lady Sigridur Sigurdsdottir spoke it enough to understand us. Helen had the air chart handy, and we soon found out just which of the many inlets we had arrived in – Hvalfjordur, twenty miles North of our expected landfall, not too bad given the distance and cloud conditions. Reykjavik we put as half an hour away, but the fog was closing in again and nobody fancied groping around trying to find it on the last of our fuel. Evidently there is no aviation spirit to be had here, only marine fuel oil for the fishing boats.
So – having made a safe landing, we decided to stay until the fog lifts. If that means starting an hour before sunset, or if it takes a day or two – unlike being moored on a beach in tropical sunshine, we are hardly going to lose much fuel evaporating in the heat. It is just as well we have our Sidcot suits to wear.
Sigridur Sigurdsdottir introduced us to her two cervine neighbours, Bjorn and Erik. They speak only Icelandic, which seems about as similar to Danish as English is to French – some words in common, but not enough to actually speak it. They seem pleased to see us, and offered to put us up in their homes overnight. We accepted gratefully.
The fishing village is much like those on the North Coast of Spontoon in general style, but there were some differences. There were big racks of filleted fish pinned up to dry, protected from seabirds by a layer of old fishing nets. On Spontoon they would have spoiled in the heat most times of year before drying outside – and indeed a cold, dry wind was blowing down the valley from the distant ice caps. ‘Stockfish’ is the term – we have seen it in the markets, as tough as a board, and without a lot of preparation, about as edible.
None of the Storm Bird’s crew have any problem with eating fish (and anyway, the ‘stockfish’ is being laid down for Winter supplies, not immediate consumption) but Miss Jenks and her brothers are pure vegetarian by upbringing as well as biology. Iceland is not a nation famed for its flourishing market gardens and broad tilled acres, though I recall reading in ‘International Geographic’ about interesting developments with natural steam-heated glasshouses around the capital. Sigridur could only offer flat rye bread, and a round white loaf called ‘Polarbrod’ for her fellow equines. The local equines eat seaweed, something Miss Jenks declined with rather a shudder. Then, she has not been on a Songmark survival course (I reserved my shudders on those for eating live lugworms and their relatives; seaweed is a tasty salad in comparison.) The Dragon Rapide carries a week’s supply of suitable food for its crew anyway.
That settled, we busied ourselves in checking the aircraft after the long flight. We all agreed the centre engine of the Storm Bird was sounding a little rough, but the spark plugs were in good order (we pulled them all and cleaned them on principle; an hour and a half’s work for the four of us.) It is nothing that showed on the instruments – but worryingly, if the outer engines in the wings were doing the same, from the cockpit we would not hear the difference above the sound the centre engine makes. Something to keep an eye (and four sets of sharp ears) on, but no immediate alarm.
If anything, the fog was getting worse by the late afternoon, and we cheerfully resigned ourselves to a night in Hvalfjordur bay. The aircraft were secured to the rocks with steel cable, as was our rubber dinghy, already inflated ready to take us out to the aircraft when the tide comes in tomorrow.
Chores done, we settled down for a relaxing evening. Most of the village furs are out fishing this time of year; they can be gone for a week. Sigridur was very keen to hear about our trip; she has never flown, and has only seen aircraft around the capital. By all accounts the country just opened its first airline, Flugfélag Akureyrar, this year – with a single Waco YKS-7 floatplane based on the North coast. It is a small enough start – but considering it does not have much of a tourist trade, and by repute storms and fog stop flying much of the year, local traffic is hardly a commercially inviting prospect. As we are finding out, getting anywhere non-local in the North Atlantic is a long-distance haul and an expensive proposition for any newly starting business.
In thanks for the hospitality Miss Jenks brought out her aircraft’s bottle of Medicinal Brandy – at least, her spare one. This was very well received; it seems Iceland has been teetotal since 1909, and unlike America it still is. One never hears of North Atlantic racketeers – there is little enough grain or vegetation suitable for local brewing around here, and as to imports, I doubt any of Molly’s old family bootlegging firm would be too interested in coming all this way to be paid in stockfish. So, half a glass apiece for the flying crew (we are not an airline, after all) and the rest shared around the villagers. Polarbrod and some very nice smoked salmon with herbs followed, and after a final check of the aircraft we all turned in early. Long distance flying with fog may not be tiring on the muscles compared with trotting round the dry beaches of Eastern Island with full pack, but it is very hard on the nerves.