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  29 February 2016

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

Tuesday August 17th, 1937

An early start again, with Miss Cabot and me getting up at dawn – the hotel was scarcely stirring, but there was clear sky above for a change and every minute of that counts. Leaving Helen the hard labour of getting Maria up in the morning (and out of a comfortable bed at that; at Songmark the difference between sleeping on the bed and the floor was minimal) we returned to the harbour to check all was well with the Storm Bird and the Dragon Rapide. So far so good; their repaired float is only eight inches down after a day and two nights floating freely, and ten minutes running the sump pump cleared that.
    With everything arranged, we could head back to the hotel with an easy mind and a keen appetite for breakfast. Pickled salmon and hakarl might not be to everybody’s taste, but in small quantities it enlivens a lot of ryebread. Plus, it is one food we are most unlikely to find elsewhere on our travels. Maria and Miss Jenks seemed quite pleased at the prospect.

    All fed, gear packed and our hotel bills paid up, we were still back on the jetty by eight. Turning over each engine of the Storm Bird in isolation, we all agreed there is something happening to the central engine, and the starboard one is sounding a little “off-peak” as well. Not by much; if we had only a single engine aircraft it would be hard to be sure we were not imagining it. But the three engines sounded identical when we left Newfoundland.

    Still, according to the instruments everything was all “in the green” and there are hardly facilities for any major investigation here. We are all fuelled up, well rested and with a favourable forecast for the next 24 hours – so all aboard, and with a wave to the harbourmaster and a cautious scan for any drifting timbers, we were off! Turning East as soon as we cleared the harbour we were ‘on the step’ just as we drew level with the island of Vioey, and after a short takeoff run, airborne at 8:15.

    A much nicer day for flying. One tenth cloud at about ten thousand feet, with the volcanic landscape stretched out below us and white glaciers shimmering in the sunlight away to the North. We flew parallel to the coast till we had the landmark of the ice-capped volcano Katla under our port wingtip, then took that as a navigational fix and headed out to sea. Our course was South-East, with a scattering of fishing boats the only sign of civilisation as we saw the South coast recede behind us. Four hundred and eighty miles as our chart makes it, from Reykjavik to the first landfall of the Faroes.

    Up to eight thousand feet, enjoying the view as co-pilot while Miss Cabot has the controls, Helen the radio and Maria navigates. In an hour we were crossing the ‘great circle’ route of European ships heading out to Canada, and from our altitude spotted three big liners and half a dozen freighters. Then, in good visibility at eight thousand feet, the horizon is a hundred and ten miles away – so had visibility been perfect we could watch over twice that span of ocean! Definitely a matter of holding the high ground, up here. Of course, in this part of the world the visibility is more likely to be nil, just when one needs it most.

    Although steamers are too small to spot at that distance, at around a hundred miles we saw steepish peaks appear – the Faroe Islands, right on schedule. Not enormous mountains (the highest is a little over two thousand feet) but rising straight up from the sea, with huge cliffs and very little flat land in sight. Three and a half hours of steady flight from our last landfall brought us over the islands – looking down, we saw many of them drop steep into the sea or the fjords – not a place that is likely to be famous for beach parties; even if they had the weather they are rather short of beaches!

    According to our chart there is no airstrip marked on the islands (finding enough flat land to put one looks tricky) which in a way makes things easier for us – all aircraft coming here have to be flying boats, and hopefully there will be facilities for us. The one place of any size is Torshaven, so we picked our way amongst the islands till it was in sight, recognisable by the only harbour cranes in the islands.
    Almost midday exactly, and our floats touched down in the Faroes. Not a bad run, and the engines seem to be running very nicely – had we not been taught ultra-caution in the past three years, we might have dismissed the sound as something trivial. But when flying two hundred miles from land in the Atlantic, ultra-caution is certainly the right approach.

    So; as before, we looked around for suitable landing spots amongst the fishing boats. Helen raised a cheer at the sight of the first other aircraft we have seen since Newfoundland – the distinctive shape of a Short S.1 ‘Cockle’ riding at anchor at the Western end of the harbour. (It is not a particularly sheltered harbour, and any gales coming in from the South-East would make it rather uncomfortable.)
    In a few minutes we were ashore and negotiating with furs at the refuelling section. Then it was time to sit down with Miss Jenks and her brothers and choose which of our plans to go with – spend a night here or push on to British waters, seeing as we have the whole afternoon and evening with a fair weather forecast.
    Our Danish is not exactly fluent – when we asked one of the local fisher folk if he thought the weather would stay fair – he shrugged, and cryptically replied ‘kanska’, a word not in Miss Jenks’ pocket Danish dictionary. ¹

    On balance, as we had a rest day yesterday we decided to push on without delay. What Helen calls a ‘whistle-stop tour’ and decidedly rugged scenery – there seems little but fishing and hill farming here. Jake Jenks joked that ‘hill farming’ seemed to have done well in the Faroes, to judge by the bumper crop of hills all around us.

    So: again we ran up each engine in turn, and listened carefully. Definitely we were right this morning. But apart from mentally putting the Storm Bird down for a full service when we get to England (which we were going to do anyway) there is little we can do but press on. It was my turn in the pilot’s seat, with Miss Cabot co-pilot, Maria on radio and Helen navigating. Two hundred and fifty miles South-South East from the Faroes to the Orkney Island naval base of Scapa Flow, the nearest place we can expect fuel.

    As we took off, we could definitely see it was no place to wait around. The wind was veering and strengthening, and clouds were building in the West. Straight on course though, passing over the two Southerly islands of Sandur and Suouroy, then nothing but open water ahead of us.

    The cloud level had dropped by a thousand feet since we refuelled, and below us the sea was looking distinctly choppy. An hour out, I noticed the temperature gage on the central engine was just a touch higher than it should be. Well within working limits, but my ears were decidedly down at the sight.  Another half hour at six thousand feet and the Orkneys appeared on the horizon – no mountains here, but rolling hills and flattish plateaus all over.
    The Orkney Islands form a protective ring around one of the great natural harbours of the British Isles; Scapa Flow has long been a naval base and was the fleet headquarters in the Great War. The chart lists there being a seaplane base still, although rather run-down these past years. At ten miles range we could see the smoke of major warships, though since they moved from coal to oil that has halved the smoke that used to reveal them at twenty miles.

    One hazard we had to watch for was the remains of an entire sunken fleet – in 1919 the German fleet which had been interned along with some of its crew, scuttled itself. Salvage furs have been raising about one a year for scrap ever since, and we spotted various lifting barges going about their business with the rusting hulk of a destroyer. It gave me pause to think; the Allworthy estates include ship repair facilities in Barrow-in-Furriness, and if those salvage barges are not working for the Estate, others like them are.

    Houton seaplane base proved much the best provided stop we have seen since Canada. There was an obvious military side to it (flying the naval white ensign) and a commercial side with hangars and slipways that we steered for. Finally, after three years, I set foot in British soil.

¹(Editor’s note: not surprising, as it’s not Danish; it’s Faroese for “Maybe”. The isles were known to British servicemen in World War 2 as “the isles of kanska” as that was the common reply to the two main questions the locals were usually asked – “do you think you’ll catch any fish today?” and “will it EVER stop raining here?” Faroese weather is the Atlantic equivalent to the Aleutians.)   

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