I like a challenge, but early aviators certainly relished an entirely different level of challenge, facing the elements, unknown territory and the mechanical reliability of early aircraft. So having found out and briefly described one epic flight in my blog ‘Museum of masks and mysteries’, I delved deeper and here publish what I managed to piece together. So although this isn’t entirely about Sierra Leone, it illustrates the isolation of this British Colony and Protectorate, before modern communications.
Sir James Reynolds was a senior partner in Reynolds and Gibson, a firm of Liverpool cotton brokers, before commanding 1/3rd West Lancashire Brigade, Royal Field Artillery (Territorial Force) in WWI (awarded a DSO) and becoming a Conservative MP in 1929. Presumably during his trading days, he had visited the west coast of Africa and ‘and saw its immense possibilities’, so he sponsored a flight via the west coast to Cape Town. The aircraft was his daughter’s Blackburn ” Bluebird ” (fitted with D.H. Gipsy III 105 horsepower engine) and the two pilots were his daughter Miss Delphine Reynolds and Flight Lieutenant W G Pudney, described in Flight magazine as being an instructor in the National Flying Services. A newspaper report suggest that the the plane had a Gipsy III 120 hp air cooled engine with a cruising speed of 100 miles per hour and a range of about 700 miles.
The original flight plan, sent to South Africa for permission, showed R B Waters (then proprietor of the Gatwick aerodrome) as the second pilot, and stated ‘They would have fire-arms and ammunition in their possession but no radio equipment. ‘ This flight was to have left in December 1930 arriving in Cape Town on 10 January 1931, but did not take place. A follow-up telegram said W G Pudney would pilot instead of Waters and estimated arrival 11 March 1931.
“Miss Delphine Reynolds, whose goal will also be Cape Town, hopes to open up air-mail service between London and the West Coast of Africa” . Delphine Reynolds, in flying apparel, with a male aviator standing in front of her bi-plane numbered G-AAVG. She puts on her flying hat and goggles and gets into the cockpit where she is joined by her co-pilot. The aeroplane taxis along a runway and takes off (93ft).
However the aircraft quoted G-AAVG was not Delphine’s, so I don’t know if this is an error in the description or footage of another take-off. She is registered as owing G-ABGF, but both are the same type of plane.
The weather seemed against them from the start, forcing them to land 20 miles north of Bordeaux then having to turn back on the next leg to Toulouse due to bad weather, which also affected them from Alicante to Malaga on March 9. We should remember that they were flying at much lower altitudes than modern planes, and were therefore far more vulnerable to local weather conditions.
They were waved off at daybreak on 11 March from Tangiers by the British residents who gave them a bunch of English heather. They were also given a letter by the Head tribesman “addressed to any Moorish State, in the event of a forced landing in the Spanish Rio de Ora, to the effect that if care was taken to hand us over intact a suitable ransom would be paid to the tribe responsible for carrying this out.” I wonder how effective this letter would have been since when they arrived in the Spanish penal settlement of Cape Juby, W G Pudney reports “Everyone was astounded to find a lady in the machine. They pointed out that in the event of a forced landing her chances of returning to civilisation were practically nil. My chances were definitely worse as I should have been murdered. “
Even the airfields, such as they were, could be a challenge: they had great difficulty in taking off from Dakar as heavy rain the night before had made the ground soft. Other hazards were also evident: “The aerodrome at Dakar is situated six kilometres from the town and overgrown by mangos and ant hills in various places.”
They arrived in Bathurst, The Gambia, on 17 March and here the plane was transformed into a seaplane by fitting floats, which had been sent ahead by ship: “when the crate was opened we were surprised to find a huge black mamba. The crate was dropped by the natives who ran in all directions. The floats were fitted to the machine by myself working in the mornings and late evenings.” No mention of whether Delphine helped, or what else she might have been doing.
“The machine was launched and a christening ceremony performed by the Governor.” They then flew the length of the Gambia river to Basse and French Senegal beyond, but the river was not safe for landing beyond Basse. While spending the night at McCarthy Island came the mishap – a local boat, the pilot of which was asleep, collided with the moored plane – which damaged the tail plane, elevator and aileron, but after repair with some copper wire the exploration flights continued until they could collect the new parts back at Bathurst. The report says the flight from McCarthy Island to Basse took 3hrs 15 mins, compared to the 24 hours needed by river boat which sailed once a week, but, looking at the distances below, I wonder if it really means from Bathurst to Basse.
A Bathurst B Basse C McCarthy Island
On 2 April they flew the round trip to Dakar with the mail, taking 1 hr 30 mins on the outward journey but only 1 hr 5 mins on the way back (which indicates that Bathurst to Basse would be more likely for a 3 hr flight). It seems as though the French already had air mail services along the coast. The next day they flew to Boloma in Guinea Bissau, where they surveyed the area and reported an “aerodrome was being prepared, one kilometre square.” They flew on to Freetown arriving on 4 April in very rough weather and only found shelter in Kingtown bay. This seemed the only favourable spot apart from further up the river at Loko (a long way from Freetown), or Pepal (on the northern shore of the river) where the mining company was exporting ore (still doing so today – at night the best lit spot for miles around).
On flights further south they found many suitable estuaries for landing.
At the end of his lecture about the flight, W G Pudney made some recommendations for the future: metal used in seaplanes should be either stainless steel or coated with cadnium as all other metals had been badly corroded by the river water which contained an acidic substance. Seaplanes would need to be maneuverable “so as to avoid moving sandbanks and currents, or floating debris.” Hazards included petrol evaporation (3 in 19 gallons – so important to check your tanks if filled the night before!), weather (sea fogs, sandstorms and tornados), the glare of the sun off flat water, malaria, and the tropical heat: “three minutes in the sun without a topee is the equivalent to a hit on the head with a 20-lb. hammer”. And gave a valuable piece of advice “Before taking off in a seaplane on rivers, first taxi half a mile to disturb the water, and crocodiles and hippopotami will disappear and prevent one running your float down. “
Flight magazine suggested that the plane suffered damage taking off in choppy conditions, but W G Pudney says corrosion made the plane unairworthy, and this is confirmed by the register of civil aviation which shows:
|G-ABGF||Blackburn L.1C Bluebird IV||SB.252||G-ABGF||Miss Delphine Reynolds/Gatwick & Cowes||07.11.30||2896||Dbr due corrosion Sierra Leone 5.31|
Whatever the cause, it seems this adventure went no further. Presumably the two pilots returned to UK by ship, but what became of the plane is not known.
The narrative above is mostly taken from a lecture given by Fl Lt W G Pudney to the Royal Aeronautical Society on Thursday, October 20, 1932, in the Lecture Hall of the Royal Society of Arts.
W G Pudney was born in Wellington, New Zealand, leaving with the Third Reinforcements in 1914. He was wounded at Gallipoli and invalided to England where he later joined the Royal Flying Corps and was in combat over the trenches. He continued as a pilot both in commercial exploits and joined the nascent RAF. Some years after returning to the UK from the flight I have been describing, W G Pudney joined the Railway Air Services Ltd, flying between Glasgow and London. In 1937 he returned to Freetown to join Elder Colonial Airways Ltd and began air services between Freetown and Bathurst. [information about W G Pudney thanks to this site]
And what of Miss Delphine Reynolds? Pudney affords her only one brief mention (a lady in the machine) until the closing remarks acknowledging her father as sponsor and their “keeness in aviation” [sic]. How fascinating it would be to find her diaries or memoirs! This was no easy afternoon jaunt, but must have been gruelling at times, with the heat, dust and long distances covered. It doesn’t seem to have put her off flying, as she went on to own at least two further airplanes, shown below, but no further information about this intrepid aviator seems to be available. This seems to be a book waiting to be written.
|G-ABMJ||Robinson Redwing 2||4||G-ABMJ EI-ABC||Redwing Aircraft Co Ltd /Croydon >The Scarborough AC>Redwing Aircraft Co Ltd >Miss D Reynolds/Gatwick >Miss R Norman /Heston||22.05.31||3179||Sold Ireland 12.34|
|G-ACKY||DH.85 Leopard Moth||7016||G-ACKY VH-ADV VH-RSL VH-BAH||Miss D Reynolds /Gatwick >GM Tonge /Croydon||00.10.33||4472||Sold Australia 12.37|