Remembering the Scots who flew over Everest some 80 years ago

Houston Westland G-ACAZ approaching Everest on the second flight.
Houston Westland G-ACAZ approaching Everest on the second flight.
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EIGHTY years ago, on 3 April, 1933, two Scots pilots became the first humans to see the windy summit of Mount Everest.

They flew in fragile biplanes, with open cockpits and temperamental oxygen masks. Breasting the top of Everest with only feet to spare, they sought proof that the climbers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, who had disappeared on the mountain nine years earlier, might have made it to the summit.

Blacker discussing weather report.

Blacker discussing weather report.

The two aviators were 28-year-old Flight Lieutenant David Fowler McIntyre and 30-year-old Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, Marquis of Clydesdale and commander of 602 City of Glasgow squadron of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. Their flight made them world famous. A documentary film of their adventure, Wings Over Everest, won a Hollywood Oscar in 1934. No wonder – McIntyre had the stunning looks of a matinee idol, while the dashing Hamilton managed to combine a day job as MP for Paisley with being the youngest squadron leader in the RAF reserve.

This year, to mark the 80th anniversary of that first Everest flight, another group of Scots will fly over the summit. Going on the expedition is Hamilton’s grandson, Charles Douglas-Hamilton. They will use a Jetstream aircraft manufactured by the very company founded by McIntyre and Hamilton after their Everest adventure – Scottish Aviation Ltd. This firm was based at Prestwick Airport in Ayrshire, another creation of McIntyre and Hamilton.

The first Everest flight was straight out of a Boy’s Own adventure. Enter John Buchan, author of The Thirty-Nine Steps and, in 1933, MP representing the Scottish Universities. Buchan was dismayed that the Americans had been first to fly over the North and South Poles. He wanted a Brit to be first over Everest. Buchan waylaid Hamilton in the House of Commons smoking room and persuaded him to become chief pilot of the Everest flight.

A Scotsman editorial, on 17 February, 1933, summed up the project: “Success will mean a triumph of British grit and also British materials, besides resulting in an extension of human knowledge of the planet which we inhabit”.

Crew photograph

Crew photograph

The flight would not be easy, Hamilton knew. Existing aircraft engines would not work in the thin air, even if fuel could be developed that did not freeze. Breathing apparatus – necessary at six miles high – was still unreliable. Above all, the unpredictable winds over Everest would make any flight treacherous in a biplane. Solving these technical problems required money.

It was found from an unlikely benefactor – Fanny Lucy Radmall, the daughter of a Lambeth draper who escaped poverty by becoming a chorus girl, then eloping (at 16) with the married heir to the Bass Brewery fortune. Lucy wed a succession of rich husbands. By the time the last one died, she was Lady Houston and a millionaire. But Lucy was no bimbo. She funded the British entry to the Schneider Trophy international air speed competition, which led directly to the Spitfire fighter that won the Battle of Britain.

When Hamilton first approached Lady Houston, she was not convinced: “I told him I did not want to help him commit suicide.” Hamilton replied that the flight would be “as safe as a walk around Hampstead Heath on a foggy night”. Charmed, Lucy wrote a cheque for a sum that would be worth £600,000 today.

By the time the newly christened Houston Mount Everest Flying Expedition left for India in February 1933, most of the technical problems had been solved. The expedition’s two Westland Wallace aircraft had powerful new engines, improved fuels, and sophisticated cameras. To save weight, McIntyre and Hamilton carried no parachutes. Even then there was only fuel for 15 minutes over the mountain. In the event of engine failure, McIntyre and Hamilton decided, they would try and glide back the 75 miles to base.

Now it was a matter of waiting for clear weather over the summit. Off duty hours were spent swimming, until an old piece of driftwood turned out to be a crocodile. McIntyre shot it. Meanwhile, Air Commodore Peregrine Fellowes – great uncle of Julian Fellowes, writer of Downton Abbey – was flying out each day looking for a break in the weather. On the morning of 3 April, Fellowes reported clear skies all the way to the summit. The flight was on.

Nearing Everest, Hamilton and McIntyre realised they were approaching from the wrong side, where the vortex of winds swirling round the mountain would blow the aircraft down rather than up to the summit. The oxygen was also malfunctioning, nearly causing Hamilton to black out. But at the very last minute, with the engine straining, a sudden updraft gave Hamilton’s aircraft the momentum to clear the peak.

“I had always cherished the hope that it might be possible, visually or by photograph, to establish that Mallory and Irvine had actually reached the summit,” he said later. “As I came over the top, I tilted the right wing and looked down on the summit. It was just a passing glimpse, and it was not possible to discern any hint of human remains or the apparatus of mountaineering”.

In the other plane, McIntyre took three attempts before cresting the summit. To complicate matters, his cameraman, S R Bonnett, had split his oxygen hose and was slipping into unconsciousness. Turning to check on Bonnet, McIntyre broke the strap on his own oxygen mask. He was then forced to hold it to his face and fly with one hand.

Returning to base, the two heroes executed a perfect formation landing. Telegrams of congratulation poured in from around the world. The Lord Provost of Glasgow, Sir Alexander Swan, wired: “We are proud that a Glasgow man should have accomplished this historic achievement.”

But elation soon turned to disappointment. Dust haze meant the survey cameras on both aircraft had failed to work properly. Everest had been conquered but the scientific task of the flight – to make detailed maps – had failed. The only solution was for McIntyre and Hamilton to attempt a second flight. But the expedition leadership back in London forbade this because of the risks.

For men who thought flying over Everest was a walk in the park, a little insubordination was now called for. On 19 April, against orders, they did the whole thing again. This time, they got the pictures. Twenty years later, in 1953, those very photographs would guide Hillary and Tenzing to the summit.

Next month, Hamilton and McIntyre’s epic journey is being repeated by a team organised by the Prestwick World Festival of Flight. The 80th anniversary trip has been made possible by BAE Systems at Prestwick, the successor company to Scottish Aviation. Yeti Airlines of Nepal have provided a Jetstream 41, designed and built at Prestwick. The new Festival of Flight, which runs from 30 August to 8 September at Prestwick Airport, celebrates the pioneer work of Hamilton and McIntyre and the history of aviation in Scotland.

“Most Scots don’t know Hamilton and McIntyre flew over Everest,” says Angela Wrapson, one of the festival organisers. “And they don’t know Prestwick is still Scotland’s aviation capital, where they make wing parts for both the giant Airbus 380 and the Boeing Dreamliner. Our festival will remind Scots of their great aviation tradition.”