Scots fly over Everest to mark 80th anniversary

The view, from the air, across Mount Everest. Picture: Contributed
The view, from the air, across Mount Everest. Picture: Contributed
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A GROUP of intrepid Scots successfully repeated the maiden flight over the world’s highest mountain yesterday – 80 years to the day after the historic first journey.

Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, Marquis of Clydesdale, and Flight Lieutenant David McIntyre battled treacherous conditions to conquer Mount Everest on 3 April, 1933.

A ferocious downdraft caused their modified Westland Wallace biplanes to plummet 1,000 feet in a second, and lack of oxygen almost killed one of their photographers.

But the photographs from the flight and a second unauthorised mission were to provide the maps used by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay to climb Everest 20 years later.

Yesterday, Lord Clydesdale’s grandson Charles Douglas-Hamilton boarded a flight around the world’s highest peak to mark the anniversary of the epic flight. “I felt that a family member had to represent my grandfather and the family on this day”, he said.

The 1933 flight, in two flimsy biplanes named after William Wallace, nearly came to grief because of the treacherous ice plume that sits at the top of the mountain, and which gives Everest its characteristic menacing look.

Yesterday’s flight was made in a rugged, twin-engined BAE Systems Jetstream. This aircraft was chosen because it was manufactured at Prestwick in Ayrshire, in the Scottish Aviation Ltd factory established by Hamilton and McIntyre on their return from Everest.

Unlike the first Everest flight, the 2013 party flew in comparative comfort inside a pressurised cabin, shielded from the minus 40C temperature the original pilots had to endure in open cockpits.

The Jetstream took off from Kathmandu Airport at about 7am. Take-off was delayed until an earlier scout plane radioed back that the weather was clearing over Everest, following a storm the previous night. On the 1933 trip, Hamilton and McIntyre each carried a camera man – one of whom nearly died from oxygen starvation.

This time, the crew carried a dozen local and international journalists and TV cameramen.

They included some from China, which shares one side of Everest. As well as Charles Douglas-Hamilton, and myself from The Scotsman (media sponsor of the 2013 return expedition), our main crew members included Angela Wrapson from the Prestwick World Festival of Flight, whose idea the commemorative flight was.

“The original Everest flight was more important that Lindberg’s solo crossing of the Atlantic,” she argues. “Hamilton and McIntyre had to invent the equipment that led to today’s high-flying passenger planes.”

The link between the 1933 Scottish flight and the 1953 climbing of Everest was cemented on Monday when Charles Douglas-Hamilton met with one of Tenzing Norgay’s grandsons .

Looking down on the flight to Everest yesterday, the retreat of the glaciers is very obvious – especially when compared to the photographs taken by Hamilton and McIntyre on the 1933 flight.

After the flight, Charles said: “It’s great to witness what my grandfather did. I got a feel of how difficult it must have been to fly those two aircrafts over the summit in 1933 in temperatures ranging from -30 to -35C.”

The risky mission was the first time pilots had attempted a sustained flight at an altitude above 30,000ft, and meant they needed to wear cumbersome oxygen masks but had to go without parachutes.

The pilots and their photographers – Colonel Stewart Blacker and a man called SR Bonnett – wore heated suits and goggles. The mission was a success, although Bonnett almost died after damaging his oxygen pipe.

However, the survey cameras intended to map the area were clouded by dust. So Lord Clydesdale and McIntyre defied orders and made a second successful flight on 19 April, which gave them the pictures later used to guide Hillary and Tenzing to the summit. They escaped court marshal after their disobedience was declared “a magnificent insubordination” by a commanding officer.

Yesterday McIntyre’s son Dougal McIntyre, 76, spoke of his pride at the achievement of the two auxiliary airmen from the 602 City of Glasgow Squadron.

He said: “It was a groundbreaking – or should I say air breaking – flight. It was quite an event.

“Father and Clydesdale were determined they were going to make a success of it. They had to make sure they did their best for their squadron and country.

“My father did not really talk about it when I was young. His focus was always on the future not the past. Unlike these days they saw it as their duty rather than something to be bragged about.”

The men returned to Scotland after their expedition and in 1935 set up Scottish Aviation Limited and also established what is, now, Prestwick International Airport as a flying school.

McIntyre died in 1957 aged 52, and Lord Clydesdale was 70 when he died in 1973.

How The Scotsman reported the feat on 4 April, 1933

“FOUR members of the Houston Mount Everest Flight Expedition, using two large Westland machines, yesterday succeeded in flying above the peak of Mount Everest, which is over 29,000 feet, and the highest mountain in the world.”

Eighty years ago that is how The Scotsman reported the historic first flight over the “top of the world” by Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, the Marquis of Clydesdale, and David McIntyre.

The handsome young Scottish pilots, aged 30 and 28 respectively, made headlines around the world after navigating the treacherous mountain range in two fragile biplanes, with open cockpits and basic oxygen masks.

Just over three hours after the pair took off from Lalbalu, seven miles north of Purnea, in the north-east Indian state of Bihar they became the first people to see the summit of the greatest peak on earth.

Lord Clydesdale, MP for Paisley, agreed to lead the expedition after he was approached by John Buchan, author of The Thirty-Nine Steps, in the House of Commons smoking room.

Buchan, also an MP at the time, had been upset that American airmen had been the first to fly over both the North and South Poles, and was determined that Britain would win the Everest challenge.

He chose Lord Clydesdale because the politician was also the youngest squadron leader in the RAF reserve, serving as commander of 602 City of Glasgow squadron of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, while McIntyre was a flight lieutenant.

The technical challenges were great. Aircraft engines at that time were not designed to function in the thin air which would be encountered six miles above ground level, and the fuel of the time would freeze at the sub-zero temperatures. Breathing apparatus was also unreliable and the notoriously unpredictable winds over Everest would make any flight hazardous in a biplane. Lord Clydesdale and McIntyre built their Westland Wallace aircraft with powerful new engines which used improved fuel.

To save weight, neither of them carried a parachute and they only took enough fuel to fly for 15 minutes over the mountain, deciding that if the engines failed, they would try to glide back the 75 miles to base.