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Thursday, November 5, 2009

Blithering Idiots! Flying Fandangos!

Let it be known to all aviators and flying men alike, that on this 4th day of the month of November in the year 2009, Victor Hugo and Andre Smith did join the ranks of a select group of airmen by overflying the highest point on Planet Earth, Mount Everest.
What makes this achievement even more commendable is that Aviator Hugo completed his first flight training session in the legendary Pilatus PC12 while taxiing for takeoff at Tribhuvan Airport, Kathmandu, before departing for Everest.
If this is not a heroic achievement, then what is?

Well, if that weren't enough, his trial by fire came at the holding position on runway 2, VNKT (Kathmandu) where he literally drove up the rear of the leading Pilatus, who then spent the next hour patching the damage and trying to reconnect to the IVAO network.
Meantime, another global aviation madman who just so happened to be passing overhead at 33000ft on a "Wonders of The World Tour', saw Vic's ZA call sign and swooped down for a quick cuppa tea and a chat. Clearly he was missing home! Kathmandu is after all quite a distance from suburban Pretoria and with the Currie Cup now well and over, Malcolm X clearly had nothing else to do but sit glued to his flickering PC screen and fly around the world....on autopilot.

By this time Smith was up and running again with a superglued bum and, being of a heroic disposition, bent time to set their departure for just before daybreak....

Sunrise over the Himalayas is a sight to behold and if it wasn't for Hugo's continual and nervous chatter over the coms, Smith may well have taken some better photos. But, a promise is a promise and he had to ensure that Hugo was well clear of the trees that had previously interrupted their training flights.

By this time the world seemed to have woken up to their endeavour and there were no less than 4 other planes buzzing behind us. Victor was so excited now that I feared he would lose control in his exthusiasm to make new, foreign friends. But, such is the nature of this ethereal world: we pass by each other like ships in the night, seldom much more than a blip on the TCAS.

By the time we reached Choma Lungma (The Mother Goddess of the World using the 1960s colonial spelling), the mountain morning was in full swing and with great veracity Hugo identified the mountain, 'by its characteristic shaped spike'. Smith quetly confirmed the identification by looking for the highest piece of rock.

In a rare interview with Smith we can share in the actual moment of flying into aviation history:

"All in all we probably spent a tad more time circling the summit than the 15 minutes that Hillary and Tensing spent on that auspicious May day of 1953.

We did a few left banks mostly because Victor has a good view out his left window and then in crystal clear weather, headed off over the Khumba iceflow down the Khumbu valley that is so well trodden by decades of Everest worshippers and these days.....adventure tourists.

A curious silence accompanies a plane descending fast from 29000 ft down into the coolth of a rift in the earth. The Khumbu Valley leads down to one of the most challenging landing scenarios for any pilot...Lukla Airstrip.

Lukla was the inspiration of SIr Edmund Hillary as a way of facilitating local development and better access for future expeditions to Everest. If you can survive the landing, then get past the dreaded Nepalese nipper-squitters and finally trudge up the Khumbu valley to Base Camp, you are regarded as being at least mentally prepared for ...... climbing Everest? No, for the first view of the great lady, for it is that which will change your life forever.

We, kind of cheated, to tell the truth, as, in the pressurized comfort of the rather spiffing Pilatus, one experiences nothing of the real challenges of the mountain. The mind devastating lack of oxygen, the 100mph winds that pluck you off treacherous precipices and the knowledge that before she was conquered, Everest had killed 14 climbers, was blissfully far from our splendid sense of achievement.

One such person who crossed this barrier was 37 year old Maurice Wilson, who decided that the best way to scale Everest was to crash land his plane onto the mountain near the peak and then, after a short trot to the top, to climb down.

Clearly the 1930s British Aviation Authorities knew more about altitude acclimatization than Maurice did and prompty impounded his aircraft.
However, in true bush pilot style, he found another way and......well....the rest is history....or should I say mystery!

This remarkable chap is, I now see, the purpose of our flight to Everest. WIthout having imagined and set out on this expedition of our own, my mind would never have turned to the history of Everest Aviators and in turn I would never have 'discovered' Maurice. In return for this, this madcap, larger than life adventurer, gives us a message from his chilly grave on the mountain....just go fo it! The worst that can happen is that you die and that is going to happen anyway....rather doing something BIG and EXCITING than eating a cheese burger in front of the TV.
Maurice simply ignored the authorities, painted 'Ever Wrest' on the side of his second hand Gypsy Moth biplane and flew out of England for India. He knew nothing about mountaineering and even less about flying but, against all odds managed to fly all the way unaided. When he got to the middle East he was banned from any of the refuelling stops enroute, so he simply packed a couple of spare jerry cans in his front seat and flew all the way to India with zero spare miles. In fact, the story goes that he actually glided in when he got there!

Banned from Everest, he headed off up to the mountain, disguised as a buddhist monk and making friends wherever he stopped. He had no mountain gear and no experience of ice or snow climbing but a huge confidence in his ability to overcome.

After several attempts on climbing, he finally headed off on the 31st May 1934 into his personal oblivion, writing in his diary: 'Off again. Gorgeous day!'

His body was found a year later at 22700ft lying next to his ripped up tent, just below the North Col of Everest.

Wilson had said that he was inspired by the 1924 British expedition and the then upcoming Houston Flight over Everest. This remarkable effort is well documented no least in the annals of advertizing. For some time after this heroic flight in open biplanes, any aircraft advert worth its salt referred to the Houston flight.

Flying higher than any before. a British aviator, Lord Clydesdale, as he was known, was chief pilot on this first flight over Mount Everest in 1933. His official title was Air Commodore Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, 14th Duke of Hamilton and 11th Duke of Brandon, KT, GCVO, AFC, PC, DL, FRCSE, FRGS, (3 February 1903 – 30 March 1973). The other chap was Flight Lieutenant D.F McIintyre.
The extremity endured by the crews of these aeroplanes was instrumental to the introduction of pressurised cabins in modern aircraft, it also was the first detailed and scientific survey of the Himalaya region, and resulted in the birth of Scottish Aviation Ltd (now part of BAE Systems).

In recognition of his role in the expedition, he was decorated with the Air Force Cross in 1935. As a pioneering early aviator he was regarded in much the same heroic way as the astronauts a generation later.

So, little did we know, as we fired up our laptops and skype driven coms, that we were about to share in the experience of some of the most eccentric, amazing, crazy adventurers of all time!

Heading down past Lukla we finally located and found another impossible airstrip, Lambidada, in the foothills of the Himalayas. I got down after an initial aborted attempt which saw me soar over the edge of a 2000ft cliff after coming in too fast.

Victor, guided by my near miss, did a near perfect touchdown. After the manditory photoshoot, we both limped off to bed in our tattered mountain tents....whoops!...where exactly are we?!!?

Finally we would like to thank our sponsors, the wonderful group of dedicated pilots and Virtual engineers who make up Hugo Aviation, here seen posing with Chief Construction Engineer, Petrus' extended family outside Victor's new cardboard and string Flight Simulator enclosure. Believe have no idea how true this one is!

And to the dedicated PIC programmers and neuro-psychologists at Smith's NeuroNav Systems, a BIG THANKS for getting us there.....and back in 2 pieces!

May 31st 2001. Smith, frustrated at having to continually ask directions of strangers, conceives of the idea of starting a virtual navigation business!

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