Despite the failure of his 1924 around-the-world attempt, Archibald MacLaren remained optimistic that such a flight ‘by one British machine and one British engine’ was possible.
Flying perilously low, desperately seeking a passage through the fog, the pilot eased the single-engine Vickers Vulture amphibian down to within 100 feet of the surging waves of the Bering Sea. He and his fellow crewmen were some 40 miles from their destination in the western Aleutians. Turning back was not an option.
Thickening fog soon sent the open-cockpit biplane even lower, until it was almost skimming the wave tops. The pilot had scarcely leveled out when he was forced to bank violently to avoid the cliffs of a barren islet that suddenly emerged from the gloom. Nerves in tatters, the crew opted to alight on the water and wait for conditions to improve.
The decision made, it required all the pilot’s skill to set the Vulture safely down on the sea. But no sooner had the amphibian landed than a large wave smashed the port float, burying the wing – tip underwater and causing the machine to pivot. Other waves then rushed in to demolish the starboard float and part of the wing. Mercifully, the hull was unaffected. Disoriented, but estimating they were somewhere south of Bering Island, they taxied cautiously northward, a crewman balancing on each lower wing to stabilize the now floatless amphibian and keep it from capsizing.
Three exhausting hours later, after the crew repeatedly stopped to cool the Vulture’s engine, the fog lifted enough for them to glimpse a coastline half a mile to their north. Once they reached that desolate shore, however, their worst fears were confirmed: The Vulture’s wings had started to break up and, like its battered engine, were beyond local repair. It was journey’s end.
After 13,100 far from trouble-free miles, the British attempt to make the first flight around the world was finally over on August 4, 1924. For Archibald MacLaren, the project’s prime mover and the Vulture’s navigator, it was the end of a dream. Later he admitted, “I am not ashamed to say that I wept bitterly.”
Squadron Leader Archibald Stuart Charles Stuart-MacLaren, OBE, MC, DFC, AFC, was one of the most distinguished and promising Royal Air Force officers of his generation. Educated at prestigious Charter – house, he farmed in Canada and worked as a rubber planter in the Far East before World War I drew him back to Europe and a commission in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. Transferring to the Royal Flying Corps in late 1914, he served with great distinction as a bomber pilot in the Middle East and Europe.
MacLaren’s first taste of long-distance flying came when he captained the maiden flight between England and Egypt, piloting a Handley Page O/400 bomber on an epic journey from July 28 to August 7, 1918. Next, then-Major MacLaren was chosen to captain the Handley Page V/1500 bomber Old Carthusian on a flight from Britain to India. This airborne odyssey stretched from December 7, 1918, until January 15, 1919, when, after numerous forced landings, the four-engine bomber arrived in Karachi. It had covered 5,560 miles in 72 hours, 41 minutes flying time at an average speed of 77 mph.
The idea for the round-the-world flight germinated in 1922 while the 30-year-old MacLaren was serving with No. 208 Squadron’s detached flight in sweltering Aden. Stationed there at the same time was a young flying officer, William Noble Plenderleith, who agreed to serve as pilot on the estimated 23,254-mile venture, which it was calculated would take 293 flying hours. When MacLaren approached the British Air Ministry to ask for support, however, their response was lukewarm. In essence, the ministry wanted nothing to do with an enterprise requiring “complicated and expensive arrangements all over the world for which we get no financial return.” But they were prepared to allow MacLaren and Plenderleith to go on half pay for the flight’s du – ration, and to let them seek civilian backing.
The Air Ministry’s attitude hardened when in August 1922 a round-the-world flight attempt by Wilfred Blake and Norman MacMillan, first in a de Havilland D.H.9 and then in a Fairey IIIC floatplane, ended in disaster in the Bay of Bengal. The Fairey force-landed after an engine failure and ultimately capsized due to a waterlogged float, though without injury to the crew. MacLaren was duly cautioned: “A world flight in which the Air Ministry is in any way involved must succeed, or a tremendous loss of prestige will result….The recent attempt of Blake did immense harm to the cause of aviation in India and the East, and we cannot risk another failure.”
Undeterred, and with a grudging promise of logistical support at RAF bases and gasoline from Shell-Mex along the route, MacLaren pressed ahead with his plans. The Times newspaper provided partial sponsorship, while Vickers agreed to supply two Vulture amphibians fitted with long-range tanks, justifying the expense in terms of the experience likely to be gained in the endeavor. To prepare for the flight, MacLaren and Plenderleith underwent a conversion course at the RAF’s Calshot seaplane base.
Meanwhile RAF Sergeant W.H. Andrews had been recruited as flight engineer, while Lt. Col. F.C. Broome, who had been associated with the unsuccessful Blake/MacMillan flight, signed on as MacLaren’s advance officer. Widely traveled in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, Broome was to establish supply bases in the Kuriles and on Bering Island, Attu and other Aleutian islands, using the Canadian naval trawler HMCS Thiepval as the expedition’s support ship in the Far East. He would join the Vulture in Tokyo as navigator for the venture’s Pacific stages.
Vulture Mark I G-EBHO, powered by a 450-hp Napier Lion, was to start in England, while the second Vulture, G-EBGO—originally a Mark II with a Rolls-Royce Eagle engine, but converted back to a Mark I for interchangeability on the flight—would be shipped to Tokyo as a spare plane. The Vulture was actually an uprated Viking amphibian. Both variants were of conventional spruce and elm construction, plywood covered, with a pusher configuration to facilitate forward crew and passenger accommodation. No wireless was carried.
With Plenderleith at the controls and MacLaren navigating, G-EBHO took off from Calshot, near Southampton, on March 25, 1924. MacLaren’s bronze airman mascot, “Marmeduke,” which had ac – companied him on his flight to India, went with them. The planned route stretched over Europe, across the Aegean to the Persian Gulf, over India and Burma to Singapore, thence via Japan to the Aleutians, Alaska, across Canada and then on the northern short-stage route across the Atlantic. Although this was not a race, the British team was acutely conscious that on March 17 four U.S. Army Douglas World Cruiser DT-2 biplanes had left California flying westward on the first leg of an attempted world circumnavigation. Other round-the-world contenders would soon join in.
Time magazine reported from Calshot that, after receiving a telegram of support from King George V, the Vulture’s crew departed to the shrill siren blasts of several transatlantic liners and a rousing chorus of “Beat the Yanks!” from the enthusiastic crowd. Time stressed there was no race because, “To speed the American flight would seriously strain the equipment and increase the hazard of our gallant officers.” The report continued, “In comparison with the extraordinarily careful preparations made by the U.S., the English expedition appears typically casual. They have one plane instead of four, only one or two officers sent ahead, scant government help.”
Persistent bad weather dogged the British crew across Europe, starting with fog over the English Channel that almost sent the Vulture crashing into the cliffs of Le Havre. They successfully traversed the mountain passes of the cloud-blanketed Apennines only to have the amphibian suffer minor damage from driftwood when landing at Civitavecchia in Italy.
Worse was to come. Over the Greek island of Corfu, a failure in the engine’s reduction gear forced the Vulture down onto Lake Korissa, where the crew was rescued by the Greek and British navies. The plane was hauled out of the lake, refloated in the sea and then towed round the island to Corfu town, to await a new engine being sent overland from England. It was not until April 17, well behind schedule, that flying via Athens they arrived in Cairo by moonlight.
In the meantime, Portuguese Commander Brito Pais and Captain Sarmento de Beires had left Lisbon on April 7 heading east in the Breguet 16.Bn2 Patria at the start of their round-the-world attempt.
From Cairo, MacLaren and his crew flew to El Ziza, in Jordan. He recalled, “We made good time to Baghdad, after losing sight of the desert track once but picking it up again after an anxious half hour” (the “desert track” was the navigational furrow ploughed by the RAF across the Syrian Desert in 1921-22). They continued on without further problems to Basra, Tazireh and Bushire in Iran and then to Bandar Abbas, which they reached on April 22. The 24th saw the beginning of yet another round-the-world flight attempt, this time from Paris by French Captain Georges Pelletier d’Oisy and Adjutant Lucien Besin in a Breguet 19.A2.
After the British crew left Karachi (now in Pakistan) on April 26, the flight’s brief halcyon phase ended. MacLaren glumly observed: “Our tribulations began again. We had the same trouble as at Corfu and were forced to descend in the scorching Sind desert near the village of Parlu.” They waited there for 17 days while another engine was sent from Baghdad.
With the new engine installed, the Vulture flew across India to Nasirabad and Allahabad, where the radiator was replaced, and then, on May 16, to Calcutta. One day later the U.S. Army’s World Cruisers arrived in northern Japan after the first-ever crossing of the Pacific Ocean by airplane (according to MacLaren’s plan, the British and Americans should have crossed paths in Japan). Two days before that, the Frenchman Pelletier d’Oisy had crashed his Breguet 19 on a Shanghai golf course after covering 10,580 miles in 26 days.
For MacLaren and his companions, things were about to go from bad to worse. On May 24, following their flight from Calcutta across the Bay of Bengal to Akyab Island in Burma, disaster struck. Mon – soon conditions had postponed their departure from Akyab for three days, during which time the uncovered airplane became saturated by the torrential rain.
MacLaren described what happened when they finally attempted to take off loaded with extra fuel (headwinds were anticipated): “No sooner, however, had the machine risen into the air, just clearing the tops of the trees at the end of the aerodrome, than she began to drop, striking the water in the harbour with such violence that her hull was badly damaged. The machine began to sink at once. A boat quickly came to our rescue, and we managed to tow the machine inshore and beach her.” The Vulture’s wooden airframe had become waterlogged; its condition was probably aggravated by the more than two weeks that it had spent unprotected in the scorching Sind Desert.
Refusing to give up, MacLaren telegraphed Broome in Tokyo for the replacement Vulture to be sent to Akyab. Providentially, their ostensible World Cruiser rivals were still in Japan. When Broome told one of the pilots, Lieutenant Lowell H. Smith, about the British expedition’s plight, the American generously used his influence to persuade the U.S. Navy to deliver Vulture G-EBGO to Akyab with the utmost haste.
Even so, it was not until June 25 that MacLaren and his crew were airborne once again, heading deeper into thickly forested Burma. That same day the American aviators, en route to Akyab from Rangoon, unknowingly flew over the British aircraft, which was then sheltering from a storm in a Burmese coastal bay. The day before, in Macau, the Portugese team of Pais and de Beires had retired after covering 11,000 relatively swift miles. They had crashed their Breguet 16 in India, but continued in the D.H.9A Patria II.
The British crew encountered appalling weather between Akyab and Rangoon. An unsuccessful attempt to negotiate the cloud-shrouded mountainous areas separating Burma from Thailand (then Siam) forced them to descend at Tavoy. Success came the following day, though MacLaren later re – called it was an atrocious flight.
Next, after staging through Donmuang and Bangkok, came the challenge of the mountainous regions separating Thailand from Indochina. Eventually, after climbing to 8,000 feet, the crew glimpsed a jungle clearing below through a break in the clouds. Electing to land until the weather improved, they first carried out a cautious low-level inspection of the area. Unluckily for the weary airmen, the clearing formed part of a vast swamp that was home to a sizable population of elephants, water buffalo and deer. Climbing doggedly back into the overcast, they at last found a patch of blue sky to use as their horizon. Then, relying on luck and instinct, they set a compass course for their destination. An hour’s flying over impenetrable clouds was rewarded by their first sight of the sea in the distance. MacLaren remembered, “The three of us solemnly shook hands on it.”
After stops in Vinh and Haiphong, they flew on to the British colony of Hong Kong, landing on June 30. Here MacLaren and Plenderleith exchanged stories of their piloting experiences with Pelletier d’Oisy, who would shortly head for Tokyo in a Bregeut 14 loaned to him by the Chinese government after the crash of his Bregeut 19 in Shanghai. To an accompaniment of fireworks and sirens, the Vulture departed for Shanghai. “For a few minutes the plane circled round and round in the water, with Andrews standing on the wing to maintain stability,” a commentator wrote. “Finally, Andrews took his seat, the Vulture sent up plumes of spray as it raced across the harbour before climbing to 700 feet, and was lost to sight heading east.”
On July 3 the British crew reached Shang – hai, where Andrews succumbed to heatstroke (he rejoined later in Japan). From Shanghai they flew across the China Sea to Kagoshima in southernmost Japan and then on via Kushimoto to the Tokyo’s Kasumigaura Naval Air Station, arriving on July 7.
In Tokyo, according to MacLaren, “The most enthusiastic reception was given to us by the Japanese people and the Army, Navy and Air Force who could not do enough for us, getting the machine ready for the next stage of the flight, the most difficult of all.” Preparations included taking on stocks of food, a tent and sleeping bags. To save weight, the Vulture’s wheels and undercarriage were removed. Meanwhile Broome joined the crew as Pacific navigator.
But in the Japanese capital all was evidently not as it seemed. Writing several weeks later to the Foreign Office, the British ambassador to Japan, Sir Charles Eliot, recounted a disturbing conversation with Commander Hara of the Imperial Japanese Navy, the officer who had been charged with the official arrangements for the flight in Japan. According to Eliot, “Hara enquired why a man like MacLaren, ‘who was not at all typical of the British’ was allowed to undertake the flight, and could not understand how the British Air Ministry could have permitted the attempt to have been made in such an unsuitable machine, flown by two men who had practically no seaplane experience. He said he no longer had any good grounds for urging his contemplated purchase of British aircraft and engines and his opponents in the Admiralty, who were in favour of French and German material, pointed to the results of the flight as proof of the inferiority of British designs and materials.” Eliot also mentioned, “The rapid and successful flight of d’Oisy from Paris to Tokyo has forwarded the cause of French aviation very considerably.” (The Frenchmen arrived in Tokyo on July 17 in their borrowed Breguet 14, having taken 120 flying hours to travel from Paris.)
Eliot concluded with the damning, “It cannot be too clearly impressed on the Air Ministry that no attempt to make a record flight should be allowed unless it can be undertaken by the right people in the right machine.” The ambassador’s statement has uncanny echoes of the Air Minis – try’s cautionary words to Mac – Laren after the failure of the Blake/MacMillan flight. Later it emerged that MacLaren and the officers of Thiepval had allegedly been discourteous to their Japanese hosts, causing an inexcusable loss of face.
Unaware of the diplomatic storm brewing behind them, MacLaren and his crew, including the rejoined Andrews, left Tokyo bound for Kushiro, via Minato, on July 14, the same day the U.S. Army team reached Paris. Fog soon hampered the Vul – ture’s progress, causing them to make three forced landings in succession. Eventually they reached Iturup, the first of the Kurile Islands at the southern end of the Sea of Okhotsk, where Plenderleith set the machine down on a lake.
Dense fog cost the amphibian crew an – other day before the flight could resume. Even then fog intervened, forcing them to backtrack and land in a small open bay on the island of Tokotan. Here the anchor failed to hold, obliging Plenderleith to fly the Vulture to a small lake inland. The succeeding days brought nothing but dense fog, rain and gales.
On the fourth day of enforced inactivity a Japanese destroyer appeared, and through it the British crewmen were able to tell the world that they were safe and determined to continue. Plenderleith then fell ill, recovering in time for the crew to resume the flight after their seventh day on Tokotan. Further progress along the Kuriles was hindered by yet more fog before they finally arrived at Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula of Siberia, where Thiepval had laid down supplies for them.
On August 4, 1924, the Vulture took off from West Kamchatka on what turned out to be the last day of the flight. Before them was an estimated 130-mile leg to Attu in the Aleutians, their first steppingstone across the North Pacific. But once again their luck failed—a curtain of fog forced the Vulture down onto the Bering Sea, and it suffered critical damage to its wings and floats.
With MacLaren and Broome out balancing the wings, Plenderleith was able to taxi the amphibian to near Nikolski on Bering Island, the largest of the Komandorski group. There Thiepval’s crew reached the fliers the next morning. The trawler salvaged the Vulture’s remains and engine for eventual return to Vickers at Weybridge.
By September 25, MacLaren, Plenderleith and Broome were back in England, attending a luncheon in their honor at London’s Cecil Hotel hosted by Vickers, Napier and ShellMex (Andrews was absent due to illness). In his speech, MacLaren gave a disarmingly candid account of their exploits, but maintained, “We were beaten in the end by fog alone.” He also paid a warm tribute to the assistance given by the Americans—“friends indeed”— whose Douglas Cruisers were then only days away from Seattle and the triumphant conclusion of their global flight.
“It is now established that it is possible to fly round the world,” MacLaren declared. “I believe it can be done in less time than Jules Verne’s eighty days, and also by one British machine and one British engine.” But it had taken MacLaren’s team 130 days to cover 13,100 miles. In contrast to this faltering progress, Pelletier d’Oisy had taken only 26 days to fly the 10,580 miles between Paris and Shanghai, while the Portuguese had covered 11,000 miles in 74 days. (The U.S. Army’s Cruisers took 175 days to cover 27,534 miles during 371 hours in the air.)
The Air Ministry’s worst fears about “another failure” had been realized. Things had turned out no better than the Blake/ MacMillan flight, and in some ways worse. Although it was not a race, national rivalries had been highlighted to Britain’s detriment, with a consequent loss of prestige. Moreover, the reputation of the British aircraft industry had suffered, with potentially harmful financial consequences. Then there was the embarrassing diplomatic incident in Japan.
Had MacLaren succeeded, he would probably have been knighted. Instead, his RAF career never fulfilled its early promise and he received no further promotions. His marriage also failed.
Restored to full pay, he was posted to Egypt in 1925 to command No. 208 Squadron, flying Bristol Fighters. Technical staff duties in England followed. In June 1930, he was placed on the retired list due to a weakened heart caused by a rheumatic disease contracted in Egypt. Archibald MacLaren died in Madeira on June 18, 1943, at age 51.
Plenderleith progressed steadily up the RAF career ladder, becoming a wing commander before he died at 39, while still in the service, on December 9, 1938. Andrews re – tired as a warrant officer in 1950.
The crew’s round-the-world flight attempt had been a gallant effort, but sadly, some thought, too much in keeping with the great British tradition of gentlemanly amateurism and stiff upper lips. The 1925 U.S. Aircraft Yearbook commented: “MacLaren’s effort was a splendid sporting attempt. His organization and supply arrangements were necessarily inadequate. That he got as far as he did was regarded as remarkable un – der the circumstances.”
In much the same spirit MacLaren himself had acknowledged: “We would not have missed the adventure for worlds; we did our best and failed this time. I will say nothing of our luck; that is all in the game.”
Postscript: On March 24, 2010, during Southampton Airport’s 100th anniversary celebrations, Vanessa Ascough, MacLaren’s granddaughter, gave a presentation on the Vulture’s 1924 round-the-world flight at – tempt. Several of Plenderleith’s and An – drews’ grandchildren were also on hand for the occasion. All of them gathered the next day at the Calshot starting point to commemorate the 86th anniversary of the British crew’s departure.
Frequent contributor and RAF veteran Derek O’Connor writes from Amersham, Bucks, UK. For further reading, he recommends: The Sky Their Frontier, by Robert Jackson; Vickers Aircraft, by C.F. Andrews; and The 91 Before Lindbergh, by Peter Allen.
Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.