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One hot afternoon in April 1931, a Stearman C3B biplane, its fuel tanks overflowing and cockpit crammed with two weeks' food and water, struggled into the air from the French Foreign Legion airstrip at Colomb-Béchar, Algeria. The plane glowed in the sunlight, with golden wings and scarlet fuselage, and bright American flags painted on its golden tail — a good move, since rebellious North African nomads sometimes fired at French military aircraft. Leveling off at 500 feet, it headed south toward the Legion outpost at Gao, on the Niger River, 1,300 miles straight across the Sahara Desert.
To Richard Halliburton, in the front cockpit, the Sahara appeared 'a burned crust of gravel without a dip or a crack…the horizon a straight line.' The navigation chart was also featureless. Since magnetic compasses tended to be inaccurate over such distances, pilot Moye Stephens was following the military motor track — a ghostly trace on the stony surface below them, covered in places by drifting sand. At only 500 feet, heat and blowing sand stung their searching eyes. Several times they lost the faint track, then had to climb to 5,000 feet and circle until they again detected it.
In 1931 Halliburton was perhaps the world's most famous travel adventure writer, with three books simultaneously on the bestseller list and translated into nine languages. But the French military authorities regarded his most recent venture as nothing less than foolhardy. With extra fuel tanks, the Stearman carried only enough gasoline for six hours' cruising: 540 miles plus reserve — with no head wind — according to Stephens. The French reluctantly authorized them to use two fuel dumps maintained by Shell Oil for the fortnightly supply convoy to Gao. The first was at Adrar oasis, 400 miles south of Colomb-Béchar, which they reached the first day. The second, 500 miles farther south, was only an unattended tank beside the track.
The first day out, several small oases broke the visual monotony, but the next 800 miles, Halliburton wrote his parents, were a 'real blankness — not a rise of 100 feet, not a blade of grass, not a human being.' Fighting a head wind the second day, they were a half-hour overdue in reaching the second dump. Halliburton kept recalling 'the morbid stories I'd heard in Colomb-Béchar about death on the Sahara.' Finally, Stephens spotted several discarded gasoline tins beside the track. They landed and taxied over. 'We noted a curious-looking sand dune nearby,' Halliburton recalled. 'A pump handle was sticking out of it. There was our tank! A thousand eyes would never have seen it from above.'
Digging away a 'ton of sand,' they unlocked the tank, then transferred the precious fluid a gallon at a time in 'annihilating heat.' Halliburton left a receipt for 100 gallons — at $4 a gallon — in the middle of the Sahara. In partial sponsorship, Shell would cancel his debt after his return. The slow refueling plus a rising head wind left them 200 miles short of Gao at nightfall. Stephens landed, and they anchored the plane's wheels with gravel-filled sacks. After a canned-beef supper, they fell asleep lying on their parachutes under the stars, serenaded by a windup phonograph. Before dawn they awoke shivering — the temperature had plummeted 75 degrees. At Gao they spent three days cleaning sand out of the engine, then flew 300 miles up the Niger to the African cotton, salt and slave emporium of Timbuktu (also spelled Timbuctoo).
'Everybody talks about the place — 'from here to Timbuctoo,' people say — but nobody ever goes there,' was Halliburton's comment to reporters when he left the United States. But fabled Timbuktu was just the first destination of an aerial expedition to the legendary cities of the ancient world. The name of the vehicle for this fabulous journey was painted on its fuselage: The Flying Carpet.
Halliburton was at the peak of his career in February 1930 when he went to Hollywood to sell Fox Films the movie rights to his book The Royal Road to Romance. Yet he felt vulnerable, about to be eclipsed — a has-been at 31. He had backpacked through the Old World and the New, climbed the Matterhorn solo, swam the length of the Panama Canal, dived into the sacred cenote of Chichén-Itzá. He tried to think of a new kind of adventure, one that would set him apart from his competitors and excite his fans — and himself. Then a former Royal Air Force pilot working as a technical adviser made him realize that what was new and exciting in 1930 was flying. Later he would tell reporters, 'An adventure not in the air is obsolete.'
He first thought of emulating Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic flight. Then the writer envisioned himself flying around the world, alone, in a tiny plane, gathering material for a new book. However, two days' flying instruction convinced him to stick to writing and hire a pilot. When word of his idea spread, propositions poured in by mail, telephone and in person from out-of-work pilots, promoters, 'tag-alongers' and confidence men. After two disappointments, he turned to family friend Major C.C. Mosley, 1920 Pulitzer Trophy air race winner and founder of Western Airlines. Halliburton's pilot would clearly need not only skill but also resourcefulness. Mosley called Commerce Department inspector Jimmy Knoll, who recommended a Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT, a TWA predecessor) airline captain, Moye W. Stephens. Flying since age 17, Stephens had been an instructor and had stunt-flown a variety of aircraft before piloting Maddux Airlines Ford TriMotors on 'gamblers' runs' into Mexico — without navigational aids, radio, airfield lighting or reliable weather reports. Now 25, he was handling the dangerous western leg of TAT's transcontinental route in a Ford 5-AT TriMotor.
Stephens advised Halliburton to get a plane that was economical to operate and easy to repair. It 'must have all possible power that can be handled by one pilot,' Halliburton wrote his parents, and should be able to be 'carried on boats and landed in ordinary rough fields.' The writer hoped for use of an airplane in exchange for publicity. However, the manufacturers he contacted, assessing his chances at only 50-50, declined to risk their planes. Detroit automobile tycoon Cliff Durant, impressed with Halliburton's plans, offered him his own 500-hp Stearman, provided he used Durant's pilot.
But the writer wanted Stephens, and Stephens himself preferred a smaller and more fuel-efficient airplane. Stephens also vetoed a Lockheed Vega offered to Halliburton 'with no strings whatsoever' by his California millionaire cousin Erle. Stephens had in fact decided on an open-cockpit biplane, and was considering an old American Eagle with an experimental 200-hp Kinner engine. Then he found a more practical Stearman C3B with a 225-hp Wright J-5 engine at Burbank Airport, and Halliburton bought it. Now Stephens had to decide whether he could afford to take Halliburton's offer — a two-year round-the-world flight, no salary but all expenses covered. TAT would grant only a year's leave of absence, so Stephens would lose his airline captain's seniority. But it was the lure of adventure, not financial benefits, that had drawn him — like Antoine Saint-Exupéry — into flying; commercial aviation was losing its romance. He accepted, and while Halliburton fattened their travel funds by public speaking and radio broadcasts, Stephens had the Stearman reconditioned and installed extra fuel tanks.
The Flying Carpet took off from Burbank on December 22, 1930. The first stop was St. Louis, to sign the fuel contract with Shell; then Memphis for Christmas with Halliburton's family; next Indianapolis and Philadelphia for meetings with publishers; then Washington, D.C., to consult with the State and Commerce departments; and finally New York. There Halliburton attended teas and dinners with celebrities like movie star Mary Pickford and novelists Edna Ferber, Fannie Hurst, and Frank and Kathleen Norris, and sold part of his stock portfolio, which had been reduced four-fifths in value by the October 1929 stock market crash. Stephens, meanwhile, supervised the Stearman's disassembly and stowing on the main deck of the White Star Line's SS Majestic. They sailed on January 31, 1931, for London, to acquire visas and maps and iron out a 'maze of customs deposits, military restrictions, etc.'
After three weeks in Paris correcting a vibration in the aileron controls, the two adventurers flew along the Mediterranean coast of France and Spain to Africa and on to Timbuktu. From 10,000 feet the densely built, mud-brick city looked like a great disc with a hole — the marketplace — in the center. As they neared the decaying mud-walled desert town of 5,000, the rooftops seemed to blur and shimmer like a mirage, then rise in an undulating gray blanket. At last the blanket dissolved into clouds of birds — thousands of European storks startled from their winter nesting place on the rooftops.
There was no hotel, so the fliers slept in the caravansary, a large, mud-walled rest house maintained for visiting merchants, and took their meals with French army officers. Given the heat, and despite the fact that flies and bats — 'a hundred to every stork' — inhabited the roof thatch, they elected to sleep on the roof, over the nesting storks' objections. Stephens spent the evenings with the French officers, drinking and singing on their roof, while Halliburton, fascinated by the town's dark and bloody history, prowled the silent streets alone.
Halliburton and Stephens quickly learned that they were not the first fliers in Timbuktu. Three weeks before, German aviatrix Elly Beinhorn had ridden into town on a camel after an oil pump failure forced her Klemm monoplane down in a swamp 20 miles away. Her Berlin-to-Timbuktu solo journey — down the west coast of Africa to Dakar, then inland along the Senegal and Niger rivers — had been nearly twice as long as The Flying Carpet's flight from Paris. The 24-year-old woman flier was reputedly not only courageous but also pretty, charming, and spoke French and English. Timbuktu's European colony had lamented her departure, and Halliburton hoped they could 'meet this unusual Fräulein some day and form a club of the three civilian fliers who had flown to Timbuctoo.'
In Morocco Halliburton rented a house in Fez, a city that enchanted him, as a suitable spot to pen his first article about the journey. Michel Detroyat, France's top aerobatic flier, arrived, and Stephens was invited to Fez's first air meet. 'I couldn't compare with Detroyat,' Stephens admitted, 'but they had to have another pilot to have an air meet.' A crowd pleaser, Detroyat dived almost to the ground, then pulled up into a loop, hands raised with colored streamers on his wrists, steering with his knees. 'I noticed his plane — a high-wing monoplane — didn't perform well on its back,' Stephens said,'so…I did some slow rolls…loops, rolled the plane on its back, let the engine quit and glided upside down for a while, then rolled it out. That made as great an impression as what he had done…some really remarkable stunts.'
On June 9, after visiting Legion units in Morocco and Algeria, they flew back to Paris to find a rejection of Halliburton's request to fly to the ancient city of Samarkand and on east through Soviet Central Asia. They decided to continue around the world by a more southern route. Since the mid-1920s, long-distance fliers had been following the Persian Gulf–Indian Ocean coast to India from the Middle East, then flying down the Malay Peninsula to Singapore and island-hopping through the Netherlands East Indies to Australia and New Zealand. Imperial Airways and KLM used the route, and their bases and RAF bases could provide emergency technical assistance. On August 1, after Halliburton wrote his promised French Foreign Legion article and Stephens had the engine overhauled, they left on a leisurely flight through Europe, Turkey and the Holy Land, arriving in September in Cairo. Halliburton had planned a side trip to Abyssinia, but feeling the pressure of time and expenses, dropped the idea, and on October 26, they took off instead for The Arabian Nights city of Baghdad.
Halliburton decided The Flying Carpet should live up to its name by carrying a prince over his realm. Crown Prince Ghazi of Iraq, a shy, smiling 16-year-old, was eager to fly. His father, King Feisal al Hussein, finally gave in to his pleas but ordered up two RAF planes — carrying the young prince's uncle and a photographer — as escorts. On their return from a picnic on the ruins of an ancient mosque at Samarra, 75 miles up the Tigris River from Baghdad, Ghazi spotted his military school, where the boys ran out of the classrooms on hearing the low-flying plane. The prince asked Stephens to do some stunts, and the pilot obliged with a slow roll, a wingover and a loop, after which Ghazi went back to school a hero as well as a prince.
Halliburton had hoped to rescue a 'damsel in distress' with The Flying Carpet. But the rescue would turn out to be by Stephens, the damsel would be neither Arabian nor Persian, and her particular type of distress nothing ever envisioned in The Arabian Nights. It happened at Iran's Persian Gulf seaport of Bushehr, where Stephens had flown the Stearman to escape Teheran's December weather while Halliburton came overland via Isfahan and Shiraz. That evening the door of Stephens' hotel dining room flew open and an attractive young European woman in a leather flying coat strode in, asking about Imperial Airways mechanics at the nearby base. She was of course Elly Beinhorn, who had hitched a ride into town in a rickety truck after landing in the desert 100 miles north of Bushehr when her engine quit.
The next day, Stephens flew Beinhorn back to her aircraft, a specially built Klemm L.25-predecessor that she had flown to Timbuktu that spring, sometimes referring to it as her 'husband.' As Stephens methodically began to troubleshoot its Wright OX engine, with which he was familiar from his student days, he discovered that Fräulein Beinhorn was resolutely self-sufficient. To his every suggestion she replied, 'I've already done that.' Stephens finally asked, 'How about the fuel jet?' Sounding huffy, she insisted she had already removed and cleaned it carefully. Stephens removed it and found that it was indeed clean, but lodged in the orifice was a tiny grain of sand, the apparent source of the problem.
When Halliburton arrived on a truck several days after that, he later recalled, 'We promptly organized our Timbuctoo club and made Elly president.' They agreed to fly together as far as Singapore, taking off for India on December 21. The night before, Halliburton wrote his parents that Stephens had had the Stearman's engine overhauled in Cairo in September and it was 'running like a clock.' It was the anniversary of their departure from California. They still had half a world to go. The three fliers reached Delhi, via Jask and Karachi, on Christmas Eve. A telegram from the Calcutta Flying Club invited them to a private airshow for the maharajah of Nepal. Halliburton wanted to fly as high as possible up still-unclimbed Mount Everest but needed the maharajah's permission to fly into Nepal. The show was a sensation. Fräulein Beinhorn proved to be an outstanding aerobatic pilot. 'We had the two aircraft, the Stearman and the Klemm, up at the same time,' Stephens recalled. As he easily took their highly maneuverable biplane through a series of spins and slow rolls, Beinhorn followed, Stephens enthused, 'doing everything I did — with her Klemm!'
The three flew on to Darjeeling, near the Nepalese border at 6,500 feet, in the Stearman, since the Klemm lacked sufficient power for flying at that altitude. There they stripped the plane of all nonessential weight and loaded gasoline for five hours' flying. On January 9, 1932 — Halliburton's 32nd birthday — he and Stephens took off. Crossing 70 miles into Nepal at 15,000 feet, Stephens red-lined the tachometer and nursed the Stearman up to 18,000 feet. But when they spied Everest looming above the clouds, they were only 500 feet above a ridge, nose-high. Suddenly Halliburton stood up with his camera, and the increased drag sent them into a stall. 'Fortunately,' Stephens remembered, 'I had just turned away from the ridge and dove for flying speed. There was no place to land — the godawfulest country you could imagine. Halliburton knew nothing about flight. I reached up and batted him on the head. He said, 'What did you do that for? Now we'll have to go back up and get more pictures.' I said, 'You and who else?" Although Halliburton's photograph turned out blurry thanks to the vibration of the straining airplane, it was the closest image of Mount Everest to date.
On January 16, the Stearman and the Klemm flew to Rangoon, then on to Bangkok and down the Malay Peninsula, arriving at Singapore on January 22. With funds and zeal dwindling, Halliburton decided to cut the trip short. Their last destination would be Borneo, then the Philippines and home. He wrote his parents that 'Our airplane…has begun to show unmistakable signs of age and hard usage….The engine too is running rough, but we will make Manila safely, and there have the Wright experts give us the proper overhaul.'
The pontoons Halliburton had ordered from Fairchild for island flying were waiting in Singapore. The RAF base commander gave him hangar space and permitted two sergeant mechanics — neither of whom had any experience with pontoons — to install them after duty hours. The critical task, after suspending the plane on cables and removing the landing gear, was to place the pontoons with their centers of gravity (CG) precisely under the plane. Then they would be mounted on struts welded from aircraft tubing. The pontoons' CG was readily located by balancing them on a sawhorse, but for the plane's CG, Stephens had to cable Stearman in Wichita, and drawings had to be mailed. The estimated two to three weeks' wait stretched into nine. Frustrated, Halliburton started writing his book, visited Penang and spoke twice for the Rotary Club, where he introduced Beinhorn before her departure for Australia.
The pontoons were finally attached on March 8. The Stearman handled well with the floats, Stephens noted, 'but it was hard to get off the water, to get up on the step. I had noticed that pontoons on seaplanes seemed to droop slightly in front and always wondered why. I found out. There was usually enough ripple on the water to break the suction and get up on the step, but in one place, I actually had to be towed out of a smooth creek into the sea where it was slightly rougher and I was able to take off.' In late March, the fliers began a four-week odyssey through the Netherlands East Indies and Philippine Islands. The first day out they 'met a fearful rainstorm and had trouble finding our island…near Sumatra,' Halliburton wrote his parents, adding that they had 'missed a typhoon by 48 hours. Over 100 people were killed [on Jolo] and every house demolished.'
Flying up Borneo's west coast, they landed at Pontianak, anchoring the plane in the river. The next day, the current was too swift to pull the plane to the anchor, so Stephens taxied slowly upstream while Halliburton, standing on one pontoon, took up the anchor rope and piled it onto the lower wing. Still nervous after the mishap near Mount Everest, Stephens warned him to keep well clear of the propeller arc. 'Halliburton was a 'Wild Bill' as a crew member,' Stephens later reported. 'He had no idea of anything mechanical — it was all black magic!' Playing to an audience of hundreds of natives lining the creek, Halliburton coolly began flipping the rope off the wing and coiling it around his elbow and shoulder. Somehow a bight of rope got into the propeller arc. In a flash the prop whipped the rope — and some skin — off his arm, winding it around the propeller shaft and jerking the 40-pound anchor into the blades with a resounding clang, missing the writer's head by an inch.
'We were drifting downstream,' Stephens recalled. 'I put the anchor on a spare rope, hooked it into the bottom, and hailed a motorboat to tow us to dock. Here we were, in a small port in Borneo, with a propeller bent ten degrees out of line!' There was, however, a local mechanic who knew how to straighten motorboat props that had been bent by submerged logs. He 'went to work on that thing with a block of wood and a clamp and a thickness gauge, and in five hours straightened it out to where there was no vibration at all and it flew right from then on.'
From Pontianak the battered plane and crew flew to Kuching, capital of the independent state of Sarawak. The country's hereditary ruler, Vyner Brooke, was the grand-nephew of Sir James Brooke, legendary 'White Rajah of Borneo,' whom the sultan of Brunei had appointed in the mid-19th century for quashing a rebellion in his Sarawak dependency and suppressing the endemic piracy of the Sea Dyaks. Sir James had negotiated British imperial protectorate status for Sarawak. (Occupied by Japan in 1942, it became a British colony when Brooke retired in 1946.)
The rajah was in England when Halliburton and Stephens landed in the harbor, but the Rani Sylvia insisted they stay in the palace. That evening they attended the Grand Prix Ball. The crowd glittered with jewelry, Parisian gowns, medals, scarlet mess jackets and gold-trimmed diplomatic dress. Halliburton and Stephens were wearing their patched flying clothes, but Halliburton recalled that 'Each with a Princess [the Brookes' 16- and 18-year-old daughters] on his arm, led the Grand March!' The next morning the 'White Queen of Borneo' — as Halliburton called Sylvia — serenely climbed aboard The Flying Carpet and became the first woman in Borneo to fly. She arranged for them to take up the elderly and venerated paramount chief of the headhunting Land Dyaks. Well fortified with rice wine, the chief was probably the first man to fly wearing only a leather helmet, goggles and a G-string.
Halliburton and Stephens landed at Manila on April 26, the first Americans to fly a plane into the Philippines, where they were invited to lunch by Governor and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. Halliburton regretted cutting the trip short but confided in a letter to his parents his relief 'that our flying was almost over, and our long journey ended without mishap. I feel like a man let out of jail.' They sailed May 9 on President McKinley for San Francisco. When they arrived on May 31, letters from Halliburton's banker informed him his account was $2,000 overdrawn. He later reckoned he had spent almost $50,000 on his flying adventure and was now broke.
On June 4, 1932, The Flying Carpet took off from Alameda and four hours later spiraled down for a landing at Burbank Airport, where it had taken off 18 months earlier. Stephens figured they had flown 33,660 miles in 374 flying hours, making 178 landings on airfields, polo fields, pastures, rivers and creeks in 34 countries.
Richard Halliburton's publishers gave him five months to finish his book, and The Flying Carpet was published late that year. Moye Stephens found himself shut out of airline flying, but when war's approach boosted the demand for military aircraft, he became the corporate secretary and test pilot for Northrop Aircraft. In 1940, as Stephens flight-tested scout-bombers for the Norwegian and American military, Halliburton sailed from Hong Kong on his final adventure, in a replica of an ancient Chinese junk crewed by Cornell undergraduates and skippered by an Australian alcoholic. They negotiated the Japanese blockade but ran into a storm four days out. Their last radio message was '…storm, but no problem.' Searching U.S. Navy ships and aircraft found no trace of them.
In 1931 Halliburton and Stephens had been prevented from flying to Samarkand; nine years later, most of Asia, North Africa and the Middle East were war zones. The flight of The Flying Carpet had truly been a journey at the end of an era.
This article was written by Ron Gilliam and originally published in the May 2004 issue of Aviation History.
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