In 1938 three RAF single-engine bombers set out on an adventure to Oz, hoping to break a nonstop distance record.
Early on November 5, 1938, three Vickers Wellesley bombers of the Royal Air Force’s Long Range Development Unit (LRDU) departed from Ismailia, Egypt, bound for Darwin, Australia, more than 7,000 miles distant. Their objective was to break the long-distance record of 6,306 miles that had been set between July 12-14, 1937, by Russians Mikhail Gromov, A.B. Yumashev and S.A. Danilin in a Tupelov ANT-25 during a nonstop flight from Moscow across the North Pole to San Jacinto, California. Unlike the Russian route, the Wellesleys’ approximate great-circle course would take them mainly over British imperial or diplomatically friendly territories.
The LRDU had been formed at RAF Upper Heyford, Oxfordshire, in November 1937, under the command of experienced long-distance pilot Wing Cmdr. Oswald Gayford. From February 6 to 8, 1933, Gayford and Flight Lt. G.E. Nicholetts had established a nonstop world long-distance record of 5,309 miles, flying between RAF Cranwell and Walvis Bay, South Africa, in a Fairey Long Range Monoplane Mk. II. Gayford would not be participating in the LRDU record attempt, but would fly to Australia with the ground crews in commercial airliners.
Instantly recognizable by its long, narrow fuselage, large wingspan and single radial engine, the tandem two-seater Wellesley monoplane bomber came from the drawing board of Vickers’ chief designer Rex Pierson, whose Vimy bomber had in June 1919 carried John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown on the first nonstop crossing of the Atlantic. The Wellesley was the first RAF airplane to employ the geodetic construction principle devised by former airship designer Barnes Wallis, later famed as the inventor of the Dambusters’ bouncing bomb.
Geodetic construction offered a lightweight latticework structure of great strength, stress-balanced in all directions, allowing a large, high-aspect-ratio wing, with an excellent lift-to-drag ratio. To preserve the integrity of the structure, the Wellesleys’ bombs were carried in panniers suspended below the wings on pylon struts. Two machine guns were mounted. The standard Wellesley had a single 925-hp Bristol Pegasus XX engine, coupled to a de Havilland–Hamilton variable-pitch propeller. The bomber incorporated a hydraulically retractable landing gear.
The LRDU Wellesleys were modified three-seater versions of aircraft that had been in service with the RAF since April 1937. Powered by 1,010-hp Bristol Pegasus XXII radials, they featured automatic boost and mixture control, coupled with Rotol constant-speed airscrews. Automatic pilots were installed, and long-range tanks were fitted into the wings. Bomb panniers were removed, as were the guns. To save additional weight, no oxygen would be carried on the record attempt, effectively restricting the flight to 10,000 feet. Parachutes and dinghies were also discarded, but Royal Navy warships were positioned along the route to provide assistance in the event of a ditching.
On July 7-8, 1938, a proving flight by four LRDU Wellesleys from RAF Cranwell to Ismailia and Shaibah, Iraq, covered 4,300 miles in 32 hours, at an average ground speed of 135 mph. They returned to Upper Heyford a week later. Although that flight went well, it was not until October 24 that four Wellesleys arrived at Ismailia to prepare for the actual record attempt.
Each LRDU aircraft was crewed by a first pilot, a second pilot/navigator and a third pilot/wireless operator. Every man would take a turn at the controls. In the long, tubular fuselage, the changeover required gymnastic ability, as Flight Lt. Brian Burnett described: “The fuselage was pretty narrow and congested, with the navigator and wireless operator positioned in line behind the pilot, so that to change pilots, the first pilot had to have his seat let down from behind and climb out backwards while the second pilot squeezed by to grab the flying controls and climb in for the seat to be pushed up behind him. If the automatic pilot was working this was not too bad, but it wasn’t always! And one had to move fairly smartly.” The pilot/wireless operator in the rear must have needed even greater dexterity when his turn came to fly the plane.
Ultimately it was decided that only three of the four aircraft would make the attempt: L2638 (LR1), with Squadron Leader Richard Kellett, the flight commander, as first pilot, Flight Lt. Nick Gething as second pilot/navigator and Pilot Officer Maurice Gaine as pilot/wireless operator; L2639 (LR2), with Flight Lt. Rupert Hogan, Flight Officer George Musson and Flight Sgt. T.D. Dixon; and L2680 (LR3), with Flight Lt. Andrew Combe, Flight Lt. Burnett and Sergeant Hector Gray. All had been chosen based on their fitness and stamina.
LR3 was a social microcosm of the prewar RAF. While Combe and Burnett were graduates of the prestigious RAF College at Cranwell, Gray had come up the hard way, enlisting in the RAF as a 16- year-old technical apprentice in 1927 before gaining his wings as a sergeant pilot in 1936.
On November 5, 1938, at 0355 hours GMT, the three heavily loaded Wellesleys took off from Ismailia’s 3,600-foot runway, bound for Darwin. As planned, Kellett’s and Hogan’s planes climbed to 10,000 feet in 45 minutes before settling into a cruising speed of 180 mph. But Combe’s LR3 had a problem with its landing gear, one that was solved by a remarkable piece of lateral thinking. As second pilot Burnett recounted: “We were unable to raise the undercarriage and so could not join them to start with. After struggling for about an hour, we cut a hole in the port side of the (fabric-covered) fuselage and with the aid of long arm of a fishing net (which I had conveniently brought to help pass things to the first pilot and the wireless operator without getting up from my middle seat position), we managed to lever it up. Fortunately it stayed up and we were able to continue heading east and regain our proper track.”
Instead of an anticipated tailwind, they found light adverse winds forecast as far as India. Over Arabia, heavy clouds and turbulence made for unpleasant flying conditions in the overloaded Wellesleys. Navigation over the trackless desert was mainly by dead reckoning, with the course being maintained by frequent drift readings and position lines from sun observations. Direction-finder (DF) readings from Basra enabled a check on ground speed.
They reached the Persian Gulf after about six hours flying, with darkness falling after 10 hours. Four hours later, after they had passed Jask, moonlight illuminated the Indian coastline. Meanwhile LR3 had done some catching up. Burnett wrote, “We caught sight of LR2 a few minutes before we reached Jask, as the sun was setting on our first day.” With the Indian mainland completely covered by clouds, Burnett had to rely on celestial observations and a DF bearing from Karachi.
Around dawn on November 6, 19½ hours into the flight, they reached India’s east coast, where they encountered strong headwinds and thunderstorms over the Bay of Bengal. “We were in and out of thunderclouds and rain storms for the next four or five hours,” Burnett recalled. “I was flying myself at the time and on one occasion banked very steeply to avoid a storm cloud and then found it really difficult to get the aileron up and the aircraft level again, as I think the wing tank fuel must have moved across to weigh that wing down. It was rather alarming as I seemed to be stuck going round in circles.” Having drifted off track, LR3 needed a course correction to close the gap before reaching Malaya. The fliers identified the Andaman Islands after 28½ hours in the air, and they continued on to the coast of Thailand.
The second night fell soon after they reached the Malay Peninsula, by which time 5,000 miles had been covered. “The storm clouds began to build up as night fell,” Burnett noted. “We saw nothing of Borneo as we were in extremely heavy thunderstorms, rain and lightning for about six hours.” Halfway across the South China Sea they spotted a light on the Anambas Islands. Flying on in atrocious conditions for the next 1,200 miles, with wireless communication impossible, they navigated almost entirely by dead reckoning.
Daybreak on November 7 found Kellett’s LR1 approaching Makassar, at the southern end of the island of Celebes. In LR3, a DF bearing from Singapore and a moon sight position line showed Burnett that they had deviated from track while trying to avoid the storms. An hour after passing the Makassar Strait, Burnett calculated that they had broken the Russian record of 6,306 miles. “We celebrated with a nip from my brandy flask,” he recorded. “The second night was nearly over, dawn was breaking with the worst of the weather left behind us and we were reasonably confident then of making Darwin.”
Kellett had instructed the other pilots to rendezvous with him over the Lomblen Islands, in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), to determine whether they had sufficient fuel to cross the Timor Sea and reach Darwin with an adequate safety margin. Combe’s LR3 had just completed one circuit of Lomblen when he received a message that Kellett had pushed on to Darwin a few minutes earlier. Meanwhile, low on fuel, Hogan’s LR2 made a precautionary landing at Kupang, West Timor. Burnett had no such concerns: “I was confident we could reach Darwin with about 13 gallons to spare, or around 45 minutes flying time.”
LR3 was due to rendezvous with LR1 at Bathurst Island, off the northeast coast of Australia, but its crew sighted the leader about three hours later. The two aircraft flew the last 200 miles in formation, landing together at Darwin at 0400 GMT (1300 local). LR3’s crew was understandably anxious about the Wellesley’s undercarriage after the earlier malfunction, but the gear lowered perfectly and they landed safely (the fault was later traced to a broken spring). LR1 had 44 gallons remaining, and LR3 still had 17 gallons.
LR2 joined them several hours later, having also beaten the Russian record by some 350 miles. The two nonstop aircraft had been in the air for just over 48 hours and covered 7,158.5 miles, a record that would stand until 1945.
Sharing the piloting in LR3 during this airborne endurance marathon, Combe completed almost 24 hours at the controls, Burnett 13 hours and Sergeant Gray 11 hours.“Sleep was hardly possible,” Burnett recalled, “but we were invigorated by successfully completing the flight and we had all managed to shave and look smart before arrival, much to the surprise of the many people who had come to welcome us.”
A triumphal circumnavigation of Australia followed, including a ticker-tape reception in Sydney. Originally the plan was for the three Wellesleys to fly back to Upper Heyford. But after LR1 and LR2 were damaged beyond repair during forced landings in Australia, it was decided that Combe’s LR3 should not fly home alone. The dismantled airplane returned to England by sea, as did all the crews. The officers of LR1 and LR3 received the Air Force Cross, and Sergeant Gray was awarded the Air Force Medal. To the disgust of many observers, LR2’s crew, which had stopped at Kupang to refuel, received no honors.
The flight’s success encouraged Flight magazine to indulge in some strategic crystal ball-gazing: “While the non-stop flight from Egypt to Darwin has shown that reinforcements can reach Australia in a very short time….It also brings home the fact that not for many years is Australia likely to remain outside practical bombing range.” Then, noting that the distance from Ismailia to Darwin approximated that from Europe to New York and back: “Thus the United States of America may not always be able to maintain their present aloof and splendid isolation from European affairs. Admittedly, it is a far cry from 7,200 miles with only petrol on board to the same distance with a bomb load carried half the way, but the record flight of today has a habit of becoming the commonplace flight of tomorrow.”
Many of the crewmen involved in the Darwin flight went on to distinguished careers. Burnett climbed highest, becoming an air chief marshal, a knight of the realm and chairman of the All England Lawn Tennis Club at Wimbledon. He died in 2011, at age 98.
Perhaps most remarkable was the career of Sergeant Gray. While serving in Hong Kong as a flight lieutenant in December 1941, he was captured by the invading Japanese and brutally treated. Gray made heroic efforts to sustain the morale of his fellow prisoners, ultimately losing his life. After the war, he was posthumously awarded a George Cross, equivalent in status to the Victoria Cross but for acts of conspicuous gallantry when not in combat with the enemy.
Although obsolescent by the outbreak of World War II, the innovative Wellesley nonetheless performed effectively against the Italians in East Africa, as well as in the desert war in North Africa. Meanwhile Barnes Wallis’ geodetic structure lived on in the Wellington bomber, which became legendary in the RAF for its ability to absorb hostile fire and still carry its crews home.
RAF veteran Derek O’Connor writes from Amersham, Bucks, United Kingdom. For additional reading, he recommends: Vickers Aircraft Since 1908, by C.F. Andrews; and A Pilot at Wimbledon, by Brian Burnett.
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.