First Person: My Uncle Was First to Fly Over Everest

Aviation runs in the family of the first man to fly over the summit.

Eighty years ago this month, my uncle steered his open-cockpit Houston-Westland biplane toward Tibet, a young explorer hoping to be the first to set eyes on the summit of Everest.

Uncle Douglo is how I've always thought of him, but his name was Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, Marquis of Douglas and Clydesdale. Most people knew him as just Clydesdale.

Also with him, as "observer," was Stewart Blacker. Although primitive by today's standards, their plane was a marvel of its day, with its supercharged Pegasus engine capable of soaring above 40,000 feet.

A second, similar plane, a Westland-Wallace, followed close behind, piloted by David McIntyre, with S.R. Bennett as observer.

The two biplanes had only rudimentary oxygen equipment and enough fuel on board for no more than 15 minutes flying time over the treacherous mountain.

Dressed in multilayers of sheepskin clothing, with inbuilt electric heating—essential to surviving the icy blast—-the men resembled outlandish monsters.

The lead aircraft was equipped with a fully automated Eagle III Williamson aerial camera to take the first images of the roof of the world.

They took off from Lalbalu airstrip in the Indian state of Bihar, at about 8:30 a.m. on April 3, 1933—less than a decade after the climbers George Mallory and Sandy Irvine had disappeared in their bid to summit Everest.

In addition to wanting to be the first to look down on the mountain from the sky, Clydesdale was hoping to capture some sign of what had befallen the two climbers, some clue that might help solve the mystery surrounding their fate.

A Matter of Honor

Great Britain's national pride rested on the aviators' shoulders. If they failed, other countries were poised to make their own aerial expeditions.

There was also a strong scientific intent, as the terrain around the south side of Everest had never been explored or mapped.

But the flight almost ended in disaster. Approaching Everest on its leeward side, the Westland was caught in a fearsome downdraft.

"We were in a serious position," Clydesdale later wrote with understatement.

Only when a counter updraft of similar strength caught the plane were they able to scrape over the wind-raked summit by 100 feet. Everest had been cleared, my uncle admitted, "by a more minute margin than he cared to think about, now or ever."

Clydesdale had seen the top of Everest with his bare eyes, but the camera hadn't delivered usable photos—dust problems, apparently.

Another Try

Given the dramas of the first attempt, and the uncertain weather over Everest, Air Commodore Peregrine Fellowes, the leader of the expedition, deemed a second try too risky. But the young men were determined.

Sixteen days later, on April 19, in a magnificent act of insubordination, they made another run.

They cleared the summit again, noting the plume of snow streaming from Everest's crest. And this time they got good pictures.

The photographs showed no sign of Mallory or Irvine. But 20 years later, on May 29, 1953, details revealed in the images helped guide Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay to the top of Mount Everest.

All in the Family

Within a decade after Uncle Douglo's Everest flights, he and his three brothers were pilots in the Royal Air Force, locked in the titanic Allied struggle against Hitler.

Clydesdale was mentioned in dispatches in the May 1940 Battle for France for hedge-hopping in a small plane to bring back news that German panzers were surging into France.

His younger brother, Geordie, flew a Wellington bomber from England to Kenya and narrowly avoided being shot down over the Bay of Biscay when he was jumped by three German fighters.

The next-youngest brother, Malcolm, and the youngest of the four, my father, David, both flew Spitfires in some of the war's most dramatic aerial battles.

By 1943 Malcolm and David had transferred to photo reconnaissance. They flew the lovely wooden-framed Mosquitoes—miracles of speed and inventiveness—deep over enemy territory.

The planes were equipped with F24 aerial cameras and oxygen, and they were easily capable of cruising at 40,000 feet.

On his return from a mission over the south of France to photograph the American advance, David was badly shot up. He made it as far as the final approach to home base when his engine failed.

My father and his observer were killed in the crash, and as far as I know, the photographs they'd made that day were destroyed in the wreckage.

My cousin James Douglas-Hamilton became the family historian and wrote two books commemorating Uncle Douglo's epic flights and my father's Spitfire flying: Roof of the World: Man's First Flight Over Everest and The Air Battle for Malta: The Diaries of a Spitfire Pilot.

I was two years old when my father died, so I never knew him. In the years since, my brother Diarmaid, two of my cousins, Angus and Niall, and I continued the family's flying tradition.

Aloft for Elephants

I learned to fly in Tanzania in 1965, where I was studying elephants. It was in the fourth year of my research into the intimate lives of these great creatures that I acquired an aeroplane: a Piper Pacer.

I too now soared over the hills and plains, exulting in the upthrusts of the thermals and peering down at the ground as I sought to understand the ecology of elephants from an aerial perspective.

My research supervisor, Dr. Hugh Lamprey, was passionate about taking photographs from the air. He'd rigged an old wartime surplus camera—the same F24 model my father had flown with during the war—into the floor of a Super Cub.

Together we took images of the whole of Lake Manyara National Park, where I lived alongside 500 elephants. The pictures came out beautifully and could be compared with earlier ones to show where deforestation was happening and where it could be stopped.

The future of elephants, trees, habitats, and humans could be read in serial images from reconnaissance flights.

At the age of 70, I'm still flying. Sadly, my pictures now are too often of dead and dying elephants.

The photos are helping to document one of the greatest and most wasteful mammalian tragedies of our age: the destruction of Africa's rhinos and elephants, which is raging as I write.

Just as the World War II aviators brought back near real-time images of changes in enemy dispositions, revealing strategic intentions, today's bush pilots in East Africa are compiling a visual arsenal against poachers. It's dangerous work, and the pilots often sustain gunfire.

Their photographs locate poachers' night fires and pinpoint shapes flitting through the woods—people going about their nefarious work of killing for ivory. The images are used to direct ground forces to intercept poachers.

It's possible that the elephant monitoring I do in my little Cessna 185 will one day all be done by satellites and drones. But I believe it will be a long time before the bush pilot, with all his versatility—flying at low altitudes in small planes carrying small cameras, filling in knowledge gaps with vital, immediate, and low-cost information—is replaced.

Until that day comes, we will be guided by the same spirit of adventure that spurred Uncle Douglo.

As I write, I've just completed a flight over vast Tsavo National Park in Kenya, where some of the continent's last great tuskers owe their future to the pilots who help protect them from above.

Return to Everest

Just last week James's son—my cousin Charlie Douglas-Hamilton—flew to Everest as an observer, following in the aerial footsteps of his grandfather, peering down on those eternal snows, to commemorate the first overflight.

Charlie flew in a Jetstream aircraft manufactured by the very same company, Scottish Aviation, Ltd., that Clydesdale and McIntyre had established after their Everest adventure in 1933.

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