Alan Cobham: a Passage to India
By Jo Woolf – Writer-in-Residence
Over the Black Forest, a small biplane was struggling to maintain altitude in a snowstorm. Knowing that he could not rise above the clouds, the pilot was urgently seeking a place to land. With the weather worsening by the second, he shouted to his two passengers to move themselves and their luggage to the back of the plane, and then he fixed his eyes resolutely on a small patch of snow-covered hillside that was bare of trees. Tail-heavy and with the engine at full power, the little aircraft was virtually hanging on its propeller when it fell out of the sky into three feet of snow. It rolled for about thirty yards and then stopped. After a few tense minutes the cabin lid opened, and a man’s voice broke the silence. “Dammit, Cobham!” he said. “We shall never be able to get off from here!”
In 1924, Alan Cobham had some very big dreams about commercial aviation. As a child he had built giant kites and flown them on Streatham Common in London, and with the help of a friend he had constructed a bicycle-powered flying machine which – perhaps mercifully – never got off the ground. But flying seemed to be in his blood. Towards the end of the Great War he joined the newly-formed Royal Air Force, progressing quickly from student to instructor. In the first years of peacetime he had flown all over Britain for an aerial photography company, and he had lifted the trophy in the prestigious King’s Cup Air Race.
Now, as a pilot employed by de Havilland, Cobham was regularly flying wealthy clients all over Europe, and with typical optimism he began to look further afield. The British Empire still stretched far and wide around the globe, and most of it could only be reached by ship. Sea passages were lengthy and expensive, and Cobham was convinced that aviation offered a better solution. He wanted to prove it, and luckily the perfect opportunity fell straight into his lap.
Aeroplanes or airships? That was the question being pondered by the British government in the early 1920s. Airship travel seems like a lost era to us now, but for several years this was considered a more attractive alternative to biplanes with their flimsy-looking wings and open cockpits. Cobham, of course, was a firm believer in the new aircraft being built by de Havilland. Meanwhile the government appointed a Director of Civil Aviation and tasked him with researching an air route to India.
The man with this interesting job was Sir Sefton Brancker and he already knew Cobham well, having been his passenger on many flights to Europe. Ironically, in order to get to India, Brancker was faced with a lengthy and expensive sea voyage, a situation which Cobham felt he could not allow. With only limited help from the government, Cobham lobbied the fledgling aviation industry and managed to raise enough money to fund the flight.
Cobham deliberately chose to travel during the winter. Poring over the maps with Brancker and carefully plotting his route, he persuaded his client that, if they were successful, they could prove that a year-round commercial air route to India was a viable proposition. He carefully neglected to explain what might happen if they were not successful. Cobham never really considered failure as an option.
On 20th November 1924, Cobham’s DH50 biplane roared into life and taxied down the runway of Stag Lane Aerodrome in Edgware. On board, in addition to Cobham and Brancker, were Arthur Elliott, Cobham’s trusted engineer, and a Romanian general whom Brancker wanted to bring along. Cobham noticed with cheery good humour that the plane was heavily overloaded. It was a low-key beginning to a flight that would help to change the course of aviation history.
The flight to India was a challenge, but it was not a race. In the 1920s a passage from Britain to India on board a P&O liner took about twelve days, and Cobham was not trying to compete with this time. On the contrary: Brancker had a network of business and social contacts throughout Europe and beyond, and he wanted to use this unique opportunity to visit as many as possible. Luggage space in the DH50 was almost non-existent, but Cobham would soon learn the importance of packing a dinner jacket.
One of the first stopovers was in Berlin. The little party had been treated to a business lunch and some “particularly good music” in Hanover, but afterwards Cobham found himself faced with the prospect of landing in the dark, which was an unfamiliar experience. He managed with the help of floodlights, and was loudly applauded by spectators. It was all very civilised. A few days later, unfortunately, they found themselves hurtling towards a snowbound mountainside in the Carpathians.
Of course, they all survived. With the help of soldiers who had to be summoned from Bucharest, a makeshift runway was dug out of the snow with just enough clearance for the wings. It was the first of several minor setbacks, all of which Cobham took in his stride. At Constantinople, he discovered that the plane had a cracked cylinder block, so, after sending a prompt cable to de Havilland, he strolled out with his companions to explore the city. Within a few days the replacement part arrived on the Orient Express.
Over the Taurus mountains and down the Euphrates to Baghdad; from there, Cobham’s party travelled along the Persian Gulf via Basra and Bandar Abbas to Karachi.
At each city in India, Cobham found that his fame had preceded him, and he was entertained in tremendous style as he waited for Brancker to complete his business engagements. He visited the rock fortress at Jodhpur and watched a religious festival on the banks of the Ganges. He was also able to fulfil a long-standing ambition. While he was in Calcutta, he realised that he was not far from the Himalayas; he decided that if he flew up into the foothills and lightened his aircraft, he could make an aerial tour of Everest and Kangchenjunga.
Accompanied by an eager young government official who offered to act as cameraman, Cobham lost no time in heading for Jalpaiguri, where the appearance of his aircraft caused a major sensation. Swarms of people could not be prevented from clambering all over it, undeterred even by Gurkhas who had been ordered to stand guard. Knowing how fragile it was, Cobham was slightly alarmed. The solution was brilliantly simple: a number of elephants, decked in headdresses, were brought in to form a peaceful but protective circle around the little plane.
The next day, as they soared to 16,000 feet, Cobham and his companion enjoyed stunning views of the Himalayas with their snow-capped peaks and dark valleys. The joyride had to be cut short, however, when the cameraman was overcome by oxygen starvation in the open cockpit. Cobham, himself luckily unaffected, piloted the plane safely back to Jalpaiguri.
From Calcutta, Brancker wanted to move on to Rangoon, where his long schedule of appointments finally came to an end. On 8th February 1925 the intrepid little party embarked on their long journey back to Britain, with just a minor detour into a snowy hillside in the Black Forest, described in the opening paragraph. Amazingly, the aircraft was dismantled in the field, taken away and re-built in Stuttgart. The party then continued their homeward flight via Paris and on 17th March 1925 they landed in Croydon, where they were given a grand reception – as seen in the below video.
“I wanted people to stop thinking of flying as a ‘stunt’, and start thinking of it as a normal means of transport… I wanted to show that long-distance flying could be a non-heroic, unadventurous thing to do.” ‘A Time to Fly’ by Alan Cobham
Cobham’s venture was a huge success. Despite the occasional white-knuckle moments, he believed that he had convinced Sir Sefton Brancker of the benefits of aeroplanes over airships. The world was now opening up for commercial airlines, but the tragedy was that Brancker would not live to see it. He was killed five years later, when the R101 airship crashed in northern France on its way to India.
Sir Alan Cobham remained committed to his vision for worldwide air travel, although he sometimes struggled to balance this with his reputation as a daredevil aviator who frequently cheated death. He did his best to downplay the drama, saying that “any adventures that he might have had by air across the world had been the result of pioneer flights of survey,” and that “these adventures would never have occurred on an air route in regular operation.” He was right, of course, and it is fair to say that his debonair self-confidence came entirely from his own exceptional skill and owed nothing to arrogance.
The recipient of the RSGS Livingstone Medal in 1926, Cobham was a pioneer in so many ways. After returning from India he accomplished several more long-distance flights, and he toured Britain with his ‘Flying Circus’, offering joyrides and a barnstorming spectacle with a fleet of aircraft. In later life he founded a company called Flight Refuelling Ltd (now Cobham plc).
Sir Alan Cobham’s autobiography, ‘A Time to Fly’.
RAF Museum: www.rafmuseum.org.uk
Quotes: ‘A Time to Fly’ by Sir Alan Cobham; The Scotsman, 23rd November 1928, report on lecture to RSGS by Sir Alan Cobham.
Alan Cobham’s India flight
OUTWARD: Departing on 20th November 1924, Cobham flew via Berlin, Warsaw, Lemberg (Lviv), Bucharest, Istanbul, Baghdad, Basra, and down the Persian Gulf to Karachi*. He stopped in Calcutta and Delhi before arriving in Rangoon on 6th February 1925. The journey of 79 days covered over 8,500 miles.
RETURN: Departing on 8th February 1925, via Karachi, Bandar Abbas, Bushire, Baghdad, Beirut, Aleppo, Prague and Strasbourg. After the emergency landing in the Black Forest, the aircraft was dismantled and re-erected in Stuttgart so that the party could continue home via Paris. They landed in Croydon on 17th March 1925 and were welcomed with a grand official reception.
*Karachi is in modern-day Pakistan, which was still part of imperial India in 1924.
The first commercial flight to India, operated by Imperial Airways (forerunner of British Airways), was introduced in 1929. It was accomplished in four different aircraft including a DH66 Hercules and a flying boat, and involved 20 stops en route. The journey took seven days. For the first few years, it involved at least one rail journey.