Firsts is a regular series looking at groundbreaking feats of endeavour and innovation, and the pioneers who made them possible.
When, in 1918, Alexander Kellas – a Scottish chemist, explorer and mountaineer with a keen interest in physiology at high-altitude – proposed flying over Mount Everest, his ideas were quickly dismissed. Admiral Mark Kerr – one of the founders of the Royal Air Force – was one of many who believed that the technology required for an aircraft to fly at such altitude, over the mountain’s summit of 8,848 metres, simply did not exist, and would probably not appear for another century.
Even the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club scoffed at Kellas’s suggestion, but by 1924 the Mount Everest Committee had gathered for talks with aviation pioneer Sir Alan Cobham, a man who had nearly flown over the summit himself but for his engine failing at altitude.
The logistical difficulties were two-fold: First a capable aircraft needed to be built – one with an engine capacity and propeller that would permit reaching 10,000 metres – and be equipped with oxygen tanks and masks to deal with the thin atmosphere. Secondly, permission to fly over the country needed to be granted by the Nepalese government.
Year long preparations for the expedition, funded by Lady Houston – a British philanthropist, political activist and suffragette – began with testing at the Royal Aircraft Experimental Station at Farnborough. Here, the Everest flyers – lead pilot P.F.M. Fellowes, chief pilot Sir Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, chief observer and aerial still photographer Colonel Stewart Blacker, second pilot Lieutenant David McIntyre, reserve pilot R.C.W. Ellison and chief camera-man and acting observer S.R. Bonnett – were placed in a steel chamber in which the conditions of high-altitude exposure (over 11,300 metres) were simulated. Next the aircraft for the journey were chosen: Two Westland P.V.3 open-cockpit aeroplanes, named the Houston and the Wallace, with Bristol Pegasus S3 engines.
On 3rd April 1933, Lieutenant David McIntyre and Sir Douglas Douglas-Hamilton successfully flew over Everest. The difficulties of such a flight had been surmounted – to a degree: the planes used in the flight had very basic oxygen equipment and only enough fuel to last for 15 minutes. Perhaps more impressive was the aerial camera fixed to the lead aircraft which took the first ever bird’s-eye-view images of the summit of Everest, providing invaluable photographic and scientific data for visual surveys and measurements of barometric pressure – and the first, intimate, awe-inspiring vision of Earth’s tallest mountain close-up.
The expedition’s success – in face of predictions that such a venture would not be possible until at least the 21st century – is a testament to the determination and cooperation of a select team of people who were undeterred by seemingly insurmountable scientific, engineering and physiological challenges.
Words: Ada Roberts