Every country has its own Aviation History, with gods and goddesses, who were as famous ninety years ago as the baseball players and pop stars of today. America of course had Lindbergh and Byrd, Holland had renowned pilots like Geyssendorffer, Parmentier and van Dijk, while in the U.K. Alan Cobham was one of the most famous pioneers, who explored new traffic routes through the British Empire with aircraft that were exceedingly primitive according to our present standards.
Cobham was born in 1894. After a simple education he seemed predestined for office life in the City of London. However, during WWI he found himself with the Royal Flying Corps and after demob, he dived into civil aviation, a sector of endeavor that had not yet really begun to function. Cobham tried every alley that was presented to him. In his first season he gave 5000 people their ‘air baptism’. He took part in air shows, demonstrations, aerial photography and record setting flights. His name became well known because of exploratory flights to such faraway places as Rangoon and Cape Town.
In 1922 he married Gladys Lloyd and in the same year he flew in one day from London to Bucharest. In 1926 he set off a wave of national pride and excitement by a flight to Australia, after which he was knighted to “Commander of the British Empire”. From then on, he was entitled to call himself Sir Alan and his wife Lady Gladys.
Always looking for new challenges, he meets in 1927 Sir Oswald Short, builder of a revolutionary type flying boat, the “Singapore”. It is a beauty of a biplane with a wing span of over thirty meters. Between the wings, two powerful Rolls Royce Condor engines are mounted, braced by sturdy crosswise struts. The machine is particularly special because of its whale-like boat fuselage that easily accommodates six persons and is built of seawater resistant aluminium.
Sir Oswald asks Sir Alan to submit the machine to an ultimate trial by making a flight around the African continent. Of course our young lord cannot say no to this tempting invitation and so, on a windy day in November 1927, Lord and Lady Cobham, co-pilot Worrall, Rolls Royce engineers Green and Conway and camera operator Bonnett take off from a choppy river at Medway. Bonnett will record the journey on celluloid for Gaumont Pictures.
Cobham (with goggles) and Worrall
Three days later, while cruising along the west coast of Corsica, the weather suddenly turns bad very quickly. The wind, which is first a tail wind, now blows from the direction in which their destination lies. Daylight is diminishing and there is no inn in sight to pass the night…
“On the long journey that we had begun, we had taken it as a rule not to open the throttles of our engines fully, but now an occasion presented itself to call upon our spare power, because we had to make up for time. So full-throttle it went, lowering at the same time the nose of our machine to present less frontal area to the head wind. In this way we gave our giant flying boat a speed of no less than 115 sea miles per hour. Our altitude was no more than 10 meters over sea level to avoid the maximum counter force of the wind, because the higher one flies, the stronger the wind.”
From Bonifacio, Cobham sets out a southeast course to Sicily, to cross from there on a short run to Malta, where they hope to spend the night in the comfortable harbor of St. Paul’s Bay. With a headwind of thirty miles an hour, however, it is a mighty struggle to reach Sicily and pass the island to the south, a distance of more than 450 miles. The day is drawing to a close. Heavy clouds in the western sky make for an early evening and the crew begin to feel uncomfortable. The waves look ever more ominous as the daylight fails and the storm increases. The giant airplane is a mere toy in this deserted world of waves and clouds, splashed by water and tossed about by gusts of wind. If no sheltered landing site is found before dark sets in completely, the sea will overwhelm them and they all will be pulled down in the deep and drown…
Lady Gladys shivers at her little typewriter table in the dark hull with the two open deck hatches through which showers of rain and wind sweep inside. To her immense relief her husband suddenly calls through the speaking-tube that he has seen the lights of a man-of-war at anchor near the west coast of Malta. Oh, miracle, it is the flagship of the British Mediterranean Fleet, the “Queen Elizabeth”. The Singapore circles low, touches the water on the lea side and plows through the high waves to the ship. Cobham makes himself known by means of his megaphone and the Commodore on the big ship orders his First Mate to shout back that he would be honored to receive the famous air travelers for diner and a bunk for the night.
Securing the flying boat to the giant ship and preparing her for the night takes some time and Lady Gladys takes the opportunity to inspect her wardrobe for a suitable outfit for this unforeseen dinner invitation. It is of necessity rather limited, although she does possess two evening dresses for official occasions. She finally selects her long black suede skirt with white silken blouse and chain of pearls. Because of the beastly weather she’ll be leant a long, grey woolen uniform coat by one of the crew members in the sloop carrying them to the battleship. It is obvious that all the ship’s men are eying her as she carefully steps from the sloop onto the ship’s ladder in her grey pumps. A whistle is blown and even a hurrah is heard.
The introductions are very formal yet cordial. Loyal subjects of the same King meet in the middle of the sea and behave as if they are at a cocktail party. At dinner, Commodore James first proposes a toast to His Majesty George the Fifth and then one to the success of Cobham’s mission. As the meal progresses, Gladys, seated of course to the right of the Commodore, feels more and more at ease and happily secure in the middle of all these handsome, immaculately dressed men smelling nicely of tobacco. She is so glad to be delivered from that horrible sea. She is truly grateful to God, Alan and the Royal Navy.
After dinner she would have preferred to go straight to bed, but the Commodore insists on a guided tour of the ship, so she obediently follows him upstairs, downstairs, along decks and back again below, from bow to stern and back to bow, all the time stepping in her tight skirt with her pumps through odd doors with high thresholds in watertight bulkheads, meanwhile smiling to one thousand grinning sailors.
The following day they were towed to a sheltered part of St. Paul’s Bay. From then on the whole flight became a huge success, even if they nearly drowned near Malta, suffered a hurricane in Benghazi, underwent quarantine because of the pest in Alexandria, weathered a sand storm near Khartoum and overheating in Malakai. In the marshes of Bor they scattered a herd of one thousand elephants, which made Worrall loose his index finger in the air screw; they nearly lost control in the rapids on the Nile near Mongalla and enjoyed liqueur and cigars at the crossing of the equator. They almost sank because of a collision near Mwanza, made an emergency landing at Tresco and were delayed for one full month at Bassam.
But these were exactly the things why they had started out in the first place and Gladys loved it.
[ I must confess to have borrowed three pictures from the following excellent web page:
The last two pictures are from Wiki.]
 “Twenty-Thousand Miles in a Flying Boat”, by Sir Alan Cobham; History Press Limited, 2007
2 thoughts on “1927: LADY GLADYS CIRCLES AFRICA”
Sir Alan Cobham is my great Uncle so I read this with great interest. Thank you very much. Gill Chapman
Sorry Sir for my late answer. I am glad you enjoyed the article. The dinner party of course I made up (I was invited at a naval ship’s dinner table once myself). The rest is from the book. Thank you! Rit Staalman