VERHALEN ALS PILOOT
lezing voor de Club Aruba
Last summer I saw a picture called 'Those magnificent men in their flying machines'. This film recalled so much from that time I started flying, that I went to see it twice and when it will be shown in Aruba I will go and see it again.
My flying life started in 1928 at Soesterberg. During the war I had seen planes flying over our country and once on a morning a Zeppelin coming back from what they called in that time a 'raid on London'. The big sigar was hanging at about a hundred feet high over our village in the fog and we children were sent inside when the soldiers at the river started shooting at it.
But the first plane I saw quite near was a French plane in 1918.
It was supposed to give a demonstration. There was quite a bit of wind and I saw the pilot wetting his finger, holding his hand in the air and shaking his head. 'Too bad, too much wind.'
We had to come back next day and we arrived just in time to see the plane being damaged in the take off.
That was all I knew about when captain van Weerden Poelman invited me to take place in that rattling, shaking CI a plane used by the Germans in World War II. Everything went well until we came over Naarden. He made me understand that we were going to have some stuntflying. We made a looping and then a vrille, a spindle in which the machine comes falling down turning around her axis.
I got so sick that I decided never to go up again, but when I felt all right the next day I took my seat in the training plane. The first one was a Fokker SI, also from World War I. She had a turning engine, five cylinders, the propellor fixed on the engine and all that business turning round right in front of your seat.
Before taking off the instructor showed me the two instruments. The oil pressure and the speedindicator, both with a big red spot on it. He said:
'If that one (the oil pressure) drops beneath the red point you bring it down.'
'If that one (the speed indicator) drops beneath the red point it brings you down.' I understood.
There was no gashandle in that plane. There was only a contact right on top of the stick. There were only two possibilites. Full gas or nothing.
Taking off you pushed the button and in a terrible noise of the open exhausters, the rattling and whistling of the bracing wires, the clackering of the canvas against the metal spikes you were taken up shaking and shuddering in the air, at a speed of 85 km an hour (60 miles). If you wanted to come down, you just released the button and the contact was cut off. If you needed a little power, you just pressed the button again so what you heard was this, prrrrrrrrrrrt prrrrt prt, prt prt prt, prrrrrrrrrrrrrrt, and there you were, standing in the heather.
The next machine was the SI Fokker. The pilot sat in the backseat, the passanger in front, with double control.
It brought me my first accident in the air.
On a solo flight I had with me as a passenger my friend Guus van rooy, who is now, or used to be, a general in the Dutch army.
When flying over Barneveld at 6000 feet I tapped his shoulder and made a sign that we were going to make a looping.
But saying is one thing and doing another. I had heard about making loopings. I had been sitting in the second seat when others did it. But this was my first try. It resulted in a very strange kind of stunt-flying.
I pushed the nose down to get speed, then I gave a pull at the stick and the plane went up until we were lying on the back.
And then it happened.
She did not want to come down in the normal way. She kept hanging on her back and I couldn't move the stick.
This machine had a starting handle that was kept in a holder in the cockpit. For some reason it had been on the floor and got stuck between the stick and my seat.
When I saw it I managed to bend myself forward to get it out, but at that moment van Rooyen got afraid and looked back at me. When he did not see me, being bent forward, he thought I had fallen out.
He was terrified. Took the stick in front of him and pulled it as hard as he could, while in the meantime I was trying to get the cranck handle free by pushing the stick forward.
Things cracked and whistled all around us, and the speed indicator was far above the red line when I managed to get the plane in a normal position, after having fallen more than 4000 feet. By inspection many cracks and fissures were found in the wooden supporters of the wing.
After the military flying period I went to Utrecht to study for dentist. But when I was scarcely able to produce false teeth, I heard that the KLM needed pilots for their regular service Amsterdam Batavia, which was opened shortly before.
I left everything behind and went to Schiphol for a truly unique training course given by the old famous pilots: Beekman, Soer, Smirnoff, Scholte, Parmentier, Duymelaar, Sillevis a.s.o.
We learned to land under difficulties. We learned to land in the night, just along a row of lights by petroltins with waste cotton.
One event is still on my mind.
One night Beekman and I went off from Schiphol to do some training in blind approach on the ZZ system, invented by the Germans.
The approach is made on a beam, and when the plane approaches the airport flying as low as possible the ground station gives ZZ by wireless, if the position is safe for landing.
The weather was quite hazy and there was a possibility of fog. We were not even ten minutes in the air when Schiphol announced a rapid increase of the density and a few minutes later, when we were already on the beam, the fog was so dense that we couldn't land any more.
Up we went, over the clouds, waiting for instructiouns. We had petrol for about one hour, so there was nothing to worry about.
After about ten minutes we were ordered to go to Antwerp because Rotterdam was closed, but on our way to Antwerp we got a message that Antwerp and Brussels were also closed by the fog. Beekman decided to go back to Schiphol because in the meantime the petrol had diminished to a dangerous point.
Three times we tried to get in on the beam, but even flying at 150 feet over the ZZ point we observed only a haze of light, but no landingline.
Then Beekman got angry and perhaps afraid. So he said: 'This time we'll get in.'
We took our turn over Amsterdam, got on the beam and he said: 'If we see a clear lighting up of the fog, we just push it through.'
We flew very slowly, waiting for the light, forgetting the ZZ.
Then the fog got diffusely lightened, the light became brighter and brighter, and Beekman pushed the plane down. Even now I can give you an exact picture of those lights decorating by hundreds, in the form of a star, the big circus Sarasani speeding on to us at a very short distance. Only by full gas and mastership of flying could Beekman avoid a catastrophe.
But we knew where we were. The circus was at the stadionplein, and between the stadionplein and Schiphol in those days there was nothing but polder. We went down very low and this time the ZZ system worked perfectly.
After that training we flew the 7a, a single engined open plane with 6 passengers in the cabin. I remember one of my first flights: Rotterdam Amsterdam with two passengers for the connection to Kopenhagen. A Frenchman and a Swede.
There was a heavy rain with very low clouds. In those days we used an antenna, which was a heavy piece of lead hanging out of the plane from a cable 20 to 40 yards long.
Passing a farm, I lost the antenna in hte big trees. The wind blew the plane to the West and I missed Schiphol. Without antenna I could not get a radiotelefonic connection with Schiphol, so I had to turn round and round to locate my position.
All together I arrived at Schiphol after one hour and a half for a flight that was scheduled 45 minutes.
The plane for Scandinavia had left already.
Mr. Thompson was on the platform. He was the manager of the airport and representative of KLM.
Nearly always Mr. Thomson was in his office, but periodically he stayed on the platform for a few days. He was not to blame for it, but it was the fault of his secretary, a somewhat hairy girl all over. During her monthly period she spread such a bad smell than nobody, not even Mr. Thomson could stay in the room. Then he would go to the platform and speak to her through the window if necessary.
When I saw him I thought he was going to give me a reprimand, but he said: 'Did you bring the passengers? The plane to Copenhagen is gone already. Do you have enough money with you? Enough to show them the town?'
I said yes.
'Look,' he said, 'they are very important passengers. Keep them busy. We'll put them on the next plane tomorrow morning. Take notice of your expenses, we'll pay you back. Good luck.'
Perhaps those two passengers will have forgotten about their flight from Rotterdam, but I am sure they'll never forget those beautiful hours they spent in Amsterdam.
Then we started flying the F7b and the F12 and F18, three engied planes and real beauties in those days. The speed was not so high: 180 to 210 km. But they were very safe.
Compared to many pilotes from other companies we were very lucky with those machines. The Imperial Airways, a British Company, were still flying with tridekkers. Very long, high, slow planes. I remember their advertising, announcing dinner on board, carpets and real fauteuils, armchairs. They were the first planes to carry stewards on their service London Paris.
One day there was a heavy Northwest wind. The three winged plane that left Paris for London got such a strong headwind that it had to make a forced landing in Ostende after three hours flying.
The French used a biplane FARMAN in those days on their line from Amsterdam to Paris. On a very windy afternoon one of them took off from Schiphol, and half an hour later the plane was still in sight. Then the pilot tried to fly very low because the wind is less strong at lower altitude, but due to the heavy bumps something went wrong with the complicated system of crosscables and the plane broke in two and crashed in the greenhouses at Aalsmeer, falling down from a height of 100 feet. The plane was so slow, and had so much wing that nobody was seriously wounded.
Strange things happened in aviation those days.
Brinkhuis took off from Amsterdam to Paris in an F 18. They got trouble with the radio. One hour later, when the apparatus was fixed, he called Paris for a position because he had been flying over the clouds all the time. But Paris didn't answer.
When he called and called again Oslo came in between and gave his position, being 150 miles west of Copenhagen.
Brinkhuis checked his compass and saw that the north point of the needle pointed to the south on the compassring. They were flying just 180 degrees in the wrong direction.
Instead of landing in Paris, the passengers stepped out at Schiphol airport again after two and a half hours flying.
We got strange orders in those days:
We flew dead bodies in the night from London to Germany, from Holland to Paris, and planes loaded with gold, only one day a chest of gold went through the floor.
There was a doctor in Zeist, Holland, who injected people against cancer. We brought the patients from many places in Europe to Soesterberg for him, until he died himself. From cancer.
I went up many times with Mr. Veraert the rainmaker. Once with iceparticles which we threw out over the clouds. No rain, even the ice disappeared.
Another time with newspapers, thousands of them. It gave a terrible mess in some parts of the Hague where bundles of paper flopped down in the streets.
A widow hired a plane once to throw the ashes of her cremated husband over the North Sea, because he had been a captain of the Navy. The funeral was not impressive. The wireless operator threw pot and all overboard. There were some difficulties later with the widow who wanted the urn.
In 1933 I went to Batavia for the first time. The captain was Soer, later pilot in the famous Pelican Flight.
My first trip was in the SNIP, an F 18. You can still see the cockpit of that plane in the Curacao Museum.
It was a long trip. 10 to 12 days. 13.500 km with only a few badly equipped airfields. Many of them had no landinglights, or wireless station. The weather reports were always the same in the far East: fair weather with scattered thunderstorms. In the middle of the monsoon it changed: rain with scattered thunderstorms.
We had to fight with the sandstorms in Iracq and Iran. But the worst of all was the monsoon. Sometimes you had to fly for hours and hours in heavy rains, without wireless, very low at about 100 feet over the Gulf of Bengal with the front window open, very alert when you were approaching the coast of Birma with the many islands scattered about.
I'll never forget that flight in 1935 with Sillevis in a DC 2. Coming from Rangoon on the way to Calcutta we ran into rainy weather at 6000 feet. In the beginning it was very quiet and we thought we could make it at this altitude.
But suddenly we ran into a heavy storm, a small cyclone for which we were not warned. In a few seconds we were taken up a thousand feet, bumped down again, turned over and back, and finally Sillevis lost control completely, because all the giro's ran out of order.
The instruments turned like crazy. The only thing we could do was keep the controles in the middle and wait. I don't know how long it lasted but it was very long in my opinion. Then suddenly we saw the sea and pushed the plane straight under the clouds.
It was still very bumpy but we had a horizon again. 'Call the wirelessoperator,' Sillevis said. But the wirelessoperator wasn't there. I went into the cabin.
What I saw there was a terrible disorder. All the luggage carried in the luggagenets had come down. The cupboard in the back of the cabin was open and the cups, plates, forks, knives, lunchboxes were scattered over the cabinfloor. The two big milk cans we used to carry on board filled with water in case we were forced to come down in the jungle, were rolling in the aisle.
A bald headed passenger with a bleeding wound over the left ear pointed to the floor under the first seat.
There was the wirelessoperator, waiting for the worst. When I told him that the danger was over and that we needed a course from Akyab, he came to his feet and helped us to land safely in Akyab. But after that he refused to put a step in a plane. For ever.
Akyab was an auxiliary airport. When we needed some petrol between Calcutta and Rangoon we sent a message to Mr. Price, the pilot in Akyab Harbour. Then Miss Price, his daughter, put the kettle on the fire and prepared tea and pastry. They drove to the airfield and arranged a cosy corner under a big tree next to the landingstrip, where we had a nice rest while the indian boys filled the tanks.
She was a nice girl, a handsome girl. So nice that there was always need of a little more fuel, or a small defect that made a landing at Akyab possible. Many young pilots tried to conquer that English beauty. But one day it was announced that she went to Rangoon to marry a mecanic from the Imperial Airways. From that time no more landings in Akyab.
At the end of 1934 and the beginning of 1935 we had a very bad year at the KLM. I remember that we were standing at Cairo airport and I pointed to the boy who cleaned the toilet and said: 'What a job.'
Piet Soer said: 'He will live longer than we do.'
Two months later he crashed in Brillon in Germany against a mountain.
Beekman got in a thunderstorm near Rutbah Wells and crashed in the desert with the Uiver. Hondong lost his plane in Bushire Iran.
One sundaymorning Silberstein crashed in a fourengined Fokker F 20 near Schiphol, due to a false manoeuvre after one of the engines stopped in the take off.
And van der Feyst came down in the Alps with the DC 2 Gaai in a thunderstorm.
Nobody could understand that crash until I nearly underwent the same fate a little later.
Coming from Milano at a height of 6000 meter, 18.000 feet, I was flying just over the clouds in blue sky when I just touched a little veil of a cloud. At the same time my engine stopped and I was forced to descend in the clouds.
At that moment the other engine stopped also. The engineer tried to start the engines again, but they did nothing.
I kept straight on my course to Zürich whilst gliding down as slowly as possible. In the meantime it grew terribly cold in the cabin, because the heating from the engines had fallen out and the temperature outside was very low. We came down and down and we got heavy rain. There was one mountain, the Tödi, lying near my course with an altitude of 3600 meter and farther North the Engadinchain of 2800 meter.
All the time we couldn't see anyghing but clouds and rain. We came down to 2800 meter and then the mecanic managed to get the engines working again. In the meantime the temperature rose to 17 degrees Celsius. Up we went again.
All the trouble was due to iceformation in the carburator inlet.
I still keep the barogram that quietly made a record of the flight. The wirelessoperator whose name appears on it with mine was a fine man of great value to me, because he kept in contact with Zürich all the time, giving me course after course, which kept me on my track.
When coming down, he just touched my shoulder and said: 'Be careful, eh. Siemens (the mecanic) and I are married to sisters.'
He crashed in India in 1956.
Those wirelessoperators were all fine people. Most of them came from the lightships and tuckboats, leaving years of hard seamanship behind.
I had a wirelessoperator called Joe Muller. For years we flew together. He is now operationmanager at the airport of Leopoldville in the Congo. Between our trips to Batavia we did mostly nightflying. Especially the mailservice Amsterdam Rotterdam Cologne and sometimes London Cologne.
It was well paid. We got an extra 7,50 for each nightlanding and 10 guilders for the hotel, where we didn't go. We would arrive in Cologne at one o'clock and go directly to the cabaret 'die weisze Ballonen', where we stayed until 3.30 to go back to Rotterdam at 4 o'clock. We thought we could better sleep at home.
I remember one night when Muller had more beer than the agreement was. After announcing our departure to Rotterdam he fell into a deep sleep and I had to wake him up at Dordrecht to announce our landing in 5 minutes.
When he called Rotterdam they asked him where he had been. 'We have been calling for about twenty minutes.'
Then Muller gave the next answer in full: 'Effe wese pisse.' (Had to pee).
I met many important persons in the pre-war years.
Susanne Lenglen, the famous tenniscrack, was a regular passenger on our Paris line. She always asked to sit in the second pilot seat.
Marlene Dietrich was my passenger several times on the line to Itality, and I had King Boudewijn of Belgium in the second pilot seat when we brought his father from Amsterdam to Geneva, just before he abdicated as king of Belgium.
In 1938 I got the famous pianist Rubinstein on board at Singapore. He used to sit in his chair playing with his fingers as if he played the piano. He told me that this was just exercise by lack of a piano. I promised him to arrange a piano at Jodhpor and I sent a message to the secretary of the maharadjah, asking him for a piano at the Jodhpor State Hotel, where we stayed over night.
I will never forget that beautiful night in the Indian garden of the hotel, with hundreds of guests who came from far away to hear the famous man playing on his highness' marvelous piano in the open air on the balcony.
The maharadjah was a good friend of the Dutch pilots. Sometimes when he flew as a passenger to Europe he gave golden watches as a present to the crew. Once he flew with van Veenendaal, but he gave nothing to him. Van Veenendaal wrote him a flattering letter and asked for a souvenir of his highness. A few weeks later van Veenendaal got an enveloppe with a signed portrait of the maharadjah.
Some people got many presents from passengers. I was not so lucky. All I got was 2 guilders 75 and a sigar.
I got 2,50 from a lady after a trip through Holland, and the rest from a big tulipfarmer who hired the plane to see his bulbfields from the air. When we flew over his house he jumped and cried and waved. When I made a dive along the house he nearly got mad. At Schiphol he said: 'Here that's for you.' Pushed a cigar in my pocket and a 'kwartje' (25 cents) in my hand. I was too confused to give it back to him.
When the Second World War was over, it was very difficult for the pre-war pilots to get in the running again. Everything had changed. You had to follow the instructions strictly. The freedom of the years before 40 was gone. In those days, if we wanted to show the passengers the elephants at the lake near Songhkla in Siam Thailand, we just went down after taking the needle from the barogram. We rushed over the herds, making the males standing right up with their teeth in the air and flapping their big ears, while the smaller children elephants stood protected in the middle. Then we went up again and put the needle back on the paper. You couldn't do that in '45 any more.
Romance was gone. Planes grew very complicated and the pilots were forced to be able to fly still better machines. That was why many of the old pilots had to leave the job. But we all must admit: modern flying is much safer than it was in our days.
Planes go higher. Over the bad weather, at 35.000 feet. We hardly made 15.000 feet in the old days.
Pilots make less human faults, because instruments, wireless and so on take much away from that human element.
But it was all built on the foundation laid by the old pilots: a real romantic episode in the history of the flying machine.