6: En Route to Java
Ivan was 33 years old now and thanks to Plesman's determination to be first in everything, he was getting the chance to fly the world's newest designs. European night flights had begun and they encouraged Ivan in his dreams of a fast service East, for mail if not for passengers. Quick communications with The Netherlands' possesions would be good for Dutch business. "If you don't hurry and do it," he told Plesman, "somebody else does it damn' quick." On July 1928 a new airline was born, the Koninklijke Nederlands-Indische Luchtvaart Maatschappij N.V. (KNILM), a lusty daughter of KLM, to operate from Batavia (Jakarta). New expensive machines were bought and it was proposed to fly them East in series, to inaugurate the infant line. The Dutch public went wild with exitement. So much airmail poured into the offices at Schiphol that KLM decided that they, the parent company, would send a machine as well.
Before the trial flight in 1928. The aircraft is a tri-engine FVIIb-3m.
It was late September 1928 and Captain Smirnoff was chosen to pilot the Fokker FVIIb-3m (three motor version of the FVII) on its 14.500 km trial flight to Batavia. Flight schedule was 12 days, in hours of daylight only. Fortunately they managed to get through all difficulties on their way to Java (Indonesia), but it took 16 days including all their stops and accidents. He had accomplished it without an automatic pilot, without radio, without any previous knowledge of the route and with practically no efficient ground servicing. It was a triumph for Dutch men and machines.
October 1928. The happy return after the first mail-flight Amsterdam-Batavia.
Margot (wearing a dark coat) and Ivan in the middle.
In less than 12 months, in 1929, he was on his second flight to the Far East on the first of a series of six experimental flights loaded with 140 kilos of mail and 5 kilos of freight. A token load only, but a beginning.
Above picture shows the inauguration for the six first experimental
flights. Ivan (in plus fours) and Margot is number 2 and 3 from the left.
Dr. Plesman, first President of KLM, is seen on the extreme right.
This picture is from Bangkok on the second experimental flight in 1929.
On the left side is Veenendaal and Beekman. In the white dress is the father to
the Queen of Siam, then comes the tall Smirnoff and finally the Queen's brother.
As early as 1925 Plesman had asked Fokker for a larger aircraft. He wanted a twenty-seater and this led to protracted negotiations. KLM exercised considerable influence on the design and this did not always make life easy for Fokker's designers. They fully realized however the importance of taking the wishes of KLM into account. And the aircraft would hopefully be of interest to other airlines as well. Fokker test pilot Meinecke took the F-IX off on its first flight on 23 August 1929. Considering the fact that Plesman had boosted great optimism by announcing, during a press conference in 1929, the possible purchase of ten F-IX's for 'his' Indies route, things never got as far as that. Although the F-IX attracted plenty of praise, it did not win any orders. In fact this was not the fault of the aircraft: 30 October 1929 was the date of the great New York Stock Exchange Crash and the start of the crisis years. Economical uncertainties made airline managements cautious about investing in new equipment. In the middle of the financial crisis Ivan became naturalised as a Dutch citizen on 14. November 1929 (Staatsblad Number 485). KLM had to take the consequences of the depression into account which meant that the F-IX was too big for the airline. After acquiring two aircraft, further purchases were superfluous and, naturally, to great displeasure for the Fokker Company.
The F-IX was a beautiful machine, a little more than just an enlarged F VIIb-3m. It carried radio equipment and had a modern comfortably-upholstered interior for twenty passengers. The cabin accommodated three rows of seats - a single row on the left and a double row on the right. The cockpit was now fully enclosed, although the side windows were not installed during the initial test flights. At the 1930 Paris Air Show the F-IX won the 'beauty' contest - or as it was officially termed "Grand Prix de Comfort et d'Elegance d'Avions de Transport".
On 13 November 1930 the first of KLM's two F-IX's, with registration PH-AGA, took off for Java (aircraft registrations were changed from 'H' to 'PH' during 1929). The crewmembers on this flight were the two pilots Smirnoff and Aler, radio operator Strijkers and the two flight mechanics Westrate and Waalewijn.
The five man F-IX crew - from the left: Westrate, Aler, Waalewijn, Smirnoff and Strijkers.
The PH-AGA made a long and exciting career. The aircraft continued in existence and was frequently operated on the Amsterdam-London route through to 1936. In 1936 the Fokker F-IX was sold to Air Tropique, a French company which in fact did not exist. It was acting on behalf of SFTA (Société Française de Transports Aériens). This organization was a cover for the purchasing agency of Spanish Republicans in Paris who had an urgent need for aircraft. In October 1936 the F-IX (together with an FXII, FVIII and the FXX) was seen at Le Bourget airfield near Paris. To keep up the masquerade, the Spaniards gave the F-IX a French registration. Even so, in France it was definitely known by insiders and almost certainly in the Netherlands too that Spain was the intended destination for PH-AGA. The Spanish Republicans equipped the aircraft with bomb racks and machine guns, and used it in the bloody Civil War against Franco's Nationalists. The Fokker F-IX survived WW2 and after defeat of the Republicans by the Nationalists, did service with Franco's Gruppo 45.... ....From 1931 KLM decided to embark on regular flights to the East. Captain Smirnoff was to be pilot on the world's first weekly flight schedule from Europe to the East Indies. Machines were faster now and flight schedule were shortened all the time. From 16 days to 10 days and now they were even planning 5 day schedules! The 14.500-kilometres route to the Far East was the longest service in the world. It was also the most exciting. Ivan was expected to bring back, from every journey, information needed to build up the aerial maps only then being compiled. Such maps as existed were unhelpful and unreliable. Once out of Europe there were hundreds of mountain-tops to cross, few of them marked for altitude - some not even on the maps at all! And, once out of Europe, night stops were often nothing but marvels of improvisation ... no hangars ... no fuel pumps, only four-gallon petrol cans brought long distances by camel, mule or donkey train, sometimes even carried on the heads of native porters. Radios were installed now, as a matter of course; but there were still vast tracts where no ground radio functioned, so weather reporting, a constant look-out for possible disaster, were added to the pilot's already heavy duties.