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9: Record Flight with the Pelican

Smirnoff's crew were settled - Van Beukering in headphones - Pete Soer, the co-pilot checking the instruments - Grosfeld, the mechanic....

Ivan Smirnoff (left) with his crew-members in front of the 'Pelican'.

Click to enlarge picture...

Cross section of the 'Pelican'.

....Ivan taxied to the other side of the field, turning onto the wind. For one moment he paused, then opening the throttle. Pelican leapt into life and tore down the runway and then they were off. The record-breaking flight had begun. They were seventy minutes behind schedule, but what was that when he had six days to fly across the world? Six days! Ivan roared with laughter.

The weather in Europe was bad at departure time, which resulted in some difficulties following the planned outbound route. The actual outbound route went like this: Amsterdam - Marseilles - Rome - Salonika - Athens - Cairo - Baghdad - Bushire - Djask - Karachi - Jodhpur - Allahabad - Calcutta - Rangoon - Bangkok - Alor Star - Singapore - Batavia.

On 22 December 1933, 100 hours and 40 minutes after they left Amsterdam, and after many smaller and bigger incidents and accidents en route, they finally were dropping down on the Batavia airfield.

On Java with his crew - Smirnoff (right).

The welcome was heartly. The Pelican was besieged by such a crowd of wildly cheering, madly jubilant Dutch that it looked as if the fliers would be penned in their cabin indefinitely. In front of the aerodrome an official committee of welcome was waiting. Police cleared a space and Ivan was helped down from the shoulders supporting him. Afterwards there was a magnificent official banquet for the heroes. This was one feast that Ivan could let himself go on, and he did. He slept like a child the whole night after.

Arrival at Batavia Airfield, Java, 22 December 1933.

Plesman was on the phone. He was pleased and really enthusiastic, too. The Pelican had knocked fifty minutes off the time planned for the special designed Silver Gull, in spite of the fact that she was slower and an ordinary run-of the-mill machine. Actual flying time was 72 hours and 30 minutes, average speed 203 km/h. Total time, Amsterdam to Batavia was 100 hours and 40 minutes. That meant Ivan had spent only 28 hours refuelling, servicing, restowing the mail - and, incidentally, eating, bathing and resting. It was an almost superhuman record.

Invitations showered in upon the fliers, but all had to be refused. Their job was only half done. They must be back in Amsterdam on New Year's Day. Ivan calculated that if he left Batavia on 26 December he could still arrive at Schiphol sometime on 30 December.

Cockpit in the Fokker 'Pelican' FXVIII, awaiting the homebound journey.

The homebound route was: Batavia - Medan - Rangoon - Akyab - Allahabad - Karachi - Djask - Basra - Baghdad - Cairo - Athens - Rome (closed, but a nearby military airfield was used instead) - Marseilles - Amsterdam.

All Europe had severe weather conditions and at Schiphol they had a snowstorm running. To make the scenery even more complex, their radio broke down when the passed Lyons. No further contact with Amsterdam possible. Ivan pushed the plane at full speed through the cruel headwinds that, for some time, cut him back to 97 km/h groundspeed.

When they crossed the Belgian border, the radio started to work again. The whole of Europe had been in panic about them in the half-hour they had been off the air. The weather notes coming in reported heavy clouds over Rotterdam and Amsterdam, mist, snow, sleet, rain. No question, now, of making an emergency landing. Whatever the weather he must land at Schiphol and satisfy those waiting crowds. If he tumbled down out of heaven in splinters, he was going to do it at Schiphol and nowhere else.

All the airport lights at Schiphol were concentrated to make a pool of brightness and suddenly Ivan had a brief glimpse of the field beneath him - the snow-covered landing area seemed an uncomfortable small bit of it, all the rest was crowd. The estimate was that over 10.000 people were there to welcome him. He rose, circled, flew round and round, waiting for another break in the weather curtain. When it came it lasted only for the briefest moment, but it was enough for Ivan. He touched the runway, he was down.

The return flight had been done in 100 hours and 32 minutes, 8 minutes faster than the outbound flight. The date was 30 December 1933, well ahead of New Year's Day.

Back from the record-breaking journey to Batavia in 1933.

The crowd was rushing madly across the landing-strip. Hundreds of little braziers, lit to keep the waiting people warm, were kicked over in the headlong stampede, but trampling feet chrushed out the red-hot embers, flattened the braziers, pounded them into the snow.

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