National Geographic : 1957 Jul
Flight to Adventure 49 Flying Their Own Single-engine Plane, a Daring Couple Span Jungle and Desert in a Yearlong Odyssey over Africa and Asia BY TAY AND LOWELL THOMAS, JR. With Illustrations by the Authors THREE of us hurtled through the thin air over Africa's west coast. There was Tay-my wife, copilot, and navi gator; there was I; and there was Charlie. Charlie had six cylinders, 225 horsepower, and a dashboard full of dials that spoke a language as clear as English. Right now he was warning us: "You're in trouble. You've got 400 miles to go, and you can't make it. You're going to run out of gas." And Charlie never lied. Clouds Force Plane Out to Sea We were flying south to Villa Cisneros, in the Spanish Sahara. Beyond that would be Dakar, and then the great green heart of Africa itself. On our right stretched the At lantic. On our left rose the Atlas Mountains; behind them lay the desert, vast and bleak and empty (map, page 54). But now rain clouds, low and black, forced us down to 1,000 feet, then to 500. We flew out over the water, where there was less likely to be an obstruction. But then the clouds lowered even more, until we were skimming a mere 100 feet above the waves. The wind shifted. A tail wind, which had been boosting us along at 180 miles an hour, turned into a head wind, and our ground speed dropped to a mere 120. And Villa Cisneros, which an hour ago had seemed within easy reach, suddenly became remote. With that head wind we simply hadn't enough gas to make it. We had one alternative. According to the map, there was a Spanish fort with a landing strip at Villa Bens, 100 miles ahead. We had no way of knowing, of course, whether or not Villa Bens had any fuel. Still, in a pinch, ordinary auto gas would do, and we hoped to find that at least. So we kept Charlie's nose in the air, heading south, and peeled our eyes for the strip. Thus, in a storm of wind, rain, and clouds Tay and I took the first big jump into our flight to adventure. True, we had already spent six weeks traveling the 7,000 miles from our home in Princeton, New Jersey, but much of that was on an ocean liner. Charlie (short for registration number N2343C, or "four three Charlie") had also crossed the Atlantic by ship. We had flown from Paris to Gibraltar and then across the strait to Rabat and Marrakesh. But that was safe, easy flying, with a modern airport every few miles. Now there was only the bleak coastal desert below us. If we should be forced down here well, Charlie was an agile plane, a Cessna model 180 with sturdy fixed landing gear. He could light on any reasonably flat surface. He could take off again with surprising ease despite a 250-pound overload. Landing on a smooth African beach should not be too tricky. Search for an Invisible Airstrip Without gas, though, we couldn't take off again, however firm and wide the beach. We would just have to sit there until help came. To anyone searching for us, Charlie's bright red paint should be easy to spot in this desert land. And to make doubly sure, we carried a signaling mirror, a Very pistol for firing red flares high into the air, and two flashlights. We also carried emergency food and water supplies for four days. But even as I pondered all this, our imme diate troubles lessened: the clouds lifted, per mitting us to rise again to 2,000 feet, and The Authors Lowell Thomas, Jr., world-traveling son of the renowned radio and television commentator, learned to fly as an Air Force pilot during World War II. His wife, the daughter of Samuel F. Pryor, Jr., Vice President of Pan American World Airways, was born to aviation and majored in geography at Smith Col lege. That training stood Mrs. Thomas in good stead during her recent appearance on the CBS television program, "The $64,000 Challenge." Taking turns as pilot and copilot, the young couple set out on an airborne journey that carried them from Paris to Istanbul by way of equatorial Africa and the Near East. More of their experiences are described in their illustrated book, Our Flight to Adventure, published by Doubleday & Company, Inc., New York.