The the 29,029-foot-high summit of Mount Everest was first conquered on foot by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary in 1953. BUT – it had been two decades earlier – on Monday 3rd April 1933 – that Everest had been conquered by air!
With the financial backing of philanthropist Lady Houston, the Houston Everest Expedition took off from an airstrip near Purnea, India at 8:25 a.m. Squadron Leader Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, the Marquess of Clydesdale as he was then known, was flying a modified Westland PV-3 biplane accompanied by Colonel Stewart Blacker. Following them in a Westland PV-6 were Flight Lieutenant David McIntyre and photographer S.R. Bonnett. The flight would test not only the mechanical capabilities of the biplanes at dizzying altitudes, but also the endurance of the pilots in the thin and frigid air. After 30 minutes’ flying the planes passed over Forbesganj, their forward emergency landing ground forty miles from Purnea, and at a height of 19,000 feet Everest first became visible above the haze. The crew members were flying without the benefit of pressurized cabins, and relied on oxygen tanks to breathe and at one point in the flight, the photographer Bonnett felt faint and experienced shooting pains in his stomach. He paused filming and sat down inside the cabin, where he discovered a gaping fracture in his oxygen line. He quickly tied a handkerchief around the breach, and was able to resume his duties without losing consciousness.
With that now under control they were neared Everest, when wind presented them another challenge. The deflection of winds off the mountain had created a down current that caused the planes to drop 1,500 feet as they struggled to climb skyward. However, despite the high winds, both planes soared a hundred or so feet over the summit and the men spent some 15 minutes circling the roof of the world before beginning their journey back.
In recognition of his achievement Douglas-Hamilton received the Air Force Cross in 1935. Also in his open cockpit was an unnamed cine-photographer and following them was a second Westland PV-6, piloted by Flight Lieutenant, D F McIntyre. The flight took three hours, covered a return distance of 320 miles reaching nearly 30,000 feet clearing the mountain by a reported 100 feet. Close range photographs of Mt Everest proved the achievement.
A film, ‘Wings over Everest’, was made of the record-setting flight – no doubt using the film of Squadron Leader’s cine-photographer. In 1936 the story was told in a book ‘The Pilot’s Book of Everest’ written by the two pilots.