Flight BR 2079 from London to Bombay
by Shirley Morton (nee Bell)
Here we have Shirley's account of a very interesting BUA Viscount flight she was on in 1968.
Were you involved with the Rally too? Please drop me a line anytime
The London-Sydney Marathon was an idea conceived by Sir Max Aitken (chairman of Beaverbrook newspapers) along with Tommy Sopwith a multi-millionaire racing driver.
Britain was at a low ebb after devaluation of Sterling creating general anti British feelings abroad and gloom in the U.K. They felt a big prestigious event could raise the profile of home car manufacturers and help counter some of the general malaise felt.
With joint sponsorship from the Sydney Daily Telegraph and the British Daily Express the event was planned and involved driving 10,000 miles over 10 days with a first prize of £10,000.
98 cars were lined up at Crystal Palace for the start, surrounded by thousands of well-wishers. Media coverage was immense and the event had attracted entrants from a wide range of countries and backgrounds. Not only had the Army, Navy and Air force entered teams but at the height of the cold war Russia had 4 cars competing. Most European car manufacturers were represented and many drivers were well known, including Paddy Hopkirk and Roger Clark.
It was against this backdrop that BUA had secured a charter flight to carry news reporters and TV cameramen to cover the race as far as Bombay. I was rostered for the trip. I have found an account I had written of the experience and have decided to include this un-edited. It contains much more detail than I can remember now, 50 years later.
The 24th November was D-Day for Tango Bravo (Viscount G-APTB), the flying newsroom, covering the London to Sydney Car Marathon. The interior of the aircraft showed very little resemblance to the normal passenger carrying Viscount that she was only a week ago.
Just aft of the cockpit were two stretchers fitted in readiness for any crash victims amongst the competitors. These were complete with blankets and pillows and first aid equipment. The cabin was spaciously set out with just 28 first class seats. Behind these was a work room for the journalists with tables, moveable lights and typewriters. A large space to the rear was left for the stowage of the valuable camera and filming equipment, check-point advertising material and hundreds of rolls of film. Last but not least one of the rear toilets was converted into a darkroom, complete with an enlarger and all the equipment necessary to process the up to the minute pictures at 20,000 feet.
So it was that Captain Stewart, F/O Roger Parker, E/O Alex Metcalfe and N/O Widge Mackay plus my fellow hostess Carol Dunmall embarked on this special flight. A ministry Inspector hovered in the background for good measure. Hiding under a mound of equipment 17 passengers emerged. David Benson and Vic Blackman were the Daily Express motoring correspondent and photographer, John Smailes the Sydney Telegraph reporter, plus other officials of the newspaper and filming world including an ITN cameraman. With engines revving, and a bar order already taken, we took off for the short flight to Paris, the first of sixteen legs.
It seemed we had just got to sleep at our hotel when the jingling of the phone at 04.00 brought us to our senses. Or near them! We had to be ready to go to Turin and Belgrade. By some miracle the passengers were all assembled at the terminal building having worked all night seeing the drivers through their first check point in thick fog. All the cars, it seems, had made the first leg and were already on their way. Belgrade welcomed us late at night with an almost deserted airport and a bitterly cold wind. Next day we had our first glimpse of the cars, already looking a little battered and dirty.
We were introduced to the Sydney Telegraph team whom were in fine spirits. They were eating little bags of mixed nuts and dried fruit, apparently their daily diet for the whole trip to Australia. We met Paddy Hopkirk and Roger Clark including the British ‘girls team’ and assured them that we still had their emergency food supplies and spare parts on board. Unfortunately we had to leave the cars before they set off as we had to get the plane ready for our next hop to Istanbul. We arrived in pouring rain only to find the hotel denied all knowledge of us. As the checkpoint was to have been immediately outside it, I suspect the rooms had gone to the highest bidder. We did find accommodation in a weird place where we were locked in the building at night and ‘let out’ in the morning.
Left : Shirley shops for chicken in a Turkish market
Our next port of call, Sivas, a town in the middle of Turkey. The runway comprised a small concrete strip surround by a dry barren plateau and mountains. The Captain parked the aircraft by an old wooden hut with a coke boiler in the middle, this seemed to be the terminal building. Needless to say when I asked about a catering uplift there were no facilities on the airport to provide anything so they kindly suggested that Carol and I went into town and negotiated at the market. One of the photographers from the aircraft took a photo and it appeared in the December issue of the Amateur Photographer!
Hordes of people from the outlying districts had descended on the town so when we arrived in style outside the hotel in our ‘BUA Blue’ curiosity and excitement reached fever pitch. The local police arrived and had difficulty keeping control. It was rather disconcerting watching them whip the crowd to keep them back.
Sivas weeded out some of the drivers with a few having fallen by the wayside with engine trouble. Two such drivers were Bengt Soderstrom and Gunner Palm from Sweden giving up with piston problems. They were offered a lift on our ‘hedge hopping’ plane as it was called in the Telegraph. Not only were these drivers gorgeous looking but their next race was the famous Monte Carlo rally.
With our complement on board growing, we were also joined by Tommy Sopwith. We spread our wings once again and with no time to roost we were skyward on the way to Kabul. It was of utmost importance that we keep to schedule otherwise the reporters and newsmen would miss the winning cars. Our Viscount played her part by not even needing a replacement light bulb and apart from re-fuelling behaved the whole way round.
In Kabul the rally drivers had 7 hours rest and many tribesmen had been entering the town for days. Upon our arrival our transport was mobbed outside the hotel and there wasn’t a tree in site without at least 50 Afghans precariously balanced in the branches.
The following morning, with every camera on board locked in the hold (to stop photographs of secret Pakistan Military operations) we flew onwards to Peshawar to pick up the Express reporter and cameraman who had driven there to take shots of the cars on the Kyber Pass. In fact these 2 are amongst the very few people to have driven over the pass in the dark. It is usually closed because of dangerous bandits, however with police protection and armed guards two smiling faces re-appeared on board in the morning.
Right : Kyber Pass during the Rally
After a re-fueling stop at Lahore we landed at Delhi and embarked upon a most hazardous drive into town. A curry and a nights’ sleep later we set off on the last leg of our trip. At Bombay we had the sad task of saying farewell to our passengers who were by then good friends. We were somewhat cheered though by being invited to the prestigious dinner and celebrations at the famous Taj Mahal Hotel.
Donning our best bib and tuckers we accompanied the flight deck crew to this very grand function. The hotel is the best and oldest in Bombay. It lived up to all expectations with the reception decorated with enormous and beautiful ice carvings. The floral arrangements were spectacular and a sumptuous buffet was laid out along with the cups and prizes for the first half of the rally. The drivers were unrecognisable, transformed from the tired dust-stained folk from the day before and in their best outfits. The evening was certainly one to remember in more ways than one.
We returned to our hotel ready for an early morning departure for the long trip back to London. Most of our passengers, the drivers together with their cars boarded a ship for the onward journey to Perth from which they would compete the final stages to Sydney. Ahead of them lay another arduous 3,500 miles over hot dusty dirt track roads.
Left: The SS Chusan departs for Australia with 72 cars on board for the Australian Stage of the Rally
Indeed it was a Marathon to end all Marathons, for the entrants, the busy reporters on board and above all the crew of Tango Bravo.
Unfortunately the memories of the trip stayed with both Carol and I for a very long while. During the night prior to our departure to London both of us started to feel very unwell. The next morning we could hardly stand and had violent stomach cramps accompanied by the normal symptoms of what we thought was the dreaded ‘Delhi belly’. However our condition deteriorated and we ended up on the stretchers on board that had been fitted for injured drivers with the passengers caring for us.
Eventually on arrival at Gatwick we were taken to our homes by crew transport. Carol ended up in the hospital for tropical diseases and I was off sick and very ill for weeks. My doctor in Sussex suspected I was suffering from dysentery, all I know is it has left me, all these years later, with embarrassing and very dubious symptoms!
Shirley Bell (Morton)