Translated from H.Cukurs' Report to Jaunakas Zinas
Great Misfortune in Hong Kong
My Flight to Japan
Special for “Jaunakas Zinas”
It was still dark when the Air France car arrived to take me to the aerodrome. Already there ahead of me were Captain Kazanova and a few other officers. They had risen so early in order to see me off. And, with the first light – I am aloft and on my way to Hong Kong.
I fly directly across all the hills because my engine has been inspected and it is running without even the slightest vibration. In the Gulf of the China Sea I see a great many Chinese islands. They seem to be in the thousands. This is now a pirate sea, and no nation has been able to enforce the law here as the light junks appear and disappear like ghosts. In the narrow and shallow passages between the islands no military cruiser can pursue them for fear of striking underwater rock shelfs or grounding on the shallows. I had been warned that, should I have to land before reaching Hong Kong, it will not go well for me. The Chinese pirates are well aware that, for each european they capture, they can acquire great wealth from his family in ransom. I try not to let myself think about it, preferring instead to rely on my good engine and letting my mind wander, admiring the beautiful misty hills, the sea, and the shallows.
In some places the hills are quite high, and the arrangement of the peaks seem to have no discernible pattern. Some reach as high as 2000 metres. About two hours into my flight I found myself flying blind in thick clouds which made me very nervous because the height of the hills was not marked on my map and, in fact, the map seemed to have little in common with the actual lay of the land. The clouds are thick and deep and there is no way of getting past them. It seems to take forever, flying through the thick cloud cover. It feels like I am in some sort of laundry washing machine, from which I will never escape. My clothes become damp. Rivulets of water run along the cabin windows. The gyroscope moves so violently that I fear this vital instrument will simply stop functioning all together. I estimate that I long ago flew out over the coastline but, because of the thick cloud, I am not completely certain if I am over land or sea. Soon I will reach the point where I have to change my course towards Hong Kong.
I begin to chill, and my body begins to shiver from the cold. It is a most unsettling feeling, not knowing exactly where you are and fearing that at any moment some huge cliff may appear out of the mist directly in front of you. At one point the turbulence was quite violent – I had probably flown through some mountain peaks’ air currents.
Finally I could exhale in relief. I broke out from the clouds. Below me – coastline. There are not as many islands here, so I should be able to pinpoint my location without too much difficulty, but I fly on for an hour and I am still not certain where I am. Unfortunately, my radio transmitter is malfunctioning and I cannot communicate with the Hong Kong listening posts, though from time to time I can hear them calling me.
Bad luck comes in bunches. Now ahead of me is another solid bank of clouds, and this forces me to fly just barely above ground level. I now have to zig-zag in my flight to maintain contact with the coastline below. I have to be careful not to run into a steep shoreline cliff, as the visibility is poor in the mist. The shoreline should have long ago turned northward, but it just goes on and on, one hill after another. Below me I can see villages and dwellings, but cannot confirm that my flight is still on course.
Now the islands are again becoming great in number, and they just go on and on. I must remain low, hugging the coastline and watching for obstacles. An enormous number of junks are in the waters below me, with a wide variety of different sails.
I admit to myself that I am truly lost. There is nothing else for me to do but trust fate that I will stumble upon Hong Kong. I can only glance at the map, as flying low among these islands requires my complete attention. At times like these, when the danger is greatest, I seem to be taken over by a quiet calm, a calm which has often saved me.
Suddenly I fly over a harbour on an island. The harbour is fairly large, and I quickly recognize that it is Portuguese. This must be Macao. Now I must fly eastward, and in a short while I am over the narrow canal which leads me into Hong Kong’s natural harbour. Here I behold a colourful collection of junks, ships, massive oceangoing vessels, blue-grey military ships and submarines. No mistake – this is Hong Kong.
Now I begin to search for the aerodrome. I find it tucked into a bay, surrounded by tall cliffs. If I did not see the hangars and aircraft, I would not have believed it could be an airfield, surrounded by steep hills rising to a height of 700 metres. As I make my final approach a sudden air current tosses my airplane about 10 metres, then releases it again. Finally, I touch down and roll to a halt about 100 metres from the end of the aerodrome. Thank goodness!
I taxi to the hangars. There I am met not only by Chinese, but British representatives as well because Hong Kong is in the hands of the British. Nobody present can provide me with fuel because the Shell office is in town, on the other side of the canal. By the time the Shell Oil representative arrives it is too late to continue the journey further today. Also, I cannot immediately receive the plan/layout for my next stop’s aerodrome, but this will be absolutely essential as apparently that aerodrome does not have any markings at all. I have no choice but to stay in Hong Kong overnight, though I would rather have continued onwards in my journey. I would have left and taken my chances had I known the problems that awaited me here, at this safe harbour.
A Swiss and a Russian arrived at the aerodrome, members of the local hospitality association. They said they would find me a room for the night on this side of the canal, in a neighborhood known as Kao-Lung. We drove to the city, along streets which, in some places, were chiseled right into the hillside. Everywhere I could see huge Chinese signs, homes and businesses, and at our hotel there were many flags waving in the breeze. Chinese men and women, dressed in the european style, mingled with those dressed in the more traditional manner. Also seen were a few european soldiers, sailors and Indian military personnel.
They took me to the largest hotel – Pensulvana – and I got a room for fourteen Hong Kong dollars, which was apparently quite inexpensive. However, as with the exchange that came to about 25 Latvian Lati, it didn’t seem like such a bargain to me. However, for appearances sake, I did not go elsewhere as by now I had attracted quite a crowd of reporters from different newspapers, some Chinese, some Japanese, and some British.
In the evening, from the hotel terrace, I gazed upon the lights of Hong Kong at night. It was a beautiful sight. Searchlights from the military ships in the harbour searched the skies, which by now had cleared and revealed a blanket of stars. Even the moon appeared and shone upon this sleeping city, where east meets west. Ship sirens wail, and boats pass through the canal, from one side or the other. Slowly and majestically an ocean-going vessel, showing a flag with many stars, arrives. An American ship, probably bringing many tourists who want to spend a pleasant vacation from their winter back home.
I go to bed, for tomorrow I have a long journey ahead of me. It is 1300 km to Shanghai, and I want to get there tomorrow for a rendezvous with some Latvians so far from home.
The next morning, while it was still completely dark, a taxi took me to the aerodrome. I had requested a take-off time of six am, but I had to wait all the same because the British had not yet received the weather forecast. A stiff breeze was blowing directly from the direction of the hills, but taking off into the wind towards the hills is out of the question. I have no choice, I have to take off with the wind at my back, diagonally across the aerodrome, and steer towards the hangars at the far end of the field. Then, with a small course adjustment, I would be over the canal and all would be well. The previous night I had seen a number of military planes do just that. To be entirely certain, the previous night I had paced out the airfield to determine at what point I had to adjust my takeoff run to align myself for the second part of the dog-leg. Even though my aircraft is fully loaded with fuel I have no concern about the take off run. The airfield is 700 yards wide, which is quite sufficient for me to take off and then adjust my heading by thirty degrees.
Finally I received the meteorological report. I also received my pistol, which the aerodrome administrator had locked away for safekeeping in his office. I start the engine and then slowly taxi to the starting edge of the aerodrome, where I turn around, align the aircraft to my aiming point, and then give it full throttle.
Along the firm ground the aircraft quickly gained speed. The indicator already showed 120 km/hr. However, as I was taking off with the wind behind me, I held it on the ground a little longer to gain a bit more speed than usual. I was near the middle of the airfield when I suddenly felt a powerful blow to the aircraft. The machine swerved to the side and the nose came down. Something broke. The propeller began chopping at the ground. I quickly killed the engine. My beautiful airplane, like a wounded bird, with the left wing leading, slid along the ground for a quite some distance.
What happened? I did not understand at all. It all seemed like some horrible dream The engine is silent, the airplane slides to a halt…