We earth-bound geographers are inclined to look with a jealous eye upon these fine gentlemen of the air. For they soar up aloft and glide gracefully over the most terrible obstacles.... And we geographers are glad enough to shake hands with them, because we realize what great use aviation may be to geography.
When Sir Francis Younghusband, the president of Britain's Royal Geographical Society, made those wistful remarks at a society meeting in February 1920, explorers had only recently begun using airplanes to visit the few regions of the globe still uncharted by Westerners. But the conditions were right for a new era of increasingly ambitious aerial expeditions.
For one thing, World War I had trained a generation of pilots, some of whom then turned to exploration. Richard Byrd, who would travel to the North Pole in a Fokker VII Tri-motor, started his career as a pilot for the U.S. Navy. The war also spurred the production of aircraft, and after the Armistice, surplus military airplanes were plentiful. So were powerful Liberty engines, which could push explorers higher and farther than they had journeyed before. And wartime demands increased the sophistication of aircraft designs. The Germans and French, for example, developed airplanes with metal skins, which could hold up better than wood in the harsh, wet environments explorers hoped to conquer.
With the benefit of all these advances, explorers could at last penetrate the remaining holdouts from the Stanley and Livingstone era of exploration: the North and South Poles, Borneo, a few isolated areas of southern Africa, and the mysterious highlands of New Guinea.
One of the first explorers to incorporate aviation into his expeditions was Harvard geographer and physician Alexander Hamilton Rice. A gentleman explorer whose upper class accent was perfectly suited to the lecture hall, Rice was married to Eleanor Elkins Widener, a Philadelphia heiress and Titanic survivor. The couple's house in Newport looked like Versailles, only nicer.
Rice was determined to find the source of the Amazon's Orinoco River, thought to be somewhere in Brazil or Guiana. He had already tried to penetrate the Amazon rainforest the old-fashioned way. In 1920, on his sixth trip to the region, Rice had been turned back by natives wielding arrows-probably Yanomamo, descendants of tribesmen who had fought off Spanish soldiers two centuries earlier. For his seventh trip, he acquired two new inventions: Thompson submachine guns and an airplane.
The aircraft, a pontoon-equipped Curtiss C-6 Seagull named the Eleanor III, had only three seats; two would go to the crew, and one would be used to hold a bulky Fairchild camera. Rice hired two famously daring airmen: Walter Hinton, a 35-year-old Navy pilot, had made the first aerial crossing of the Atlantic five years earlier, in a Curtiss NC flying boat, and Captain Albert Stevens of the U.S. Air Service had accompanied Army pilots Oakley Kelly and John Macready as the photographer on the first nonstop flight across the United States. For Rice's expedition, Stevens would again serve as aerial cameraman.
On the ground, Rice and his party of 100-including Indian porters and paddlers, a physician, a cartographer, an ethnologist, and a motion picture camera operator-would travel by steamboat. In July 1924, they set off from the north Brazilian city of Manaos. When the team got to the narrower stretches of the Negro, Branco, and Parima rivers, which lead to the headwaters of the Orinoco, they switched to canoes.
Meanwhile, every day Hinton and Stevens would hop in the floatplane-typically in the cool of morning, when photography was best and they could pick out small streams by the wisps of rising vapor-and head upriver. As Hinton flew at about 6,000 feet above the jungle, Stevens would photograph the scenery below and sketch maps. While the canoes below needed two weeks to navigate a 40-mile stretch of rapids, the Eleanor III crew could cover the same ground in a half-hour flight.
But it wasn't all easy. Early on, to save weight and air resistance, the fliers removed the windshield; flying at 70 mph, impacts with raindrops could be painful. And flying over dense, unbroken jungle in an aircraft fitted only for water landings was a potentially scary prospect; it was vital to keep a sharp eye on the thin ribbon of river below.