Tales from the era when the Air Age met the Stone Age.
- By Tony Reichardt
- Air & Space magazine, November 2004
National Anthropological Archives Smithsonian Institution
(Page 3 of 7)
At the time, the interior of New Guinea was one of imperial Europe's last unconquered territories, a land said to be populated by cannibals, headhunters, and pigmies. New Guinea had a topography that was beyond hostile: an interior with sharp, snow-covered peaks and roaring rivers, and coasts covered with malarial swamps and thick jungle. The Spanish had arrived there in the 16th century; by the 20th century, the Dutch, Germans, and British had carved New Guinea into three pieces. For the most part, though, they kept to the coastal lowlands. European maps in the early 1920s showed the interior highlands to be uninhabited, but in fact, the knife-like mountain ranges hid flat, fertile valleys that were home to hundreds of thousands of people.
It wasn't for lack of curiosity that the Europeans had never made it to the highlands. Between 1907 and 1922, Dutch, British, and German explorers had run a spirited "race to the snows," trying to scale 15,000-foot peaks like Mount Carstenz (now Jaya) and Wilhelmina (Trikora). Several of the expeditions had even made limited contact with the highland tribes. But the going was painfully difficult. Dozens of porters were necessary to keep up a supply line for a mere handful of explorers, and even then the progress could be agonizingly slow. During a 1926 expedition to locate the source of the Fly and Sepik rivers, a group of Australians had struggled for 10 1/2 hours to advance 300 yards through the rough terrain.
The southeastern third of the island, containing the territory of Papua, was therefore a natural target for airborne exploration. The first aerial expedition to the area was led by Australian adventure photographer Frank Hurley, who arrived with a team in two Curtiss Seagulls in 1922. Hurley had traveled with Ernest Shackleton to the South Pole six years earlier, and had spent months trapped on a frigid Antarctic island, living under an upturned boat. "It was under that boat that the idea of exploring New Guinea was born," he wrote later. "In the daytime we talked of nothing but the tropics and palm trees."
When he got to New Guinea, Hurley had confined his aerial explorations to the settled areas near the south Papuan coast. Matthew Stirling's aims were far more ambitious. He wanted to venture into the mountainous wilderness of Dutch New Guinea, in search of the mysterious Nogullo pigmy tribe, which he had read about in accounts from a 1910 British ornithological expedition.
Stirling enlisted the Smithsonian as sponsor and the Dutch government as a partner. To make it past the perilous rapids that had blocked previous attempts to penetrate the interior, he was counting on two modes of transport. Seventy Dayak tribesmen from central Borneo, terrifically skilled canoeists, would negotiate the treacherous stretches of river in 10 boats. And a modified World War I-era Breguet14 B2 bomber would ferry supplies upriver and scout the route.
The Breguet was one of the first aircraft with a corrugated-metal skin, developed to get around the weakness and weightiness of wood skins. Stirling bought his from the Yackey Airplane Co., which had added pontoons so the craft could make water landings, replaced the original engine with a more powerful 400-horsepower Liberty, and added a few accessories to the cockpit, including a collapsible two-person boat, a camera mount, and a small "frigid air plant" to keep the film chilled. The airplane was christened the Ern, a popular crossword term for a sea eagle. Two Yackey employees, pilot Hans Hoyte and mechanic Albert (Prince) Hamer, joined the crew, and Richard Peck became the expedition's backup pilot and photographer.
Stirling exuded confidence as he set sail from Batavia (now Jakarta), Indonesia, toward New Guinea on April 7, 1926, the Ern tied to the deck of the steamship Fomalhout. Speaking to the press while a regimental band played what one report described as "American airs," Stirling said, "I have the utmost confidence in our plane's motor to fly and keep flying over the jungles and mountains."
Which it did, admirably. In two months of ferrying supplies upriver-two or three round trips every day, typically with 700 pounds of cargo on each trip-the engine never failed once. But there were plenty of nervous moments. Stirling's notebook from the expedition-written in a neat, flowing hand that fills nearly every inch of every page-is in the Smithsonian's National Anthropological Archives in Suitland, Maryland, looking amazingly fresh, considering all it must have gone through 77 years ago. The daily entries include this description of a harrowing May 15 encounter with natives, which took place as Stirling and Hoyte returned to the airplane after leaving a cache of supplies far up the Rouffaer River: