I decided to fly from Australia to England because in 1933 it was considered the ultimate test for the men. Amy Johnson had made headlines flying from England to Australia, and I wanted to be the first woman to fly the more difficult reverse route and beat Amy’s time in the bargain.
I adored my husband Harry, but I wasn’t cut out to be a doting housewife. While he spent his weekends on the golf course, I secretly took flying lessons at a nearby airfield. I kept it from him for over a year. I was afraid he’d make things difficult. He’d already stopped me from learning to drive a car, saying it was too dangerous for a woman.
Harry was remarkable. He never tried to stop me even though I know deep down he didn’t approve. But when he eventually found out about the flying, he bought me an airplane. Because my husband was wealthy and helped finance me, Australian journalists treated my flights more like social events. They nicknamed me “the airwoman of style” and paid more attention to my appearance than to my performance. I hated that.
Before the flight to England, I did everything possible to ensure I was fully prepared. I learned instrument and night flying, and on the weekends, I studied navigation with an old sea captain. I spent months working in the Qantas maintenance hangar at Archerfield so that I could learn to service my Moth, which I named My Little Ship, and its Gipsy engine. I can still smell the boiling phenol we used to clean the carbon off the pistons. It turned my stomach inside out.
Poor Harry. He was so worried the morning I left. I told him not to panic if I was reported missing. “Tell them to search along the coastline,” I said. “Whenever possible, I’ll be following the shore, and I’ll get down safely.”
I was ahead of schedule until I landed in Singapore and overnighted at the Raffles Hotel. To this day, I’m sure I would have beat Amy’s record if I hadn’t gotten food poisoning. Stupid me—I should never have eaten the fish.
The next day, with the weather perfect right through Malaya, I spent the entire time in bed. When I was fit enough to fly the following afternoon, I took off—straight into the granddaddy of monsoon storms. It was the most unnerving moment of my flying career.
I had been cruising below 1,000 feet to stay clear of some ugly black clouds that had been building for two hours. I was so close to Victoria Point and Ranong, Thailand, that I was sure I’d get through. All of a sudden, I was engulfed in torrential rain. It seemed to fall in a solid mass. Visibility dropped to zero. Rain lashed my goggles, and I had to raise them to see my instruments. The Moth’s tiny windscreen provided no protection, and the rain stung my eyes and face like driving sand. The airplane bucked and rolled, and a sudden downdraft flung me toward the water. Even with full power I couldn’t stop the descent. When I finally broke into the clear, I was down to 50 feet.
For the first time in my life, I was really scared. It was as though the gods had turned on scores of celestial taps. I was surrounded by jets of rain, some only a few hundred feet across, others miles wide. I had to get down. I said a quick prayer to my “copilot” and turned back toward a small island I’d flown over a few minutes earlier—I’d noticed huts and an open beach. In those days, we always kept an eye out for emergency landing areas.
Luckily, I arrived over the beach shortly before an approaching storm. The tide had gone out, leaving a strip of hard sand. The only sign of life was a few buffalo grazing on the grassy fringe. I circled once to check the wind, then made a long, straight-in, powered approach. I can still remember how my tires kissed the sand as I touched down. I was often accused of landing like a kangaroo—a series of hops—but this one was a beauty.
The tail hadn’t even settled when one of those blessed buffalo lumbered out in front of me. All I could do was jam on full rudder and swerve. The left wheel hit the water’s edge, and the airplane slewed into the breakers. The Moth flipped over and my head hit the cockpit coaming.
I came to hanging upside down in my harness with my head underwater. I recall thinking: What an inglorious end—drowning in the cockpit. I was struggling to undo the harness pin when the water mercifully dropped away. I was only submerged when each wave came in. I released my harness and plopped headfirst into the sea. Finally, I dragged myself up onto the beach.
I was not badly hurt, just a slashed hand and a lump on my forehead. The first thing I noticed was the silence. After the constant roar of the engine, the only sound was the surf and the rumble of thunder. I felt terribly alone. Even the buffalo had disappeared into the trees. As I sat there watching the waves pound my poor little airplane, a teeming rain began. I broke into tears.
It was some time before I noticed a large group of islanders watching me through the trees. They didn’t look too friendly, so I felt in my pocket for the revolver Harry had given me. Luckily it had fallen out during the crash, so I had to put on a brave face and walk toward them. They all backed away—I couldn’t believe it! I’m less than five feet tall, but they were scared of me.
Eventually, the islanders helped me drag the airplane ashore. I invented a sort of “heave-ho” sailor’s chant, and using the power of each incoming wave, we hauled it up onto the beach.
Afterward, they led me to a large communal thatched hut, and we climbed a ladder to enter it. Once inside, I was overpowered by smoke and the smell of rotting fish. Dozens of villagers squatted on the bamboo floor staring at me. I was quite worried until a young woman led me to a small alcove away from the crowd. She’d noticed my bleeding hand, and now she tenderly cradled it to her face. Her eyes expressed such sympathy that I nicknamed her SOS, for Soul of Sympathy. She became my shadow.
I doused the hand with some whiskey an Australian hotel owner had given me. It was his traditional gift to fliers crossing the shark-infested Timor Sea. “It’ll give you a bit of Dutch courage, love,” he’d said. I hadn’t touched it until then.
The adults tried to entice me to join their betel nut ceremony. They chewed betel the way we take an evening drink. The spitting was more fascinating than the chewing: They’d shoot long streams of crimson fluid through narrow gaps in the cane floor, and they never missed.
The next morning, I removed the shattered wings from My Little Ship and got some men to help me roll it right way up. It was repairable; all I needed were good carpenters and the right materials. I drained the petrol tank and used its contents to wash the salt and sand from the engine. I emptied the oil sump and coated the whole engine to prevent corrosion. Finally, I removed the spark plugs and poured some oil into each cylinder. My Qantas training had paid off.
That night I left the little boudoir I had curtained off for myself and sat around the communal fire. I decided to send a message to the mainland, so I got out my flight map and began reading aloud the names of the Malay islands along the coast. When I read out “Bang Biang,” several villagers nodded vigorously. So I wrote a note and waved it about and pointed toward the mainland. Nobody seemed willing to go until I bribed one of the men with my gold watch.
To help pass the time, I played Mrs. Robinson Crusoe. After two days, I knew the Malay names of every item in the hut and, in return, had taught my Fridays the English equivalent. The children would bring me little gifts of fish or fruit, and I rewarded them with pieces of chocolate from my emergency rations. They liked the silver wrappers best of all.
Late on the fifth day, two motor launches arrived carrying the first help my messenger could find: a Scot and a New Zealander employed by the Siamese Tin Mine Syndicate. They thought I was quite mad when I said that I intended to rebuild my airplane and carry on to England. One, patronizing me, advised, “I think you’d better talk to your husband first.” Naturally, that sort of nonsense just made me more determined than ever.
On my last evening on Bang Biang, I gave SOS some silver coins and showed her how to make a necklace with them. She smiled, but she looked sad. The next morning, she was nowhere to be seen. Someone said that she had gone into the jungle rather than have me witness her grief at my parting. We never met again, but I can still picture her clearly.
The tin miners’ launches transported me and my airplane to Victoria Point, where I caught a steamer to Rangoon. There my poor little ship got new wings and a tailplane. But the repairs took four weeks, and it was early June before I reached the Middle East.
This part of the flight concerned me most, not because of the torrid heat but because of the problems I’d face if I landed in some out-of-the-way place. I was not sure that my notebook of useful Middle Eastern phrases would help. I knew two by heart: “I always understood your menfolk to be gentlemen” and “Please fetch me a policeman.”
Over Iraq I encountered terrible heat, dust storms, and headwinds. One 108-mile leg on the way to Baghdad took three and a half hours. When I landed, I was suffering from severe heat exhaustion and unable to complete any formalities. But I will never forget how kind the Iraqis were. I was whisked to a hotel, where the staff applied ice packs to bring my temperature down. I could cry when I read about Baghdad today.
I was arrested in both Turkey and Czechoslovakia after making unscheduled landings due to storms. With no radio and poor ground communications, we faced such problems routinely in those days.
Europe was stormy until I crossed the English Channel. It was a beautiful summer evening, and the countryside looked green and peaceful, its fields and hedgerows so tidy. I remember thinking that missing Amy Johnson’s record didn’t matter. After Bang Biang, it was enough to have reached England. And as the first woman to fly into the prevailing wind, I’d set a record no one could deny me.
As I landed at Croydon Airport in London, I was almost rolled over by the slipstream of a big Handley-Page airliner in front of me. I followed its passengers to the terminal. I wasn’t expected, and the customs officer never looked up when he asked where I was from.
“Australia,” I replied.
His head jerked back and his eyes popped. I got a real sense of satisfaction out of that.
Terry Gwynne-Jones, an Australian pilot, writer, and aviation historian who died in 2001, published a biography of Lores Bonney in 1988.