Contact

Tales from the era when the Air Age met the Stone Age.

Sterling’s Breguet came with conventional landing gear; he later replaced it with pontoons. “We were somewhat anxious about the results,” he recounted. (National Anthropological Archives Smithsonian Institution)
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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.

One day Hinton made a rare flight without Stevens, treating another member of the party to a bit of sightseeing. When the Curtiss started to lose fuel pressure, the guest was instructed to break out a hand pump carried for such occasions; he ended up having to work it furiously for an hour and a half while nervously eyeing the treetops below.

Another time Hinton and Stevens were mapping the upper reaches of the Parima River, a place no outside explorer had ever reported visiting. Often when they spied native settlements in clearings, they would descend to take pictures and drop parachutes with peace offerings-beads and trinkets meant to brighten the natives' attitude toward other members of the party who would soon arrive on the ground. When they started to drop in this time, the rapid descent into the hot air of the valley caused the water in their radiator to start boiling over. Unable to climb, Hinton was forced to execute a series of nerve-racking banks within the steep walls of the river canyon before finding water smooth enough for a landing.

In the corrosive environment of the rainforest, the ability to do on-the-spot repairs was critical. The fabric wings and control surfaces of the Seagull had been coated with aluminum dope, which protected against the fierce equatorial sun. But the mahogany hull fared worse. The Eleanor III was in the water so much that its tail section started to soften; a month into the journey, it came loose during takeoff. Replacing the section took Hinton and Stevens two days, working on a muddy bank, in the rain, surrounded by clouds of gnats and mosquitoes.

As soon as the floatplane touched land, hundreds of ants were likely to stream aboard (they ate shoes and one of Hinton's shirts). Insects weren't the only pests. Sometimes Hinton had to throttle back and dive to avoid hitting large buzzards. Brightly colored macaws posed a similar threat, and they were easily spooked by engine noise. And each morning, "there was almost sure to be a spider" lodged within the airspeed meter, Rice later wrote.

Despite using mosquito nets and taking daily doses of quinine, Hinton and several other members of the expedition contracted yellow fever. Yet the pilot pressed on for nine months. Rice never did find the source of the Orinoco River-that would remain for another aerial expedition to discover in 1944. But he did find the source of the Parima River, and he and Stevens produced the best maps to date of that region of the Amazon.

Among anthropologists who would have watched news accounts of Rice's travels with keen interest, even a touch of envy, was Matthew Stirling. In 1924 he was 28 years old and had just quit his job as assistant curator for the Smithsonian's division of ethnology in Washington, D.C. He moved to Florida, which was then an incubator for the nation's first commercial airlines. Perhaps the change in location was responsible for Stirling becoming interested in aviation-to the point of trying what he later called "some abortive piloting." Together with two friends, Richard Peck, an aviation enthusiast and pilot, and Stanley Hedberg, a newspaper editor who could handle publicity, he began hatching a plan for the three of them to take an airplane to one of the most exotic places on Earth.

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:

 

The air was fairly ringing now with shouts and cries, and five or six canoes with about 25 men were paddling out into the river about 400 yards above us, armed with bows and arrows and gesticulating wildly. In a couple of minutes we saw an equal number of canoes on the river below paddling vigorously upstream toward us.

There being only two of us, we decided that it was high time to evacuate. At this crucial juncture, we saw that the radiator was leaking, so I filled a five-gallon kerosene tin with water while Hans climbed up on the engine and poured it into the radiator. We did not dare put in more as the canoes were slowly working nearer to us.... After closing the radiator cap, Hans started priming the engine and in his haste burned his arm on the exhaust pipe. We then let loose our line and threw it with the anchor into the cockpit.

Now the problem of taking off! With the line off, I had to hold the wing of the plane inshore, while Hans got on the wing to crank the engine. As the Liberty was still hot from her long pull, this was no simple task, and as is usual when in the biggest hurry, the engine refused to start. It is heavy work and Hans, already tired, was soon almost exhausted...

In the meantime the Papuans above began shooting arrows at us, some of which bounced off the aluminum side of The Ern. I fired my 45 into the air, and the Papuans dove into the water from their canoes and the arrows stopped coming. On reflection, I think they were shooting at the plane rather than us.

It was probably about five minutes, though it seemed an hour, when the engine caught. The welcome roar of the Liberty at that moment was one of the sweetest sounds I ever heard in my life. I swung the nose of the pontoon into the stream as Hans gunned the engine and made a dive for the end of the wing as the plane headed into the stream, her tail barely clearing the tree below us....

 

Stirling's expedition was marred by violence: 16 members of his party and an unreported number of tribal people were killed during encounters before the American and Dutch explorers finally reached the highland pigmies, who were friendlier. As for the Ern, it lasted only as long as the glue on the pontoons held out. When that dissolved, the airplane was abandoned on a river bank. Peck removed the propeller and engine (which, according to Stirling's diary, he "pickled" in Vaseline) and shipped them back to the States, along with some 8,000 artifacts from the New Guinea wilderness.

Hoyte, his flying duty over, left for home, but got typhoid fever on the way and died in Egypt.

Peck evidently didn't get his fill of adventure, for he returned to New Guinea three years later as chief pilot for another expedition, this one led by E.W. Brandes, a plant pathologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The goal was to search the territory of Papua for disease-resistant strains of sugar cane that could be transplanted in the States to help shore up the flagging U.S. sugar industry.

This time, Peck's ride was a marked step up-a Fairchild Cabin Monoplane, the same model Richard Byrd took to Antarctica in 1929. Designed for aerial photography, the Fairchild had a heated cabin instead of an open cockpit, wings that folded for easy storage, and a longer range and higher service ceiling than the Breguet's. By the summer of 1929, air transportation was more than just a way to supply a canoe party. It had become the prime means of exploration.

Setting out from base camps on the Fly and Strickland rivers and landing on whatever stretches of smooth water were handy, Peck logged some 10,000 miles in 57 fights. Along with the usual challenges of jungle maintenance and repair, he had to add mountain flying to his repertoire. On one occasion, crossing the central mountains, he found himself flying blind in a misty rain at 14,000 feet. "I saw Peck look anxiously at the thermometer on a wing strut," Brandes later recalled. "It registered 33 degrees Fahrenheit." Peck wanted to lose altitude to prevent ice forming on the wing, but couldn't with the mountain peaks near, so he had to hang on until the coastal lowlands came in sight.

Encounters with the natives were less violent than they'd been on Stirling's expedition, but Brandes' behavior did nothing to ensure smooth relations; he was rude at best, racist at worst. His idea of an amusing sport was buzzing a canoe full of natives so they jumped overboard in panic. In his narration of film footage shot during the expedition, the scientist openly expressed contempt for the people he encountered: "Their faces reflect only primitive bestial passions," and they had "an odor strikingly reminiscent of a zoo." Never mind that the New Guinea highlanders were a linguistically diverse culture, that they were one of the few populations in human history to independently invent agriculture, and that they thought the white men stunk too.

What did these "lost" tribes think of the visitors and their flying machines? In the inevitable National Geographic article written after his trip, Brandes claimed: "I alighted from a plane before a cannibal camp in the remote jungles of New Guinea and was mistaken for a god!" No question, some natives were terrified just by the sight of white people, let alone white people dropping from the sky. When Australian gold prospector Mick Leahy and his brothers walked into the highlands of east-central New Guinea in 1930, the natives thought they were dead ancestors come back to life. And in the fascinating 1983 film First Contact, by Australian documentary makers Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson, some of the older New Guinea natives, recalling their reactions 50 years later, said that when they first saw and heard an airplane, they became so frightened they wet themselves.

Others, though, were relatively unfazed. The Amazonians who had met Hamilton Rice called his Seagull "the great insect," and when it took off noisily, they retreated to the forest. But airman Albert Stevens noted that they appeared to be far more impressed by flash photography than by airplanes.

The explorers on Stirling's voyage seemed most pleased when the natives showed fear in ways that struck them as comical. After one landing, Stirling, using gestures, asked villagers on the Mamberamo River what they had thought when they'd seen his airplane overhead. He recorded the response in his journal: "Holding their arms extended horizontally, they ran up and down in front of camp, with the most excruciating facial grimaces imitating the sound of the motor. This accomplished, they threw themselves flat on their bellys [sic] and burrowed their faces in the mud, presumably by way of illustrating their own actions at the time."

Down the hall from Stirling's notebook, in the Smithsonian's Human Studies Film Archive, researcher Amy Staples offers her own narration to the flickering black-and-white footage shot during the 1929 Brandes expedition. On the television screen, Papuans from the Lake Murray area stand in a long, snaking line, bringing shrunken heads, ornamental feathers, and other prized possessions to trade with the visitors from the sky.

In their post-expedition writings and lectures, the explorers often focused on exotic symbols of native mythology, but, says Staples, the Western aerial explorers had mythology of their own. "There was a whole fascination in America with flight," she explains. "The airplane allowed the audience a new sense of discovery, and contributed to this mythology of 'first contact'-a fascination with the contrast between modern civilization and 'primitives,' " bordering on obsession.

And the airplane shared top billing. When he hit the lecture circuit after returning to America, Stirling wowed his audiences with tales of journeying "By Aeroplane to Pigmy Land."

By the late 1930s, the world's "unknown" places were becoming fewer and farther between. The poles had been conquered, the Yukon surveyed, and Everest photographed from above. Even in the highlands of New Guinea, Mick Leahy and company had natives busily stamping meadows into airfields so that Junkers transports could supply the gold mines in the interior, making New Guinea's airports among the busiest in the world in the 1930s in total cargo weight delivered.

One by one, the last isolated valleys of the interior were entered and mapped. Finally, in 1938, Richard Archbold, yet another wealthy explorer, flew the mother of all expeditionary airplanes into the New Guinea highlands. It was Archbold's third trip to the country, under the sponsorship of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and this time the head of the expedition did the flying himself. The Guba (Papuan for "wind"), his twin-engine Consolidated PBY model 28 flying boat, was at that time the largest privately owned aircraft in the world. With a cruising range of 500 miles and a cargo capacity of three tons at sea level, the Guba handled all the transport for a party of 195 people.

Archbold's biggest trophy was his "discovery" of the Grand Valley of the Baliem, where 60,000 members of the Dani and other tribes were living in agricultural villages, their tidy fields plainly visible now that explorers could fly high enough to cross the snowy peaks of western New Guinea.

Scientist, author, and former New Guinea field worker Jared Diamond has called Archbold's expedition the "last first contact" between an exploration team and a large population isolated from the rest of the world. After World War II, missionaries and anthropologists started traveling in droves to the New Guinea highlands, and the allure of the unknown began to fade.

The "hidden" Baliem Valley is today a tourist attraction, and vacationers have a choice of hotels. One fly-and-hike adventure package offers a seven-day/six-night stay, with a level of difficulty described as "easy to moderate."

Easy? Matthew Stirling, Hans Hoyte, and the rest might find that a bit hard to believe.

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