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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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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.

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