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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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."

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