Who Was Fatty Pearson?

A World War II British foot soldier’s best friend in the air, and the man who rescued Ernest Hemingway.

194 navigator Peter Briscoe and Fatty Pearson. (Imperial War Museum)
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To know Fatty Pearson was to have a Fatty Pearson story. One yarn starts with an American hunter who had been lying on his cot for two long days, part of his intestine inflamed with dysentery. The year was 1934, and the African safari camp where the man was bedridden had no radio service. A guide set out to seek help.

From This Story

On the third morning, a speck appeared in the sky. Fires were lit, and soon a little de Havilland Puss Moth had landed and was bumping along a strip of cleared savannah. It came to a stop, and out clambered Alexander Cuninghame—Fatty— Pearson, a burly young man with breezy, upper-crust English mannerisms.

The flight was unremarkable to Pearson. Still, he left an indelible impression on his ill passenger, 34-year-old writer Ernest Hemingway, and their hospital-bound flight would inspire the climax of the classic short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” in which the pilot, Compton (“Compie”), appears as a figure of good-natured compassion.

The plane circled twice more, low this time, and then glided down and levelled off and landed smoothly and, coming walking toward him, was old Compton in slacks, a tweed jacket and a brown felt hat.
“What’s the matter, old cock?” Compton said.
“Bad leg,” he told him. “Will you have some breakfast?”
“Thanks. I’ll just have some tea. It’s the Puss Moth you know. I won’t be able to take the Memsahib [the protagonist’s wife]. There’s only room for one. Your lorry is on the way.”
Helen had taken Compton aside and was speaking to him. Compton came back more cheery than ever.
“We’ll get you right in,” he said. “I’ll be back for the Mem. Now I’m afraid I’ll have to stop at Arusha to refuel. We’d better get going.”
“What about the tea?”

“I don’t really care about it, you know
—“The Snows of Kilimanjaro”

The casual self-assurance that Hemingway glimpsed in Pearson served the pilot well over the 10,000 flight hours he logged. Many of those hours were in wartime Asian skies as the commander of the Royal Air Force’s pioneering special operations 194 Squadron. With insights gained from his bush piloting days in Africa, in which air service delivered with pinpoint precision could save lives, Pearson would help develop air-support tactics for modern military use.

What acquaintances remember most about Pearson was the force of his personality. After a 1984 London reunion of 194 Squadron members and Chindits—British army commandos—a member wrote in the squadron alumni newsletter: “Amidst all the talk, laughter and speeches, the invisible presence of the indomitable Fatty Pearson was almost tangible.”

Fatty had been dead for 40 years.

He came from Argentina, born of affluent British stock and well educated. Flying caught his fancy, and following the path of two brothers, Pearson enlisted in the Royal Air Force for pilot training and a five-year stint.

Out of the service in 1932, he found Africa one of the few places where a pilot could make a decent living during a global depression. His employer was Wilson Airways, a fledgling charter service that flew the 8A Puss Moth. A small fleet was housed in a corrugated-iron hangar in Nairobi, Kenya.

Just as the safari firms relied on the toughest vehicles—Chevrolets, Dodges, and Hudsons—and, for dangerous game, English-made double-barrel rifles, the charter services used the aircraft most suited to the job. The Puss Moth was a closed-cabin monoplane with enough range and reliability to be chosen for the first east-to-west solo crossing of the Atlantic, in 1932. In the bush, its tail-dragger design allowed pilots to steer on takeoff, with quick use of rudder and brakes, to avoid such sudden-appearing hazards as wandering zebras. Because the wings were above the cabin, the metal did not reflect up into the pilot’s eyes, and they allowed unobstructed scanning for landmarks or game.

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