PROFILE | Life Among the Clouds


In an age of Jumbo Jets, the roar of airplanes overhead is commonplace. Awe and marvel of the sky is easily lost, left by the way-side. There once was a time when such awe inspired men and women to defy the limits of gravity. Adventurers challenged angels for airspace. They hoped to see a wider world. They sought life among the clouds.

Not so long ago, public air travel was just on the horizon. The first world war was over, but a new yearning for the air had begun. Audacious travelers thirsty for thrill-seeking cranked up crop dusters and small prop-jobs. They took to the skies in races. Air racing popularity grew as fast as the planes flew for the sport. The famed pilot Tom Campbell Black, winner of the London to Melbourne 1934 race and champion of flight expansionism, is well acknowledged as the king of the clouds.

The cover of FLIGHT, magazine, October 25, 1934. C.W.A. Scott (left) and Campbell-Black.

The cover of FLIGHT, magazine, October 25, 1934. C.W.A. Scott (left) and Campbell-Black.

Campbell Black flew planes for the Royal Air Force during World War I, making his name as a pilot extraordinaire. In 1929 after one simple flight with Black at the stick, Mrs. Florence Kerr Wilson was inspired enough in his charismatic abilities to fund the creation of Wilson Airways Limited. The company possessed a single aircraft which Campbell Black flew across Europe and Africa. His love for air travel guided him across all corners of the hemisphere.

Tom Campbell Black (center) in Zanzibar, April 1930. The plane is a De Havilland Gypsy Moth named "Knight Of The Mist" owned by Wilson Airways.

Campbell Black (center) in Zanzibar, April 1930. The plane is the De Havilland Gypsy Moth named "Knight Of The Mist" owned by Wilson Airways.

Tom Campbell Black’s achievements are scrolled upon a nearly endless list extolling adoration for world exploration. Yet, the story that memorialized Black extends beyond air-racing. It is a story of heroism, of camaraderie in passion that has define him apart. Campbell Black set out on an expedition to save an international enemy, THE Red Baron of World War I, Ernst Udet, that speaks of an adventurer’s character.

    Captain Hugo Dunkerley (left), the Editor of 'Aeroken' with Campbell-Black in front of a Wilson Airways plane.

Captain Hugo Dunkerley (left), the Editor of 'Aeroken' with Campbell Black in front of a Wilson Airways plane.

Time Magazine’s coverage of the London to Melbourne Race included a reported account of Campbell Black’s noble search and rescue for the downed pilots. In the article, dated October 20th, 1934, Time Magazine writes,

While flying for Wilson Airlines in 1931, Tom Black arrived in Juba, Sudan, some 250 km northwest of the Kenya, Uganda and Sudan borders. An aircraft had left Juba but had not reached its destination, the Shell agent expressed concern for the safety of the two German crew members. Tom Black carrying fresh drinking water took off in search of the two fellow airmen. He located the crippled aircraft and landed in the treacherous desert terrain. The two airmen had draped a tarpaulin over their aircraft and were lying under it to protect themselves from the searing sun, one of the men was seriously ill…

Ernst Udet’s nostalgic retelling of the rescue in his autobiographical work Ace of the Iron Cross reveals reverence and gratitude for Black. In a sort of reversed “Doctor Livingston, I presume?” moment, the Red Baron recalls his relief.

We are stuck for two days. Schneeberger is doing badly, and the Lau tribesmen are getting more insolent by the hour. I have to stay with the tent constantly to prevent them from stealing. The heat is unbearable, the brain dehydrated. Slowly, a dull despair takes hold. A sick friend, no food, and the unfriendly natives.
Weeks can go by before a car shows up.
On the morning of the third day I hear a low hum from the distance . . . it grows into a roar . . . the song of an aircraft engine. Then it appears. It’s a “Puss Moth.” I pull the tarp away from Schneeberger and wave it, although the other pilot must already have noticed the bright silver of our bird.The aircraft circles twice and lands. A slender, wiry man in khaki. “Campbell Black,” he introduces himself. He brings us cigarettes and, above all, water, fresh drinking water. The Shell station in Juba, where we had last tanked, had telegraphed ahead, inquiring whether or not we had arrived. British generosity, British hospitality.
In the afternoon, a large military two-seater lands, bringing repair tools, gasoline, and an invitation from Wing Commander Sholto Douglas in Khartoum. The next evening we land there, and the colonel smilingly receives us.
“We were on the same front in 1917,” he says, “and this makes for a bond, even when it was on the other side.”


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