Brave Heart

There aren’t many decent aviation biographies on the bookshelves these days but every now and then, a really special one appears. One such is ‘Open Cockpit over Africa’ by Victor Smith. Walter Waldeck met the author.
Courage is a relative term. For some of us, a ride on the Cobra at Ratanga Junction is the essence of bravery! When I was nineteen someone thought I was daring because I landed in the Okavango swamps at night with only a few gooseneck flares to light the runway. Quite an adventure really – finding the runway in pitch darkness, then putting the little Cessna 172 down safely between the trees. At the time I never thought of it as obscenely stupid. In fact I reveled in the challenge, never once considering how dangerous it really was.

I guess Victor Smith also thinks of some of his experiences as silly and obscenely dangerous. After all, he’s had 67 years to ponder the wisdom of his decisions. Back in 1932, also at the age of nineteen, Victor undertook to challenge the Cape Town to London speed record in a flimsy Gypsy Moth. In those days, the record stood at eight and a half days.

Solo and aided only by the most rudimentary of maps, he set out early one morning, up the west coast of Africa with little more than a full tank of fuel and a thermos flask. (And I thought I was daring!)

His attempt met with failure, but not before he survived the most terrifying of encounters – a tornado at night! Surviving several inadvertent spins the storm eventually spat him out 20 nautical miles over the Atlantic Ocean. Worse was to follow…

A run-in with Touaregs, the most hostile of the Sahara’s savages, nearly cost him his life. Only by incredible guile and a sachet of ENOs did he manage to convince them to spare his life. Slipping the powder into a cup of water he downed the ‘boiling liquid’ to the astonishment of his impatient executioners.

Such a man, they thought, must have supernatural powers and not only did they spare him, but also helped him obtain fuel from the French Foreign Legion many miles away.

When he eventually did arrive in London, he’d missed the record by several days. Anyone else would have taken the next Union Castle steamship straight home, but not Victor Smith. He traded the Moth for the smaller, faster, Comper Swift, determined this time to break the southbound record. However, that too failed. An engine cut dumped him in the desert – forcing him to walk eighty kilometers to Port Etienne with only a flask of water. The Legion had taught him well though.
Swilling the liquid regularly in his mouth he returned it to the bottle, thereby preserving it for as long and efficiently as possible.

Unthwarted he then replaced his aircraft and continued south.


Once again, this time on the final leg, disaster struck. At night, in the face of a howling headwind, and almost within range of Cape Town he ran out of fuel. Shooting off a magnesium parachute flare he landed by the shadow of his aircraft on the dusty plain beneath him. His record-breaking attempts were over. Incredibly Victor survived a total of 21 forced landings during his flying career, never once damaging himself or his aircraft.

I’d read a great many flying books by the likes of the great Cecil Lewis, Ernest Gann and Saint-Exupery, so when I heard that Victor had written a book of his adventures, I was keen to acquire an autographed copy. I’d always wanted to meet the men behind those great stories. Where they really mortal? Could men of such courage and character be composed of mere flesh and blood like me?

Victor was virtually the last surviving pioneer of his era, so I had to find out for myself.

I wasn’t disappointed. Sitting across the table from him I had to remind myself that this eighty six-year-old aviator’s life had spanned almost the entire period of powered flight.

Lindbergh Victor had known Charles Lindbergh, Alister Miller, Jim and Amy Mollison, Alex Henshaw, Van Ryneveld and Brand. I discovered he’d even known my uncle, Rheinie Caspareuthus (himself a record holder for the same route). I was in the presence of a man who’d not merely lived, but had also made the history I had only read about. Yet at the same time I was talking to a person who identified so closely with me as a fellow aviator. A man who allowed me a glimpse of the grace and grit of those great forerunners who went before my timid colleagues and me in our 747s.

And as we spoke, I felt for some strange reason as though there were no generation gap between us. We were on the same frequency, talking the same language. It was as if I were talking to a young man in an old man’s body.

Afterwards as I walked away I finally understood why that was. Truly, it is only the flesh that grows old, not the spirit!

(In 2000 Victor Smith died as he’d lived – a master of his own destiny. Having gotten to know him well in his latter years I was privileged to count him as a friend.)

‘Open Cockpit over Africa’ by Victor Smith is available at Exclusive Books.

Seraphinite AcceleratorBannerText_Seraphinite Accelerator
Turns on site high speed to be attractive for people and search engines.