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Flying the Furrow


Flying the Furrow

By Allan Jones

I like simming aviation history. It grabbed me particularly with the release of FS2004: A Century of Flight, even though I had FS2002 previously. Later on, that led to my interest in the WWII Air Transport Auxiliary flights and a series of articles on FlightSim.Com under the umbrella title 'Fly & Deliver'.


I was recently reading Alexander Frater's book, Beyond The Blue Horizon, published in 1986, the story of re-flying the original London to Australia route using then-modern commercial flights. It gave rise to the following sim in a similar vein, drawn from the facts and anecdotes in Frater's account.


The pioneering air service between England and Australia was provided by Imperial Airways, and it had a few tricky bits along its route. Some were due to political squabbles and others arose from aviation challenges. In the nineteen twenties and early thirties, it was all daytime flying, of course, other than the Paris to Brindisi section, in which passengers travelled by train. With overnight stops in fine hotels, it took twelve and a half days, but the journey was still a lot faster than by ship.






Imperial Airways selected aircraft tailored to each segment of the route; the Handley-Page H.P.42, the Short 17 'Kent', the Armstrong Whitworth AW15 'Atalanta' and, with Qantas across Australia, the De Havilland A86 Express. Part of the reason for this mix was that the route evolved in stages, as commercial air travel from Europe moved into Africa, India and the South Pacific. The service provided gracious luxury for the small number of elite passengers who used it, as well as an adequate cargo space for the lucrative air mail contracts.






Take the H.P.42, for example. It was a long, blunt-nosed biplane with an interior more akin to a Paris salon. Its cockpit would do justice to the cab of a vintage steam locomotive. Rated at a cruise speed of 100 mph, pilots claimed they never achieved that. In time, KLM may have sped past the H.P.42 with their Fokker FVII fleet, but the dinner service, wines and cigars served in the salon were excellent.






The segment from Jordan to Syria began at Ziza, south of Amman, and terminated at Ramadi, west of Baghdad. For this stretch the RAF had already come up with an innovative navigation solution. The desert was rather more uniform than the South Downs or the Rhone Valley, and far less hospitable. Worse still, it was without useful landmarks. So the RAF made one, called the Furrow.


This navigation technique wouldn't go down too well environmentally these days. Take two teams of engineers, one at the departure airstrip and the other at the arrival point. Send them to meet in the middle, ploughing out a furrow, or painting the rocky areas that you can't plough. The resulting furrow was about two meters wide and 470 miles long. The pilots took off, climbed a bit then followed the line. Hours were spent wrestling the controls through the blustery desert thermals before they landed. A new acronym entered the aviation world - FTF, Fly the Furrow.


Some people thought it was too easy, or cheating; altogether too boring. The proper way to fly was by compass, dead reckoning and prayer over a 500 mile tract of desert. With the Furrow, they argued, the pilots would get bored and fall asleep.


The Furrow was long gone, I thought. But along its route, at intervals, the RAF and Imperial Airways had constructed emergency landing strips with fuel dumps. These had to be armoured and locked up, with a key that ingeniously unlocked both the aircraft doors and the fuel bunker. The pilot would never be embarrassed by, 'Oops, I left the key on the hallstand. Sorry, chaps'.






So I first looked at the illustration of the route in Frater's book, next at Google Earth and finally I checked out TASoftware's Plan-G map. There are airports and airstrips in the right places for the journey. Some later became associated with pipeline pumping stations.


I saw also that there is a road in pretty much the right place; a line in the FSX desert. Ten years or so after the early H.P. 42 flights, the Air Transport Auxiliary in WWII were delivering four-engined bombers at low altitude by following railway lines across England. I'd done that, so I could follow a desert road, I reasoned. It would be even easier, as there are no trees and woodland to obscure the line and make it more difficult.


What to fly it in, I wondered? Obviously, hurtling over Jordan and Syria in a Pilatus PC-12 at a height of 16,000 feet, sitting back after setting the autopilot, wouldn't quite do justice to the trip. Five or more hours of hand-flying at 84 mph, though? That's hard work!






There are freeware H.P.42 and Fokker FVII in the FlightSim.Com file library. In the end I settled on the Spartan Executive by Milton Shupe, Scott Thomas and Urs Burkhardt, also available there. It would double the speed of the H.P.42 easily and, despite its far more modern looks, it was a near contemporary. The H.P.42 first flew in 1931, the Spartan in 1936. And it looks sleek; I could feel like one of the elite passengers in Imperial's salon rather than a train driver.


The flight details are below. The weather on the day I flew the route was cloudy, with rain in the desert for a while, but the mail had to get through.


The Furrow didn't stay in use too long. Imperial Airways changed the long-haul flights to flying boats and used a different routing in the area. British ingenuity showed the odd quirk there, too. Take, for example, landings where the light and water clarity made it difficult to see the surface for touchdown. An inventive solution was to use bags of ping pong balls, to be dropped prior to landing. If vintage celluloid table tennis balls are retrieved from the very center of the North Atlantic Gyre and sold on eBay, buy one. They are probably part of aviation history.


The flight time in the Spartan was about two and half hours. Enjoy the thought of Imperial Airways, if you do it, even if you fly it in the H.P.42 and it takes forever.


Allan Jones


The 'Fly & Deliver' articles are in the Archives. Allan is also the author of the Catrin Sayer Mysteries, available as ebooks and as Kindle Paperbacks.


The Flight

The original flight started at Ziza in Jordan and went east to Ramadi in Iraq. So Amman airport was a logical start. The route I followed was based on the standard FSX landscape, its roads and airfields, but I don't claim it to be definitive.


I left Queen Alia International heading at 650 to airfield Z17l, climbing to 4000 feet. On much the same course, I next crossed OJFH (Prince Hassan airbase) and followed Highway 10 until it turned into Highway 1. This led all the way to the destination, on the north side of Lake Habbaniyah.






Along the way were the following airstrips or airports providing useful landmarks:


  • Z17l Highway H
  • OJFH Prince Hassan Airbase
  • OJHR H4. Mahattat al Jufar
  • Z17A H3 Ruwayshid
  • OR1J H3
  • OR1L H2





The nearest airport to the Ramadi airstrip mentioned in Frater's book appears to be Habbaniyah, OR0Q, so I landed there, careful not to arrive at the nearby Al Taqaddum military airbase, ORAT, without permission.

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