• 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.

    Flying The Furrow - HP42 refueling

    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.

    Flying The Furrow - HP42 cockpit

    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.

    Flying The Furrow - HP42 interior

    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.

    1. lnuss's Avatar
      lnuss -
      For more good information on what those days were like across the middle east, the 1951 novel Round The Bend by Nevil Shute describes an Englishman who gets into the aerial transport business in the middle east, starting with a Tiger Moth, buying bigger as time goes on. I find it a fascinating book, and Wikipedia gives a very good brief synopsis of the story.
    1. allanj12's Avatar
      allanj12 -
      Thanks for the tip! I read a number of Shute's novels years ago, but not that one.
    1. pilotposer's Avatar
      pilotposer -
      Very interesting article, great pics and historical information.
      Milton's Spartan Executive is a fine choice for any Flightsim adventure.
      Thank you
    1. graaant's Avatar
      graaant -
      Thanks -- a most engaging piece, with great pics.
    1. allanj12's Avatar
      allanj12 -
      Thank you both for the feedback and I'm glad you enjoyed it. Copies of Frater's book are still available on Abebooks, I see. It's a good read; not only for the details and anecdotes of the original trip but the flights he made to repeat the route. It's like an 'Ancient and Modern History' story.
    1. oldcrusty's Avatar
      oldcrusty -
      Fascinating read. Great fun in the sim to do this sort of flying. Might go and redo this one with the HP42 (FSX Version by Paul Clawson of and earlier FS9 Version by Derek Palmer also modified by myself). Nothing like no autopilot and 90 knots to make sure the scenery better be interesting.
    1. oldcrusty's Avatar
      oldcrusty -

    1. allanj12's Avatar
      allanj12 -
      Very nice! enjoy the flight!
    1. SWODude's Avatar
      SWODude -
      That's crazy that the Brits had to do this to enable aerial navigation. Kinda like the 1920s when arrows and signs were painted on the ground and on rooftops for the airmail pilots to get the mail delivered.
    1. mrozo's Avatar
      mrozo -
      Thanks a lot for the interesting article. As you do I'm interested in the very early civil aviation. In my country (Colombia) a german-colombian investors company (now Avianca) started flying passengers since 1920 from the caribbean coast into the capital city all over the Magadalena river with lots of stops to add water to the bone-dry Junkers 13 radiator. Wasn't those times marvellous?
    1. AlyMac's Avatar
      AlyMac -
      Superb article, thanks for sharing
    1. allanj12's Avatar
      allanj12 -
      Quote Originally Posted by mrozo View Post
      Thanks a lot for the interesting article. As you do I'm interested in the very early civil aviation. In my country (Colombia) a german-colombian investors company (now Avianca) started flying passengers since 1920 from the caribbean coast into the capital city all over the Magadalena river with lots of stops to add water to the bone-dry Junkers 13 radiator. Wasn't those times marvellous?
      Glad you liked it. They were different times for flying, that's for sure!
    1. peter46's Avatar
      peter46 -
      Thanks for posting that. Like you, I enjoy retracing the historical routes. I've done Bert Hinkler's England to Australia in a Moth, Clyde Fenton's Australia to China, also in a Moth, and Alan Cobham's round Africa in a Singapore flying boat. For that one I can recommend "Twenty Thousand Miles in a Flying Boat", still available in paperback.

      For this one, I decided to assume overflying Italy was allowed, just for the fun of it. The range of the HP42 means London-Paris-Marseilles-Rome-Brindisi. Presently on the ground in Marseilles. I look forward to following the "furrow".
    1. allanj12's Avatar
      allanj12 -
      Thanks for the reference to Cobham's book. Glad you sorted things out with Benito for overflight rights! Frater's book has a lot of detail on the later route segments drawn from anecdotal 'first-hand' accounts. I'm toying with the idea of doing the same flights in the 1980s aircraft that Frater used, including the 'doubling back' fixes he made to cover as many stopping points on the original Imperial Airways route as possible. We'll see...
    1. buntings's Avatar
      buntings -
      Fantastic read. I read Fraters book back in the 1980s when it came out and many years later discovered that there was a family with my grandfather driving armoured vehicles for the RAF that protected the teams ploughing the furrow. Frater wrote another book - Chasing the Monsoon which is also a great read ( as the name suggested he flew around India following the monsoon.

      However, there was another related documentry on BBC - "The last african flying boat", similar in concept to the Bue Horizon but following a flying boat route in a PBY Catalina. The full video can be found on Youtube and is well worth watching.
    1. allanj12's Avatar
      allanj12 -
      Well, a family connection to the Furrow! Thanks for the 'Monsoon' reference, I'll chase that one up. I have seen the BBC documentary previously and agree it is worth watching.
    1. fliesfakeplanes's Avatar
      fliesfakeplanes -
      Very good read! Thanks for posting this. I think it would have been absolutely amazing to see aviation in its infancy. I just purchased Around the Bend from Amazon after reading this blog post. Will report back!
    1. stainless's Avatar
      stainless -
      Quote Originally Posted by allanj12 View Post
      Thanks for the tip! I read a number of Shute's novels years ago, but not that one.
      I have stumbled across this site by a fortunate accident and hopefully I can add to the conversation.

      I have a couple of route maps dated 1922, being 3 ft long in old money. I would welcome any feedback
      and in particular sheet 1 to complete the set.Attachment 221454Attachment 221455
    1. Navcam's Avatar
      Navcam -
      A good read over the Christmas holidays, enjoyed with a steaming cuppa, accompanied by 1930's tunes in the background... then it's off to the simulator (P3D) to fly the route. I too am sitting in Marseilles, having flown across France seeing it only a mile (and a generous one mile at that!) at a time. Off to Rome, and a decision point at Alexandria as to whether I go south or continue to Oz. MDR, watch - map- ground, seat of pants... lots of fun!
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