From Rolex UK archives February 1978
To put back things in perspective, Mercedez Gleitze swam the Channel in 1927, Rolex had launched the Rolex Prince in 1928 and on mai 16 1933 Wilsdorf had the Perpetuel movement patended. The Perpetual movement was the result of Emil Borer 's (Rolex master watchmaker) hard work on an original idea from Abraham Louis Perrelet who actually invented the automatic movement in its primitive form in 1770.
In1933 Edmund Hillary, John Hunt and Tenzing Norgay were still kids... and the first flight over the Everest was about to take place.
The first plane and the first Rolex ever flying the Everest.
At the time (1930's) the most refined airplane technologies were used to create the Westland PV3 and the Westland PV6 aircrafts that were equiped with the best engine available - the 525hp Supercharged Bristol Pegasus.
Yet with the Everest, as with the moon 36 years later, there was one great unknown for wich no one was able to cater : no one knew if, on the night, so to speak, some factor unforseen and unsuspected might not precipitate disaster.
The 1933 "Houston-Mount Everest" expedition, financed by Lady Houston the "protagonist of aviation", was aimed to put 2 Westland biplanes (specially built prototypes) some 6 miles up into the air above the Himalaya.
The biggest questionmarks existed at the time regarding the behaviour of downdraughts and the upcurrents caused by wind deflection, and the stamina of the human frame in such demanding conditions. And though less of a mystery though intensive pre-testing, completely predictable performance could not be guaranted from aero engines (engine oxygen?), fuels, oils, bearings, photographic equipment, crew oxygen supplies, watches etc when their environement was the 120 degrees of frost that existed at flying heights of 33 000 feets and more.
All the ingredients of a great human adventure were there to attract Hans Wilsdorf interest in the experiment and as he just had patented the Perpetuel movement this would be great Rolex publicity with a worldwide echo.
Airmen had dreamed of flying over the Everest for years but the principal obstacle had always been lack of sufficiently powerful engine. In 1933, however, such an engine existed at last : the Bristol Pegasus supercharged just realeased the year before by the Bristol Aeroplane Company. The Pegasus supercharger was an absolute must for the Everest flight as would be a Rolex Oyster never tested on a human wrist at such an altitude.
To come back to the engine, since 1927 increase in this means of maximizing cylinder charge by pressure had permitted the doubling of aero engine hp ratings, and in fact only an engine with this brand of boost could have hoped to cope with the altitudes Everest involved.
At the time, a supercharged engine possessed at 29 000ft (the eight of Everest) half the power of take off at sea level (while an ordinary naturally aspirated engine pocessed only about 27%.)
The maximum possible performance was also sought in the fuel to power the Pegasus, togeteher with buil-in protection against freezing, specific oil etc.
Hans Wilsdorf was even more interested with this adventure because both the Westland PV3 and the PV6 were private venture aircrafts. The PV3 was registered G-ACAZ while the PV6 was registered G-ACBR, both planes measured 34 ft long with a 46.5 ft wingspan, they were both capable to climb 15 000 ft in less than 14mn and combined a top speed of 163mph with a relatively low landing speed of 59mph.
Once the aircraft were chosen 2 questions arose: cockpits and pilots?
For various technical reasons it was decided that the (front) pilots cockpits would remain open but fitted with large triplex glass windscreens while the back cockpits would be closed to protect the observers and their cameras. All these experiments were to please Hans Wilsdorf because trying and testing and improving was 100% Rolex philosophy.
One of the rare pictures remaining of the Westland PV3 G-ACAZ.
The pilots and observers would also wear experimental electrically heated suits, oxygen masks, rubber-soled sheepskin flying boots with heavily wired and cumbersome gaunflets and Rolex Oysters.
The pilots finally chosen were Sqn Ldr Clydesdale to fly the PV3 and Flt Lt D. Macintyre to fly the PV6, they would be scouted, helped and observed in the air by 3 other less powerful and less equipped airplanes a Puss a Fox and a Gipsy.
Clydesdale and Macintyre had to wait about 3 weeks in Purnea until the wind velocity and visibility over the Everest turned suitable. Then, on sunday, 2 april 1933, the signs appeared encouraging for an attempt next day according to local Indian astrologers and air reports from the 3 smaller planes of the expedition.
Picture of the PVY G-ACBR flying over the Everest.
On monday 3 the 2 crews, Clydesdale and his observer Col Blacker and Macintyre and his observer, the Gaumont British news cinematographer SR Bonnett clambered into their cockpits. A packet of "Everest Air Mail" was handed up, the throttles were opened, the huge Pegasus engines bellowed out a mighty roar and both aircrafts took off.
At 19 000 ft, 35mn flying time away from Purnea the dust haze finally cleared out and both planes emerged into transluscent air where, on his right, Blacker saw Kangchenjunga gleaming brilliant white against the sparkling azure sky.
Mount Everest Westland adverstising
A few minutes later at minus 60° celcius Blacker threw back the roof of his cockpit and started to film the chiselled outlines of the mountains. They were 2'30 minutes away from the top of the Everest when a furious air current seized the Westland and thrust it down 1500ft. This was just the sort of crisis in which all depended on the Pegasus engine. The boosted engine soon took the Westland climbing once more untill at 10h05 on that monday april 3 1933 pilot Clydesdale and observer Blacker saw the roof of the world passing 500 ft beneath them.
Blacker was now suffering quite severly from the effects of altitude. He panted and gasped as he exposed the plates and films, with his vision blurring as he man-handled the various cameras into position.
Clydesdale made another circuit of the peak until after about fifteen minutes Blacker noticed his oxygen pressure dropping. Clydesdale decided to head the Westland away from the Everest. Together Macintyre and Bonnet air craft passed over the Everest at about the same time, Clydesdale landed is plane back at Lalbalu.
The expedition was a complete success that 3rd of april.
The flight has so exulted both pilots and observers that they were unable to give an articulate report of their experience for some hours.
On tuesday 4, both Wetlands took of again with 2 different pilots, Air Cdre PFM Fellowes and Flg Off RCW Elison.
Fellowes failed to cross the summit due to lack of oxygen, his mask was such a bad fit that he forgot which course marked on his map was the right one to get him back safely to Lalbalu. Lost, he finally reached Shampur and landed there, he then took of again but was forced down once more at Dinajpur because of an empty fuel tank. He finally was rescued the following day by the other expedition members.
Ellison succeded over the Everest and returned safely to Purnea with better pictures that will later allow to draw the first Everest map.
The prime aim of flying over the Everest had been accomplished, in 1933, Everest and the virgin regions south of it were only roughly marked on maps. Survey strips filmed on the second Everest flight enabled accurate maps to be made of an area of 20 miles long and just under 2 miles wide, in which he terrain could be scrutinised in formerly unattained detail.
The pictures shown here are very valuable because the 2 planes did not get deserved attention after the fantastic flight and returned to obscurity when the expedition ended . One of them became the test bed of some various Bristol engines and was finally dismantled, the aircraft manufacturer already had founded all its hope on monoplanes. The other Westland was stripped of its Everest extras and became just another military aircraft.*
Hans Wilsdorf received this letter dated June 12 1933 by Colonel Blacker:
I hope you enjoyed this part of History, I do think that afficionados really deserve to be aware of Hans Wilsdorf exceptional vision and how he helped building some of the most extraordinary human heroic acts at the begining of last century. I do hope that Rolex won't mind a private party unveiling tiny bits of Rolex exceptional past.