Britain By Car - A Motoring History

Dundee flight memorial

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A memorial to the record-breaking flight undertaken in 1938 by Don Bennett, founder of Fairthorpe cars.

Location         
On the north bank of the Firth of Tay, close to the Discovery Point, Discovery Quay, Dundee DD1 4XA.

Date
October 1997 - present.

Commentary
Born in 1908 in Toowoomba, Queensland, Don Bennett joined the Royal Australian Air Force at the age of 22.  After initial training he was transferred to Britain and into the RAF, initially flying Siskins, a 1920s single-seater fighter biplane. 

About six month later, he applied to train as a flying boat pilot.  Techniques of navigation formed a major part of the course, and it was the development of his navigation skills that became key to his career in aviation.  Still serving in the RAF, he was appointed a lecturer at the RAF Navigation School, and at the age of 26 became one of the very few holders of a First-Class Navigator’s Licence.   
In 1935, Don Bennett left the RAF to move into civil aviation, and in 1936, joined Imperial Airways, for whom he flew flying boats between Alexandria in Egypt and Brindisi in southern Italy.

Imperial Airways were anxious to establish a non-stop transatlantic service, but a reliable flight refuelling procedure had yet to be perfected.  Their solution to this problem was the Mayo Composite - two aircraft, one fixed above the other.

Early in 1938, Don Bennett applied to be put in command of the Mercury, the top half of the Mayo Composite, attached to the Maia, its parent flying boat.  At slow speeds the lower half of the Composite would carry most of the load and help lift the upper half off the ground.  All the engines on both aircraft would be turning on take-off; and once level flight had been achieved, the speed would be allowed to creep up to a point that gave surplus lift to the upper aircraft.  At this stage, both pilots would work the release, with each aircraft flying off under its own control.  This technique gave the upper, smaller, aircraft a much greater payload (and range) than would otherwise have been possible.

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On July 28th 1938, Capt. Bennett - piloting Mercury, initially attached to Maia – made the first non-stop, commercial cargo flight across the Atlantic from Foyne, on Ireland’s mid-west coast, to Montreal, a distance of about 3,175 miles.

Encouraged by this success, plans were soon draw up to establish a new world long-distance seaplane record.  On 6th October 1938, the Mayo Composite took off from the Tay Estuary en route to Cape Town, South Africa. Heavily weighed down with fuel (which was stored in the floats, as well as the wing tanks), the Mercury separated from the Maia above Dundee, and Capt. Bennett and his co-pilot, First Officer Ian Harvey, began the long journey towards South Africa.  

The flight was not straightforward.  During the separation, one of the engine cowlings was torn away, reducing the efficiency of the aircraft and adding to its fuel consumption. Heavy weather and thunderstorms were a frequent part of their journey, but most problematic was the failure of the electric fuel pumps, requiring the fuel to be pumped from the floats by hand.  At 12,000 feet, with oxygen in relatively short supply, both men became very tired and Ian Harvey began to hallucinate. 

During the second night of the flight it became clear to the pilots that a shortage of fuel would prevent them from reaching Cape Town, their intended destination.  However, they were well passed the world’s seaplane record and so, for safety reasons, they landed Alexander Bay on the Orange River, about 390 miles short of their target.  After 42½ hours flight, they had covered a distance of 6,041 miles; the record still stands today.

Don Bennett returned to the RAF during the Second World War and, shortly before Germany’s surrender, was elected Liberal MP for Middlesbrough, but was defeated a few months later in the 1945 general election. After working for British South American Airways, he established Fairthorpe in Chalfont St Peter, Buckinghamshire.

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The Dundee memorial commemorating his historic flight was unveiled in 1997 by Captain Bennett`s wife, Lys.

Other locations    
• Chalfont St Peter, Buckinghamshire 

Further details    
• Pathfinder, Air Vice-Marshall DCT Bennett CB CBE DSO, Frederick Muller Ltd, 1958 and Goodall Publications Ltd, 1988.