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Article: The History Of Mountaineering and Aviation


The History Of Mountaineering and Aviation

In 1918 a mountaineer and physiologist by the name of Alexander Kellas wrote an article in the Geographical Journal suggesting to fly an airplane over Mt. Everest and photograph it.

This would then provide information to help mountaineers plan how to climb and summit Mt. Everest.

Alexander Kellas never got to see Mt. Everest, dying from a heart attack one day's hike away from seeing Mount Everest for the first time.

The Mount Everest Committee was formed in 1921 by the Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society to co-ordinate and finance British expeditions to explore and climb the mountain.

In 1921 a reconnaissnace expedition was organized and financed by the Mount Everest Committee. The expedition included Colonel Howard-Bury, Harold Raeburn, George Mallory, Guy Bullock, and Edward Wheeler.

The purpose of the expedition was to map and reconnoiter the mountain and see whether a route to the summit could be found from the north side of the mountain. After five months of arduous climbing the group found the hidden East Rongbuk Glacier and its route to the North Col.

On September 23, 1921 Mallory, Bullock, and Wheeler reached the North Col at 23,030 feet, but were forced back by strong winds. Mallory felt that while the trek to the summit was long, it would be feasible for a fresher group of climbers.

On May 22, 1922, a second British expedition led by General Bruce and Lt. Col. Strutt, along with Mallory, returned for a full-scale attemp on the mountain. They managed to reach the North Ridge at 26,800 feet before being forced to retreat. 

By the end of 1932 there had been ten expeditions to Mt. Everest, but none of them had been successful in reaching the summit.

Members of the Mount Everest Committee then recalled Alexander Kellas' long piece in the Geographical Journal in 1918. Using his expert knowledge of human physiology and the challenges of high altitude, Kellas came up with a scheme to adapt airplanes and acclimating pilots enabling them to competently fly over the mountain and also take useful photographs of the mountain.

Wings Over Everest

Kellas' on-the-ground experience of climbing at high altitude was just as releveant to these exposed pilots as it was to mountaineers.

The first use of oxygen in aviation occurred on April 15, 1875 , when Croce-Spinelli, Sivel, and Tissandier used the balloon Zeith carred three gas bags made from animal intestines.

The ballon started it's climb at 11:35 am and by 2:20 pm had reached an altitude of 23,000 feet. Unfortunately Tissandier was the only surviver when he woke up at 3:30 pm ony to find Sivel's face black with a bloody mouth and Croce whose mouth was also bloody.

A later balloon flight took the passengers to 15,000 feet using vaccum flasks full of oxygen.

Vauum Flask patented in 1908 by Gustav Robert Paalen.

In late 1932 and early 1933 the Mount Everest Committee decided to take Kellas' idea and fly airplanes with photographers over Mt. Everest to map it out and find a better path to reach the summit.

A rich woman by the name of Fanny Lucy Radmall offered to provide up to £15,000 pounds to finance the project.

In 1872 Lady Houston, at the age of 16 took up with a wealthy man named Frederick "Freddy" Gretton who was twice her age. She was his mistress for ten years, and when "Freddy" died he left her a legacy of £6,000 pounds per year, the equivalence of £656,000 pounds in 2019.

Chosen to lead the expedition was Douglas Douglas-Hamilton (Lord Clydesdale) who at the time was the youngest squadron leader in the Royal Air Force.

A photo of Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, Marquess of Douglas and Clydesdale, photographed 12 November 1929 by Bossano Ltd.

The first order of business was to select the aircraft engine and aircraft that would be capable of taking a pilot, photographer, and the photographic equipment necessary to achieve an altitude high enough to fly over the summit of Mt. Everest.

The engine chosen was the Bristol Pegasus S.3, an air-cooled and supercharged 1,752.79 cubic inch nine cylinder engine.

It was rated at 525 hp and produced 575 hp at 2,300 rpms at 13,000 feet. It drove a two-bladed, fixed pitch wooden propellor through a gear deduction system.

An advertisement of the Everest Expedition Bristol Pegasus S.3 engine.

Next, they had to decide on the airframe to mate with the engine that could meet the requirements of the expedition.

The Westland PV-3 was chosen because it had the highest rate of climb of any airplane ever tested by the Royal Air Force.

Westland WP-3 G-ACAZ, after modifications for the Houston Everest Expedition.

The aircraft had an all-metal structure and folding wings, and was modified for the Houston Everest Expedition by enclosing the rear gunner's cockpit for the observer and cameras.


  • Length: 34 feet, 2 inches;
  • Wingspan: 46 feet, 6 inches;
  • Height: 11 feet, 8 inches;
  • Empty Weight: 3,420 pounds;
  • Maximum Weight: 5,100 pounds
  • Maximum Speed: 163 mph;
  • Service Ceiling: 35,000 feet.

The chase plane was a Westland PV-6 with the registration number of G-ACBR.

Westland PV-6 G-ACBR

The aircraft carried Williamson Automatic Eagle III survey cameras that would take photographs of the surface of Mt. Everest at specific intervals as the aircraft flew over known survey locations.

Williamson Automatic Eagle III camera used on the Wings Over Everest expedition.

The two airplanes took off from Purnia, in the northeast of India, at 8:25 a.m.

Aboard Lord Clydesdale’s airplane was observer Lieutenant Colonel Latham Valentine Stewart Blacker, O.B.E. (“Blacker of the Guides”), and on McIntyre’s was Sidney R. G. Bonnett, a cinematographer for Gaumont British News.

Lord Clydesdale, flying Westland WP-3 G-ACAZ, approaching the summit of Mt. Everest, 3 April 1933.

During the ascent to Everest, Bonnett damaged his oxygen hose and lost consciousness due to hypoxia.

Mountaineering and Aviation

The development of mountaineering and aviation technology are inextricably bound, and there was much crossover of personnel between civil physiology institutions, mountaineering organisations, and military aviation research.

The Houston Expedition has all the characteristics of a classic tale of derring-do, not least because of the involvement of adventure author John Buchan. It was also an unquestionable act of bravery, and a technological achievement, in terms not only of aviation but also photography.

I wasn't until 1953 until the British expedition placed Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Mt. Everest. 

Life and Death on Everest

Over the years some 330 people are known to have perished on the mountain, and the remains of about 200 are still on the mountain.

An image showing the location of bodies on Mt. Everest.

I hope you enjoyed this trip through some of the history of aviation. If you enjoyed this trip, and are new to this newsletter, sign up to receive your own weekly newsletter here: Subscribe here!

Until next time, keep your eyes safe and focused on what's ahead of you, Hersch!


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