Sunday, August 20, 2017

Flying ‘the Hump’ one last time

During World War II, more than 600 Allied aircraft went down over Myanmar while trying to deliver supplies to China. The planes were flying a treacherous route from Assam, India, to Kunming, a route that led them over the eastern peaks of the Himalayas.

The vintage Douglas C-47 military cargo plane is ready to fly again. Photos: SuppliedThe vintage Douglas C-47 military cargo plane is ready to fly again. Photos: Supplied

Allied forces, including troops from the US and Australia, nicknamed the route “the Hump” in reference to the majestic peaks that form the border between northern Myanmar and southern China. Though not widely known, many historians credit the route with sustaining Chinese generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek and the Flying Tigers in their battle against imperial Japan. Extremely dangerous and successful, the Hump delivered up to 10,000 tons of cargo per month.

Nobody has flown the Hump in a cargo plane for 70 years, but on August 15, Tom Claytor is going to tackle the route one last time.

They don’t make them like this any more: the cockpit of the C-47.They don’t make them like this any more: the cockpit of the C-47.

An American bush pilot, Claytor has spent the past 26 years on what he describes as “a journey” – a trip crisscrossing the world to witness and document undiscovered areas. His videography over the plains of central Africa in 1994 led to a National Geographic film, Flight over Africa, and he later starred in the Thai film First Flight, which premiered at Cannes Film Festival in 2007.

Along the way he’s collected a host of stories and footage from remote tundras, jungles and deserts, and picked up 12 languages, including Burmese. As he sits in a teashop in downtown Yangon, he gestures constantly as he describes his latest adventure.

“This was the key connecting us to them,” he says, almost whispering with intensity.

Claytor is describing how his “Flying the Hump” mission began, when he visited the Flying Tigers Museum in Kunming in the late 1990s. He was struck by the museum’s respectful tribute to the Hump and the men who flew over it, and when the museum purchased a World War II-era Douglas C-47 cargo plane to feature as its centerpiece, he was quick to volunteer to deliver it.

The US$150,000 aircraft, which was previously owned by a collector in Australia, has been refurbished and outfitted for the long journey north. Along with a crew of six, Claytor will fly through Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar – a trip of more than 5600 nautical miles.

Along the way, the aircraft will collect footage from northern Myanmar to assist the US government in its search for the remains of 600 aircraft and 740 American crew members that were shot down or crashed during the war. Claytor hopes to partner with the Myanmar Air Force on the mission.

“It is very difficult to find piston aviation fuel in Asia these days. The Myanmar Air Force still has PT-6 piston aircraft for flight training in Meikhtila. We have asked the air force if we can buy some of the 90 Octane fuel that they use for their trainers,” he said.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for ‘US-Myanmar friendship’ to honour the brave pilots who flew these missions and the Myanmar people who assisted with the mission in World War II.”

Tom Claytor describes his latest adventure. Photo: RJ Vogt / The Myanmar TimesTom Claytor describes his latest adventure. Photo: RJ Vogt / The Myanmar Times

As for whether he is scared about the upcoming flight over the Hump, Claytor said the entire crew instead feels “a little nostalgic” about the journey.

“We don’t look at the danger, we look at the excitement. The more modern and sophisticated aircraft become, the more you lose touch with the elements around you. This is an antique aircraft with original instruments ... In the air, we have no computers, so we have to monitor the instruments and nurse the engines,” he said.

“We will be winding our way amid 18,000-foot peaks. Over 600 aircraft were lost making this journey during the war. This will certainly be on our minds, but I think even more we will be thinking of those who sacrificed their lives at that time to win the peace, and how important it is today to maintain the friendships between nations charged with keeping the peace.”