Saturday, June 14, 2008

Sir Alan Cobham KBE AFC 1894-1973

Born on May 6, 1894, Alan Cobham came from a simple English farm family and did not particularly distinguish himself as a member of the Royal Flying Corps in World War I. After the war, he became a test pilot for de Havilland and promoted the line of light D.H. planes that culminated in the famous de Havilland Moth models. It was in a precursor of the Moth (a D.H. 50J) that he made a flight from London to Cape Town in November 1925, and then from London to Melbourne and back between June 30 and October 1, 1926, a flight that covered nearly twenty-seven thousand miles (43,443km).

Cobham returned to London amid cheering crowds, dramatically landing his seaplane on the Thames next to Parliament. Neither the flight to Cape Town nor the one to Australia were the first of their kind, but they were impressive because they demonstrated the reliability of airplane transportation and the effectiveness of careful planning.

Neither the LondonAustralia flight of the Smith brothers in 1919 nor the LondonCape Town flight of Van Ryneveld and Brand in 1920 convinced governments or airlines that routine air transportation between these points was feasible. Cobham’s flights accomplished this, and serious international flights over long distance (in many countries, not just from England) began after Cobham’s flights.

The flight to Australia had been anything but routine. While flying over Iraq, a sandstorm forced Cobham to fly low. Bedouins, probably seeing their first airplane, shot at it and hit Arthur Elliott, Cobham’s co-pilot and long-time friend. Cobham made an emergency landing in Basra and Elliott was taken to a hospital, but he died the next day. This incident underscored the dangers of flying over unknown territory; that Cobham’s flight was able to convince people that flying was practical in spite of Elliott’s death was a tribute to Cobham’s planning and perseverance.

Cobham’s next project was to survey the coast of Africa from the air (filming from an open cockpit) in preparation for commercial flights to African, Asian, and South American destinations. He then toured England, sponsoring National Aviation Day exhibitions that entertained and informed the public on the benefits of air transportation. Cobham became a proponent of in-flight refuelling, founding a company that became the world leader in the development of that technology. He died in 1973 at the age of seventy-nine, after a distinguished career in aviation.