The Duchess Flies to Karachi

Published on August 2, 2012

It was 5:00 am on Friday, August 2, 1929.  Her Fokker F.VIIA called “The Spider” taxied out onto the field at Lympne Aerodrome, near Folkestone, England.  The pilot, Captain Charles D. Barnard, pushed the throttle forward and the plane’s single nine-cylinder Bristol Jupiter engine ran up smoothly.  The Fokker rolled down the grass and soon the tail lifted.  With a gentle pull on the control column, they rose majestically into the air.  On board, the aging Duchess of Bedford, Mary Russell, looked out of of her window and watched the white chalk cliffs of England’s south coast pass underneath.  This was her plane and her flight — a daring trip to Karachi, in British-ruled India — and she aimed to span the distance and return in record time.


The Duchess of Bedford in the cockpit of a DH.60 Moth.

The flight to Karachi was not the Duchess of Bedford’s first trip abroad by air — she had traveled around England, flown up to her Scottish home, and taken trips in a DH.60 Moth to France, Spain and Italy, among other destinations in Europe.  “Aerial travel opened out new possibilities” for her in a time long after she had thought her traveling days were past.  In ill health, she realized that she could take trips by air that impossible for her if by car, train and ship.  She also claimed that flying eased her tinnitus, a worsening condition that afflicted the 64 year old grand dame and which would eventually cause her to go completely deaf.  Yet the Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire still had a few more grand voyages ahead of her.

From Lympne Aerodrome, the Duchess in her Fokker proceeded to Sofia, Bulgaria, a flight that covered 1,400 miles across Europe non-stop.  After a night’s rest, the following day, the Fokker covered 900 miles to reach Aleppo, in what was then called Asia Minor (French-ruled Syria).  Covering another 1,000 miles over the desert, they made Bushire (modern-day Bushehr, Iran) before nightfall.  With the dawn, they launched for the last leg of the grand voyage south, a 1,050 mile non-stop flight along the Persian Gulf to reach Karachi, reaching her destination on August 5, where she was feted by an official welcoming party that included a number of women who were intrigued by the Duchess and her daring flight.


Just a day later, on August 6, she and her pilot, relaunched in the Fokker for the return flight, retracing the same route.  It took 11 hours to reach Iran, where they stopped once again for rest.  From there, they reflew the desert to Aleppo for rest, and then onward to Sofia, where at 4:30 pm, she landed.  Already exhausted, the Duchess and her flight crew caught more rest before making the final run to England, flying over Lympne for a landing at Croydon at 5:40 pm.  A message was was transmitted from Lympne with news of the plane’s sighting.  It had been a final day’s flight totaling 12 hours and 30 minutes.

She was greeted by a huge crowd that cheered wildly.  Once landed, she was soon carrying a large bouquet of flowers and smiling to the crowds.  She commented that the plane had performed perfectly, giving her a “pleasant, but uneventful trip.”  She also noted that she was “impressed with the comfort of such a journey in spite of the extreme heat encountered” along the way, having flown across deserts much of the way.

In all, the round trip of 10,000 miles was accomplished in just under eight days.  On some of the legs, the Duchess herself, an expert air traveler even if not yet a licensed pilot, flew the plane.  In the following year, she dedicated herself to becoming a licensed pilot.  She succeeded in achieving her pilot ratings on April 8, 1930 and just two days later, she departed on yet another long distance flight, with Captain Barnard along as her copilot.  This time, she aimed to fly from Lympne Aerodrome to Cape Town, South Africa, but that is another story….


One More Bit of Aviation History

The Duchess of Bedford’s purchased the Fokker to serve as her private plane.  It was a proven single engine aircraft, formerly carrying the moniker, “Princess Xenia”.  Fokker F.VIIs were considered excellent long distance travelers — Kingsford Smith, Amelia Earhart and many others owned or flew the type during the 1920s and 1930s.  The Duchess of Bedford’s aircraft had been formerly flown by Captain MacIntosh and Col. J. Fitzmaurice, who had attempted a trip across the Atlantic from Ireland earlier, but had not succeeded in the venture.  After that attempt, the plane had gone to Squadron Leader “Bert” Hinkley, who had attempted flights to India — he too had failed twice but was successful on the third attempt.  It was then that the Duchess bought the plane, considering it to be a proven plane for her trip.  After the Duchess finished her record-setting flights, she sold the aircraft to Captain Barnard, who toured England and India.  Its final owner was Sir Bossabhor Bumwandwallah of Bombay, who flew the plane for three years before sending it to scrap in 1937.  Any of these grand old Fokker F.VIIs would be ideal museum pieces today, but few remain.


5 thoughts on “The Duchess Flies to Karachi

  1. Jim Abbott says:

    I’m curious about the year of the flight which I don’t believe was mentioned, and also the Fokker’s engine. It appears to be a radial which must have an odd number of cylinders to opperate. Unless it was a two row with five each.
    Jim A., Tucson, AZ

    1. HW says:

      The year was 1929, just two years after Lindbergh had flown the Atlantic. She earned her pilot certificate in 1930. A correction has been made to the story — yes, the Bristol Jupiter is a nine-cylinder engine (thank you for pointing this out).

  2. Michael Alliott says:

    My father, Eric Alliott, was the co-pilot on this trip and I have his log books detailing the event. The flight started at Lympne on the 10th June 1928. Apart from breaking the telephone cables at the end of the runway all was well for the first 3 legs but when they took off from Bushire on the last leg, they had an engine failure. They force landed back in Bushire after 10 minutes. The engine was beyond repair and a new one had to be shipped out from England in SS Sharistan. They arrived at Karachi on 22 August 1928. The Duchess came home by boat. My father and Capt Barnard flew the aircraft back to Croydon in four and a half days. landing on 6th September 1928. Dad then recorded is first draught beer for months. On the way they were forced down in the Syrian desert by a dust storm and were aided by some Arab nomads.
    Total flying time for the whole trip was 105hs 40min. Flying time for the return trip 54hrs 45 min
    I have a wealth of photographs and records.

  3. Jon (UK based) says:

    Hi Guys,

    I love this website. The design is so different that 99% of the generic websites out there.

    I loved reading this post about the Duchess of Bedford. It makes a really interesting point about how flights have transformed the lives of people who would normally be too ill to travel. Can you imagine if you became seriously ill the other side of the world and have to get a boat back to your homer country!? You just wouldn’t make it.

    Really interesting read, keep up the excellent work.

    Thanks, Jon from the UK

  4. Anthony Willis says:

    Hello Michael-
    My great uncle was Charles Douglas Barnard.
    I have a collection of his newspaper clippings, books etc. I would love to see what your fathers diary recorded for this flight.


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