Meet the First Men to Fly Over Everest

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If you’ve seen the big Hollywood film Everest that came out last year, you probably heard one of the characters deliver a line about how the team would be climbing at the same altitude as a commercial jetliner. Today, aircraft fly over or around the mountain on a regular basis, and no one thinks twice about it, but back in 1933 that still seemed like an impossible height to take an aircraft, particularly in an age when pressurized cabins were not necessarily the norm just yet. But two daring pilots made that flight, and lived to tell the tale. And they did so in a biplane that is down right ancient when compared to modern aircraft.

Mashable recently posted a story and some great  photos from that epic adventure that was called the Houston Everest Expedition because it was sponsored by a wealthy British philanthropist known as Lady Houston. She put up the money that allowed RAF pilot Douglas Douglas-Hamilton (aka Lord Clydesdale) and Colonel Stewart Blacker to attempt to fly a Westland PV-3 biplane over the top of the world’s highest mountain, something that seemed incredibly dangerous at the time.

The two men took off from an airstrip near Purnea, India on the morning of April 3, 1933. They were accompanied by a second aircraft flown by Flight Lieutenant David McIntyre and a photographer named S.R. Bonnett. The second plane was there to record the event for posterity and get some fantastic images of this daring flight. The photographer did not disappoint.

As it turns out, the mission was a test for both pilots and aircraft, as there was indeed no pressurized cabins. The four men who were aboard the two planes had to rely on oxygen masks to keep their wits about them and help them breathe at such an altitude. On top of that, it was rare for any airplane to fly at such heights at that point in history, and the small biplane struggled in the thin air just as much as her crew.

When the two planes approached Everest, high winds caused even more problems, forcing the planes to drop 1500 feet (457 meters). But in the end, they were able to climb back up to 29,029 feet (8848 meters) and pass over the top of the summit for the very first time. All four men were given high accolades with Lord Clydesdale earning the Air Force Cross for his leadership. Bonnett’s photos and video footage were also used to create an Academy Award winning film called Wings Over Everest as well. You can watch that film below.

The story of this expedition is an amazing one. Today we take it for granted that we fly at such a height, but back in 1933 it was almost as if they were trying to go to the moon. Fortunately, they proved that aircraft are sturdier than was believed and that man can go to higher heights that was previously believed. It would be 20 years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay would actually climb to the summit, but this intrepid crew helped lead the way.

Kraig Becker