Central & South American Tour Articles

A Flying Photographer

By Captain Alfred G. Buckham

First appeared within The Morning Post of Friday, Dec 15 1933

So much Interest was aroused by the photographs published in the “Morning Post” and taken by Captain Alfred G. Buckham during his 19,000 miles’ aerial tour of Central and South America that Captain Buckham has been asked to write a short series of articles on his remarkable flight. These articles, the first of which is this one, provide exciting reading and are, moreover—though quite unconsciously so—a record of cheerful pluck in the face of often desperate difficulties. It was a flight all the more amazing when one realises that Captain Buckham crashed badly towards the end of the War—he has crashed on various occasions—and thereafter suffered serious disabilities.

Record of an Amazing 19,000 Miles’ Tour

“To take aerial photographs anywhere in America.” So ran the terms of my engagement, the result of which was to culminate in an aerial tour covering a period of fifteen weeks. But when I landed in New York and persuaded the Customs officer that my antique and battered aerial camera (used in the R.N.A.S. in 1915) was a tool of trade” and, therefore, not chargeable with duty, I had but a vague idea where it would be employed.

Within two weeks of first sighting the sky scrapers of Manhattan, however, all preliminaries having been completed, I was speeding through pouring rain over Philadelphia and Washington, over lovely Virginia and the Carolinas and the horrible mud flats of Georgia to sunny Florida. Thence to fly some 19,000 miles over tropical seas, a hundred islands, jungles, deserts, snowclad mountains, volcanoes, extinct and otherwise, flourishing cities of almost mush room growth; the sad remains of great Inca and Aztec civilisations,

And so back round the Gulf of Mexico to Brownsville in Texas, there to be closely examined by a very serious, cigar-smoking Committee of Texans, and eventually readmitted into the U.S.A. as “a perfect physical specimen, but deprived of speech.” Thus it was written. (And it was well worthwhile flying those thousands of miles just to be named in official language “a perfect physical specimen.”)

There was every reason for hopefulness at the outset, for, although not in possession of the necessary permits to photograph the territories to be flown over, I was armed with the following certificate, supplied by the New York Police: “The Bureau of Criminal Investigation at Headquarters states there is no criminal record of the above-mentioned aerial photographer during the past five years, and no warrant of criminal process is, outstanding against him.” In addition, I carried a medical certificate supplied by a remarkably prescient doctor, who, for the inadequate sum of ten dollars, was able to affirm, without seeing me, that I had been vaccinated within the last three months and was entirely free from a whole list of terrible diseases. Surely the most respectable among South American Republics could not deny facilities to such a well certified aerial photographer.

“All in blue unclouded weather” we headed for Cuba, about two hundred miles away across the Florida Channel and the Gulf Stream, where, midway, the first camera subject alter leaving the United States presented itself. A thin spout of water uprising denoted the passing of a lonely whale from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. My pilot dived down toward him, and as we swept by at eighty miles an hour, about fifty feet above the water, the camera captured its first whale. Thirty miles farther on the operation was repeated, but on this occasion the subject was a rum-runner bowling along under bellying canvas toward the land of Prohibition, as it was then.

Over the mountains of wild Cuba and Haiti immense storm clouds gathered, breaking in deluges of rain. In the streets of the towns other and more ominous storms gathered, but were restrained from breaking by means of loaded rifles.

Out of the loveliness of the Caribbean Sea rose the green mountains of Porto Rico, with summits higher than Everest, if their sub merged slopes were placed to their credit. On the northern side of that island the mountains continue downward beneath the shark-infested waters to a depth of nearly 25,000 feet, while seventy miles farther north the submarine valley drops more than eight miles, giving a total declivity exceeding 40,000 feet.

In the light of early morning we came to a single volcanic cone rising sheer from the sea to a height of about 3,000 feet—Saba Island, boasting a town called “Bottom,” situated on the floor of the old crater 800 feet above sea level. Here there lives a lair-skinned Dutch population, very religious, and building the most seaworthy boats of the Caribbees, for which the timber is drawn up the mountain side by means of ropes, the finished craft being lowered to the sea in the same manner. The Inhabitants, most of whom are fishermen, reach their abode by climbing 800 feet of precipitous stairway composed of steps cut in the solid rock. They ascend their “ladder” (so named) carrying burdens weighing one hundred pounds.

Then the 291 square miles of richly fertile British Dominica, perhaps the most beautiful of all West Indian islands, drifted by. (In passing one wondered why England is so forgetful of this enchanted isle, with its wonderfully temperate climate and thermal springs. Surely not scared by occasional hurricanes, which have their appointed season?) Then, conspicuous by its terrible volcano, Mt. Pelée, French Martinique drew near. Overtopped with giant tropical clouds intermingling with a stream of smoke and poisonous gases, down its flank spread the awful river of lava which buried St. Pierre with its 30,000 inhabitants in 1902. The sight of that vast grave, so deserted and quiet beside the smiling sea, is an abiding memory.

Flying in alternating tropical thunderstorms and in the fairest of weather over enchanting islands where sometimes we lingered, the South American Continent was reached. Then we crossed the estuary of the Orinoco River, saw Venezuela, the three Guianas, the French Penal Settlements at Cayenne and “Devil’s Island,” and began the long flight from Capo do Norte over the mouths of the mighty Amazon to Para on the Equator—300 miles of yellow and muddy river water, passed over in tempestuous weather. Rain streamed from the wings in level sheets, yet we travelled with comparative steadiness about fifteen feet above the waves, taking advantage of an almost undisturbed cushion of air. Overhead among rushing clouds all sorts of violent bumpings and buffetings assailed us, the cloud belt rising to an immense height.

The coastline presented jungle as far as the eye could see, jungle all the two thousand miles and more to Rio de Janeiro, with only an occasional town or native village to break the strange monotony. Against the living trees the dead trees leaned; there was no room for them to fall. Stripped of bark, bleached white by burning suns, the skeleton forms seemed to clutch their live companions.

Millions of birds of gay plumage passed beneath the aeroplane in shimmering clouds; we climbed to avoid them. Occasionally small groups of Indians were seen searching among the flotsam and jetsam of the beach, and the entire population of one native village, innocent of the barest stitch of clothing, responded to our salutations either by violent capering, or lying flat upon the ground with heads buried in the sand. Several wrecks cast up on the shore, one of them a fine steamer, mutely complained of treacherous seas and weather.

I was delayed—not unwillingly—in Rio de Janeiro for two weeks while the authorities considered the case of one who took photographs and asked for permission to do so afterwards. Fortunately, they are somewhat indulgent toward Englishmen in Brazil; nevertheless, an Army officer was deputed to accompany me on further flights. But when we were lost at sea because impenetrable mist and rain made it advisable to fly there and thus avoid the danger of crashing into the mountains, he was evidently of the opinion that the authorities should have placed implicit confidence in me and allowed me to go alone.

It was not a pleasant transition from the humid heat of Brazil to Buenos Aires, where the piercing pampiero winds were blowing, in motion for the production of permit, aeroplane and pilot, I was laid hers de combat by violent influenza. Fortunately, that intrepid fellow, Eduardo Bradley—the first man to cross the Andes in a balloon, and who walks despite a broken back sustained on his last aerial adventure—carried on the negotiations. Unauthorised aeroplanes flying over the city were liable to be shot down, because South American revolutionaries have an unpleasant habit of conducting preliminary operations from the air. Eventually, the permit was forthcoming and, surprising enough, I was allowed to fly over “The Paris of South America” at 500 feet altitude.

Lest such a generous concession should be regretted and withdrawn, and in fear of other eventualities which might render the permission useless—certain revolutionary activities were then proceeding—I arose from my sick bed at once and proceeded by aero plane to the military aerodrome there to take on board an Army officer.

My journey nearly came to an abrupt conclusion over Buenos Aires, for the door of the cabin aeroplane through the window of which I leaned to photograph idly swung wide open as I drew back to change a dark slide. The safety catch was broken. Returning to the aerodrome at Buenos Aires, both cameras and plates were, perforce, handed over, permission to leave the country not being granted until, in an appointed dark room, the exposures were developed and prints supplied to the authorities.

This procedure was, almost invariably, adopted in every country where photographs were taken, the two cameras seldom remaining in my possession for long.

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