Flying Gypsies

Dennis Parks is Curator Emeritus of Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

Ever since the conception of the light airplane in the 1920s, the magnitude of flights achieved by pilots using light planes never ceases to surprise, especially when used for around-the-word tours. Such trips would seem to be in the provenance of larger, higher-powered aircraft, not small, low-powered aircraft.

The year 1925 saw the birth of the first highly-produced, practical, reliable light plane, the de Havilland Moth. This plane was designed as a two-seat light plane capable of withstanding the stresses of instructional work, while large and comfortable enough for cross country flying. The craft was so popular that by 1926 output was about one a day.

A new version using a new engine was then put into production — the Gipsy Moth — using the new de Havilland Gipsy engine rated at 135 hp.

In the summer of 1928 a married couple, the Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Sibour of England, undertook the first around-the-world flight by a Gipsy Moth. They also may have been the first married couple to fly around the world. The Vicomtesse, Violette, later wrote a book about it called “Flying Gypsies.”

And what an interesting couple they were. Both the Vicomte and his wife were seasoned pilots. The Vicomtesse, Violette, was the daughter of Gordon Selfridge, the famous London department store owner and the Vicomte, Jacques, was a decorated French pilot in the First World War. Not only would this be a great adventure for the couple, but it would lead to a connection to Amelia Earhart’s world flight attempt in 1937.

Before the world flight the couple had spent their holidays touring by air. When Jacques got a two week holiday, they toured all about the Mediterranean in a tiny airplane. When they had a longer vacation they flew to Abyssinia where they built a house in the mountains. In 1928 when the Vicomte deserved another long holiday, he and his wife conferred as to what they should do. This time they had nine months at their disposal, so, obviously, the proper thing was a trip around the world.

They anticipated that their adventure would last nine months and cover about 10,000 miles, flying only when the weather was good, to ensure an enjoyable journey. It was their plan to visit friends in all parts of the world, penetrate wild areas to shoot big game and go on safari.

They departed from Stag Lane Aerodrome, the home of de Havilland Aircraft, on Sept. 14, 1928. They flew through France, Spain and Algeria. A forced landing was made in the Atlas Mountains in Algeria, where they narrowly avoided going over a bluff into a river. Violette considered that they were able to land in a small space because of the Handley Page slots on the plane’s wings. She wrote a letter to that effect to Handley Page, which then used her comments in an advertisement.

The intrepid aviators soon continued a course along the north coast of Africa to Cairo, then on to India touching Baghdad and Karachi. The Vicomte was taken ill with appendicitis at Teheran, where he was fortunate to find a Scottish doctor to attend him. This resulted in a delay of five weeks, then the tour was restarted from Karachi.

After calling on friends in India, they left the Gipsy-Moth at Bangkok and hunted game for a month in the Malay States. From Bangkok they went across Indo-China to Saigon where they went on safari. After taking a steamer from Saigon to Yokohama, Japan, they traveled across the Pacific on the American President Liner “President Taft” arriving in Seattle on June 4, 1929, having been on their world tour for nine months.

From Seattle their plan was to fly south to San Francisco and cross the United States by a southern route. During a stop in Portland they were advised by air mail pilots to take the northern route as it was too hot in Texas.

From New York they shipped their plane to Le Harve, France. After having the plane re-assembled, they flew onto Paris for a visit before flying back to London, landing at Stage Lane Aerodrome where they were greeted by Geoffrey de Havilland.

Having arrived back in England, Violette’s father said, “Well, I hope you’re cured forever of your absurd gypsying around the world.” However she asked her husband, Jacques, “When and where do we fly next?”

THE EARHART CONNECTION

In 1928, after Amelia Earhart flew the Atlantic as a passenger in the Fokker Trimotor “Friendship” she became very popular in England. On her visit to London she was greeted by Gordon Selfridge, the owner of Selfridges Department Store, who provided her with a new wardrobe. It was at this time that she met Gordon’s daughter, Violette, who was married to Jacques de Sibour.

Amelia’s husband, George Putnam, also became acquainted with Violette as he published her book “Flying Gypsies.”

After Earhart’s 1932 solo flight, the famed aviatrix became re-acquainted with Selfridge and his daughter. It was through these connections that her Atlantic-spanning Lockheed Vega was displayed in Selfridges Department Store, which had, in 1910, displayed Louis Bleriot’s English Channel crossing airplane.

In April 1937 as preparation for Earhart’s world flight attempt, Jacques de Sibour, who was now working for Standard Oil, sent detailed meteorological information covering Earhart’s route in the eastern hemisphere, along with weather conditions along the north coast of Africa. He also made arrangements to ensure that supplies of gasoline, oil and spare parts were available at her stops and alternative stops.

When Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, arrived in Karachi, India, the first person to great them was Jacques de Sibour. In her book, “Last Flight,” Earhart called de Sibour “the good fairy of our flight” as it was he who gathered together the maps and helpful data, arranged supplies, and “generally made a journey around the world as easy as such a journey possibly could be.”

So the de Sibour’s world flight in 1928-29 not only blazed a trail for the couple, but also for Amelia Earhart in her world flight attempt in 1937.

Dennis Parks can be reached at dennis@generalaviationnews.com

Comments

  1. says

    Thank you for this Intersting article as I was searching what was on he web about my grand-motther Violette de Sibour. She was a great story teller, one of her favorite flight tales was the first flight betweent Paris Le Bourget and and Pekin; a second was actually on the gound after a forced landing in the the desert, “taxiing” their plane in an attempt to escape a pursuite from local tribes.

  2. VICTOR ONEILL says

    Moths are still flying today and parts are being made available.
    Updated magneto conversion assemblies are produced at Compton, Ca..

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