Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

Book Review

Flight Log

Review of Nevil Shute's Flight Log for 1948, Part I

By: Allan LeBaron

Nevil Shute was an accomplished aviation engineer and aircraft pilot. Many attending the Shute Centennial in Albuquerque in 1999 were pilots and/or engineers whose enthusiasm for Shute's works derived partly from knowing that when describing aviation and technical details, Shute knew his subject.

Examples of his expertise are contained in Flight Log, transcribed from letters Shute sent home during his 1948-49 trip to Australia piloting a small four-place aircraft. VOR, DME, and GPS were not extant in 1948 so a pilot on such a journey had to know dead-reckoning navigation and how to read an often not-very-good map to arrive at his destination.

Throughout the narrative covering the journey from England through the mid-East to India thence southeast to Australia, Shute reports how people do their assigned jobs, whether they are senior government officials, mechanics, or cooks.

My copy of Flight Log has been annotated showing notes or descriptions of people used as character models in Shute's books - Round The Bend, Legacy, Beyond the Black Stump, and In The Wet among them. This is not an account by a famous novelist basking in the academic sun on a promotional tour. The journey would not have been considered "fun" to anyone without an aviation background, great curiosity and courage. Shute doesn't emphasize the dangers involved as these were letters home. Less than half the narrative is about Australia, and tracing Shute's route on a map will make you a better geographer than you were.

Shute's companion for the trip was Jimmie Riddell, referred to as "Jimmie," a well-connected Englishman with experience and many friends along their route and whose story of the trip has been told in his own account, Flight of Fancy. A good choice. Shute hated bureaucrats while Jimmie seemed to know those they met upon the way and was able to schmooze with the others, smoothing their path through regulatory problems. There are hints that Jimmie found the strenuous social schedule very tiring but he was dead game. This was 1948, and both were observers of the sometimes violent process of unwinding empires; they possessed better contacts than most professional reporters.

The aircraft used for the flight was a Percival Proctor, a low-wing fixed landing-gear, four-place trainer used by the RAF for navigation training and liaison duties, with a usual cruising speed of 130 mph. The trip began late in September 1948 with a flight to Tours, where they spent the night. Then Cannes and on to Rome, where Shute complains about a long and expensive taxi ride from Ciampino, moderated by a very good Hotel Diana with moderate prices.

To Athens after a stop at Brindisi, with no food or drink available. Jimmy managed to scrounge some bread and cheese from a military barracks, proving his worth early. Athens initially was not a happy stopover - after driving into the city and being unable to find a hotel, they returned almost to the airport where they stayed at a 'third class' hotel called the Rex, that provided everything needed except English. But Shute is softening: "Having sampled the Rex I would never stay in Athens unless business demanded it." Private fliers/travelers have often found that the unexpected kindness of strangers in apparently Godforsaken venues often stokes the happiest memories of a journey.

A problem at the airport with a brake cable was fixed at no charge by the Greek airline, but it resurfaced at Rhodes. A new part ordered for delivery in Rangoon, "...but we have to get there."

At Rhodes they talked with Dr. Bunche, a contact of Jimmie 's. The next day they met Bunche at the beach and Nevil's assessment was: "Bunche is a fine case, intelligent and very competent. He probably has moral courage but I doubt he has the blind physical courage that we expect. Perhaps the Negro hasn't." (Bunche was then Acting Mediator between Israel and her neighbors, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. Putative Israeli mediators have generated more Nobel Peace Prizes since !)

Cyprus was a long flight - 300 miles over open sea flying a compass course which was accurate within 5 miles. Nevil was a careful evaluator and could be a harsh critic. "...Back to lunch in style with the Civil Secretary, and was not impressed. A Mr. Turnbull of naval officer type, four pink gins before lunch every day. He thought us very foolish to propose going to a Turkish cinema and had obviously never dreamed of doing such a thing himself, but Turks are 20% of the population here. ..."

Beirut: "In to Beirut to the Hotel Saint Georges. Jimmie in his element, meeting old friends at every turn, because he was here for three years in the war and screened most of them for Intelligence. ..." "Because of Jimmie, we have the best room in the hotel, above the open air terrace restaurant looking out over the bay." "...(Jimmie) came back from his tour of the bars a bit shattered at the amount of vice that has come to the surface since military control was removed !"

Baghdad uncovered a cylinder problem requiring replacement and delay. Baghdad to Basra and then Bahrein - hot but comfortable - and then on to Sharjah. Here Shute notes that the Proctor used about 10 gallons per flight hour but that because of refueling in hot weather and fuel seeping out the overflow vents, it was difficult to measure exactly.

Then to Karachi via Jusk - where Shute slept in the same room he had occupied in 1945. Relaxed there while work done on Proctor's engine. Departing for India problematic - "They are suspicious of anyone going to India and everything is about as troublesome as it can be."

Too many words already and Shute and Jimmie aren't even to Australia!. For accurate and interesting travel literature, you cannot surpass Flight Log. By a writer you already appreciate !

Allan LeBaron

Part II