Our long-lived erstwhile competitors Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij (KLM for short, literally “Royal Aviation Company”) turn 90 years old today. KLM holds the distinction of being the oldest airline company still extant under its original name. Founded on October 7th, 1919, its very first flight left storied Croydron Aerodrome for Amsterdam on May 17th, 1920. Amusingly enough, that first flight was flown by an aircraft leased from Aircraft Transport & Travel (AT&T), a predecessor of Imperial Airways.
Through the years, Imperial and KLM would compete on numerous long-haul routes from Europe to Africa, India and Australia, with KLM frequently besting the British carrier. Imperial was spread too thin, trying to reach too many areas with too few aircraft; KLM focused its efforts on fewer destinations and was able to deliver more reliable, high quality service. The result was that often one could get from Britain to Australia a few days faster on the “Flying Dutchman” than if you had used the Empire’s own flag carrier. KLM’s Amsterdam-Batavia (Jakarta) service took ten days by Fokker F.12 (admittedly with a very limited capacity of four passengers), Imperial’s service over the same route was closer to fourteen days.
One interesting anecdote involves the Macpherson Robertson Trophy Air Race, a 1934 contest to see which aviator and aircraft could get from London to Melbourne in the shortest amount of time. KLM already operated an Amsterdam-Batavia route, and to demonstrate that they could service Australia as well, entered a crew and DC-2 aircraft into the race. (KLM’s entrant, incidentally, would be the only one to carry fare-paying passengers.) Aviatrix Amy Johnson and her husband Jim Mollison were the first off the line—and the early favourites to win—but had to drop out at Allahabad due to engine trouble. Another British duo, Flight Lt. Charles Scott and Capt. Tom Campbell Black, took first place in their speedy DH.88 Comet; but the most harrowing event of the race was surely when the KLM DC-2 became lost over the town of Albury, New South Wales.
Built in 1933, the Uiver [“Stork”, Dutch civil registry PH-AJU] was the first of 18 DC2 aircraft acquired by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines for passenger transport.
…Keen to exploit the possibilities of world air travel, KLM entered the Uiver in the 1934 London to Melbourne air race. The event was sponsored by Sir MacPherson Robertson, the chocolate millionaire who believed it a fitting way to celebrate Melbourne’s centenary.
On 20 October, 20 aircraft, including the Uiver, took off from Mildenhall, England for the epic 19,800 km event across the globe to Melbourne, Australia.
The Uiver carried a crew of four, under Captain R.D. Parmentier, and three passengers. It was the only race entrant with fare-paying passengers.
The aircraft performed well and was only a few hours behind the leader when it left Charleville, Queensland on the last leg to Melbourne. But a fierce electrical storm cut wireless contact and the Uiver drifted off course, becoming hopelessly lost.
RAAF signallers at Laverton were trying in vain to contact the plane. They alerted all towns along the route to be ready to help. Radio stations broadcast messages, navy ships switched on their searchlights and railway stations along the Melbourne to Albury line put on signal lamps.
Albury’s municipal electrical engineer used the entire town lighting system to flash the word ALBURY in Morse code. Just after midnight, the aircraft was heard circling the town.
Arthur Newnham from the local ABC radio station 2CO broadcast an appeal for listeners to take their cars to the Albury racecourse and line-up so a landing strip could be illuminated with headlights.
At 1.20am, the Uiver dropped two parachute flares and made its approach to land. It bumped several times on the undulating centre of the racecourse and slithered to a halt 100 yards short of the inner fence. The aircraft was safe.
Around the world, millions of people huddled anxiously over their wireless, breathed a collective sigh of relief.
But the drama was not over. Daybreak saw 8 tonnes of DC2 bogged in thick Albury mud. The Mayor, Alderman Alf Waugh rallied 300 people to dig it out and haul the Uiver to firmer ground.
Later that morning, the Uiver resumed its flight to Melbourne, taking second place in the great race and winning the handicap.
— “The Uiver Story.” Albury City website.
The Dutch, needless to say, were impressed by this extraordinary effort by the people of Albury. The mayor of Albury, Alf Waugh, was appointed to the Dutch Order of Oranje-Nassau by Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, and the Dutch Consul-General Dutch came to Albury to invest the Major and personally present a gift to those who had saved the plane and the lives of its passengers. Uiver‘s aircrew wrote a thank-you note in Melbourne, and dropped it—in a silver cigarette case—over Albury’s racecourse on their way back home. Tragically, Uiver was lost just two months later in a crash near Rutbah Wells, Transjordan.
During the Second World War, KLM had to cease its European operations in May of 1940 when the Netherlands was invaded by Nazi Germany. But a small rump of the organisation continued flying under the KLM banner in the Far East, and its headquarters were moved to New York for the war’s duration. I have to admire the aircrews and staff who kept their aeroplanes flying, even as their nation’s freedom was snuffed out (with no easy prospect of liberation) half a world away.
So here’s to you, KLM; may you live to see another ninety as daring as the first.