Wednesday, July 8, 2009

"De Uiver" - Dutch Nostalgia: A Visit to Lelystad Aviodrome

Last weekend we popped over to Lelystad to visit the Aviodrome, which is a theme park or museum centred on Dutch aviation.
On Saturday and Sunday there was a special event: a recreation of the London - Melbourne Fly-In, which occurred back in 1934 to celebrate the centennial of the city of Melbourne.
It was a 19,877 kilomoeter race, sponsored by Sir MacPherson Roberts who wanted to demonstrate that a regular air service between Europe and Australia was viable.
Time magazine described the race as "the greatest air race in aviation history" and KLM's "Uiver" plane was to be made famous by this remarkable event, one of 20 entrants to compete from Australia, U.S., Britain, Denmark, New Zealand and the Netherlands.

All planes had to stop over in Bagdad, Allahabad, Singapore, Darwin and Charleville before finishing in Melbourne, though there were also optional stop offs available to the teams. A total prize of 15,000 pounds was put up for the winners in two classes; the team to make it in the fastest time to Melbourne, and a handicap race where the team making the fewest flying hours to the finish would be counted as the winners. There was one other rule, which stated that a team could not win both categories.
From 6.30a.m. on 20 October 1934, a hopeful competitor took to the skies every 45 seconds from the Royal Air Force Mildenhall Aerodrome in Suffolk, England, starting their long flight to Australia.

The Dutch entry was a Douglas DC-2, the largest of the competing planes and the only one to carry passengers too, in a bid from KLM to prove a regular twice weekly service was feasible. The Captain, Koene-Dirk Parmentier, and First Officer, Johannes Moll, were regulars on the Dutch East Indies route so familiar with a large part of the flight route.

However, this did not mean the journey was without mishap. The Uiver had to make an emergency landing in the last stage of the race between Charleville and Melbourne when bad weather hit and the plane lost its course. Local residents were asked to use their car headlights to illuminate a make-shift runway at a nearby race track - originally designed for horses rather than a DC-2!

The Uiver eventually finished second in both sections of the race, but as a result of the rule limiting a team to winning one category only, the Dutch were awarded the first prize for the handicap race, and second for speed. The plane and crew headed back to Schiphol on 1 November 1934, arriving back on Dutch soil twenty days later to a jubilant crowd.

However, the jubilation was short-lived. On 20 December the plane set off on an extra Christmas post run to Batavia. Wim Beekman was reluctant to take off in bad weather in Cairo, but was told he would be fired if he stayed on the ground. The plane crashed in Rutbah Wells in Iraq and all 7 aboard perished. Scandal ensued, with the investigation never revealing the true cause of the crash though modifications to the model were made as a result.

KLM's most famous plane flew for three months only, but it was enough to take its place in aviation history. Enough so that in 1999, a DC-2 was made in to an Uiver replica for a semi-permanent exhibition at Lelystad; the plane I saw last weekend.
In 2007, after volunteers worked hard on the place, the Uiver was again made sky worthy. However, we were not fortunate enough to see the plane in action due to technical difficulties but we did still witness a slice of Dutch history: a re-enactment of the Uiver landing on Dutch soil, greeted by a happy crowd and the crew reunited with their families after months away from home. It was brilliantly done and a great insight into "De Vliegender Hollander" of the 1930's.
A real experience for an expat in the Netherlands!

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