A memoir by George Thackray “Bee” Weems, edited by Gwen Manseau.
In 1950, Bee Weems was a U.S. Navy test pilot in search of adventure when he flew a De Havilland Dragon Rapide from England to Australia with three other men, including his father, the renowned navigator P.V.H. Weems.
Bee’s amazing account, written just before he died in a crash at the age of thirty, takes us around the world on the eve of the Cold War in a plywood plane landing into political turmoil and hazardous conditions at nearly every stop. Sixty years later, all the photos and materials he carefully saved from this escapade have been brought together and supplemented with fascinating notes and biographical details that provide historical context and bring this story to life.
This is a book for young and old to share—for adventurers and armchair travelers everywhere.
Here is an excerpt from the first chapter:
“The De Havilland Rapide was grinding her way over a solid layer of clouds. Only one of the four-man crew worked calmly over his job. He had a right to be cool—he was my father, Captain P.V.H. Weems, U.S. Navy (Ret.), founder of the Weems System of Navigation. If pressed, he could navigate a rocket to the moon. The rest of us in the very un-rapid Rapide—Willie Eddins, former wartime pilot and late of Harvard Business School, co-pilot; James William Henry Smith, quickly renamed “Smitty,” an aircraft engineer bound for Australia; and myself, on leave from the Navy and helping to ferry the rickety aircraft Down Under—were straining our eyes for a sight of Paris.
The Rapide, a twin-engine biplane destined for service in the Australian bush, was a slow and skittery craft that could fly less than six hundred miles at a hop. With a typhoon on her tail, she could creep up to 140 miles an hour. Headed into the wind, she had a rough time nosing past a freight train. She had no radio, which meant that we had to rely almost entirely on our eminent navigator’s dead reckoning. Our only method of communicating with the ground was the old-fashioned way of buzzing the field and hoping somebody would notice. The plane had such elementary instruments a small child wouldn’t want them in a toy model. Her electrical system (a fancy term for a bunch of wires looped together) was cantankerous. Even the windshield wiper was temperamental. If it came to rest at the wrong part of its stroke, it refused to run until the port window was lowered, and the pilot stretched his hand up against the slipstream and forcibly pushed the wiper arm into action. This maneuver was always good for at least a gallon of water up one’s left sleeve.
For a year I had been attached to the Royal Air Force’s Empire Test Pilot School in Farnborough, England, flying the world’s most modern aircraft. Willie had been a sober businessman in New York. Smitty had been brushing up on airline maintenance. My father had been untying some of the knottier air navigation problems back home in Annapolis. Now we were back in elemental aviation, turning the clock back twenty-five years or so to the days when every hop was an adventure.
We weren’t thinking about the long stretches of desert, sea and mountains between us and our destination in Alice Springs, Australia. For now, we just wanted to see Paris—just one little look. If my father could dead-reckon this primitive bi-plane over the clouds to the City of Light, I figured we had a chance later on to make it across the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, and the Timor Sea, where the eager sharks were waiting for us.”