Westland Wallace biplane graphic

Classic Projects: Westland Wallace biplane

80 years on we fly over Everest in a Westland Wallace

Westland biplanes first shot to fame in 1933 when a prototype of their Wallace model became the first aircraft to fly over the summit of Mount Everest. Partially as a result of exposure generated by the successful expedition, the Westland Wallace biplane went on to become one of Britain's classic single-engine, two-seater general-purpose biplanes. But when it was designed and built between the wars, it was more the result of an evolutionary development from the established Wapiti than any 'eureka' moment in aviation innovation.

Although the Westland Wallace incarnation of the post-Wapiti aircraft series was destined to become a Royal Air Force standard, there was nothing ordinary about the much-modified pair of biplanes that entered the aviation record books as they flew over the world's highest mountain in 1933.

Called 'Akbar' and 'Lucy', both aircraft were crewed by a pilot and an observer, kitted out in heated suits and oxygen masks, vital equipment for the anticipated altitude of 35,000ft. For the Everest expedition a variant of the standard engine - a supercharged Bristol IS3 - was used. It was ideal for the job, as this was the engine that had recently set the world altitude record of 43,976ft, although it was only powering a single-seat aircraft at the time.

A decade after British climbers Mallory and Irvine were lost on Everest, and 20'years ahead of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's victorious ascent, on 3 April 1933 the two Westlands cleared the summit with a mere 100ft to spare. "We were in a serious position," said Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, Marquis of Douglas and Clydesdale, recalling the fearsome downdraft.

The lead aircraft, piloted by Clydesdale (as he was known), was further modified with the installation of an automated Eagle III Williamson aerial camera. The successful expedition returned with the first photographs of the 'Roof of the World' that were used by Sir John Hunt's 1953 British Mount Everest expedition for research and reconnaissance.

But the later climbers might never have benefitted from the photography. On their return from the summit flight, the aviators realised that their camera had not worked properly. They decided, against the orders of the expedition sponsor, to risk another (uninsured) flight and this time they were successful in bringing back the imagery. A 22-minute documentary film, 'Wings Over Everest', was released in 1934, and bagged an Oscar.

The history of the Wallace effectively dates back to 1931 when the British Empire exhibition was held in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Here the Westland Aircraft company was represented by the Wapiti, of which 500 units had already been built.

An established design, it paved the way for the improvements that the Wallace, in a number of incarnations, would bring. Chief among the improvements were the innovation of the divided axle along with migration to the Pegasus engine. These meant that the aircraft could complete Air Ministry trials and qualify for as a general-purpose machine that would enjoy a decade's service with the RAF.

The tale has an interesting footnote. Back in the 1930s, on his return home, Clydesdale founded Scottish Aviation, which became famous for its classic regional airliner, the Jetstream. In April 2013, Clydesdale's grandson Charlie Douglas-Hamilton retraced his grandfather's famous flight, soaring over the summit of Everest, appropriately enough, in a Jetstream.

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