The swan-song of Fokker airliners with KLM
The ‘Pelikaan’s very successful mail flight to the Dutch East Indies triggered the idea of enlarging the airmail network to the Dutch dominions in the West-Indies and South-America. The idea of a special mail flight to commemorate the 300 year ‘relationship’ between the Netherlands and Curacao popped up and a special mail flight was planned for Cristmas 1934.
It proved to be a real challenge. Contrary to previous flights this one had to be carried out mostly over the ocean. Range and reliability would make the difference to success or abysmal failure.
A standard Fokker FVXVIII (PH-AIS, named ‘Snipe’), was taken out of regular service and overhauled by the KLM Rotterdam ground crew at Waalhaven airfield. The plane was drastically modified; all passenger seats were removed and all windows taken out and taped over with linen. The Pratt & Whitney Wasp C1 engines were replaced by a more modern version (T1D1) with adjustable propellers, something remarkable at that time.
KLM Technical services worried about the range; the longest stretch – between the Cabo Verde Islands and the South-American coast would be over 3.500 km, way beyond the standard FXVIII range. Luck was with them; moldering away in one of the Waalhaven hangars was an old Fokker FIIIb that had belonged to a bankrupt German pilot Alexander R. Adrian who had planned to make a world tour in it. He had ordered 7 fuel tanks from KLM but, unable to pay his debts, the plane had been seized by his creditors. The tanks were installed, increasing the ‘Snipe’s range to 4.600 km.
Communications were another headache; it was long before transatlantic navigation aids such as LORAN became available. The problem was solved by installing a new, powerful radio installation aboard and by diverting a Dutch submarine (K. XVIII) and a KNSM passenger liner (S.S. Stuyvesant) from their courses to act as navigational aids during the transatlantic flight.
In the evening of December 14, a large crowd had gathered at Amsterdam Schiphol airport to wave the plane off, despite sleet, high winds, low cloud and poor visibility. Captain Jan Hondong, Co-Pilot Jan van Balkom, Flight mechanic Leen Stolk and Radioman Simon van der Molen took off at 00.10 am December 15, 1934 with a payload of 26.521 letters and packages aboard. They followed a course via Marseilles and Alicante (Spain) and touched down at Casablanca (Morocco) at 13.00 hrs that same day. The next leg, Casablanca to Porto Praya (Cabo Verde Islands) was completed at 12.00 on December 17, 1934.
Leen Stolk had a day to have a real good look at his engines and, finding nothing amiss, the crew departed from Porto Praya December 19, 1934, at 19.00 local time. Six hours later, they passed over the Dutch submarine, exactly on course. They landed at Surinam’s ‘Zanderij’ airfield on December 20 at 12.45 local time, after a flight of 15 hours and 5 minutes. After a day’s rest they continued their flight via Venezuela (now carrying two passengers, sitting on the fuel tanks) to Curacao where they landed in the afternoon of December 22, 1934.
This extraordinary flight of 10.488 km lasted 7 days, 19 hours and 20 minutes with a total flight-time of 54 hours and 27 minutes but it never received the acclaim the ‘Pelikaan’ flight got.
First, because the record breaking Douglas DC2 ‘Uiver’ crashed near Rutbah Wells on December 20, 1934, leaving a deep sense of disaster with the Dutch population.
Second, because the airplane never flew back to Holland but stayed with KLM West Indies, preventing the public to celebrate like they had done after other great KLM flights
And last: the costs!
KLM Accounting shows that the total costs of this flight, with a drastically modified airliner that could not carry passengers on this type of route, were a stunning 32.342 Dutch guilders. The total airmail revenue was 27.398 guilders.
When KLM’s hard-nosed managing director Albert Plesman looked at these figures, he decided there and then to switch to Douglas products in order to turn KLM into a profit making enterprise…