In these strange and uncertain times of lockdown, it is good to find a story of a man who, by determination, perseverance and skill, managed to break the involuntary lockdown after World War II and get back home.
James Peter Obeysekere, known as Obey, was a law student at Trinity College, Cambridge when World War II broke out. He elected to stay on to complete his studies but then, could not get home to Colombo, Ceylon (as it was). He had learned to fly with the Cambridge University Air Squadron and had done some aircraft ferrying duties and worked for the Royal Observer Corps during the war.
Seventy-five years ago, after the VE and VJ days, he turned his attention to getting back to Sri Lanka or Ceylon. The passenger liners of, Bibby Lines, P&O, and the Orient Line were all serving as troop carriers, cruises were a dream for the future. A passage home was out of the question for some time.
Planning the Journey
Why not fly home? Buy a plane and fly it to Ceylon. Crazy. Even though hostilities were over, the travel routes were disorganised and damaged, but this did not deter the confident young lawyer.
Auster Aircraft, who had been making small single-engine planes used as artillery spotters and to transport resistance workers into France by night, was pleasantly surprised to receive an order placed by a young foreign lawyer for an Auster Autocrat Mk4 with long-range fuel tanks. A price of £1300 was agreed.
Obey now had to find the money to pay for it. His well-to-do family had given him a generous allowance such that he was able to indulge his passion for cars. Reluctantly he sold his stable of two Bentleys, a 3 litre and a 4½ litre supercharged model, two Frazer Nash, a Sunbeam Talbot, an Airline Saloon and a couple of Austin 7’s. He kept his Royal Enfield motorbike to the last.
The Shell Oil Company helped him plan a route from one of their fuel dumps to another with safety a secondary consideration. He paid £75 for fuel in advance and eventually received a £15 refund.
What should he take with him? Blackburn Aircraft Company, who supplied the engine, sold him a toolkit consisting of pliers, a plug spanner with a feeler gauge and a screwdriver. A friend offered him an axe to cut his way out of the wreckage in the ‘unlikely event of an accident’, and he chose to carry a .22 rifle. Then there were important essentials like his tennis racquet, his University Air Squadron Blazer with its badge. The latter proved more useful than his passport. To save weight, he dispensed with a radio and the third seat.
His route was of 31 hops through three continents starting from Cambridge. His first refuelling stop was Eastleigh or Southampton International Airport as it is now. The airport, known as RAF Southampton, until it was returned to civilian control in April 1946, was one of the more sophisticated refuelling stops. He must have flown straight over London, through the Farnborough Air Space, something forbidden to aircraft without radios. There were no Air Traffic Control problems in those days. He had Cambridge phone Eastleigh of his time of departure so that they were on the lookout for him. He arrived after 1½ hours and stayed the night somewhere.
From Eastleigh he flew to Deauville in France. He intended to land in Paris, but the weather was against him. Then on through France, spending a night with friends in Paris and leaving Europe from the small seaside grass airstrip at Nice. Due to unexpectedly high Westerly winds, he almost missed his landfall at Ajaccio, Sardinia but, thanks to clear visibility, he saw the island off his right wing.
He flew along the North African coast and noted the burned-out tanks, crashed aircraft and other debris of WWII before arriving at Cairo where he stayed with a friend. His friend had two beautiful sisters which caused Obey to delay his journey for 24-hours.
Onwards, over the deserts to the most remote refuelling stop at H3, a pumping station on an oil pipe-line somewhere in Iraq. Once in India, there was no Pakistan yet, he flew into Bombay. Leaving Bombay, he found his oil pressure declining and when it got to zero, he switched off the engine and glided down to a nearby airfield with all the nonchalance of youth to make a perfect landing without his engine. After and engine clean, there was sand in the works, he flew on to Hyderabad to visit another friend, a former Cambridge Tennis Blue.
On the approach to Colombo, he was joined by an escort of a Stinson, a small American monoplane with a radial engine, and a Tiger Moth. As part of his welcome, his father pointed out a Balsa tree sapling that he had planted in case the wood was needed for repairs. The journey had taken from October 6th – November 13th 1946 and took about 80 hour flying time for the 7000 miles.
The aircraft, VP-CAO, a Ceylon registration, was presented to the Colombo Flying Club. It was used as a trainer for many years until it crashed in flames on take-off, consuming itself and crew of two. Only the Blackburn Cirrus Minor engine survives in the local Aviation Museum.
Has ever a more epic flight left from Eastleigh?
Note: JP Obeysekere – Solo Flyer. A book printed in Sri Lanka by Messrs Aitken Spence.