Report by the pilot of the "Princesse Astrid" aircraft, Joseph Lang,
on the planned trip to Belgium-Congo


Extract from the Étoile Belge newspaper, November 23, 1928
 


In The failure of the latest attempt to reach the Congo, made on March 9 by Messrs Thieffry, Quersin and Lang, undoubtedly left a mark of astonishment on the public mind. People wondered how it was that a plane ready to reach Africa, with one or at most two stops along the way, could be forced to land in the pretty Meuse region after less than an hour's flight. Curiosity has led to many questions being asked since then to those who knew the conditions under which the Thieffry-Quersin-Lang experiment had been prepared. Despite all the discretion observed in the official world, many things have come to light which tend to establish that the departure of the "Princesse Astrid" plane should have been prevented. This, for example, was confirmed by events :
On the eve of the plane's departure, March 8, a number of high-ranking government officials, including aviation officials, were present at Evere airfield. One of these people, who had no special expertise in aviation, asked one of his colleagues about the chances of Thieffry and his friends succeeding in their attempt.
The answer was decidedly unfavorable :
- We don't know how the plane will perform. The tests we've carried out are totally inadequate. As for the crew ... well ... they lack experience.
The next day, when it was known that the "Princesse Astrid" plane had had to land, the most senior official in a number of departments, including aviation, said :
- Mr. X ... has really been a good prophet ! ...

This incident prompted the aviation services to open an inquiry into the circumstances which had so quickly brought to a halt an expedition which was expected to be so glorious, and to which the entire Royal Family had been associated with the naming of the aircraft, with a flippancy which we now deplore.This investigation was demanded by ministerial circles. A report was commissioned from Mr. Thieffry. It was drafted and submitted to the head of our air force.It was harsh on Mr. Lang, the expedition pilot...Mr. Lang was called upon to defend himself. The report he drew up in response to Mr. Thieffry's arrived in the neutral zone, as we ourselves had expected. Journalists have such good fortune... We are therefore able to publish this second report today. At the same time, we would like to say that it has made such an impression in the above-mentioned zone that the relevant departments have already decided not to lend any further assistance in the future to trials which cannot produce happy results. These trials, whose end can only be lamentable, are undoubtedly diverting the public's favor from the aviation services, at a time when they still need so much encouragement.


Here is Mr Lang's report :

 

Report from the pilot of the "Princesse Astrid" aircraft on the Belgium-Congo trip :


Mr. Thieffry, head of the expedition, had decided from the outset that the route for the first stage would be Brussels-Oran, with a probable stopover in Perpignan. He had given me the following itinerary : the Sambre, Charleroi, Philippeville, join the Meuse, follow its course and, continuing in this direction, follow the Rhône to the Mediterranean, etc. etc.
On Thursday March 8, the eve of departure, I was in communication until the evening with the meteorological officer at Evere, and he announced favorable weather for my journey.
Unbeknownst to me, Mr. Thieffry was given the latest "meteos" a few minutes before departure, which, alas, seriously altered the information I had been given.
Nevertheless, despite this unfavorable information, the itinerary was not changed, nor was I informed of it. I don't know the reasons for this silence, and it later came to my attention that, in response to a judicious remark, Mr. Thieffry had announced his intention to go ahead anyway, overcoming the difficulties along the way.

Having taken off admirably at 8.3am, I managed, by launching myself as hard as I could, to reach an altitude of around 400 metres. I was at the base of the clouds, which seemed very thick up to a great height.
I headed for Nivelles, a region I know very well, having flown over it in all weathers and visited it many times. I was above the Hoeylaert greenhouses at an altitude of 250 to 300 meters. I was flying at a speed of 220 kilometers an hour, and everything was working admirably well.
Mr. Thieffry then passed me a piece of paper on which was written : "Cape 179°". I said I'd grabbed it and held on to it as tightly as I could. I no longer paid the slightest attention to my landmarks, and from that moment on I entrusted myself entirely to the navigator.
The weather was getting worse and worse, and it was impossible for me to see the ground, as the clouds were getting lower and lower as I moved in that direction. At this point, I was traveling a hundred meters away, so as not to be enclosed by them.
I immediately received a second bill from Mr. Thieffry, which read : "Climb above the clouds! I tried to climb up, but the heavily-laden aircraft only climbed slowly. To avoid the worst catastrophe, I had to keep my attention constantly fixed on : 1° my badin ; 2° my inclination indicator ; 3° my rpm counter ; 5° my altimeter, etc., etc., all to be able to hold my flight line, a vital thing in the clouds. At this point, my compass may have lost a few degrees, but that didn't matter given the situation I was in. It was obviously better to lose a few degrees than to fall into a spin and kill myself.
By the way, could this accidental and involuntary deviation really harm the navigator ?

The compasses had been very summarily compensated.Didn't the expedition leader declare to the crew, and publicly to the engineers of the technical department, while they were conscientiously carrying out the compensation operation that : "The compass question was fanciful and useless" ? A few seconds later, Mr. Thieffry passed me another bill : "Travel due south" ; I immediately set off in that direction, but I couldn't climb very fast.A few moments later, I received another bill : "Do you know which road you're following ? "Amazed, I replied : "We're coming to Nivelles", as I was convinced I was heading in the right direction.
With the ground no longer in sight, I continued on my way when I caught sight of the Sambre through a gap in the road.I quickly pointed it out to the crew, telling them "we're on the right track anyway".
I then continued due south without seeing the ground and trying to climb as much as possible to avoid the hills.
Mr. Thieffry handed me his small pocket notebook where he had written on a page and showed it to me : "We're going to kill ourselves if you don't get above the clouds". I replied : "Well, I'll try again". I knew, however, that it was completely impossible to get through this enormous layer, but to reassure the crew, I started the operation anyway, putting the engine on full throttle.
Being completely in the clouds, I then saw Mr. Thieffry fidgeting and gesticulating, but I couldn't understand why. He passed me a written note : "Half turn". I could see that he intended to return to Brussels. I immediately obeyed, heading due north, knowing that we were about to encounter the dangerous region once again.
It was while executing this perilous maneuver that I lost a hundred meters or so to make my turn in the clouds with such a loaded aircraft, and that we came face to face with a wooded hill.It took all my speed to avoid it.Then I saw Mr. Thieffry struggling desperately, ordering me to land in a sloping valley.I replied energetically : "No, I'm not landing here, there's nothing we can do, we're going to break everything". I continued on my way, climbing as much as I could, and Mr. Thieffry handed me his pocket notebook again, which read : "Order to land". I handed it back to him without being able to reply, as the situation was too serious to distract myself from controlling the plane, and I was convinced we were going to get out of the bad weather.
Suddenly, I saw Mr. Thieffry panic and wave his fist ? I was afraid he might have touched the aircraft's controls. However, conscious of my responsibility, I continued my flight calmly. Alas, I received a final note from the crew chief : "I give formal orders to land immediately".I did all I could to avoid this supreme decision, but the order remained formal... Faced with this decision and this threatening attitude, with tears in my eyes, I set out to find a suitable landing area.The fog forced me to search for some time, as there was almost nothing in the area.Having found a suitable field to land on, I headed into the wind and made an unexpected landing.The landing gear suddenly gave way, and the left wing touched down with a quarter-circle, forcing the right wing to rest lightly on the ground. I turned off the ignition and closed the fuel taps to prevent a fire.

Faced with this inevitable disaster, I cried out violently against this incomprehensible act by the crew, as I felt there were two possible solutions :
1° Head straight for the goal, braving the fear of clouds and fog. We'd been there for many minutes, so all we had to do was continue bravely to get out.
2° Return to Brussels and turn for a few hours over the airfield, so as to be lighter and land normally.
But what we really shouldn't have done was landed when everything was going so well on board.
Given these sad results, I can't understand why so much importance is attached to the heading given on board, when the navigation tests revealed nothing but errors and contradictions.After all, didn't I land just a few kilometers from Philippeville, where we were supposed to pass ?
If it wasn't for the fact that I wanted to continue on the road to success at all costs, I can't understand why Mr. Thieffry didn't change his itinerary, or better still, why he didn't postpone the start.

Conclusion : I carried out the tests and the entire development of the "Princesse Astrid" aircraft without the slightest hesitation, without any financial interest and absolutely free of charge, without having cost the company that entrusted it to me a single cent. I wasn't paid in any way to undertake this expedition. I was determined to win my glory by earning it : why did Mr. Thieffry take me on as a pilot if he didn't trust me ?
....
My self-respect now forbids me to team up for any possible expedition when Mr. Thieffry is in charge ...

(S) Joseph LANG, pilot of the "Princesse Astrid" aircraft on the Belgium-Congo mission.


Source : L'Etoile Belge, November 23, 1928