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Millionaire in quest of Golden Fleece

Millionaire in quest of Golden Fleece
Highlights

DOWN MEMORY LANE The Golden Fleece, no less than Jason who is believed to have stolen it, is part of a legend which nobody has taken seriously so...

DOWN MEMORY LANE

The Golden Fleece, no less than Jason who is believed to have stolen it, is part of a legend which nobody has taken seriously so far. But Dick Smith, 38 when I met him in New Delhi in 1982, an Australian who landed on September 19, piloting his own helicopter, was scouring the world looking, if not exactly for the Golden Fleece, for what might be called its equivalent. It was to be a night halt in Delhi en route to Kolkata from where he was to fly to Kathmandu, but that was not to be. He took ill shortly after landing at Palam and had to extend his stay by a day.

"But it is not as though he got short of wind after incessant flying," Nolan, a tall man with a prizefighter's build and square shoulders, who had accompanied Smith, told me. "Maybe he can do with a little rest."The mission of Smith, a medium tall man with close crew cut hair and the sideburns trimmed at the top of his ears, the skin on his face tight and finely veined on the cheekbones, was to locate a pioneer aviator's plane believed lost 50 years earlier and " a legendary lost reef of gold". He had since found the Kookaburra aeroplane and was hoping to strike gold.

"I have flown in the Antarctic and the deserts of Australia, and hope that my solo helicopter flight of 55,000 km will take about 260 hours of flying time. But I am prepared for the possibility of its taking a year to complete," he said in a resolute voice.

How did this quest start, in the first instance? "The world knows that Leonardo da Vinci designed an aeroplane, but to no purpose because he had neither fuel nor driving power to make it fly. Then came the two Montgolfiers who produced the balloon which sent hope soaring. Finally, on December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright flew for the first time in human history a heavier-than-air, power-driven, flying machine although the flight lasted for mere 59 seconds and covered a distance of 812 feet. But what is less widely known is that Australia too has lofty traditions of aviation," Smith's voice rings with regret.

When he recalled the exploits of early Australian aviators like Charles Kingsford Smith and Bert Hinkler, the recollection made him stir uneasily under the eiderdowns of his country's past. "I felt I had to keep faith with the pioneers," he said spontaneously. As today's helicopter has a shorter range but a higher speed than the fixed-wing aircraft of those pioneering days, the flight times are similar but the safety and reliability have improved immensely, Smith said in a voice which, while showing unmistakable satisfaction at the progress made in aeronautics in the recent past, quivered with a sort of nostalgia for the hazardous flights of the bygone age.

Was it his air-mindedness looking for some excuse for its demonstration, or was it pride in the accomplishments of the past aviators of his country which set his imagination astir? The reply was pat: "Both. I could not have embarked on this adventure, which may yet prove to be the first of its kind in human history, had it not been for what you call my innate air-mindedness. But if I had desired only to remain airborne, there would have been no need for me to run the gauntlet of a solo flight."

Smith owned a Bell 206 Jetranger and had been piloting it for four years to shuttle between his home in the northern Sydney suburb of Terry Hills and factory and office in North Ryde, a four-minute flight. But for the solo flight he used a new and modified Bell 206 Jetranger equipped with safety and survival equipment, including a life raft and emergency locator beacon. "Besides, the helicopter is equipped with an extra fuel tank which has increased its range from 482 km to 1,126 km. It is also fitted with a VLF Omega navigational system." In other words, he had left nothing to chance.

Smith started his solo flight from Fort Worth, Texas, on August 5. From the US he flew to Britain the same month. In the ensuing October and November he would fly to Europe and then back to Australia, and then again to the US the following year. All in all, it was a voyage of discovery. Any memorable experiences since he took off on August 5? "Plenty. The helicopter survived bullets while over Iceland. But then they are functional hazards which would not deter any aviator worth his salt. And to offset such unpleasant memories is the distinct impression which I gathered everywhere that people are eagerly waiting for realization of the concept of a global village."

The first leg of the flight was to Washington and New York across Canada, to Baffin Island, Greenland, Iceland and the Faeroe and Shetland Islands, and then on to London. The second leg from Farnborough began on September 12 and was scheduled to cover 12 countries, including Italy, Greece, Egypt, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Singapore and Indonesia, and was due to terminate in Sydney on October 3.

The third phase, he hoped, would find him flying across the North Pacific via the Aleutian chain to Alaska. He sounded less sure, though, of the third phase being completed because "shipboard refueling of the helicopter might become necessary if I am not allowed to land in Russia." Did he think that, once he was through with the odyssey, he would have some souvenir of it? "Sure. During my frequent stops I will make a three-hour film of the journey. I will be seeing and filming the world in a way no one has done before; from a height of 32,000 meters at that," Smith said with anticipatory thrill.

A little while ago he had referred to his office and factory. Was he in business? As Smith fidgeted, Nolan put in an oar. "He founded, although he no longer owns, a multi-million-dollar chain of electronics retail shop." Hard to believe because for a millionaire Smith was far too mild-mannered and modest. There was nothing about the way he comported himself to suggest his wealth. Smith clarified: "Money does not alter one's outlook; moral norms do. How can I forget that as late as 1968 I had established a car radio repair shop in Sydney with a modest capital of 600 Australian dollars, although in less than a decade it burgeoned into a multi-million-dollar chain? I suppose the memory of one's modest beginnings imparts balance to one's perspective when one becomes prosperous."

Quite involuntarily I remembered the superior airs that our countrymen assumed even if they are not half as rich. Smith broke in on my thoughts with a quotation from Wordsworth: "One should be venturous and fortunate: What is one young for else?"

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