Feature stories

From Portugal to Macau

17/04/2018

  by HA d’Assumpção

Aviation was in its infancy early in the 20th Century but, when its importance became apparent during World War I, there were rapid developments and many nations established military aviation units and commercial companies.

Two Portuguese Army pilots, Infantry Captain António Jacinto da Silva Brito Pais and Engineering Captain José Manuel Sarmento de Beires, had aspiration for a flight from Lisbon to Funchal on the island of Madeira, a distance of 970 km over open ocean. That was a bold idea given the primitive planes of that time and the absence of navigation aids, but both men were seasoned pilots and brave – though some might have said foolhardy.

Brito Pais, born in 1884, had been involved in military operations in Angola and had seen action as a pilot in France during World War I (after Portugal joined the Allies and entered the war in 1916), for which he received several decorations: the Cruz de Guerra (Military Cross) for bravery and appointments in the Ordem de Torre e Espada (Order of the Tower and Sword) and the French Legion of Honour.

Sarmento de Beires was younger, born in 1892; he had trained as a fighter pilot in France during World War I. After the war both men were posted to Portugal’s military air base at Amadora on the outskirts of Lisbon.

They received permission for their venture from the local base commander who did not seek approval from the Minister of War, so in October 1920 they departed rather furtively, flying a French plane, the Breguet 14-A42, from Lisbon to Madeira. Dense fog prevented their landing; they were forced to turn back and ran out of fuel half-way to Lisbon. Fortunately, they managed to ditch their plane close to a British vessel and were rescued.

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1                      David Bellis, in his blog “Gwulo: Old Hong Kong” (https://gwulo.com/node/40682), gave an account of a flight by three Portuguese from Lisbon to Macau in 1924, and referred to a relic of that trip at Club Lusitano in Hong Kong.  That triggered interest among many Macaenses all over the world.  This article gives some details of that historical event, drawing heavily on a thesis (Fernando Mendonça Fava, Master of Arts thesis, University of Coimbra http://www.icm.gov.mo/rc/viewer/40052/2214, in Portuguese) and two papers by Fernando M. S. P. Neves, Jorge M. M. Barata, André R. R. Silva, Open Journal of Applied Sciences Universidade da Beira Interior, Covilhã, Portugal, Vol. 06 No. 10, 2016: The First Aerial Journey from Portugal to Macau (http://file.scirp.org/Html/4-2310637_70887.htm) and The History of the Portuguese Aviation— A Summary (http://www.scirp.org/journal/Home.aspx?IssueID=8572#70867).

One can imagine the reaction from senior ranks of the military, oscillating between pride in this demonstration of Portuguese aviation ability – which merited praise – and fury and outrage at their action without approval resulting in the loss of an expensive plane – which called for punishment. However, there followed favourable media reports and a groundswell of public approval which yielded them an official commendation.

Encouraged by their feat, Brito Pais and Sarmento de Beires proposed a much more ambitious project – a flight spanning a quarter of the globe from Lisbon to Macau, Portugal’s outermost colony – envisaging that that would be a rehearsal for a round-the-world flight. It would have to be done in multiple hops, each less than 1,500km, to allow for crew rest and aircraft maintenance.

This time they sought official approval and the bureaucracy of the day reacted as some still tend to today: the Ministry of War declared that it sympathised with the project but, given the difficult economic situation and the uncertainties surrounding the initiative, it was necessary to act with great prudence; they were authorised to undertake the trip but there would be no financial support from the government.

Frustrated by the lack of support, Brito Pais gave a personal guarantee for the sum of 100,000 escudos for the enterprise, a very substantial sum in those days. News of the planned expedition captured public imagination: a subscription campaign was launched, newspapers demanded public support as a patriotic necessity and funds were raised surprisingly quickly.

A Breguet BR16-Bn2 bomber with a 300 horsepower Renault engine was purchased from France and in June 1921, under the supervision of Sergeant-Major Manuel Gouveia, work commenced at a workshop in Amadora to attach extra fuel tanks and make other modifications to adapt the plane for the long journey.

Gouveia was born in 1890, had trained as a mechanic and had worked in an aircraft factory. During World War I he served as a mechanic with a French squadron and after the war was a member of a team in France charged with acquiring the materiel needed to establish Portugal’s military aviation capability. He was then appointed chief mechanic of an air squadron in Amadora.

The plane was dubbed Pátria (Fatherland) and a line from the poet Camões was inscribed on its fuselage: “Esta é a ditosa Pátria, minha amada” (This is the blessed Fatherland, my beloved).

The first stage was an hour-long flight from Amadora to Vila Nova de Milfontes (coincidentally, the birth-place of Brito Pais) where there were better facilities. This was followed by five months of bureaucratic delays and tests of lift and load before the aircraft was considered suitable.

The team faced formidable challenges and dangers: there was little instrumentation to aid takeoff, landing and navigation; some airfields along the route were rudimentary and even hazardous; there was only a small margin of safety in the performance of the aircraft; in many regions their crude maps were totally misleading; the engine was far from reliable; and there were few maintenance facilities along the way.

Captain Brito Pais and Lieutenant Sarmento de Beires departed on April 2 1924 heading for Tunis (Tunisia). (Sergeant Gouveia had left a week before them, travelling by boat.) They made a refueling stop at Malaga (Spain) but just after taking off for Oran (Algeria) the petrol pump failed and they had to turn back for repairs. So, from the very beginning they encountered trouble and the remainder of the voyage was a litany of problems minor and major which the press in many countries followed closely.

On the passage from Oran their compass was deceived by an iron ore mine; they had to navigate by following the coastline but landed safely in Tunis and picked up Gouveia. They flew on towards Tripoli (Libya) but, suffering extreme heat, blinding and suffocating sandstorms and battling strong and hot desert headwinds, had to make an unscheduled stop at Al Khums in Libya. A few times on the next leg to Benghazi (Libya) they were confused by the landscape, lost their sense of horizontal orientation and nearly crashed.

Then on taking off from Cairo a tyre exploded but with piloting skill disaster was narrowly averted. They carried no spare tyre but were kindly given one from an old De Havilland DH9 parked on the runway. This was but one example of the sympathetic help given along the way by mechanics of many nations.

Their journey continued with stops at Riyaq (Lebanon) and Baghdad (Iraq). They took off from Baghdad but after flying only 40 km the engine ignition plugs failed and they were forced to return for repairs. On the next legs via Bushire (Lebanon), Bandar Abbas (Iran), Chabahar (Iran) and Karachi (Pakistan) there were only relatively minor mechanical and weather problems. After that their good fortune came to a disastrous end: tossed around like a rag by a fierce storm they attempted to make a landing in a field in Pipar near Jodhpur (India) but the plane was pitched onto the ground by a strong gust and was irreparably smashed. All appeared lost.

However, the Portuguese government, no doubt reacting to the tsunami of public opinion, decided that funds could indeed be found to allow the expedition to continue. They managed to negotiate the purchase of a De Havilland DH9 bomber from the British Royal Air Force for ₤4,700, named it the Pátria II and Gouveia made the necessary modifications at Lahore (Pakistan). In it Sarmento de Beires and Brito Pais continued their journey but Gouveia had to travel on land and sea because the De Havilland could only carry two crew.

They proceeded eastward through South-East Asia, stopping at Ambala, Allahabad and Kolkata (India), Sittwe and Yangon (Myanmar), Bangkok and Ubon Ratchathani (Thailand), Hanoi and Tông (near Son Tay in Vietnam) in exhausting but relatively safe and uneventful flights with only minor mechanical problems. At Yangon they were buoyed by the news at that all three of them had received promotions: Brito Pais was promoted to major and Sarmento Beires to captain2; and, in an unprecedented elevation for a mechanic, Sergeant-Major Gouveia was promoted to Alferes (Lieutenant). All looked promising for their last hop to their destination but fickle fate was preparing another surprise for them.

They took off with clear skies on the morning of Friday June 20 but it was now the monsoon season; as they approached and then overflew the isthmus of Macau they faced a furious storm with almost continuous flashes of lightning which denied them any chance of landing. The weather appeared a little clearer over Hong Kong so they headed there but Pátria II, overworked and worn out, finally let them down: the engine developed dangerous vibrations indicating imminent failure. Sarmento de Beires made an emergency landing on what they took to be a rice field but which turned out to be a Chinese cemetery. For the second time their plane was damaged beyond repair. They had travelled 16,000km only to be denied their destination at the very end; Brito Pais was bruised on the right arm and leg … but they survived. They had come down near the village (today’s city) of Shenzhen in China, by the Sham Chun River, 800 metres from the Hong Kong border.

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[1] There is a reference to Sarmento Beires also being promoted to major, an unusual double-step promotion.

Sore and exhausted, they walked a few kilometers to Fanling in the New Territories and caught the 7:19 pm train to Kowloon. There they were met by a police inspector who, having tried without success to contact officials at Club Lusitano, escorted them to Club de Recreio where they arrived unannounced. As soon as their identities were revealed cheers erupted, champagne was poured and they were warmly welcomed by the Portuguese Consul. Speeches were followed by a song from the Macaense tenor Enéas de Aquino. The Governor in Macau made a radio broadcast congratulating the fliers.

The following Tuesday the welcomes were better organised: a late morning visit was made to the Governor of Hong Kong and an evening reception was held at Club Lusitano. Marciano Francisco “Naneli” Baptista and Fernando Alfredo Vieira Ribeiro decorated the building and a plan of the aviation route was displayed. On arrival there they were received by the Club President, António Ferreira Batalha Silva-Netto amid loud cheers; the Club orchestra played the Portuguese National Anthem, a group photograph was taken on the steps of the main entrance and speeches and toasts were made in the hall Luís de Camões. Brito Pais’ brief speech in reply was self-effacing: in comparison to the achievement of the Portuguese aviators who had flown from Lisbon to Brazil, he said, what he and his colleagues had accomplished was nothing to speak of.

Gouveia arrived in Hong Kong on June 24. Macau sent a gunboat, also called Pátria, to fetch them and they arrived in Macau on June 25, the day after Dia de São João, Macau’s traditional feast day commemorating the repulse of its invasion in 1622 by the Dutch. The heroic trio’s reception in Macau was euphoric: crowds cheered wildly and young ladies showered them with flowers and celebrations continued for 11 days. They were welcomed by the Governor and all local dignitaries and feted with many functions, public parades, balls and theatrical performances. Macau’s resident poet, Camilo Pessanha, wrote an ode for them.

They returned to Portugal via Canton, Shanghai, Tokyo, the USA and the UK, meeting enthusiastic Portuguese communities at every stop along the way. Their arrival in Lisbon by boat on September 8 was unheralded because the telegram from the Portuguese embassy in London forewarning their arrival had somehow gone astray. Hastily a proper welcome was organised and they were feted with more receptions, dinners, concerts, conferences and processions; their military promotions were formally conferred and they were invested into the Order of the Tower and Sword.

After their heroic exploit their careers traversed different paths. Brito Pais received further honours, in the Orders of Christ and of Avis. He continued a distinguished career in public service but died tragically in a mid-air plane crash in 1934; he was 50 years old and held the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

Sarmento Beires’ career path was more colourful and controversial. He recounted his experiences in a book (A Viagem do Pátria – The Voyage of the Pátria). His passion for aviation unabated, he took part in March 1927 in a flight from Portugal to Brazil in the first night-time crossing of the South Atlantic (which also included his old colleague Manuel Gouveia). A prominent figure now in Portugal, he involved himself in politics and in 1928 was appointed an Officer of the Military Order of Santiago of the Sword and a Grand- Officer of the Military Order of the Tower and Sword. However, he became implicated in an armed uprising in 1928 against the regime in Portugal, was arrested, convicted and exiled for seven years with the loss of all political and civil rights. He roamed around — to Spain, Morocco, France, Hanoi, China and Macau — eventually ending up in Brazil. He received a pardon and was reinstated in the Portuguese Armed Forces in 1951; now a colonel he received further honours: appointments in the Imperial Order of Portugal, the French Legion of Honour and the Order of the King of Cambodia but did not return to Portugal until just two months before he died in June 1974 at the age of 82.

Most of the acclaim was lavished on the senior members of the team but the venture could never have been completed without the miracles performed by its junior member, Gouveia. After this exploit he qualified in 1926 as a pilot and in 1927 contributed to the success of the first night flight across the South Atlantic as both second pilot and mechanic. In 1935 he received an appointment in Ordem de Torre e Espada (Order of the Tower and Sword) Portugal’s most eminent military Order, and continued his professional career until 1959. He died in 1966.

A monument was raised to the three of them in the town of Vila Nova de Milfontes where their journey had started.

Memories of their heroic exploit and those glorious exhilarating days have faded. All that remains in the Far East today is a single relic: the badly damaged propeller of the Pátria II in the Lusitano Club in Hong Kong.

 

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