On 15 December 1934, almost 82 years ago, a very special flight departed from Schiphol. At ten minutes past midnight, the triple-engine Fokker F-XVIII “Snip”, registration PH-AIS, took off with a four-man crew on board: J.J. Hondong, captain; J.J. van Balkom, first officer/navigator; S. van der Molen, deputy navigator and radiotelegraph operator; L.D. Stolk, flight engineer. Their final destination was the Antillean island of Aruba. To get there they would have to cross the Atlantic Ocean. They would be the first KLM crew to do so, opening transatlantic service to the Dutch colonies in “the West”. Their journey was a true adventure, not least because the last and longest leg of the voyage went over sea. A thrilling endeavor, which had taken several years to prepare.
(The crew from left to right: van der Molen, Hondong, van Balkom and Stolk, december 1934 at Schiphol)
Increasing the maximum range
Others had crossed the Atlantic by then, of course, but KLM would be the first to fly from Porto Praia on the Cape Verde Islands to Paramaribo in Suriname. The aircraft was fully equipped for the long-haul crossing. The entire interior had been completely stripped and even the windows had been replaced with linen sheets. This made the plane lighter, allowing eight extra fuel tanks to be installed, providing 3,500 liters of fuel, increasing the Fokker’s maximum range to 4,600 kilometers.
Completed without a hitch
The plane had also been equipped with a radio, but KLM wanted to be absolutely sure that the long flight would be completed without a hitch. KLM therefore contacted the Royal Netherlands Steamboat Company (KNSM), which had several ships that regularly sailed close to the route the Snip would be taking. It was agreed that these ships would be on site when the crossing took place. In addition, a Royal Netherlands Navy submarine, the K-18, which was operating in the area for research purposes, was instructed to move to specific coordinates and hold its position there. Further assistance was provided by the weather services of the Portuguese government and various French and Portuguese radio stations, as well as the radio services of Suriname and Curacao.
The Dutch press had every faith in the endeavor: “Whenever KLM takes on a challenge of this kind, it is practically sure to succeed.” KLM President Albert Plesman was more down-to-earth: “Even if we do manage to complete the Christmas mail flight Amsterdam-Paramaribo-Curacao, it would be too early to conclude that we have mastered trans-ocean operations.” Plesman’s reference to Christmas mail was part of a broader publicity campaign surrounding the flight, which was advertised as a great opportunity to send season’s greetings to Venezuela, Suriname and Curacao. The response exceeded expectations, with the Snip carrying no fewer than 26,521 packages and letters.
The departure of the flight was plagued by foul weather, with sleet, high winds and low cloud, which meant visibility was poor. Nevertheless, a large crowd gathered at Schiphol to wave off the aircraft and its crew. Because of the weather, the plane didn’t fly directly to Casablanca in Morocco, flying instead to Alicante in Spain, via the French port of Marseille. The first leg was completed at 13.00 hrs that same day.
The following morning, 16 December, the Snip set off to Casablanca, where it landed six hours later. At the end of the day, the crew flew on to their last stop before the Atlantic crossing: Porto Praia on the Cape Verdes Islands, where the Snip landed at 12.00 on 17 December.
After a couple of days of well-earned rest, during which the engines were checked, the Snip took off again at 19.00 on 19 December for the thrilling, 3,612-kilometre Atlantic crossing.
Below are some excerpts from the Captain Hondongs logbook beginning with the departure from the Cape Verdes Islands. His entries offer startling insight into the way flights were operated in those days and to what extent the weather could wreak havoc. To complicate matters, one of the crew’s key navigational instruments proved to be defective at take-off :
19.45 Operator reports radio is down. Drift measured every 20 minutes. Radio still down at sunset. Drift measurement by both lamp and drift meter.
21.10 Radio repaired. Contact with the K-18 (Royal Netherlands Navy submarine).
23.00 Position reported after sextant reading at 22.25. Estimated rendezvous time with K-18 is 00.30 on 20 December.
23.55 Bearing from K-18: 75. Relayed telegram to Minister of Defence and thanked crew of K-18 on behalf of Snip crew.
00.30 Requested bearing.
00.38 Received coordinates 11.55 N and 33.10 W. Bearing 9 and asked to confirm if lights are in sight. Instructed reply: “Signal if engines heard”. Clouds 6/10, same altitude.
00.42 K-18 signals: “All hands on deck. Probably heard your engines. They see you. I’m off to have a look.”
01.15 Altitude: 750 metres.
01.20 Got word that radio down again. Asked Stolk to assist operator in seeking defect. Was alone up front and saw fuel pressure dropping on all engines, causing immediate loss of power. Flying on lower tanks in the cabin. Fuel pressure was low when flying on these tanks. Called Stolk and switched to wing tanks. After slow descent to 500 metres, fuel pressure went up and engine power returned. By then Stolk had come up front and had pumped pressure up to around 5. Climbed back to 750 meters. Van Balkom still attempting sextant reading. Drift measurement still through gaps in cloud cover.
03.00 Estimated speed 315 km/h. “Stuyvesant” (KNSM vessel) reports winds 30 km at 750 metres, tailwind coming in at 20’.
03.55 Radio partly repaired, but poorly usable.
04.00 Weather getting worse, trade wind clouds and high cloud with light thunder. Flying blind.
06.00 Heavy showers.
08.00 Trade wind clouds, 6/10 high cumulus, rain.
09.30 Altitude 500 metres, under the clouds. Bearing Paramaribo 90’, impossible, too far. Stolk came up front. Sun bearing difficult because weather is poor. Waiting for bearing, we were over land at 10.18. Followed the coast west, pinpointed map position after 5 minutes, flying at 400 metres.
10.25 Had telegram sent to K-18 and “Stuyvesant” reporting: Coast reached and thanks for assistance, with request to relay to Porto Praia.
10.55 Passed over Cayenne, then Devil’s Islands, after which we set course for Albina and on to Paramaribo. Leg: Iles du Salut- Paramaribo. Heavy showers with very low cloud. Passed over Paramaribo several times and then set course to Zanderij.
12.55 Surveyed terrain Zanderij and landed. Anchored aircraft, covered engines and took train into town.”
It was 20 December 1934. It took them 15 hours and 5 minutes flying to cover a distance of 3,300 kilometres. The cruising speed was 220 km/h. On landing, the tanks still held 1,650 litres of fuel. The final sentence in Hondong’s log is down-to-earth and professional, as befits a good pilot, but it is meagre testimony to their reception at Zanderij, which was enthusiastic, to put it mildly. Hundreds of people gathered to meet the aircraft and the crew were welcomed with speeches, official greetings and a festive parade into Paramaribo.
The last leg of the trip was completed on 22 December, flying to La Guaria in Venezuela before setting course to Curacao, where thousands gathered to welcome the Snip. The governor presented the entire crew with knighthoods on behalf of Queen Wilhelmina. On 23 December, there was a short trip to Aruba, their final destination. The journey lasted a total of 7 days, 19 hours and 20 minutes. The total flying time was 54 hours and 27 minutes, covering a distance of 10,488 kilometres.
Immediately after landing, technicians began reconverting the aircraft, so that it was suitable for passenger transport. The aircraft remained in the Netherlands’ western colonies, as did its crew. On 19 January 1935, they began operating a scheduled service between Curacao and Aruba, which marked the start of KLM’s so-called “West-Indian Branch”.
The Snip was decommissioned after the Second World War and subsequently left at the mercy of the elements on Curacao. In the end, only the cabin remained, which was lovingly restored by KLM’s maintenance division in the Netherlands in the late 1980s. Eventually, it was brought back to Curacao in 1992, where it remains a lasting memorial to a remarkable flight.
Copyright Visuals and Video: Nederlands Instituut voor Beeld en Geluid/KLM Blog
By: Frido Ogier