In less than 60 minutes the S. S. Exochorda would weigh anchor. Streamers of fresh snow ran along her decks. A wintry voyage lay ahead, but in two weeks the crew would be warmed by the Mediterranean sun.
At that moment a barge bumped its rope-and-tire fenders into the Exochorda's hull. The ship's crew beheld a strange sight. A small monoplane, its wings folded back, stood on the deck of the barge. Alongside the crippled-looking plane two men waved their arms and called for the captain. They wanted to get aboard and bring their plane with them.
No luck. The captain had been expecting them but not just before sailing. For a few minutes Dick Kerr and Charley Rocheville argued with the captain to no avail. They were already overdue in Saudi Arabia. They had to get the plane aboard.
Then, as it had before and would again in this strange aviation odyssey, Dick Kerr's persuasive grin saved the day. At four p.m., when the Exochorda passed through the Narrows of New York Harbor and stood out to sea, Kerr and Rocheville were busy lashing down their new Fairchild 71 to the afterdeck. It was February 6, 1934.
During their first few hours afloat, as they laced the plane's canvas cover in place, they had little notion of what lay ahead. But at least they now had plenty of time to recall over coffee in the ship's mess the swift chain of events that had changed their lives.
Five months earlier, Dick Kerr, an ex-Navy pilot who was a partner in an aerial mapping service, received a call from an old friend. Could he come to Los Angeles as soon as possible? The caller, Clark Gester, chief geologist of the Standard Oil Company of California, had a problem.
The company had signed a Concession Agreement with Saudi Arabia in May to explore for oil. A handful of geologists were already on the job. But the Concession covered approximately 320,000 square miles. The geologists urgently needed an "aerial eye" that would help them to explore this vast desert expanse.
Would Kerr be willing to draw up a proposal for aerial geological reconnaissance on a contract basis, do the necessary aerial photography, and provide air support for ground parties in Saudi Arabia?
Gester knew he was asking the right man. Kerr had graduated as a geologist from the University of California. He was a pilot, a mechanic, and an excellent photographer. Just the man for a mission that called for ingenuity and imagination. Kerr was also well supplied with energy and enthusiasm. What he didn't know, he learned quickly in round-the-clock cramming.
Kerr checked an atlas and made a fast decision. Sand dune country would call for a small plane. Around that decision he evolved a plan that was immediately approved. The plane was ordered—a Fairchild 71, to be built in Hagerstown, Maryland.
Charley Rocheville, Kerr's co-pilot and mechanic, would install an extra gas tank when the plane was ready. That would give them an added 350 miles cruising range over dangerous desert waste. Other modifications called for a removable window on each side, a hole in the bottom for vertical photography and the biggest tires available to keep the plane from sinking into loose sand.
Kerr got busy and bought 5,000 gallons of aviation gasoline in five-gallon tins. The gasoline and other flight supplies were loaded aboard a company tanker bound for Bahrain Island in the Arabian Gulf.
By the beginning of December, Kerr and Rocheville were in Maryland advising the plane builders on the modi fications they wanted for desert service. Kerr contacted various export lines and got an early February sailing date to ship the plane a third of the way around the world. Then he set a target date for completion of the plane.
Next, Kerr put on another of his many "hats." He became Kerr the photographer and rushed off to the Eastman laboratories in Rochester, New York. He had heard some troubling rumors about the high temperatures of the water in Saudi Arabia. It takes cold water to develop film. At least it had until then. By the end of December, Kerr and the Eastman specialists had worked out a way to develop film in water of temperatures up to 120 degrees F.
Kerr rounded out the year in New York buying electrical equipment and a water distillation unit for his darkroom.
However, when he got back to Hagerstown, he began to realize that the plane couldn't possibly be built in time to meet the shipping date to the Middle East. He started nudging. Then he brought all his natural good-humored persuasiveness into play. Finally all hands were put on.
One hour before Kerr's deadline the plane was ready for flight testing. Charley Rocheville took it up for half an hour. That afternoon, with time running out, he and Kerr flew the plane to North Beach in Flushing, Queens (renamed La Guardia Field five years later). They landed in a foot of fresh-fallen snow.
The next morning a crane hoisted the Fairchild onto a barge in Flushing Bay. Kerr and Rocheville rode the barge to their last-minute rendezvous with the Exochorda.
Twenty-three days later, the oversized tires that had last rolled through New York snow were turning in the streets of Alexandria, Egypt. The tail skid rested in a donkey cart.
One hundred Egyptians joined in the chore of pushing the plane to a small airport north of the city. There Kerr and Rocheville put it through a series of thorough flight tests. They made friends with British personnel and were given useful Middle East flight maps.
Finally, they were ready for the last leg of the journey. Two weeks later they were still on the ground—in Cairo. The British helped them get proper clearance and at last they were aloft—in a sandstorm. Visibility: 100 yards. They were lost in short order. Luckily they found the Nile delta and hedgehopped back to Cairo.
Another week passed. Aloft once more with a British escort and clear weather. Overnight at Gaza. Then a late arrival at Baghdad: another sandstorm. Lots of hedge-hopping. More hospitality from the British. Then Basrah, and their final meal with English friends.
They were now close to their objective. Only one more flight. Somewhere down the coast of Saudi Arabia a group of American geologists anxiously awaited Kerr and Rocheville and their plane. The pioneer geological explorers were pretty sure by now that there was oil under the desert floor. But they yearned to get aloft for a panoramic view of the dunes, jebels (hills) and outcroppings which would help them determine the best place to start drilling.
In Basrah, Kerr and Rocheville bid their British hosts farewell. They took off with good wishes and helpful advice and set the plane on a southeasterly heading. Rocheville was at the controls.
They passed offshore of Kuwait and then followed the Saudi Arabian coast. Six months of planning, excitement and frustration lay behind. Now the fabled Arabian coast, lightly hazed, rolled away beneath them. Sea blue gave way to dazzling greens and finally to white where die water rested shallow and still at the shore line. Off to the right they now and then saw black patches that were Bedu tents. As they flew on they also saw fish traps that ran like thin arrows out toward deeper water.
There! Kerr pointed. Rocheville nodded.
The newly created Jubail airstrip rose up to meet them. Rocheville brought the plane around. The first "aerial eye" in Saudi Arabia leveled off for a landing.