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Plane-crash in Baluchistan

In the morning she checked the Bluebird carefully, mindful of the oil leakage which had been plaguing her and the warnings of the Imperial Airways mechanics at Basra. Everything seemed in order, and her first Dictaphone note of the day was ‘The time is 5 a.m. The sun is just coming up over the horizon and I have just left the landing ground at Bushire.’

Mary enjoyed flying low, in spite of her instructor’s warning to “keep high; flying low can be dangerous!” Interviewed years later, she recalled: “I used to be almost at ground level; by flying low—about a hundred feet—I got the sense of speed. It was just as well the engine didn’t cut out because I’d have had no place to land the thing!” Besides providing a closer look at the passing scene below, she found the air less turbulent at lower altitudes.

Mary Bruce flying her BluebirdShe was hoping to spot some sharks in the Gulf—it was reputedly infested with them—and was disappointed not to find any. The desolate scenery was monotonous and she longed for a bit of excitement: a shark sighting would have been a welcome diversion!

Mary was delighted to see the Union Jack flying from the masts of the two sloops lying at anchor near Hanjam. Throttling back, she glided down to within 50 feet above them, waving back at the men on the decks. She set her compass to 90 degrees and began the last leg of the day’s journey. To her right she sighted the barren point of Ras Massandam, jutting north from the Arabian Peninsula. Passing this last finger of land, she struck out across the Strait of Hormuz; 100 miles of open water lay between her and her destination, Jask.

As she scanned the instrument panel, the last thing she wanted to see was the alarming sight before her: the oil pressure needle was dropping! Oil poured from the thrust race housing, splattering the windscreen. Acutely conscious of the threat of sharks in the water below, Mary strained her eyes for a glimpse of land ahead. Plugging in the wireless transmitter to broadcast “Flying in trouble,” she reached for her Dictaphone. “I am losing a great deal of oil from my engine, and am very anxious about it,” she recorded.

She adjusted her course. Jask was to the southeast; she would head due east, making for the closest point on the Persian coast. Minutes passed; she kept a steady gaze on the horizon, willing land to appear. Repeatedly she checked the oil gauge; the needle continued its slow downward movement. “Oil failing rapidly, grave doubts whether engine will hold out long enough to reach land,” she recorded on the Dictaphone. In the distance a dark smudge of land appeared at last; the sight did little to buoy her spirits. “This may be my end, as the oil pressure is down to naught. See land in distance, but fear engine will fail before I reach it.” The Bluebird struggled on. Mary listened closely to the sound of the engine as the minutes ticked by. Approaching the coast, she was distressed to see a sandstorm blowing, severely limiting visibility. There was no chance of climbing above the swirling sand; the engine must be nearly bone dry.

Reaching once more for the Dictaphone she said: “Have reached the coast; am about to make a forced landing on the sand.”

She recounts the dramatic story of her landing: “Closing the throttle, I decided to make a landing on the sand near the water, the only place possible, with the intention of filling up with fresh oil, a can of which I was carrying in the fuselage. As I landed I felt the wheels of the undercarriage sink, and the nose of the machine dive downwards. At the same time I was shot violently forward against the windscreen. Amid a deafening sound of splintering wood and a smell of escaping petrol, I found myself hanging by my straps, the tail of the machine bolt upright in the air, and the engine buried out of sight in the soft sand. I had landed on quicksand! Half dazed, I released myself, and realized that I was alone on the Persian Gulf in one of the most desolate stretches of desert on that coast.”

Free of her safety harness, Mary carefully climbed from the cockpit and slid to the sand below. The Bluebird stood silent in the fierce noonday sun, nose buried and tail pointing skyward. Mary looked with dismay at the empty landscape in which she found herself. Relief at having made solid ground—not quicksand, as she had feared at first—was tempered by the realization of her isolation, and by her apprehension about the extent of damage to the Bluebird. Mary sought shelter from the blistering heat under the wing of the airplane.

As desolate and empty as this shore of the Gulf of Oman appeared, the approach and crash-landing of the Bluebird had not gone unnoticed. From the shadow beneath the wing Mary saw in the distance a cluster of small black specks that grew as they approached; it was a band of desert tribesmen. They were Baluchis, members of one of the oldest tribes in the Middle East, with branches in what are now Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as Iran.

The men swarmed around Mary and the Bluebird, shouting angrily and flashing their knives. Knowing it could be fatal to show fear, she smiled and strode confidently up to the apparent leader, a fierce-looking old man with a flowing black beard. She shook his hand firmly, and the scowls of the tribesmen turned to smiles. Mary quickly made friends with the children in the group, and soon was playing games and laughing with them. When the tribesmen got restless she reached into the storage compartment and pulled out her alarm clock to amuse them. It was a game that kept them pacified for hours—watching with anticipation as Mary wound the clock, then exclaiming and dancing about when the bell rang.

Once she felt herself out of danger from the desert dwellers, she turned to the problems confronting her. Getting help was the first order of business. The wireless transmitter worked only when the engine was running so there was no way to send out a signal now. She wrote a quick message to the British Consul: ‘Please send help. Have crashed. Mrs Bruce.’ Using gestures, she indicated that someone should take the message to Jask. One of the tribesmen seemed to understand; he took the message and disappeared to the south. Another concern was thirst. She had already drunk most of her small supply of water. Using sign language, she asked if she would be able to get more. The Baluchi chief nodded reassuringly.

The Bluebird designMary inspected the Bluebird, relieved to see that the major damage was a broken propeller. She was carrying a spare onboard, but still had some doubts about getting the little plane airborne again. The nose was buried four feet into the soft sand, and there was sure to be some grit in the engine. She dropped to her knees and began to dig the sand away from the nose. The engine cowling was bent, but there did not seem to be any other serious damage. After nearly an hour of digging she had cleared the sand away from the engine, but the winds that had whipped the sand into a storm when she crashed were still blowing, and threatened to blow the Bluebird over onto its back. With a shout, she called the Baluchis for help in righting the plane. She cheered when it fell with a gentle bump back onto its wheels, and the Baluchis happily took up her cries of pleasure. Joining hands they danced around the airplane, insisting that she join them.

As the suffocating heat of the day lessened slightly, she sat under the Bluebird’s wing and studied her map. She was able to pinpoint her position exactly, since she had come down near a pinnacle of rock identified as Ras Mubarak. The map showed a village called Kuh-i-Mubarak some five miles distant, but there were no roads or even camel tracks anywhere in the vicinity. She was dismayed to see that Jask was more than 50 miles distant. Knowing that it was only a small settlement, with perhaps no more than a dozen or two Europeans stationed there, she wondered what kind of help her message could possibly produce—and how long it might take for help to reach her.

Mary had never been reluctant to get her hands dirty working on an engine. Since her first experience modifying her brother Louis’s Matchless motorcycle, mechanical work had been second nature. She waited until the sun was down, then went to work on the Bluebird’s propeller.

Her work was complicated by the fact that she was missing most of the tools she needed, and she surmised that they had been left in Bushire when the engine was last checked. She made do with her knife, scraping her hands as she worked. Once the spare propeller was in place, she turned to cleaning the sand from the engine with the only suitable tool she could find, a toothbrush. By nightfall she had cleaned the carburetor and spark plugs, added oil, and put back the damaged engine cowling so that—if help did arrive in the morning—the Bluebird would be ready to start.

To her relief, the Baluchi tribesmen brought her a sheepskin of brackish water. Unappetizing as it was, she gratefully drank her fill and replenished her water bottle and thermos flask. As night fell, the tribesmen disappeared into the dark, going back to their home, which she later learned was in a date grove at Kuh-i-Mubarak. The old chief stayed to guard her, for which she was thankful.

No diggers in the desert

It was a restless night for Mary. She slept under the wing of the plane, and constant desert winds continued to blow; she woke frequently, shaking off the sand that was blown over her in drifts. Lying wakeful in the dark, she listened for hours to the sounds of the waves breaking on the nearby shore and the wind whistling through the struts of the Bluebird above her.

At daybreak Mary arose and began tinkering with the Bluebird’s engine. She started the engine, and tried without success to taxi to a packed-down area of sand she thought might be a camel track. But revving the engine caused the wheels to dig into the sand, and the nose threatened to dive into the sand again. Frustrated, she abandoned the attempt, realizing that she would need ropes and manpower to move the airplane to firmer ground.

When the Baluchis returned they brought more water, and some dates which, Mary saw with revulsion, were crawling with insects. Nauseated, she declined them, regretting that she had distributed most of her meagre supply of snacks among the Baluchi children the day before. She had been carrying chocolates and biscuits, and a supply of a meat concentrate called Brand’s Essence1, but in an effort to ensure her welcome, she had given nearly everything (including some of her treasured Ovaltine) to the Baluchis.

Around noon Mary spotted smoke on the horizon out to sea. Certain that it was ships coming to rescue her, she turned to the Baluchis and shouted “Anglais, Anglais!” ‘I am sure I don’t know why I should have imagined that they would understand French better than English,’ she wrote, ‘but they did seem to understand, and ran with me down to the seashore.’ On the horizon two ships steamed out of sight as she waved her handkerchief in vain. They were searching for wreckage in the gulf, she surmised, not realizing that she could have made the shore.

Returning to the Bluebird, she saw several of the tribesmen and children seated in a circle with something in their hands which they were trying to eat, without success. It was, she discovered with amused annoyance, one of her Dictaphone records, which they apparently had mistaken for more chocolate. ‘Judging from their expression, they were not enjoying their fare, but in the meantime they had spoiled the perfectly good message which I had made for my husband while crossing the Taurus Mountains.’

The blistering sun drove her under the shelter of the Bluebird’s wing again, where she turned her attention to the problem of her painful hands. She had cut and scraped them while digging in the sand and working on the engine, and the wounds were festering badly. She began painting them with iodine from her first aid kit, which drew an immediate circle of fascinated Baluchis. They stuck their feet out, pointing at cuts, begging her to paint them as well. She complied, but the Baluchis danced in surprise when they felt the sting of the iodine.

Even after several hours with the Baluchis, Mary discovered that the chieftain still lacked one vital piece of information about her, when he produced a pipe from his pocket, filled and lit it, and passed it to her. She declined with a shake of her head, but he was insistent. Did the chief think she was a man, she wondered? With a short haircut, and bare-legged in shorts, could he have failed to note her gender? She reached for a comb and began combing her hair, and pointed at the female Baluchi children. Amazement showed on the face of the old chieftain as he exclaimed “Y’ai, y’ai, y’ai!”

‘It did not do me much good letting them know I was a female for from then onwards, anything which had to be done, such as filling up the Thermos flask with water or screwing the machine tighter down to the ground, had to be done by me. Also it seemed to worry the chief on finding I was a woman that I should be gallivanting about in shorts. Taking a big scarf from his head, he insisted that I should wrap it round my legs, with the consequence that I kept tripping over it every time I wanted to get something out of the airplane. Not satisfied with that, he seemed to want me to hang something over my face, which is the custom with the Baluchi women, and taking a piece of cardboard from one of the old Dictaphone boxes he put this up against my nose. Then I went on strike, and shaking my head said, ‘N’ai, n’ai, n’ai!’ back to him.’

She napped in the afternoon, and was awakened by a crowd of Baluchi men running toward her from the sea, and shouting with excitement. They carried a large parcel wrapped in brown paper and laid it at her feet ceremoniously.

Her heart leapt with joy as she read on the wrapper: ‘Mrs. Bruce. Please deliver immediately. For the aeroplane G-ABDS. URGENT.’ An airplane must have seen the downed Bluebird and dropped this from the air, she concluded. Eagerly she tore open the package—and out fell a mass of dead fish. Confounded, she turned the paper over, reading the words again. And then she remembered that, just before take-off from Heston, a special messenger had delivered a spare cylinder for the Bluebird. The Baluchis must have found the wrapping paper in the storage compartment and thought it would please her to receive the day’s catch of fish in this special fancy packaging.

As evening approached, the Baluchis seemed to be getting restless, looking toward the mountains and gesturing. Mary surmised that something unpleasant was coming; the Baluchis took money from her bag and hid it in the cockpit. She had been told, in Bushire, of brigands in this area who tried to capture people who landed here, demanding ransom and killing the prisoners if they didn’t get paid.

After two hours she saw horsemen approaching out of the dusk. The Baluchis were huddled in a little group and were chattering among themselves; the chief was upset and tried to hide her. She insisted on walking out toward the approaching riders, intending to shake hands with them. She took the alarm clock with her, thinking that might help to pacify them, as it had the Baluchis.

There were three horsemen, well armed with rifles, revolvers, and bandoliers of cartridges slung around their shoulders. Mary approached the leader with a smile, and held up the ticking alarm clock for his entertainment. He brushed it aside impatiently, shouting “Rupee! Rupee!” She realized that these men were quite a different breed from the Baluchis, and led him back to the Bluebird. She handed him about ₤5 worth of rupees, which seemed to satisfy him.

The airplane intrigued the brigand leader. Dismounting from his horse, he approached the Bluebird, climbed into the cockpit, and began working the controls. He put on Mary’s flying helmet and sat happily working the ailerons up and down and waggling the rudder. A lack of oil caused a squeaking, which added to his glee. His two companions stood by—one watching the leader with amusement, the other staring steadily at Mary, following her every move with a scowl. The brigand in the cockpit opened Mary’s satchel and pulled out her evening gown. He tried to put it on, to the vast amusement of the other men.

Tiring of the dress and the control panel, he climbed down and sat under the Bluebird, sharing a pipe with his companions. Mary noted with interest that his matches came from a box labelled ‘Soviet Russia’, and guessed that their up-todate weapons came from there as well.

As they stood and prepared to leave, an argument arose between the brigand leader and the old Baluchi chieftain. Mary suspected that she was the subject of the argument, and her suspicion was confirmed when the brigand tried to lift her up onto his horse as he exclaimed “Jask! Jask!” She was willing to get on the horse with him if it meant a ride to Jask, but the old Baluchi chief pulled her behind the airplane and hissed at her “Jask? N’ya Jask!” while he motioned toward his own throat with his knife, and pointed to the mountains in the distance.

Mary understood that the chief was saying the brigands meant to take her away into the mountains; a friendly lift to Jask was definitely not on their agenda.

She refused to go with them, gesturing at her airplane to indicate that she had to stay with it. Eventually they rode away, and all the Baluchis except the old chief drifted back to their settlement in the Kuh-i-Mubarak date grove. Grateful for his presence, Mary settled down for another restless night. She shivered in the cool desert air, regretting her impulsive generosity in giving her Burberry coat to a Baluchi tribesman who had clearly been taken with it.

At first light she was up, determined that she must get to Jask. She tried to communicate this to the old chieftain, but he adamantly shook his head “Jask! N’ya Jask!” She pointed to her feet, indicating that she would walk. He shook his head. With a stick she drew a picture of a camel in the sand. Another shake of the head. She insisted “Jask! Jask!” and finally the chief gathered her things together in her shoulder bag—the one she and Victor had bought the night before her departure—as she wrote on the wings and fuselage of the Bluebird “I am walking to Jask.”

Extract from the ‘Queen of Speed’ by Nancy R Wilson, published September 2012.  Mary Bruce’s home is now used as a b&b – called Priory Steps – where the new book was launched on the 8th September 2012. The book has its own website but may also be available through or Waterstones.

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