The sky above North London burned blue the morning that Maurice Wilson steered his plane onto the grass runway at Stag Lane airfield. It was May 21, 1933. Wilson, a thirty-five-year-old English war veteran, was at the beginning of a mad quest. He proposed to fly from London to the Himalayas, land on one of the plateaus near Mt. Everest, and then, climbing alone, become the first person to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain. Wilson’s aircraft was a de Havilland Gipsy Moth—a biplane with two open cockpits—which he had renamed Ever-Wrest. He sat in the rear cockpit, wearing a flying jacket and goggles. Climbing equipment and supplies were stuffed in the front. A small group of photographers, reporters, and friends had gathered to see him off.
Many people had told Wilson that his plan was foolish, and likely to lead to his death. In the nineteen-twenties, three well-provisioned British expeditions, each involving several fine climbers and dozens of local porters, had travelled to Everest; none of these parties had reached the peak, and several people had died making summit attempts. Wilson was fit, and could walk long distances, but he had never ascended a high mountain, nor had he ever used crampons or an ice ax. His alpine experience consisted of hikes around Wales and the Lake District. His knowledge of the Himalayas consisted of reading books and newspaper articles.
More pressing, Wilson had only recently learned to fly. In the twenties, the members of official British Everest expeditions had travelled to India by ship. They then took a train to Darjeeling—a hilltop town on the northeastern border of India—and walked three hundred miles, through Sikkim and Tibet, to base camp. The entire journey took three months. Wilson’s plan was more direct. It was about five thousand miles by air to Purnia, in northern India, and from there it was possible to fly across Nepal to Everest without stopping. A Gipsy Moth cruised at about eighty miles per hour; with extra fuel tanks, it could fly some seven hundred and fifty miles in a single stretch. Wilson reasoned that he could fly in stages through Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, India, and Nepal, arriving at the foot of Everest in little more than a fortnight.
At the beginning of 1933, Wilson had bought a secondhand Moth and started taking flying lessons at Stag Lane. His progress was slow. He had been shot through the back and the left arm while fighting in Flanders, in 1918, and the resulting immobility on his left side made him clumsy. Geoffrey de Havilland, who designed and manufactured the Moth series, had engineered his planes to be simple and robust; as he once put it, they could take “a pretty bad landing.” Nevertheless, all aircraft of the era required a delicate touch. During lessons, Wilson often pulled too violently on the control column, causing the machine to yaw and his instructor to curse him.
In February, 1933, after nineteen hours of instruction, Wilson was granted a license to fly solo. He planned to take off for Everest that April. Shortly before his proposed departure date, in the countryside near his home city of Bradford, he attempted an emergency landing in a crosswind, hit a hedge, and flipped his plane. Wilson was somehow unhurt.
The crash did not diminish Wilson’s determination to reach the summit of Everest, and he had the Moth towed back to Stag Lane for repairs. Serving in the First World War had ravaged his peace of mind. In his twenties and early thirties, he had circled the globe, burning through jobs and relationships and accomplishing little. Eventually, while visiting Germany in 1932, he hit upon the idea of ascending Everest. The achievement would give purpose to his life.
On May 21st, at Stag Lane, he entered the cockpit of his Moth and said goodbye to the people who had come to cheer him on. His lover, Enid Evans, tied a mauve ribbon to the strut of his airplane, as an amulet. A reporter from Reuters quoted a “friend” of the novice pilot’s, who said, “Wilson is very keen, but the fact is he has not a chance. Everyone has pointed this out to him, but he was determined to try.” As Wilson maneuvered the airplane onto the runway, the bulbous nose of the Gipsy Moth, which contained its noisy engine, obscured his view. To see where he was going, he needed to move his head left and right over the plane’s flanks.
Wind socks had been set up along the runway, and they indicated which way he should take off: upwind, to help provide lift. But, in his excitement, Wilson forgot the rudiments of flight, and he headed downwind. The Moth was laden with hundreds of pounds of luggage. As Wilson accelerated along the runway, the plane gained speed but no altitude. Wilson was almost at the perimeter of the airfield when, at last, the Moth rose lazily from the ground, clearing a hedge by inches. The Moth ascended. Ever-Wrest was on her way to Everest.
Eighty-five years later, on a bright and gusty spring day in Dorset, in southwestern England, I climbed into a Moth myself. I had been fascinated by the story of Maurice Wilson since 2011, when I read a few paragraphs about him in “Into the Silence,” Wade Davis’s absorbing account of the early British attempts to climb Everest. In the months and years after I learned the outline of Wilson’s tale, I sometimes woke up thinking about him. My interest grew into a compulsion and, eventually, into a book. Until quite recently, I was at a loss to understand exactly why the story of this haunted, unyielding man and his wild adventure had bitten me so hard. Whatever the reason, Wilson would not leave me alone, and so I resolved not to leave him alone.
I read widely about Wilson and his world—in books, in archives, in a diary he took to Everest, and in unpublished letters and documents. There was clearly a psychological connection between his wartime service and his need to ascend Everest. Yet, as I began to write about him, my historical inquiries seemed insufficient. I had gathered many facts, but there were aspects of Wilson’s journey that I couldn’t visualize or feel.
It was especially difficult to write about Wilson’s flight, which he did not describe vividly in letters home. I was not a flier. I could not fully imagine what it felt like for an aviator with scant experience to take off in a Gipsy Moth, carrying paper maps in his left hand and navigating across continents by compass.
In 2017, I attended a Gathering of the Moths at the Old Warden Aerodrome, in Bedfordshire, at which several dozen amateur enthusiasts flew their planes. I spoke to a few experienced Moth pilots, including David Cyster, a genial man, who, in 1978, had flown a Tiger Moth ten thousand miles, from England to Australia. (Cyster told me one of his secrets for staying comfortable in a biplane cockpit for long hours: “pee tubes.”) At the gathering, I noted that the Gipsy Moth was designed with an exhaust pipe that ran down its left-hand side and became skillet-hot during flight. I thought of Wilson, with his left arm still painful from his war wounds, and how the pipe would have warmed his aching limb in the cold, wind-rushed cockpit. The event finished too soon. I had taken my four-year-old son with me, who gawped for a while at the biplanes as they whizzed this way and that, but his sense of wonder was exhaustible, and we left early.
I desired a more immersive experience. Unbeknownst to me, my family and some close family friends, who were aware of my book project, had arranged one. In April, 2018, my mother, Janie, asked me to come to the Compton Abbas aerodrome, whose runway is on a hilltop in a ravishingly beautiful patch of Dorset, for a flying lesson. A pilot named David Morgan would instruct me in a Tiger Moth built only a few years after Wilson’s plane was. I looked Morgan up. I was in safe hands. In the Falklands War, Morgan had flown Sea Harrier fighter jets, shooting down four Argentinean aircraft and winning the Distinguished Service Cross. After his retirement from the military, he flew for Virgin Atlantic. Now in his seventies, he still flew his Moth, for fun.
I had never met Morgan before I arrived at Compton Abbas, and I didn’t know what he looked like. But when he walked into the clubhouse, which was thronged with people, he walked up to me and said, “You must be Caesar.” I made the connection. Morgan had served in the Fleet Air Arm with my dad. Apparently, I look very like my father.
When I was a child, I often stared at a poem that stood in a gilt frame on top of the upright piano in our living room. “High Flight” was written in 1941 by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., a nineteen-year-old airman with the Royal Canadian Air Force, who was then based in England. Magee died in a collision with another plane above Lincolnshire, shortly after composing the poem. It reads:
President Ronald Reagan quoted the first and last lines of “High Flight” after the Challenger space disaster of 1986. In my house, the poem performed a similar memorial function. It was placed next to a photograph of my father, Ben Caesar, in his naval pilot’s uniform. Next to my dad was a photograph of another pilot—a handsome young man with red hair, whose identity was then, from my perspective, indistinct.
My father was killed in a helicopter accident on October 10, 1982, when he was forty-three years old. I was then two years old, and my older brothers were eight and ten. My mother was deranged by grief. Many years later, she told me that she felt as if she had gone into shock on the Sunday of the accident and hadn’t recovered for years. My brothers, meanwhile, were clever, sensitive boys, who had already accrued a bank of happy filial memories. They suffered a scarcely endurable heartbreak.
My reaction to the tragedy was delayed, and possibly sublimated. I clearly recall my mother telling me about the accident. We sat on her bed. I was as sad as a two-year-old can be. But as I grew older, I retained only one or two snapshot recollections of my dad: gathering me into his massive arms when I hit my head against the coffee table; leaving for work in an orange-colored car as I watched from the sitting-room window. These memories were a comfort, but he was more of an idea than a person to me. I became hungry for physical evidence of his life.
“High Flight” answered part of that yearning. I never asked my mother why we had the poem in a frame, or who the second pilot was, until many years later. The meaning of this arrangement of pictures and words in our family was unspoken—or, at least, it was not spoken about to me. I drew my own conclusions. My dad had died doing something noble, daring, ecstatic: up, up.