The new adventure was to fly around the world in a biplane. There was just one problem. Richard couldn’t fly a plane. He found a pilot in the person of Moye Stephens (1906-1995), the recently elected President of the Professional Pilots Association. After considering several planes Moye chose a Stearman C-3B open dual cockpit plane which Richard bought with money from his celebrity endorsement of a coffee brand. Richard agreed to pay all expenses on the journey but he couldn’t pay Moye a salary. The deal was settled with a handshake. Fellow pilots thought Moye was mad to accept.
The plane was checked over and named The Flying Carpet. The venture began in earnest in January 1931 after the plane had been shipped across the Atlantic. During the first flight over France Richard noticed that the aileron pushrods controlling the fins on the wings were vibrating alarmingly. Landing in Paris the adventurers had to wait three weeks for a technician to come from America to tell them that the pushrods had been put back in upside down when the plane was being checked over in America.
|Front cover of the dust jacket for the first edition of “The Flying Carpet”, 1932.|
It was then back to North Africa to spend time with the French Foreign Legion. Then to the Middle East. The sight of the plane in the skies caused quite a stir and several members of royal families persuaded Richard to give them a short trips.
After a few weeks the adventurers arrived in India where Richard revisited the Taj Mahal (no midnight dip in the ornamental pools this time). They then took a detour over Mount Everest. It was Richard’s 32nd birthday and he couldn’t resist standing up in the cockpit to take the first aerial photograph of Everest. He almost caused the plane to stall.
The final leg was around South East Asia. On Borneo Richard and Moye met the chief of a tribe of head-hunters. They gave his a trip in the Flying Carpet and he thanked them by presenting them with 60 kilos of shrunken heads. Not daring to cause offence the adventurers accepted the gift graciously. However, the heads soon began to stink and were thrown into the sea at the earliest opportunity.
After flying through a swarm of locusts the Flying Carpet arrived in the Philippines. There the plane was crated up and put aboard ship for the voyage home. The adventurers and the plane arrived back in San Francisco in April 1932.
Richard set to his next task of writing the book of the adventure which he titled “The Flying Carpet”. Richard moved in with Paul Mooney (1904-1939), a man he had met in San Francisco before the adventure, to write his book. It was published in November 1932. It is believed that Richard and Paul became a couple shortly afterwards.
Despite spending $64,000 on the Flying Carpet adventure and being in debt the royalties from the book earned Richard $100,000 in the first year. More lecture tours and commissions for travel articles followed, during which shorter travels abroad were undertaken. One was a recreation of Hannibal’s trek over the Alps with elephants.
With his new wealth Richard bought a cliff-top lot in Laguna Beach, California, and built a residence there in 1937. Because of its precarious position on the cliff end the house was called Hangover House. Richard and Paul moved in and Richard began writing two books for children called “Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels”. It is probably from the first of these that we get the false claim that the Great Wall of China can be seen from space, as he claimed. No-one knows where he got his information.
In 1939 Richard was getting itchy feet and began to plan his next adventure – to sail across the Pacific in a Chinese junk. With an eye for publicity his plan was to sail from Hong Kong to San Francisco in time for the Golden Gate International Exposition in April 1939. He would then take passengers around the bay. As usual he would be writing articles about the voyage and preparing another book. Hundreds of people contacted him hoping to be chosen as a crew member.
|The Sea Dragon in Hong Kong harbour.|
The voyage began well but into the third week the Sea Dragon encountered the Pacific’s notoriously strong currents and storms. On 23rd march they sent a radio message to the liner SS President Coolidge battling the storms halfway between Japan and Midway Island. The Sea Dragon was some miles south. The liner received a cheery message, then one which said (edited) “Southerly gale. Heavy rain squalls. High sea … All well. When close may we avail ourselves of your direction finder…”
That’s the last anyone heard from the Sea Dragon. SS President Coolidge went to its last reported position and found nothing and there was no reply to their radio messages. The Coast Guard on Hawaii were alerted but they thought it was a publicity stunt and didn’t rush into a search and rescue. When it seemed clear it was not a prank the US Navy undertook a massive search of the area, but to no avail.
The disappearance of Richard Halliburton and his crew shocked America. Only two years earlier the famous aviator Amelia Earhart had disappeared and is still a story that attracts attention. Despite Richard’s equal celebrity status his disappearance gradually faded from our collective memory. Perhaps it was swallowed up with the start of World War II that same summer.
The life of Richard Halliburton has received a slow revival over the past three decades or so with several new biographies. The disappearance of the Sea Dragon is brought back to life in a book published a couple of days ago by the University of Tennessee Press called “Richard Halliburton and the Voyage of the Sea Dragon” by Gerry Max. With rare photographs and recently researched documents new life has been given to the last adventure of a forgotten gay traveller and action man Richard Halliburton.
There’s a sad postscript to this story. Just a few weeks ago the Pacific claimed another life of an openly lgbt adventurer. Paralympian Angela Madsen was making a solo row across the Pacific but was overcome in the ocean storms. I’ll write a memorial article to her, and to another brave Paralympian, Marieke Vervoort, next month.