Bride's flight broke record

Last updated 12:21 27/07/2013
Riet Groeneveld at Schipol Airport, Amsterdam
Photo courtesy John Kirk Anderson
Riet Groeneveld at Schipol Airport, Amsterdam

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Dutchwoman Riet Groeneveld had promised to join fiance Peter Wynands in Christchurch.

He had sailed here ahead of her and found a job.

Visiting a travel agent in the Netherlands in 1953, she was surprised to be asked if she would like to fly.

"I thought, 'Why not?' Peter didn't want me to go on the boat because of all the shenanigans he had witnessed," she says.

Netherlands' national airline KLM had entered the London to Christchurch Air Race and decided to carry commercial passengers, many of them looking to marry and start a new life away after World War II.

KLM had a reputation to uphold, having won the handicap section and finished second overall in the London to Melbourne air race in 1934.

The 1953 race was billed as an opportunity for Britain to demonstrate its lead in aviation. However, the Dutch were determined to steal the limelight. The crew knew the route well and Captain Han Kooper was a most experienced pilot. Routes were chosen, stops were planned and spare parts, stores and food were sent ahead.

A stop at Rome was the first of many 20-minute breaks for leg- stretching and refuelling. From there, the plane headed to Baghdad, Karachi and Rangoon.

Departing from the original flight plan, via Colombo, KLM's DC6 missed the electrical storms that forced the New Zealand entry out of the race.

Groeneveld couldn't leave Darwin soon enough, it was so hot. Brisbane was more welcoming. To her amazement, 16,000 wellwishers turned up to see the plane, which was set to smash the commercial flight record for England to New Zealand, set by a Lancaster in 1946.

"We struck a terrible storm between Australia and New Zealand. I was so frightened. One of the stewards tried to calm us by saying, 'Don't worry, if we go down there are all these ships that will pick us up straight away'. It wasn't until afterwards I realised that would have been very unlikely," she says.

While 10,000 spectators had lined up for the finish of the speed section on Saturday, only a few hundred, braved the frosty pre-dawn on Sunday, October 11.

The flight touched down at 6.27am (49 hours 57 minutes after leaving London), for victory in the handicap section. Groeneveld was pleased to see the ground.

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- Fairfax Media

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