The Flying Carpet
by Richard Halliburton
Published by Tauris Parke Paperbacks (2012); First published 1933
“Wings! With a winged ship, I could still be a vagabond, but a vagabond
with the clouds for my province, as well as the continents.”
Born in 1900 and a graduate of Princeton, Halliburton’s life might have followed a more conventional path were it not for his insatiable desire for excitement and adventure.
Running off to travel in England and France while at Princeton, Halliburton wrote to his father making it clear that he did not intend to return his life to “an even tenor”, writing to his father:
“I hate that expression and as far as I am able I intend to avoid that condition. When impulse and spontaneity fail to make my way uneven then I shall sit up nights inventing means of making my life as conglomerate and vivid as possible…. And when my time comes to die, I’ll be able to die happy, for I will have done and seen and heard and experienced all the joy, pain and thrills—any emotion that any human ever had—and I’ll be especially happy if I am spared a stupid, common death in bed”
Halliburton graduated from Princeton in 1921 and was true to his word. Idolising youthful heroes such as Byron, TE Lawrence, George Mallory, Rupert Brooke, Halliburton set out to create a life of adventure for himself. On the strength of his daring, his good looks, journalism and tireless theatrical lecturing, Halliburton became a celebrity with best selling books like Royal Road to Romance and The Glorious Adventure (also available for free, here), recounting his journeys around the world during the 1920s and adhering to his simple philosophy:
Let those who wish have their respectability, I wanted freedom, freedom to indulge in whatever caprice struck my fancy, freedom to search in the farthermost corners of the earth for the beautiful, the joyous and the romantic.
After losing a fortune in the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Halliburton had to scrape the money together for his next adventure, flying around the world in a two seater, open cockpit Stearman biplane which he christened The Flying Carpet and wrote about in the eponymous book.
Halliburton could not fly, so enlisted experienced pilot Moye Stephens to fly the plane offering him no wage but unlimited expenses. After shipping the Flying Carpet to England, the pair embarked on a 40,000 mile journey taking in Saharan Africa,, Europe, the Middle East, India and South East Asia, before putting the Flying Carpet back on a ship to sail for San Francisco. (Read more about the journey here and here.)
Their trip was daring and pioneering. Lindbergh had only made his solo flight across the Atlantic a few years earlier. They had no support. Shell Oil had kindly given them the location of an oil tank in the Sahara at which they could refuel although finding it meant following tyre tracks across the desert. The journey had plenty of romance; they met maharajahs and took princes and princesses up in the Flying Carpet in Iraq and Persia. They met a stranded German aviatrix, Elly Beinhorn who joined them, swapped the Flying Carpet’s wheels for floats in south east Asia and met headhunters in Borneo. They flew past the Taj Mahal and took the first aerial photos of Mount Everest and gave aerobatic displays on their way round.
It is a dizzying journey and Halliburton’s breathless style matches it. By the fourth page they have crossed America, sailed across the Atlantic and have flown south from England across France and Spain to Gibraltar. It is apparent that they landed and visited many more places than are described, places like Rangoon barely registering a mention. It was only four years since Lindbergh had become the first person ever to be in New York one day and in Paris on the next; this was a new way of seeing the old world just before it changed. It is hard not to feel Halliburton’s excitement and be swept along by his enthusiasm.
Halliburton is no poet like that other famous flying writer, Antoine St Exupery and his style is not necessarily fashionable. Susan Sontag noted in her 2001 essay Homage to Halliburton (published in her 2002 collection, Where the Stress Falls):
Enthusiasm for travel may not be expressed so giddily today, but I’m sure that the seeking of what is strange or beautiful, or both, remains just as pleasurable and addictive
For Sontag, Halliburton’s books were some of the most important of her life, fusing the idea of being a traveller and a writer as she recalled how his books,
described for me an idea of pure happiness. And of successful volition. You have something in mind. You imagine it. You prepare for it. You voyage toward it. Then you see it. And there is no disappointment; indeed, it may even be more captivating than you imagined.
Like many of his youthful heroes, Halliburton died young. He had embarked on another adventure in March 1939, sailing a Chinese junk across the Pacific Ocean. He went missing and was pronounced dead in October of that year.
Although not written in a literary style, Tahir Shah points out in his foreword that “great travel writing is all about evoking an atmosphere of adventure” and Halliburton certainly does that with his undiminished enthusiasm for seeking the world’s wonders and conveying his genuine delight at what he is doing.