Record distance flight of the Tatra T-101.1

In 1937 a prize was offered for a distance flight accomplished with an aeroplane of Czechoslovakian origin. At the time, the Tatra company were flight testing a new wing design intended for eventual use on the Tatra T-002 twin engine light transport. At first, the wing was flown mated to the fuselage of the Tatra T–001 aeroplane, and it was then decided to build a whole new aircraft, the Tatra T–101. This is how the record - breaking Tatra T–101 aeroplane came to be developed.

During the National Air Exhibition, Tatra head designer Ing. Tomáš met the great pilot Major Ambrus and told him about his plans for the record distance flight. With Major Ambrus´ agreement to the distance flight plan, it was decided during construction of the T – 101 to build the aircraft with enlarged fuel tanks.

The maiden flight of Tatra T–101 was carried out by pilot Matena on the 17th January 1938, just four months before the record distance flight. On the 18th January the aeroplane received the registration OK–TAO, and the aeroplane was tested very intensively until March 1938. Thanks to the enlarged wing area, the aeroplane was able to carry higher loads than its ancestor and was also able to fly extremely high when lightly loaded. As a proof of its abilities, an attempt for two world altitude records was planned. These took place at Brno airport on the 16th March 1938. Information on these records can be found here.

For the record flight of more than 4000 km, the aeroplane was equipped with 10 fuel tanks with a total volume of 500 litres. The main tank (125 litres) was placed in the fuselage, 4 tanks with a total volume of 340 litres were placed on both sides of the wing centre section, and an auxillary tank was placed in the luggage space. All tanks were made from welded aluminium sheets, and the forward wing tanks formed the leading edge of the inboard section of each wing. Much attention was devoted to the engine, a French Zenith carburettor and a Swiss Scintilla ignition system being fitted in place of the original Solex and Bosch items respectively. Fuel consumption had to be lowered to a minimum while maintaining the same take – off power, so the shape of the suction piping was changed and some alterations to the ignition timing were made.

In all, preparations for the record flight lasted four months. Performance and fuel consumption calculations were made, and a detailed program of methodical flight tests was prepared based on these calculations. These tests would also prove the reliability of the airframe and engine. All together, 92 hours and 23 minutes of test flying were done. Finally, on the 6th May 1938 at 6 a.m. Ambrus and Matena took off for the last test flight, a triangular route of 100 km (Prague – N.Benatky – Rip) repeated 20 times. They landed successfully at 6:30 p.m. The whole flight was 2000 km long and lasted 12.5 hours, and was an international record in itself! The engine was run at 2000 rev./min and consumed 148.5 kg of fuel, which amounts to 200 litres or in other words 10 litres per 100 km.

Ambrus and Matena departed at 4:35am on the 17th May, 1938. They took off from Ruzyne and guided their aeroplane to Bratislava. From there, they flew over Balaton to the Danube and Drava junction and on over Yugoslavia to Thessalonica and the island of Crete. Gradually the aeroplane climbed to the height of 1500m and at 7 p.m. they flew over the eastern tip of Crete. Now they were facing a difficult 600 km long flight over the Mediterranean Sea, through the dark night towards Alexandria. Their only navigational aids were a compass- and good luck. The air was clear and all was well with the aircraft and crew. Three hours later, the excitement in the aeroplane mounted as the time for landfall on the North African coast approached. But where was Alexandria? They had not yet seen any sign of the coast or any lights from the port city. The pilots decided to descend from the height of 1700 to 200–250 meters. Just a few moments later the aeroplane emerged below the cloud layer, and now from the height of about 200 m they could see the many lights in the harbour of Alexandria. In an hour or less they could see the lights of Cairo, which was a turning point of the journey to the south. In accordance with previous agreements, they guided the aeroplane above the lighted road to the great pyramids, where they gave a signal to the company’s delegate by switching the ignition off momentarily. The signal meant that they had successfully flown over the Mediterranean Sea and were going further to the south without any problems. Suddenly, south of Haifa, the engine coughed and idled. This was the first sign that fuel was beginning to run low. Just 200–300 km further and it would be necessary to land. Major Ambrus manipulated the fuel valves and the engine started again. He also opened the supply from the emergency luggage bay fuel tank. After consulting a map, it became clear that it would be necessary to land at Al–Khartoum, as there were only 30 litres of fuel left in the tanks. The airport was in the vast desert, south of the city. A short time later, the pilots caught sight of the hangars and guided their aircraft down towards the airfield. It was still a quiet morning, 7 a.m. Czech time, when the aeroplane landed on the sand and taxied to the hangars. In the tanks there was enough fuel left for another 200 km, but there would have been nowhere to land. A new world record was created in a non-stop distance flight, covering 4340 km.

The return flight was routed over the Sahara to Italy, Belgrade, Jasi, Uzhorod, and Brno before finally touching down back in Prague. The whole flight including the return journey measured more than 12 000 km. On their return, both pilots were showered with many laurels and accolades. The factory pilot Matena was also gifted a beautiful Tatra aircraft for his own personal use, which was presented to him on behalf of the factory by Ing. Simunek after the final landing in Prague.