The Last Great Air Race

Heathrow Airport was the starting point of the London-to-Christchurch air race in October 1953. KLM took part in the handicap section with its brand-new DC 6A Liftmaster. The “Dr. Ir. M. H. Damme” was a freighter that had been converted into a passenger plane for the race. On board were 64 passengers, plus a double cabin and cockpit crew headed by Captain Kooper.

The Race

KLM President Albert Plesman felt it would be a good idea if KLM took part in the race, thereby confirming that safe and rapid transport over long distances was an everyday affair. The aircraft was therefore fully loaded with passengers, cargo and mail, which is why KLM took part in the handicap section of the race.

Balancing costs and capacity

Specialists came up with an ingenious way of calculating the best balance between costs and capacity. All factors were taken into account. This included the freight and mail, plus the combined weight of the passengers, as well as all other items on board, such as catering materials, the galley itself, seats, curtains, carpets, water tanks, toilets and so on.

This ensured a maximum handicap, which meant that KLM would win the race as long as it arrive within 44 hours of the fast competitor. This may seem like a huge margin, but there was a lot that could go wrong, ranging from engine trouble to heavy weather. And it was going to be a long flight. The other participants in the handicap section were a British European Airways Viscount, which had undergone a cabin conversion to install extra fuel tanks, but had no other freight on board, and a Handley Page Hasting military transport plane entered by the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

Knitting and musical instrument

The passengers aboard the KLM plane were very diverse. Initially, Plesman had decreed that the flight should be handled like any normal flight, with the proviso that there would be no women on board. In his eyes, a two-day air race, entailing an almost non-stop flight, was an ordeal suitable for men only. After a great deal of criticism in the press, Plesman capitulated and, in the end, almost all the passengers were women emigrating to New Zealand to meet their future husbands. A very enthusiastic and high-spirited group, none of whom had every flown before. Plesman advised them to “take along your knitting and a musical instrument,” and they did just that. And so the adventure began, with 55 emigrants flying one-way, as well as nine invitees, three of whom were journalists, including one radio reporter. The flight would take them via Rome, Bagdad, Karachi, Rangoon, Jakarta, Darwin and Brisbane to Christchurch.

1953 aankomst Christchurch

Only one other opponent

On average, every stop lasted only 20 minutes, during which time the aircraft was refuelled and catering was replenished. There was a double cockpit crew on board, and a new cabin crew took over in Karachi. During the stop in Rangoon, passengers were allowed to leave the aircraft for the first time, while locusts seized the opportunity to hitch a ride. Meanwhile, the crew received word that the Royal New Zealand Air Force plane had been forced to leave the race, because it had damaged its flaps during a landing in heavy weather in Colombo, Sri Lanka. This meant that KLM had only one other opponent: the British European Airways Viscount. But the British had zero handicap, which meant KLM was the de facto race winner, as long as the crew managed to avoid any mishaps.

1953 Huldiging crew Londen Christchurch SPL

Fortunately, the rest of the race went smoothly, although a large hawk did fly into one of the engines during the landing in Darwin. With every stop, the KLM aircraft drew a bigger crowd. In Brisbane, the last stop before Christchurch, around a thousand immigrants gathered to cheer for the passengers, who were allowed to briefly leave the plane. By then it was clear that the aircraft was making good time.

Dutch sense of decorum

During the last leg of the race, the Dutch sense of decorum kicked in and the passengers deep-cleaned the entire cabin over the Tasman Sea. A Maori band welcomed the DC-6A, which completed the race in 49 hours and 58 minutes. The Viscount had arrived ten hours earlier, but thanks to the 44-hour handicap, KLM won the handicap section. After all of the baggage seals were checked, it was time to celebrate. KLM had won! The passengers and crew toasted their achievement with whiskey, before swiftly filling their empty stomachs with a full English breakfast, including sausages, ham and bacon. Not everyone was equally thrilled with this victory banquet.

The Last Great Air Race

The 10,000-pound prize won by the KLM crew was partly donated to a worthy cause in New Zealand, and the rest was divided among the emigrants and crew. After five days, some well-earned rest and numerous receptions and parties, the plane returned to the Netherlands, now making the usual layovers on the way. The crew got a festive welcome at Schiphol, and knighthoods were bestowed on Captain Kooper, Co-Pilot Griffith, First Telegraph Operator Kieper and First Flight Engineer Van den Ham.

With the dawn of the jet age and the increasing volume of air traffic, it became less and less exciting to organise a race of this kind. The London-to-Christchurch therefore became known as the Last Great Air Race.

Copyright Visuals and Video: Nederlands Instituut voor Beeld en Geluid

Posted by:   Frido Ogier  | 
Join the conversation Show comments

Julio Cesar Rosa Athayde

Sou grande admirador e voei pela KLM, já estive em Amsterdã.

June Nelson

An extraordinary look into the history of KLM. Well done!

Frido Ogier

Thank you June! Best regards, Frido

Michael R Wimberly

Fly Dutch Fly……………….!

Jan Hemink

Remarkable, nice story and movie of a not well know air race in the past! Tks for letting is know.

Pim Bouhuis

Proud to be Dutch and have KLM!


Love this story. Thank you Frido, for digging up those little gems of history. I wonder what sound advice KLM gives to women travellers these days ;-)

Frido Ogier

Thanks Annebeth, one thing I’m sure of: It won’t be the same advice as in 1953 :-) Best regards, Frido

J.Christiaanse v.d.Boogaart

Deze Air race heb ik zelf meegemaakt, op 7 October 1953. Ik was een van de vele bruidjes die naar hun vriend in N.Z.gingen.Daarom is het erg leuk om dit weer terug te zien, deze foto’s heb ik zelf ook.

Hartelijke groetjes

Frido Ogier

Beste mevrouw Christiaanse, wat leuk om een reactie van een ooggetuige te krijgen. Fijn dat u er plezier aan beleefd heeft. Het was een genoegen om het stuk te schrijven.

Vriendelijke groeten, Frido Ogier

Ingrid Harris

J. Christiaanse v.d. Boogaart is my mother who flew with KLM in the London to Christchurch race in 1953. Quite an adventure.
I am still living in New Zealand even though the rest of my family live in Holland. Great to see the footage of that great race, well done KLM.

Frido Ogier

Dear Ingrid, I just replied your mother. :-) In Dutch, but maybe you van read it. I can image it was an adventure. So far away from home building a new life and then this air race as well… It was a pleasure writing the article and thanks for your compliment!

Kind regards, Frido Ogier

Joke van Nispen

J.J.Christiaanse – van den Boogaart is mijn zuster.
Mijn ouders en de rest van de familie hebben erg in spanning gezeten of alles wel goed zou gaan.
Gelukkig was dat zo.

Nog veel hulde voor de KLM.

Mr.Manuel Luis Antonio

I Rode KLM Royal Dutch Airlines In Manila Philippines. It’s The Greatest Airline&It’s The Partner Of Northwest Airlines

Roly Hermans

My mother, Anne-Marie van Dooren, was one of the brides on this flight. She still lives in New Zealand to this day.

Frido Ogier

Dear Roly,

That must have been quite an experience! Hope she’s fine!

Kind regards,


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