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First plane sightings over Sarawak; where planes were (nearly) as rare as unicorns

Sarawak’s first experiences with aviation can be dated back as early as 1922 when a Dutch flying boat was spotted flying over Belaga, about 20 years after the Wright brothers made their successful flights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Fast forward to 1924, another plane flew over the skies of Sarawak, and this time over Kuching.

Here comes an interesting fact about those particular planes; their flight paths were not planned.

The first plane to be spotted in Sarawak’s skies

The first flight to fly into Sarawak airspace was a Dutch flying boat from Dutch Borneo (current day Kalimantan) which strayed over into Belaga.

The event was first reported on The Sarawak Gazette in Sept 2, 1922 issue. However, the gazette at that time was not able to verify the incident.

“On the authority of a native officer we are informed that an aeroplane or some other flying vessel, came over Belaga fort about 8.30pm on the 14th August.

“We are told that she turned a search-light on to the fort and was flying quite low; the noise of her engines could be distinctly heard and our informant is quite certain about the matter.

“If this story is true we imagine that this is the first time any flying vessel has come over Sarawak.”

The gazette then confirmed the incident of the strayed flight and its identity in its October issue that year.

According to the report, the then third division resident verified the event stating, “Java Post confirms flying boat visited Borneo going north near Pemangkat then east inland to Kapuas 500 kilometres plainly seen close Belaga Fort fired Verey light over Belaga 8pm returning east.”

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(A Verey, now spelled as Very, is a flare gun used to create illumination for improved vision or as a distress signal.)

Furthermore, the aviation company which owned the plane is now the oldest airline in the world still operating under its original name.

The plane which was a flying boat, was actually on a test flight for a feeder service in connection with the proposed Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij (today more familiarly known simply as KLM) London-Singapore route.

Response to the first plane

The Sarawak Gazette report writer then commented on how surprised the locals could be looking at an airplane for the first time in their lives.

“People at home are so used to seeing airships and aeroplanes flying overhead that Europeans in this country may find it difficult at first to realise what a novelty it must be for natives.

“Not long ago the people of Kuching were given an opportunity of seeing submarines, vessels that go under the water, and now the Belaga natives have seen a vessel which flies over land and water.

“It is true that many of the more intelligent natives have read of flying vessels, and probably some have seen them depicted on the films, but to those who were at all sceptical, and we believe there were many so, it is now proved without a doubt that the urang puteh can build ships that fly through the air.”

The spirit of the old rajah?

Meanwhile in October 1924, it was Kuching residents’ turn to see an airplane for the first time.

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HMS Pegasus was an aircraft carrier/seaplane carrier bought by the Royal Navy in 1917 during the First World War.

During the last year of the war, Pegasus was stationed in the North Sea but saw no combat.

Then most of 1919 and 1920, she spent her days as a carrier supporting British intervention in North Russia and the Black Sea.

From 1924-1925, Pegasus was stationed briefly in Singapore. When she was on her way from Singapore to Miri, Pegasus sent one of her seaplanes to fly over Kuching.

It landed along the stretch of Sarawak river in front of Main Bazaar. However, the reason for its landing was not reported.

The interesting part was its arrival coincided with the unveiling ceremony of the Rajah Charles Brooke Memorial in front of the old courthouse.

According to Vincent Foo and Chai Foh Chin in Story of the Sarawak Steamship Company, some members of the large crowd even thought it was the spirit of the old rajah returning.

While other countries had planned flights to mark their firsts in aviation history, the first two planes to ever fly over Sarawak were accidental.

The first aeroplane to have landed in Sarawak. Credits: Ho Ah Chon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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