Friday, January 08, 2010

Stories from the barnstorming days of Australian aviation

When I got up early this morning to catch up on my writing, I found an email from Bruce Hoy. Bruce was in my class at Armidale Demonstration School.

Back in 2007 Bruce sent me a copy of a class photo that then inspired Armidale Demonstration School Year 5 1955. Bruce has now edited the photo and re-sent it to me along with his memories as to who was in it. I was completely distracted.

Bruce's email was one of a number in current email chains about shared pasts generated in part by blog posts and my Express column. I really haven't counted them, but there must have been 40-50 over the last three weeks. I am struggling a bit to cope, but it has all been so much fun!

Sopwith Camel, Armidale 1918 There is so much material now. Just to illustrate.

The photo was taken by Leslie Henderson and sent to me by John Caling. John wrote:

The above attachment is a scan of a photograph of what is claimed to be the first aircraft to ever land in Armidale. It was taken at the racecourse and some of the racecourse buildings can be seen in the background.

I believe the aircraft is a Sopwith Camel from the Australian Air Corps and would have been taken around the end of WW1.

Each photo tells a story.

At the moment I am reading Joan Priest's Virtue in Flying: a biography of pioneer aviator Keith Virtue (Angus & Robertson, 1975). This is a rattling good yarn from the early days of Australian flying that would make a very good film so long as you could get the planes!

The story of the Virtues, the Robinsons and New England Airways is now almost forgotten, although I have written on it in some posts.

It is a story of regional business, of the combination of a flying mad family (the Virtues) with another business family (the Robinsons) who between them established what would become one of Australia's early major airlines. It is a story of barnstorming, of constant innovation, of business survival without subsidy (New England Airways was the only major airline at the time without Government subsidy), of races between planes and trains, of air crashes.

It is the story of Keith Virtue, the son of a North Coast dairy farmer who said to his son if you get a pilot's license I will buy you a plane. He did, and the whole Virtue family became involved. It is the story of a shrewd businessman, George Robinson, who built Lismore based New England Motor Co into a significant bus business with services from Brisbane in the north to Nowra in the south. It is the story of how George who hated flying finally became addicted.

When Jack Lang opened the Sydney Harbour Bridge it was New England Airways that provided the joy flights, in this case joined by Kingsford Smith. At a time when the Australian aircraft industry had collapsed, it was New England Airways that employed Lawrence Wackett, the man who would become Australia's most famous aircraft designer, as head of maintenance at its Sydney facility.      

You will get a small taste of this world if you look at New England Story - Leslie Hubert Holden and the DH 61 Giant Moth Canberra, another post inspired by a John Caling photo.

The New England Airways Puss Moth plane whose crash killed Leslie Holden and his friend Dr George Hamilton was flown by Ralph Virtue who also died. Pilots loved this plane, but it proved to have a fundamental design flaw - in this case, a wing broke off in turbulence. 

So many stories. Perhaps I will be able to write them one day! Perhaps, too, some of these stories will be turned into films. There are lots of good yarns out there.