SOUTH AUSTRALIA CAN CLAIM A FLOCK OF AVIATION FIRSTS, including Australia's first plane flight that happened, by accident, in a Bolivar paddock in 1910.
Engineer Bill Wittber was at the controls when the first flight, nicknamed the “Wittber hop”, happened in a Bleriot XI monoplane that had been brought to Adelaide by businessman Fred Jones.
Wittber was conducting taxiing tests in the Bleriot aircraft in a Bolivar paddock when he suddenly found himself about five feet in the air. He flew 40 feet before landing. This claim to Australia's first flight is disputed, as Harry Houdini's first controlled powered flight occurred a few days later in Victoria.
Bill Wittber went on to claim a first in his own right when he built his own plane and enginee, now displayed at the South Australian Aviation Museum in Port Adelaide.
South Australia's other aviation firsts include the flight from England to Australia by brothers Ross and Keith Smith in their Vickers Vimy bomber and the flight over the Arctic by South Australian-born Hubert Wilkins.
Other aviation pioneers recognised in the history walk at the South Australian Aviation Museum include Jimmy Melrose, who became an international aviation sensation in the 1930s. The suburb of Melrose Parl and the park on the South Esplanade at Glenelg are named after him.
South Australia's first recorded pre-aeroplane ascent was in 1871 with a flight in a coal gas-filled balloon, piloted by Thomas Gale. The balloon flew from the sheep and cattle markets near the corner of North and West terraces, Adelaide, to a point 12 kilometres north east.
AUSTRALIA'S FIRST PLANE FLIGHT CLAIMED IN BOLIVAR PADDOCK
Lavinia Balford of Parkside was the first South Australian female to ascend in a balloon when American Thomas Gale brought his machine, the Young Australian, to Adelaide in 1871. Gale’s first flight attempt on Tuesday, June 20, when the balloon only half inflated, left 20,000 onlookers in the Adelaide parklands “disappointed if not disgusted”, according to the Southern Argus – especially the 500 who bought tickets to watch it rise from the grounds of the Exhibition Building, North Terrace. Gale blamed the failure on a narrow coal gas pipe. The South Australian Gas Company came to the rescue with a thicker pipe for another attempt on the Saturday at the cattle yards on western North Terrace opposite Newmarket Hotel. By 2pm, the Register reported, several hundred spectators had paid for admission within the enclosure, and several thousand assembled on North Terrace and nearby parklands. Schrader’s band played “most excellent music”. While they waited for enough wind for the flight, the balloon “gave a lift” to 30 or 40 people to the height of the 60m tether rope. Lavinia Balford was among them. Gale’s first full flight took place at 4.15. His companion was theatre impresario Samuel Lazar, later Adelaide mayor. Lazar threw out copies of the Register to mark the route of his flight that ended near Thorndon Park Reservoir. Over the next few weeks Gale took many more passengers up in Young Australian. He opened the way for many similar balloon events in Adelaide’s parklands. Gale never left Adelaide. He married Balford Lavinia and lived in Parkside for the rest of his life.
Businessman Fred Jones shipped a Bleroit XI (No.37) monoplane in kit form from Europe to Adelaide in 1910. After landing on Port Adelaide docks from the steamer Schwaben, the disassembled Bleriot XI was taken by horse and cart to Eyes & Crowle in Pirie Street, where engineer Carl Wilhelm “Bill” Wittber was employed to assemble the all-wood plane, take it apart, and then assemble it again at John Martin’s store in Rundle Street to be put on display for thousands of shoppers.
Engineer Carl Wilhelm “Bill” Wittber, who assembled Fred Jones’ Bleriot XI kit monoplane, was taking it on a taxi test it in a Bolivar paddock in March, 1910, when it made a 40-yards hop at a height of five feet – claimed as Australia's first plane flight. Volunteer pilot Fred Custance followed this with "very wobbly" one-minute flight and a "very rough" landing. When Jones' plane was later destroyed in a fire, Wittber built his own plane with a six-cylinder radial engine – another Australian first.
FROM SMITH BROTHERS TO ANDY THOMAS
Adelaide’s famous Smith brothers Ross and Keith learned their flying skills in World War I. Keith paid his way to England to enlist in the Royal Flying Corps. He was posted to a new bomber unit that left for France in 1918. Ross served mainly with No.1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, defending the Suez Canal. He flew the twin-engined Handley Page 0/400 on bombing in Palestine and long photographic flights. He was co-pilot of the aircraft in a pioneer flight from Cairo to Calcutta in 1918.
Adelaide brothers Ross and Keith Smith shared the £10,000 prize offered by the Australian government for the first to fly from England to Australia in less than 30 days, touching their Vickers Vimy down at Darwin in December 1919. With Ross as pilot, Keith as assistant pilot and navigator, and mechanics J.M. Bennett and Norwood-born Walter Shiers, the flight began from Hounslow. They covered the 18,250km in just under 28 days, with 135 hours flying at an average 137km/h.
Jimmy Melrose’s global celebrity in the 1930s was short but spectacular. As a young aviator he was called “the next (Charles) Lindbergh”. His fame, as an Australian handsome heartthrob, rivalled Errol Flynn’s. Born in Burnside to a prosperous pastoralist family, Melrose set Australian and world flying records in just three years. On his 21st birthday, he left Parafield aerodrome in his Puss Moth for England, reaching Croydon in a record eight days, nine hours. He died in a crash at 22.
Adelaide-based Jon Johanson set world records and won one of aviation’s top honours in a home-built Van’s Aircraft RV-4. After 2,000 hours building his plane, Johanson received a permit to fly it in1992 and his first round-the word trip was in 1995. Johanson left from Parafield on June 26 for Oshkoch, USA, then across the Atlantic Ocean for Europe, the Middle East, Asia and back to Parafield on September 24. Total flight time was 198 hours, After more world trips, in 2003, Johanson again left from Parafield to make the first solo flight in a single-engine home-built aircraft over the South Pole. In 2004, Johanson was awarded the gold air medal by the FAI, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (The World Air Sports Federation). At the time, Johanson held 47 FAI world records.
AFTER HARRY BUTLER'S ALBERT PARK (HENDON) AERODROME
Harry Butler became obsessed with flying during his boyhood on a farm and school at Koolywurtie near Minlaton. He’d heard about Bill Wittber and Fred Custance's flights in the Bolivar paddock in 1910, and on most Saturdays he travelled to Smithfield on a motorbike. On Margaret Smith’s property at Smithfield, Butler joined Bill Wittber, who had designed and built his own plane, including a six-cylinder radial engine (an Australian first). Taxi trials of the plane in 1915 produced longer and higher hops, but the venture ended when the government banned civilian aircraft flying after World War I broke out. Disgusted, Wittber dismantled and burnt his plane. Butler continued his interest in aviation and was finally accepted into the air force at Point Cook. Disappointed by slow progress, Butler went to England and joined the Royal Flying Corps. Excluded from the pilots' course by lack of education, he became a mechanic. His experience and knowledge were recognised and, by 1916, Second Lieutenant Butler was flying in France. Although wounded and twice awarded the Air Force Cross, he stayed in the Royal Flying Corps until 1919 when demobilised with the rank of captain. During the war, Butler solved the lack of communication experienced at the front by dropping messages from the air. This created the concept of air mail. Butler’s first actual air mail flight was in 1917 when he took letters from Glasgow to Turnberry. Butler put the airmail concept into practice with his own planes in South Australia after the war.
World War I pilot Harry Butler returned to Adelaide from England with a Bristol monoplane (the Red Devil) and an Avro 504-K. Butler gave stunt displays in the Red Devil and, in 1919, he took it on the first southern hemisphere over-water flight across St Vincent Gulf (108km) to his hometown Minlaton on Yorke Peninsula. Carrying a full mailbag, he was greeted by more than 6000 people. District council chairman Edward Correll received a special letter from state governor Henry Galway. Butler returned to Adelaide with two bags of mail and flew over his old school at Koolywurtie. Butler, with Harry Kauper, converted his Avro 504-4 to two seats and operated Captain Harry J. Butler & Kauper Aviation from a hangar at basic Northfield airfield. Butler bought 24ha at largely-rural Albert Park in Woodville district, and in 1920 set up Hendon, also known as Captain Butler's, aerodrome. With the aviation novelty wearing off, Butler closed the company in 1921. The federal defence department in 1922 bought what was first serious Adelaide airport until the shift to Parafield in 1927. Butler and his Red Devil created other firsts including an aerial photograph of Adelaide and taking people on flights over the city. In 1920, the Ross and Keith Smith returned to Adelaide in their Vickers-Vimy, escorted by Butler's Red Devil.That year, Butler won Australia's first aerial derby in Adelaide but crashed his Avro biplane near Minlaton in 1922. He survived and resumed flying and new businesses but died of a cerebral abscess in 1924. Thousands lined King William Street, Adelaide, to farewell to their hero at his funeral.
Horrie Miller added to the colour of Adelaide aviation when he arrived in 1921, with a background as an Australian Air Corps war pilot and in barnstorming (stunt flying). He was an owner of Commercial Aviation Company, whose early flights around South Australia used a G-AUCF Armstrong-Whitworth FK8, later sold to the fledgling Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services (QANTAS) at Longreach. Miller set up operations at Harry Butler’s Hendon (Albert Park) aerodrome in Adelaide's west where, in 1924, the first Adelaide-Sydney airmail run started, involving another operator, the controversial Joe Larkin, in the early competitive days of Australian airlines. The airmail route was Adelaide-Mildura-Hay-Narrandera-Cootamundra-Sydney over 24 hours. In 1927, philanthropist and confectioner MacPherson Robertson helped Miller to set up another airline, MacPherson Miller Aviation, and used it to carry chocolates from Melbourne to Adelaide. Many other early flights were to carry medical emergencies: a precursor to the Royal Flying Doctor Service. MacPherson Robertson initially flew out of Hendon (Albert Park) and Parafield, where Miller was the first person to land. The Sydney-to-Perth air race used Parafield in October 1929 when 16 aircraft called in to refuel. Horrie Miller won the event on handicap in his DH9 G-AUHT. MacRobertson Miller Airlines was taken over by Ansett Airlines in 1963.
Parafield Airport opened in 1927 on the day after Harry Butler’s former Albert Park (Hendon) aerodrome closed. Adelaide-based pilot Horrie Miller’s Miller Aviation Company (later MacRobertson Miller Airways in Western Australia) and Australian Aerial Services moved from Albert Park to Parafield, as Adelaide’s interstate links increased. In 1929, two De Havilland Hercules Airlines, carrying 21 passengers, arrived from Perth on the first flight of the East-West Service. Sixteen aircraft landed in the East-West Air Race from Sydney to Perth – won by Horrie Miller in his DH9 G-AUHT. Adelaide Steamship Company announced the new Adelaide Airways in 1935, with flights from Parafield to Port Lincoln and Kangaroo Island. A Short Scion and a G.A.L. Monospar were ordered. Adelaide Airways started its Parafield–Mount Gambier–Melbourne route with the Short Scion VH-UUT. Australian National Airways formed in 1936 with passengers flying from Parafield to Perth, Melbourne and Sydney as well as country centres in South Australia. During World War II, Parafield Airport was used by the RAAF as a training unit using mainly Tiger Moth aircraft, with an occasional heavier general service aircraft such as the Liberator Bomber. After the war, the airfield plus many buildings were handed back to the federal civil aviation department and it operated as the city's only civil airport until Adelaide Airport at Brooklyn Park was opened in 1955.
Adelaide Airways was formed as a subsidiary of the Adelaide Steamship Company in 1935, operating out of Parafield airport. Its fleet had different aircraft, including the Short Scion, the General Aircraft Monospar ST-25 and the De Havilland DH.89A. In 1936, Adelaide Airways bought West Australian Airways that had been set up by Norman Beardley in 1921 as Australia’s first scheduled air service, for £25,000 Ivan Holyman also approached Adelaide Steamship to amalgamate with his airline (operating between Victoria and Tasmania), aiming to form Australia's most powerful airline to effectively control airline traffic between Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. In 1936, the two companies merged and, along with orient Steam Navigation and Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand, formed Australian National Airways (ANA) the giant among Australian domestic airlines before and after World War II. Adelaide Steamship retained part ownership in ANA until Holyman's death in 1957. The Australian National Airways board then unsuccessfully tried to sell out to the government-owned Trans Australia Airlines (TAA), before reaching agreement with Reg Ansett to sell the airline to him for £3.3 million.
Australian aviation was transformed by the fate of Australian National Airways (ANA) Douglas DC-2 aircraft Kyeema that took off from Adelaide’s Parafield airport on the morning of October 25, 1938. On its approach to Melbourne’s Essendon Airport through heavy fog, it crashed into the western slopes of Mount Dandenong, killing all 18 on board. Among the passengers was Charles Hawker, from the prominent South Australian pastoralist family, and a federal politician touted as a possible future conservative prime minister. Also devastating for the South Australian wine industry was the loss of three leaders: Hugo Gramp (G. Gramp and Sons), Tom Hardy (Thomas Hardy and Sons) and Sidney Hill Smith (S. Smith and Son, Yalumba.) Shocked by the loss of one of its own MPs, the federal government quickly set up a royal commission and an air accident investigation committee public enquiry started on October 30. The result was that civil aviation was taken out of hands of the defence department where it had been a poor relation. A separate civil aviation department was created. The Kyeema crash gave birth to Australia's system of air traffic control. A 33 MHz radio range system was recommended to give pilots accurate information. Australian National Airways (ANA) had been formed in 1936 when Adelaide Airways (an Adelaide Steamship Co. subsidary) merged with Holyman’s Airways from Tasmania. Ivan Holyman, as head of ANA, brought the first modern all-metal airliner (Douglas DC-2) to Australia and introduced air hostesses, free flight-meals and automatic insurance of passengers.
SOUTH AUSTRALIA INVOLVED WITH ROYAL AUSTRALIAN AIR FORCE FROM ITS START
A proponent for air power being independent of other branches of the armed services, South Australia's Richard Williams played a leading role in setting up the Royal Australian Air Force and became its first chief of air staff in 1922. He served for 13 years over three terms at that rank, longer than any other officer. Williams, from a working-class background in Moonta Mines, was the first military pilot trained in Australia. He commanded Australian and British air fighter units during World War I.
Mallala, north of Adelaide, was the base for the Royal Australian Air Force’s No. 6 Service Flying Training School after war broke out in the Pacific in 1941.The school formed a reserve squadron for Australia's defence by instructing pilots at the intermediate and advanced level under the Empire Air Training Scheme, operating Avro Anson and Airspeed Oxford aircraft. After graduating more than 2,000 pilots, No.6 SFTS completed its final course in 1945 and became the Care and Maintenance Unit Mallala in 1946. This was one of 40 units across Australia storing surplus aircraft awaiting sale, scrapping or stripping for spare parts. From 1947, the base built for No.6 SFTS was occupied by RAAF units No.24 (City of Adelaide) Squadron and No.34 Communications Squadron supporting tests and transport for the long-range weapons project at Woomera rocket range. In 1949-50, the federal immigration department altered some buildings on the base to house migrant families. This lasted only briefly because the defence department needed the area for other purposes. When the RAAF Base Edinburgh opened in 1954, Mallala wound down and was closed in 1960 with land and buildings sold in 1961. Mallala base’s next phase was as a speedway. Clem Smith is credited with saving Mallala Motor Sport Park that’s again busy with car events, motorcycling and Formula 2 and V8 races. The circuit was bought by the Shahin family, who also owns The Bend raceway at Tailem Bend, after Smith’s death in 2017.
AIRPORTS: PUBLIC, PRIVATE, MILITARY
Adelaide was named No.9 in the World’s Best International Airports by the Travel + Leisure website in 2016. Emirates, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Air New Zealand, Malaysia Airlines, Southern China and Qatar have expanded their services to the airport. A new 165-room seven-storey hotel is the biggest step in a $2 billion expansion detailed in a masterplan that includes tripling the terminal’s size by 2044 and building several multi-storey office buildings in a business area.
A $21 million upgrade to Kangaroo island's Kingscote airport, opened in 2018, allows larger planes flying directly from interstate, including Melbourne, Sydney or Perth. This was expected to bring an extra 25,00 tourists to the island. Funded by the federal and state governments, the Kingscote Airport now has an extended runway for larger aircraft and amenities raised to International Air Transport Association Class C standards. Mount Gambier Airport, owned and operated by the District Council of Grant, has also benefited from a $3.5 million federally-funded upgrade. Mount Gambier's main point of contention, on price and scheduling, has been that it is only serviced by one commercial airline, Rex, with flights to and from Adelaide and Melbourne as well as charter flights. In the remote far north of the state, Umuwa Aerodrome runway in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands is being raised with improved drainage. Other public regional airports in South Australia are at Andamooka, Ceduna, Cleve, Coober Pedy, Cowell, Kimba, Kingscote, Loxton, Naracoorte, Port Lincoln, Oodnadatta, Parafield, Port Augusta, Port Pirie, Renmark, Streaky Bay, Tumby Bay, Wailkerie, Whyalla and Wuidinna. Private airports are at Gawler, Goolwa, Jacinth Ambrosia Mine, Leigh Creek, Moomba, Murray Bridge, Olympic Dam, Prominent Hill Mine and William Creek.
PRESERVING AVIATION HERITAGE
Between 25,000 and 30,000 attended a Parafield air show in 1926 to celebrate the opening of the South Australian section of the Australian Aero Club: the Royal Aero Club of South Australia. Later that year, the club had defence department approval for the loan of two DH60 Gipsy Moths. In 1927, the club built a hangar and bought two aircraft for passenger transport and training. The club was at the forefront of Adelaide upper-class society and many of its members came from Adelaide’s wealthiest and best-known families. Two of club’s earliest members, Jimmy Melrose and Roy Gropler, benefited from its training and went on to become young long-distance solo flying heroes. A friend of Melrose, who was from South Australia's pastoral aristocracy, was Francis Marion Wright (nee Lunn) who gained her A pilot's licence through the Royal Aero Club, Parafield, in 1933. In 1934, she won the Ross Smith Trophy for the highest aggregate score in flying competitiions. When World War II broke out, she was not allowed to fly with the forces but became section leader in the Red Cross women's transport and, as an experienced mechanic, worked on servicing motor vehicles and aircraft at Parafield.
The Parafield airport tradition of pilot training, fostered by the Royal Aero Club of South Australia, continues, although its location amid Adelaide's norhern suburbs has become controversial. Originally from Waikerie where he ran his original flying school, Bruce Hartwig, became chief flying instructor for the Royal Aero Club at Parafield in 1980. Hartwig worked with Greg Norris at Parafield to set up what became the first aviation school in Australia to attain an ISO 9001 international quality assurance rating. It remains one of Australia’s premier specialist aviation schools. At its Mawson campus, next to Parafield airport, the University of South Australia offers aviation as a tertiary qualification. Its bachelor of aviation (management) offers skills for a career in aviation management, airline administration, or airport and flight operations. Students interested in a flying career can apply for the bachelor of aviation (pilot) specialisation. This complemented with flight training through the graduate diploma in aviation for domestic students or through private flying lessons for international students. Flight Training Adelaide at Parafield is the university’s partner in flight training for its graduate diploma of aviation students. TAFE SA Parafield Campus at Parafield Airport specialises in aviation courses including aircraft engineering and pilot training. Adelaide University Gliding Club and Adelaide Biplanes at Aldinga add to the flight training experience.
Restoring rare and classic World War II Pacific conflict fighter aircraft has been a feature of the work of volunteers at the Classic Jets Fighter Museum at Hangar 52, Parafield Airport.The museum’s first restoration coup was a P38 H Lockheed Lightning 42-66841. Out of 9,923 of these big twin-engine fighters made by Lockheed in 1937-45, the museum’s is only one of 25 remaining. It was flown in Papua and New Guinea operations until a forced landing in 1943. Another of the museum’s prizes is a World War II Corsair F4U-1 S/N 02270 salvaged from Vanuatu, where it forcelanded in a lagoon, near Quoin Hill fighter strip, in 1944. The pilot escaped uninjured and its machine guns were removed the next day and the aircraft was abandoned. Restoring this aircraft – the world’s oldest surviving Corsair, with a data plate indicating it was No.124 off the production line – has been ambitious and challenging. Five other Corsair crash sites have supplied many hard-to-find components for the project. The museum founder Bob Jarrett was also helped by the loan of airworthy airframe modules and the ingenuity of volunteers involved in the restoring in adjoining Hangar 107. The museum also presented a range of former RAAF and RAN jet aircraft from the 1950s to the 1980s. It also offered the chance to sit behind the controls of a RAAF Mirage, Sabre and RAN Sea Venom jet fighters. In 2019, Jarrett announced the selloff of 670 items – including the RAN Sea Venom, a Mirage jet cockpit section and a Jindivick pilotless drone – to finance the completion of the Corsair project.