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
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
Stunt pilot Horrie Miller and Joe Larkin were part of the early competitive days of Australian airlines, starting at Harry Butler’s Hendon (Albert Park) aerodrome before moving to Parafield. In 1924, Larkin was involved in starting the Adelaide-Mildura-Hay-Narrandera-Cootamundra-Sydney airmail route over 24 hours. In 1927, philanthropist-confectioner MacPherson Robertson helped Miller to set up MacPherson Miller Aviation and used it to carry chocolates from Melbourne to Adelaide.
Parafield Airport opened in 1927 on the day after Harry Butler’s Albert Park (Hendon) aerodrome closed. Horrie Miller’s Miller Aviation Company (later MacRobertson Miller Airways in Western Australia) and Australian Aerial Services moved from Albert Park. Adelaide Airways, flying to Melbourne via Mount Gambier, and Australian National Airways, flying to Perth, Melbourne and Sydney as well as South Australian country centres, operated through Parafield from the mid 1930s.
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
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. 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 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 presents a range of former RAAF and RAN jet aircraft from the 1950s to the 1980s. It also offers the chance to sit behind the controls of a RAAF Mirage, Sabre and RAN Sea Venom jet fighters. Added to these are military aviation artefacts and conventional, radial and jet aircraft engines.
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.