Written by Jennifer Wilson, Senior Curator, The Workshops Rail Museum
Today marks 90 years to the date that Bert Hinkler landed safely in Darwin, completing his attempt to fly solo from England to Australia. Hinkler had completed the flight of 11,250 miles (around 18,000 kilometres) in just 15 days, beating the previous record of 28 days set by Australians Ross and Keith Smith in 1919. He became a media sensation. Every city and town in Australia seemed to want to see and welcome the aviator. But who was Bert Hinkler and why on earth did he want to fly solo from England to Australia?
Herbert Hinkler was born in Bundaberg in 1892, and was known as ‘Bert’ from an early age. Young Hinkler watched with interest the flight of birds, especially Ibis, and began building gliders at his home. In 1912, Hinkler made a successful flight in one of his two gliders at Mon Repos beach and later that year worked as mechanic for travelling American pilot Arthur B. ‘Wizard’ Stone, who completed the first official flight in a powered aircraft in Queensland.
Convinced his future was in aviation, Hinkler made his way to England and early in 1914 gained employment at the Sopwith Aviation Company. In September 1914, Hinkler enlisted with the Royal Naval Air Service, serving as a gunner and observer in missions over Belgium and France, for which he was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal. His experience on the front also gave him the opportunity to learn to fly, and in 1918 he was posted to No 28 Squadron RAF.
Hinkler hoped to continue flying after the war, and in 1919 he saw his chance when Australian Prime Minister William ‘Billy’ Hughes announced a competition with a prize of 10,000 pounds for the first successful flight to Australia from Great Britain in a machine manned by Australians. Hinkler applied to fly the race solo in a Sopwith Dove, but his entry was rejected. Disappointed, Hinkler stayed on in England working at AV Roe, as a mechanic and then as a test pilot.
In 1920, he had his first opportunity to attempt the flight from England to Australia. On the 31st of May, in an Avro Baby, he took off from London and flew non-stop to Turin, Italy. The 9 and a half hour flight was a new long-distance record, but he was forced to abandon the rest of the journey and returned to England.
Seven years later, Hinkler began to plan another flight from England to Australia. The Avro Avian, registered G-EBOV was officially transferred to Hinkler’s ownership in 1927. Hinkler made a number of alterations to the aircraft, including replacing the original radial 5-cylinder Genet engine with a 4-cylinder Cirrus II, installing a metal single blade propeller, an undercarriage of his own design, additional petrol tank, and a double-action fuel pump.
Despite a lack of funds and only a Times Atlas as his guide, on the 7th of February 1928, Hinkler was farewelled at Croydon Aerodrome by his wife Nance, as he took off to attempt the flight to Australia. The weather was less than ideal as he flew to Rome and then on to Malta, Benghazi, Tobruk and Ramla. He was forced to fly around storms and land in the desert in the dark. With the assistance of locals and the Royal Air Force, he continued on across India, Myanmar, Singapore and Indonesia, before landing in Darwin.
The view from the ground in Darwin was detailed by a reporter for the Brisbane Courier:
“When seen first the machine was coming through a V-shaped break in the clouds, flying high and the crowd went mad with enthusiasm. The speck grew larger, and then the plane came through the clouds, making a great picture with the sun in the background. Then Hinkler stunted, soaring then spiral diving, which the thrilled crowd cheered themselves hoarse. He half circled the arena, then the area. The crowd immediately got out of hand and surged forward in mad enthusiasm. With difficulty, a space was made through the crowd for Mrs Hinkler and the members of the family to greet the aviator on the side of the machine. Bert leaned out of the cockpit and there was an affecting scene of reunion. Then the crowd took possession of the intrepid aviator and carried him shoulder high to the high-decked lorry.”
Hinkler flew on to his home town, via Camooweal and Longreach, arriving in Bundaberg on 27 February to a hero’s welcome. He then began a tour of each capital city, and beyond that visited a number of regional centres. Hinkler arrived in Brisbane on the 6th of March. It is estimated that around 12,000 people were there to greet him at Ascot Racetrack, and as Hinkler and the Avro Avian, with its wings folded back, were paraded through Brisbane, people crowded the streets and buildings, finding any vantage point to see the man and his aircraft. The parade was followed by a civic reception at Town Hall.
Despite the enormous popularity that seemed to follow Hinkler, before the end of the year he returned to England amid criticism and disappointment. He was forced to leave the Avro Avian behind, and about six months later donated it to the Queensland Government. It was displayed at the 1929 Brisbane Show and installed at the Queensland Museum later that year. In 1986 it was moved from the old Queensland Museum building in Bowen Hills to the current site at South Brisbane, and it now hangs in the foyer.
Hinkler continued to invent and fly. He designed a wooden amphibian monoplane, named ‘Ibis’, and in 1931 made the first flight from Canada to England via the South Atlantic Ocean in a de Havilland Puss Moth. In the same aircraft, Hinkler again attempted to fly from England to Australia, hoping to better the then record of 8 days and 20 hours set by Charles William Anderson Scott. Hinkler took off on 7 January 1933, aiming to fly to Italy non-stop, but did not reach his destination. Searches were mounted and his crashed Puss Moth was eventually discovered in the Tuscan Mountains. Hinkler was buried with full military honours outside of Florence.
The flights of Hinkler and other aviators during the 1920s and 1930s were really the beginnings of what we now take largely for granted. As you read this, millions of people are jetting across the world in aircraft roughly 8 times the size of the one Hinkler piloted solo. In 2011, Qantas launched an Airbus A380 named after Hinkler. That aircraft completes the flight from Sydney to London, via Singapore in 21 hours, a little more comfortable than Hinkler’s 15 days.
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