By Peter Volk, Assistant Collections Manager, Queensland Museum
How “real” is the Avro Baby flown by Bert Hinkler? This interesting question was raised in a recent public inquiry about one of the most significant objects in Queensland Museum’s collection.
We often get inquiries at the museum that are slightly left field or cause us to think differently about our collection. This happened recently when we fielded a public inquiry that raised an interesting question about one of the most significant objects in Queensland Museum’s collection.
Bert Hinkler’s Avro Baby aircraft G-EACQ has been in the museum since 1970. Many older folks remember seeing it hanging from the ceiling of the old museum building in Gregory Terrace. Others may remember it from displays in the Cultural Centre Museum building, and it is currently on display in the Hinkler Hall of Aviation in Bundaberg. This is the aircraft that Hinkler famously flew from Sydney to Bundaberg, where he taxied down the main street and parked outside his parent’s house. The question asked was how “real” is the aircraft on display. Is it the real plane, or a replica? If it is the real aircraft, has it been restored? If it has been restored, what has been done to it?
Beginnings – a good plane that nobody wanted
The Avro Baby was designed in 1919, just after World War One had ended. The British firm Avro Aviation (originally A.V. Roe and Company) had found great success during WW1, particularly with their Avro 504 training aircraft, but the military market had dried up with the end of the war. The firm was trying to reopen the civilian market for aircraft. Originally known as the Avro type 534 “Popular”, it became known as the Avro “Baby” for reasons not recorded, but probably related to it being a very small aeroplane and the smallest plane Avro was making at the time.
It had an unpromising debut, with the first prototype crashing two minutes into the first flight due to pilot error. The second prototype fared much better, and is the plane preserved by Queensland Museum.
The Baby was successful in a design sense, winning air races and developing a reputation for long distance flight. Several variants were made, including a floatplane (the Water Baby), a two-man version, a version optimised for hot climates and another for Antarctic exploration, a dedicated racing version and an experimental modification that had seven wings arranged something like a Venetian blind.
However, it wasn’t a sales success, with only nine built, including the two prototypes. This was probably due to the aircraft market around 1920 being awash with second-hand military aircraft, available for cheap prices.
Hinkler – a visit to see mother
At the time of the development and testing of the Baby, Bert Hinkler was working for Avro, and he must have liked what he saw, because he bought the prototype. In May 1920 he made a record-breaking flight from London to Turin in Italy in G-EACQ, remembered at the time as “the most meritorious flight on record.”
Hinkler’s original intent was to fly from London to Australia, but to do so he would have to fuel in and overfly Iraq. At the time Iraq was in a state of violent revolt against British occupation and Hinkler was refused permission to enter Iraq by the British government.
Hinkler flew back to Britain and achieved some success with the Baby in air races, but Australia was still on his mind. He and the Baby travelled by sea to Sydney and on 11 April 1921 he made the flight that made his name in Australia for all time – Sydney to Bundaberg: 1,288 km in 8 hours and 40 minutes.
This is the flight that sticks in the mind of everyone who hears of it – not because of its record-breaking speed and distance, but because once he landed the plane, he taxied down the main street of Bundaberg to his mother’s house and parked in front of it.
Records show that he had made modifications to the Baby’s engine to simplify one-man maintenance, but it isn’t clear what those modifications were. This seems to be the first record of a change to the original fabric and fit-out of the aircraft.
A chain of owners
The history of the Baby becomes somewhat more obscure after that peak of fame. Hinkler apparently sold the aircraft after it was damaged at some point, but it isn’t clear what the nature of the damage was. The new owner rebuilt it as a floatplane, with the intention of flying it to New Guinea to make a movie on the “cannibal” tribes. However, there is no record of the flight to New Guinea actually happening, and at some point it was instead converted back to a wheeled version.
It isn’t clear if the wheels fitted were the original wheels. They clearly differ from the originals in at least one way. Photos make it clear that the original wheels had exposed wire spokes. The wheels currently fitted have solid sides. The plane passed through several owners and went in and out of registration, being renumbered as G-AUCQ and as VH-UCQ, until 1931, when it was placed in storage by the owner.
He reportedly kept it under his house for nearly 40 years, until donating it to Queensland Museum in 1970.
Welcome to Queensland Museum
After 40 years, the original linen cladding of the plane was in a sad state and it was decided to strip the aircraft back to the frame and reclad it in new material. Black and white photos of the aircraft at the time show the linen as black or at least darkly coloured, though earlier photos show is as white when Hinkler flew it. Perhaps it had been painted, or perhaps the original linen had already been replaced.
The museum has photos of the plane’s frame during this process, looking much like one of the museums dinosaur skeletons. Once this was complete, the aircraft was hung from the ceiling of the Old Museum where it remained until 1986 and the relocation of the museum to the Queensland Cultural Centre. From that day to this there have been no changes to the fabric of the aircraft.
What was changed? What is original?
The original question raised was what degree of restoration and non-original material does the aircraft have today, compared to how it was when Hinkler owned it?
We know that Hinkler bought the aircraft new from Avro and that he made some modifications to the engine to simplify maintenance.
We know that the plane was damaged and repaired at some point, but we don’t know the nature of the damage or how much of the original structure had to be replaced.
We know that the plane was converted into a floatplane and then converted back, but we don’t know it the wheels fitted then were the original wheels.
And finally, we know that the wings and fuselage were reskinned in their entirety in 1970 and repainted in their original white colour with the registration they held when Hinkler was the owner.
On the original side, we are confident that most or all the frame of the aircraft is original, though repaired to an unknown extent. We are confident that the engine, the propeller and the cowlings and metalwork are original, as are the cockpit, the controls and the instruments.
Restoration or destruction?
In retrospect, the decision to replace the entire linen cladding of the aircraft isn’t one we approve of today. Standard museum industry practice in 1970 was to treat objects on display as if they were works of art, to clean and repair them to make them as aesthetically pleasing to the eye as was practical.
Today, we place a much higher value on the original fabric of an object. It is more important that the objects we display be “real” and “original” than that they be “pretty.”
If the same piece of work was placed before us today, fifty years later, we would try to clean, repair and patch the original fabric, and only replace it where it was so damaged as to be impossible to preserve.
So, is it “real”?
Avro Baby G-EACQ is currently on display in the Hinkler Hall of Aviation In Bundaberg. The fabric skin you see is a restoration from 50 years ago and there is some doubt if the wheels are original, but everything else is, as far as we can tell, as Bert left it. If he saw the plane today, he would at once recognise it as his.
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