Centenary flight of Australia’s first regular route

Edward ScownGeraldton Guardian
Kevin Bailey with a Stinson Reliant Gullwing aircraft.
Camera IconKevin Bailey with a Stinson Reliant Gullwing aircraft.

One hundred years ago, the first regularly scheduled air service in Australia took off. It wasn’t Qantas, rather Sir Norman Brearley’s Western Australian Airways, based right here in Geraldton.

Yesterday morning, 20 planes piloted by members of the Royal Aero Club of WA gathered at the airport to re-enact the first flight’s journey, which carried mail to towns up the coast, finishing in Derby.

Royal Aero Club president Ray Challen organised the event, with three generations of Sir Norman’s family present, including grandniece Marie Norris.

“What attracted us to the flight was to bring them along, and give them some insight into what their grandfather did,” he said.

What Sir Norman did was quite extraordinary. After his service as a pilot in World War I, he bought three RAF surplus Bristol Tourer utility planes and had them shipped back to WA. He founded West Australian Airways in 1921, gaining the first Australian civil pilot’s licence.

The first flights took off on December 5, 1921. The crew of the three planes included Charles Kingsford Smith, who made the first Trans-Pacific flight, and Val Abbott, who would later become attorney-general. That flight would end in disaster. The first plane made an emergency landing at Murchison House Station after its engine began misfiring. As Bob Fawcett circled the area to check on his compatriot, his engine stalled. The resulting crash killed Fawcett and his riding mechanic Edward Broad.

Charles Kingsford-Smith with Australia’s first commercial aviators Bob Fawcett Norman Brearley, Leonard Taplin and Val Abbott.
Camera IconCharles Kingsford-Smith with Australia’s first commercial aviators Bob Fawcett Norman Brearley, Leonard Taplin and Val Abbott. Credit: UNKNOWN/The West Australian

“I really admire what those guys did. They were so bloody audacious,” Mr Challen said.

“To go up there in these WWI surplus aircraft ... hoping the airstrips had been built for them to land. There was no engineering support, no radio, no navigation aids.”

West Australian Airways persevered, and by early 1922, weekly services from Geraldton to Derby were under way. The route took 21/2 days, and by 1925, 20,000 letters were being transported per month. Sir Norman was knighted in 1971 for his services to aviation.

Highlighting the original danger, the centenary flight is taking place in September, not December, when the first WAA planes took off. Mr Challen said the hot and sometimes stormy summer conditions so far north would have deterred amateur pilots.

The flight will take three days, with nights in Onslow, Broome and Derby. The fleet features diverse light aircraft, including a Stinson SR-8C, built in 1936.

“For a lot of people, this flight is still an adventure,” Mr Challen said. “It’s still not something we take lightly, flying light aircraft through remote areas of Australia.”

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