Going by air (Part 3)

We’ve been travelling with a reporter from the Adelaide Register newspaper, on the nascent Australian Aerial Services airmail flight between Adelaide and Sydney – a direct distance of some 630 nautical miles.

(As a comparison, London to Paris is 184 nm, New York to Albany is 117 nm, and L.A. to San Francisco is 292 nm.) 

The land along the route was slowly being occupied, irrigated and cultivated, with the Government parcelling out farmland to returned soldiers and their families. However it was still a vast, empty air route with small scattered towns that had few cars and even fewer sealed roads. 

In Part Two our correspondent still hadn’t reached Sydney, after three days in the cabin of the De Havilland DH.50. With a 240hp Armstrong-Siddeley Puma roaring inches from the forward bulkhead, it’s no wonder he and his companions were looking forward to reaching the harbour city. And then he had to get home again…      

If you missed Part One, you may prefer to start there.

An aerial view of Sydney’s ocean coastline in the mid-1920s. The beaches are (right to left) Coogee, Gordon’s Bay, and Clovelly. (National Library fo Australia | 163359236)

A Trip In A Biplane (Part Three)

From the Adelaide Register, July 18th 1925

Nothing I can imagine can exceed the beauty presented from the air by Sydney and the contiguous coastline. 

I have a distinct remembrance of a certain spring morning when, having crossed the Swiss Alps, I left Domo d’Ossola in a snowstorm on my way to Milan. Suddenly the sun blazed out revealing the Italian lakes – Como, Lugano, Maggiore – in all their marvellous beauty, and furnishing an entrancing view of the plains of Lombardy and the picturesque towns and villages scattered over them. I have seen many wonderful sights in my lifetime, but they must all take a back seat to Sydney as viewed from the air. 

Fringed by the blue Pacific, the picturesque South Coast could be seen as far, I should say as Jervis Bay, while Broken Bay and Hawkesbury were clearly visible to the north. As we headed for the aerodrome, which is located at Mascot, near Botany, we afforded a magnificent view of the National Park, Port Hacking and the Hacking River, while Cronulla Beach stood out in all its beauty. 

Having feasted our eyes on the beauty of Botany Bay, George’s River and other well-known landmarks in the vicinity, Capt. Briggs headed for Port Jackson and flew over the harbour, making a turn just over Circular Quay. The dozens of ferry boats, huge ocean liners, yachts and sailing craft of all description, made a never-to-be-forgotten picture, and the harbour, with its numberless bays and thousands of red-tiled villas running down to the water’s edge, presented a veritable fairy scene. 

The Parramatta River, stretching away like a streak of silver in the distance, added to the beauty of the tout ensemble, and as one gazed on the exquisite vision one had to allow that Sydney people have every justification for being proud of their peerless harbour. 

Sydney Arrival
Wattle Bird arriving at Mascot, Sydney, with the Adelaide airmail. The date is uncertain – but it is definitely our subject airplane with the same pilot, F.S. Briggs, at the controls. (National Library of Australia | 163173029)

A beautiful landing was effected at 12.40 p.m. and 20 minutes later we were doing justice to a dainty lunch in a Sydney club, with appetites sharpened by a dash at nearly 100 miles an hour through the keen mountain air, at an altitude of about 4,000 feet. 

While the weather had been bad, I had enjoyed it, as it had afforded me an opportunity of judging of the capacity of both pilot and machine under very exceptional circumstances.

On the back track

Briggs Sydney
Capt. Francis Briggs meeting a pair of notable (but unnamed ) Sydney-siders after his flight. (National Library of Australia | 163172834)

Having arrived in Sydney on Wednesday, my stay was curtailed by a day, but I managed to find time to look up a few friends before I left on the return journey on the following Saturday, May 30. 

Pilot Briggs was again in charge, Capt. Newnham was my fellow passenger, and we got away at a quarter past 11 in perfect weather. 

The scene was again a delightful one, a panorama that can only be viewed from the air. 

On this occasion we had no difficulty in crossing the mountains, as the clouds were high and the visibility excellent. 

We passed over Goulburn at 12.55 p.m. It is an extensive town, and covers a considerable area. The floods were in evidence on all sides. Cootamundra was reached at a quarter past 2 – exactly three hours from the time of our departure from the Mascot aerodrome. 

An aerial view of Goulburn, NSW, during the 1920s. (National Library of Australia | 160559686)

We had experienced a strong head wind and had flown roughly 212 miles. After a light lunch we rose again and left ‘Coota’ at 5 minutes to 3, Narrandera being our next objective. At 10 minutes past 4 we came to earth on the racecourse, landed our mails, and started again for Hay. 

The flying distance between Hay and Cootamundra is estimated at 200 miles, and we brought up the former town at a quarter to 6 o’clock. It was growing dusk, but Capt. Briggs made a splendid landing. 

Shortly before reaching Hay we witnessed a wonderful sunset, the great orb sinking below the horizon like a ball of fire. It sank below the earth’s horizon fully 10 minutes before we lost sight of it. 

The absence of bird life was again noticeable, though I might mention that we encountered a large wedge-tailed eagle when crossing the mountains, but it sheered off on our approach. 

The ‘plane left Hay the following morning (Sunday) at 7.40 a.m. and reached Mildura, a distance of 167 miles, at 25 minutes past 10. We encountered a strong head wind all the way. Capt. Sutcliffe was again in charge, but we had another mechanic, Mr F.H. Smith of Magill who saw a good deal of air work in Egypt during the war, where he spent four years. 

Intrepid air travellers pose with their aircraft at Hay, NSW, in the mid-1920s. This is undoubtedly an AAS DH.50, but it’s impossible to tell which one. (HistoryInPhotos | flickr.com via Trove)

We flew at a low altitude over Mildura, whose extensive cultivated blocks looked very beautiful from our cabin. 

We started on our last section at 10.50 a.m. and crossed the South Australian border, close to the Murray, at 5 minutes past 12. The extent of the cultivated land from this point onward came as a surprise. Swan Reach was passed at 1.20 p.m. and, as we encountered a belt of black clouds, a shower or two, and the visibility was bad, Capt. Sutcliffe approached Adelaide from the north-east, and the Woodville aerodrome was reached at 2.25 p.m. Sydney time. 

I had been absent from Adelaide exactly a week, and the experience had been a delightful one. 

Flying with safety

On my return trip from Sydney I spent a very instructive and pleasant evening in Hay with Lieut. Y.L. Roberts, aeronautical superintendent of the Australian Aerial Services, Limited. 

He is thoroughly up to date on all matters connected with flying, and possesses a fund of information which I found most interesting. 

At Hay, where the company has its workshops, all running repairs are done, and the machine and pilots are changed over, and it is from Hay, in the near future, that the various services will radiate. 

Flying in the southern portion of Australia, in his opinion, will shortly develop into a big commercial undertaking, exactly as it is doing in Queensland and Western Australia. 

The last QANTAS-built DH50J VH-ULG ‘Hippomenes’ at Longreach, Queensland in August 1929. J versions used a variety of radial engines, Qantas typically installing the Armstrong-Siddeley Jaguar of around 350hp. (BAE Systems)

In the former State, for almost three years now, the service has flown 100 percent of all scheduled trips; its ‘planes have covered 300,000 miles without accident, and during last April 154 passengers were carried by air – a record for Australia. 

The various aerial routes have been carefully mapped out by the Commonwealth Aerial Department, and at regular distances emergency landing places have been prepared, so that if a forced landing is ever rendered necessary the pilot will know where he can descend without fear of damage to his ‘plane. 

These landing places are distinguished by a large white cross, which can be seen from a great distance. None but experienced pilots are engaged. Reference has already been made to Capt. Newnham and his work as a pilot on the continental expresses. 

Capt. Sutcliffe was a member of the Air Force in England from 1917 to 1922, and for a considerable portion of that time was engaged in taking daily aeronautical flights for the Weather Department of the Air Force.

Prior to securing his present position he was piloting machines in Queensland.

Mr Hudson, the mechanic, before coming to Australia, was engaged on aeroplane construction with the Avro Aeroplane Company, the Sopwith Company, and the Gosport Aircraft Company. The latter concern specialises in seaplanes. 

During the past 12 months, the ’planes of the Australian Aerial Services, Limited, have flown 120,000 miles without the slightest injury to any person, and the machines have run to schedule, except perhaps in half a dozen cases where flying might have been attended with a certain amount of risk and the policy of the company is ‘Take no risk whatsoever’. 

The De Havilland machines used by the company are recognised as the safest in the world, and three modern passenger carrying aeroplanes, of 400 h.p., equipped with Rolls-Royce engines, have been ordered from England, and will be landed within the next six months. 

The airlines powerful new planes were ANEC III monoplanes built by the Air Navigation and Engineering Company of Addlestone, Surrey. LASCO bought the entire production run of three and later re-engined them with the apparently ubiquitous Armstrong-Siddeley Jaguar – as seen here. (National Library of Australia | 144673026)

These machines will carry six passengers in addition to the mails and crew, and will be fitted with armchairs, lavatories, and other essential and luxurious travelling appliances. 

What looks like an actual guarantee of safety was recently cabled from England, it being mentioned that Mr Handley-Page had patented an invention that absolutely prevents a machine from crashing. 

Handley-Page’s invention was controllable slotted slats on the leading edge. Invented concurrently by Gustav Lachmann in Germany, the two designers worked together on a demonstration aircraft which became the HP.20 shown here. (Flight magazine via wikipedia)

Lieut. Roberts says that as far as he can understand it, the idea is to have slots in the wings which allow of a machine sinking vertically to the ground so slowly as to prevent any damage being wrought either to the machine or the pilot. He understands that most rigid tests were made, and that the invention never failed to do all that was claimed for it. 

Fokker, the famous Dutch aeroplane manufacturer, also invented as appliance that achieves a similar result, but it is unlikely his machine will be used by the British. Henry Ford is stated to have secured the rights for America so that probably Fokker aeroplanes, in the near future, will be as cheap as Ford  motor cars. 

Extending the service

In five or six weeks’ time Lieut. Roberts’s company will open out with new routes, and the flying distances between Adelaide and Sydney will be shortened. This will be effected by cutting out the trip over the Great Dividing Range, the terminus in New South Wales being Cootamundra. 

Passengers for Adelaide will leave Sydney by the 10.50 p.m. mail train, which reaches Cootamundra at 6.30 a.m. They will, of course, sleep on the train. 

Having breakfasted at Cootamundra, they will leave for Adelaide by aeroplane at 7.30 a.m, stopping as at present, at Narrandera, Hay, and Mildura. Adelaide is timed to be reached about 4 p.m. 

On the return journey Adelaide will be left at 7.30 a.m., and Cootamundra reached about 5.15 p.m. Dinner will then be partaken of, and passengers will catch a train that is provided with sleeping cars, and which leaves at 7 p.m. This train is scheduled to reach Sydney the following morning at 6.30 a.m. 

It may be mentioned that the aerodrome at ‘Coota’ fronts the railway station. 

This later (1950s) view of Cootamundra still shows the relevant features, with the racetrack at lower left and the railway to its right… Plus, of course, the endless plains beyond. (State Library of NSW | FL8814331)

The new timetable does not appear to be appreciated by many Sydney people, since it will eliminate the superb view of the harbour from the air, but it will be a great convenience to business people, and will be less of a strain on the pilots. 

The Commonwealth Aerial Department, which owns all the aerodromes and controls the emergency landing places, has been busy mapping out routes between Melbourne and Hay and Mildura and Broken Hill, so that it will shortly be possible for a passenger form the latter town to make the journey to any of the three capital cities, as well as to important Riverina towns, within a period of 24 hours. 

Saving time

When the new timetables come into operation passengers going to broken Hill will leave Melbourne at 4.30 p.m., reach Mildura at half-past 8 o’clock the following morning, breakfast, and reach Broken Hill about noon. 

Planes will leave the Hill at 7.30 a.m. junctioning with the Adelaide-Sydney machine at Mildura, and if passengers desire to proceed to Melbourne they will be able to catch the express train which will leave shortly after their arrival. 

‘Planes will also fly between Hay and Melbourne and vice versa. At the start there will be bi-weekly services between Melbourne and Broken Hill, and a similar service between Hay and Melbourne. The one journey a week service will be maintained between Adelaide and Sydney as at present. 

The new arrangement as regards ‘planes stopping at and leaving Cootamundra will effect a saving of five hours in the time between Adelaide and Sydney, as compared with the present timetable. 

Australian Aerial Services revised their routes as planned from August 1925 – as this 1920 route map makes clear.

In view of the marked success that has attended the air mail services in Australia, the Postmaster-General is anxious to see an extension of the movement. Speaking on the subject a few days ago, the Director of Postal Services (Mr Brown) indicated that it was the Postmaster-General’s desire to organise air mail services between all the States in such a way as to permit of business men in the eastern States by sending replies to letters from England by the first boat to leave Australia after the arrival of the English mail. 

An air mail service between Sydney and Fremantle, for example, would allow of letters being posted some days later than at present in Sydney in order to catch the outgoing English mail at Fremantle. 

Mr Brown further mentioned that the Queensland and Northern Territory air service was carrying 12,000 letters a year, and during the past three months greater use had been made of it than ever. 


The distance between Adelaide and Sydney by air is approximately 700 miles, and it will shortly be possible to cover it in less than 24 hours, with the maximum of comfort and the utmost safety.

 That the passenger service will grow enormously in volume in the near future is an absolute certainty, for no one who has made the journey by air under the present conditions will in future be satisfied to travel any other way if he can afford it. 

Sopwith Wallaby G-AUDU ready to depart Hendon (Woodville) for the inaugural Adelaide to Sydney airmail in June 1924. Hendon was already being encroached on by suburban growth (sound familiar?) and would close in 1928. (State Library of S.A. | B2248)

Personally, I cannot speak too highly of the courtesy extended to me by everyone connected with the company. Commencing with Mr E.C. Buttfield, who has charge of this department for Messrs. M.G. Anderson and Co., the Adelaide agents for the company, I received every assistance while en route from the flying corps, while my stay in Sydney was made extremely pleasant by Mr A.E. Rudder, or Rudders, Limited, the company’s representatives in the harbour city, and his genial lieutenant Mr C.O.D. Smith, who furnished me with all the information I required. 

The Australian Aerial Services, Limited, have evidently taken Addison’s famous lines as their motto, ‘Tis not in mortals to command success; but we’ll do more – we’ll deserve it.’  


Welcome back…

While you were away, there has been a Second World War, aircraft have become more streamlined and much faster, we have a new form of propulsion in the jet turbine, and air travel has become commonplace. 

What’s more, from a few bags of mail, aircraft now carry 62 million tons of freight worth over $6 trillion USD per year. And in 2017 alone, the world’s airlines boarded over 4 billion passengers.*

It has been a remarkable 90 years!

In Part Four of this series, we need to trace the history of Australian Aerial Services, Limited; its ambitious parent Larkin Aircraft Supply Co. (LASCO); and the one man who stood behind it all – Australian WW1 fighter ace Herbert Joseph ‘Jimmy’ Larkin.

Adelaide to Sydney, 90 years on. (airscape Photo)

(*Data from IATA Economics / World Air Transport Statistics 2018) 

15 thoughts on “Going by air (Part 3)

  1. Thanks so much David – this has been a most enjoyable and fascinating read. I really enjoyed the bit about slotted slats that absolutely prevents an aircraft from crashing.


    1. I know! I have to get me some of those. In fact, I might fit a set on my bike too. And the car…
      To be fair, neither Handley-Page (in his US Patent Application at least) nor Flight magazine in their report made any claim to making an aircraft entirely crash proof. Presumably that was something ‘lost in translation’ between England, Hay, and The Adelaide Register.
      Besides, an invention for making aircraft completely crash-proof had already been around for years and is still in common use today. It’s called a hangar. Just park your aircraft in one of those and it’ll be safe as houses.

  2. Ditto, David. I’m reading this latest episode in Longreach, where I’m developing my screenplay about Rev. John Flynn, who was a ‘prophet of aeroplanes being responsible for the modern development of Australia’, a statement he made just after WW1 when he approached the nascent Qantas here to build the world’s first aerial ambulance for his visionary scheme. Qantas Founders Museum have given me permission to film in their original hangar and to use their non-flying, life-sized DH-50, a replica of the original ambulance plane. I’m nine years into this project and having many a meeting, while scouting locations, trying to make it as historically accurate as possible. The image of the DH-50 with pax in this latest episode is exactly how I would like it to look. Maybe, one day, we’ll reverse progress and offer flights between Australian towns in vintage aeroplanes again. Nothing like the wind in your hair on a country strip on an early winter’s morn.

    1. Thanks Russell. I will have to make the inevitable ‘pilot’s pilgrimage’ to Longreach one of these days – and you can bet the DH.50 will be high on my list of aircraft to see.
      It’s not quite the same thing, but I have flown across country NSW in a DC-3 and it is a very special experience. I’m sure there would be people, if only aviation enthusiasts, who would brave the discomforts of the big early biplanes for a trip back in time.
      Your screenplay project sounds amazing. As a city dweller, It’s hard to appreciate the profound effect the Rev John Flynn had on the lives of outback people – but the organisation he founded continues to be quite extraordinary. Hats off to him, and everyone in the RFDS today.
      Tell me, do you give a fair share of screen time to John Peel? (Lt. Clifford Peel) I go on about the enormous benefits that World War One brought to Australian aviation, but Peel is a stark reminder that the war took a terrible toll as well.

      1. Hi David,
        Qantas Founders Museum have their DC3 beside the heritage-listed hangar at present as they construct a roof over their 747 ‘classic’, 707, Sunderland and Constellation to protect them from the fierce Outback sun. I took a pic of it glinting in the sun yesterday afternoon. It looked like a real kite, ready to drift over the plains. Rev. John Flynn was an amazing bloke and still inspiring. Lt Clifford Peel’s nephew has recently published a handsome book, containing his 1917 letter to Flynn announcing the nexus between aviation and medicine in remote Australia. It’s this letter which I have Flynn read on the Oodnadatta railway platform that gives Peel his due. As you know, Peel joined the AFC and was killed in combat in September, 1918, six weeks before the end of the first aerial war. He is therefore remembered posthumously in my screenplay, among our sixty thousand dead. He, along with Flynn, is a part of Qantas’ history.

  3. What a transformation it has been. These early journeys have led the way in pioneering long distance flights. To travel such distances in a biplane must have taken courage and an absolute love of flying to compensate for the lack of comfort and proper sleep! You don’t think of biplanes being particularly large and to see them having ‘arm chair toilets’ is rather interesting. The sights of the outback developing beneath them must have been something else. It’s been a fascinating trip – I’m looking forward to the next part.

    1. It certainly has been a remarkable transformation – and after a few fairly stagnant decades, it feels like we may be on the cusp of the next great quantum leap. Time will tell…
      While those early airliners were certainly noisy and uncomfortable, it still feels like we’ve lost something along the way. While the flights may have been tiring, the frequent stops seem to have been interesting and civilised. That’s a far cry from the cookie-cutter sterility of modern airports and interminable 20-hour flight legs.
      Regardless, more toilets should have arm rests. That seems like a given, surely?!

      1. Most definitely! Today’s commercial flights whilst fast are a bit of a cattle market driven by money. A little more creature comforts would raise its game considerably, especially arm rests on toilets! Let’s hope someone sees that and applies it.

  4. I have thoroughly enjoyed this article David! Seeing the reporter go from part one with slight trepidation but determination, to actually really enjoying the experience has been great! You can really feel his sense of awe and excitement as the trip progresses, can’t you! Love his descriptions of the various places seen from the air for the first time. Really got that pioneer spirit to it and then you literally bring us back nine decades later for an excellent comparison! Superb sir! Bravo!

    1. It’s been a great ride, hasn’t it. I agree the correspondent’s ‘character development’ through the journey is one of the best aspects …sort of a microcosm of the world’s relationship with commercial aviation. I’m so glad I let his florid period style stand. I only wish I could add his name. Let’s call him ‘Ulysses’ for now …but assume things worked out better when he got home!

  5. I should think that trip probably had a life changing effect on him! Imagine what it must have been like at the time, literally being among the first people to do it!

    1. Yes, we need a follow-up article on him: How it changed his life… How long before he flew again (if at all). You can be sure he dined out on the experience for decades.

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