Going by air (Part 4)

After our epic 1925 trip from Adelaide to Sydney and back (and apologies for the long interlude) it’s time to meet the man behind the Larkin Aircraft Supply Co or LASCO, and Australian Aerial Services Limited.

Herbert ‘Jimmy’ Larkin

Herbert ‘Jimmy’ Larkin (1894 – 1972)
An extremely fresh-faced Larkin – presumably in his enlistment photo from 1914.

Like WW1 flyers from all over the world, the Australian soldiers who came home as aviators were determined to create careers in their new-found element. 

But even among notable pathfinders like Ross and Keith Smith, Hudson Fysh and Paul McGuinness, Norman Brearly, Horace Brinsmead, Horrie Miller and many more, Herbert ‘Jimmy’ Larkin was a lion. 

But what should have been an extraordinary aviation legacy was vaporised by an apparently abrasive, if not outright caustic, personality. Despite everything Larkin built for himself and Australian aviation, his inability to accept the tough realities of competition and The Great Depression dragged him through a kind of slow motion crash landing into lasting obscurity.

The man behind it all

Larkin was the eldest son of a shipping clerk, Hebert Larkin, who had been born in Kent, England and was working for the Australian Union Shipping Co. in Brisbane, Qld, when young Herbert arrived on October 8th, 1894.

In 1901, the family moved to Melbourne for Larkin Senior to join the new Commonwealth Shipping Line, a company he would lead as Manager (from 1916) and then Chairman (from 1923 to 1926).

Young Herbert went to school at St. Thomas’ Grammar in Melbourne, then found work as a junior clerk with the Union Steam Ship Company in 1912. At the same time he joined the part-time Militia – first in the Military Cadet Corps and then the 21st Signal Troop of the Australian Engineers. So, when war was declared in August 1914 he was quick to enlist as a Corporal with the 1st Signal Troop, Australian Engineers, Australian Imperial Force. 

A nice in-flight view of the venerable RE8 observation (and sometimes night bomber) aircraft – a true stalwart of the RFC/RAF in WW1. (IWM Q12175)

He left Australia on October 20th that year and was employed as a signals clerk for Generals Monash and Chauvel, first at camp in Egypt and then at Gallipoli. 

Hit in the chest by a sniper’s bullet on September 18th, 1915, Larkin was sent to England to recover and, there, answered the Royal Flying Corps’ call for pilots. He officially transferred to the RFC on April 21st, 1916, trained as a pilot, and was posted to No.5 Squadron RFC in France on July 7th. 

Double ace

Somewhat against the odds, Larkin survived over a year on ‘Harry Tates’. 

In contrast to the RE8, the Sopwith Dolphin was a serious killing machine, with buried twin Vickers guns, Aldis sight and an unobstructed upward view. (IWM Q 69634)

On April 22nd, 1917 he was made C Flight commander of No.5 and on July 14th he was awarded the Croix de Guerre avec Palme en Bronze for his coverage of the German withdrawal from Bapaume in March. 

Shortly afterwards he was rotated back to England to undertake a training role with No.65 Training Squadron. Twelve months later, almost to the day, he returned to France as a Flight Commander with No.87 Squadron RAF, leading his fledgling pilots and their Sopwith Dolphins across the Channel on April 26th, 1918.

The squadron was soon thrown into the thick of the fighting. Larkin opened his account on June 3rd, downing an Albatros D.V and a Fokker Dr.1 in the same patrol. After a quiet few weeks, he then gained six more victories during July – all of them over German Fokker D.VIIs, including three on August 21st. Three more D.VIIs followed in September, bringing his final total to 11 and earning him double-ace status and a DFC. 

A giant of British aviation

Between the Armistice and his discharge, Larkin was posted to several training squadrons, presumably on the strength of his training experience from 1917. However, by June 1919 he was a free man.

He must have already been thinking about a future in aviation and invested in a few trips down to Brooklands – because on June 11th he and his younger brother Reg announced the founding of the Larkin-Sopwith Aviation Company of Australia with a cadré of five other pilots. 

The one-off Sopwith Wallaby, about to take off from Hounslow, England for Australia in late 1919. It would make it to Australia eventually, but not by air. (Flight magazine)

Partnering with such a giant of British aviation (and its core of young Australian personnel) must have seemed like a sure path to success. Larkin ordered a small fleet of Sopwith machines – including the Sopwith Dove, a two-seat civilian development of the venerable Pup; Sopwith’s first civilian cabin airliner, the Gnu; and the only Wallaby, which was designed for the 1919 air race and which got all the way to Bali, (but not until April 1920) before being damaged in a crash landing. 

Incredible news

Meanwhile, Larkin had returned to Melbourne to set up his company and receive the new aircraft. Dove K-168, registered G-EAHP, was delivered on October 15th and within ten days Larkin had fitted lights to it and made Australia’s first night flight. 

He also organised a Boxing Day air pageant at Epsom Racecourse in Melbourne’s southeastern satellite of Mordialloc – complete with flying displays, parachute jumps and 37-mile air race. 

With several Australian airmen flying Sopwith machines they’d bought from the War Disposals Board, and a flowering public fascination with aviation, Larkin’s small business did well as 1920 unfolded. Along with supporting other Sopwith operators, he used his training experience to provide flying instruction in the Dove. 

However October brought incredible news from England: the seemingly unstoppable Sopwith company had ceased operations in September and entered voluntary liquidation shortly afterward. 

Trading on his stock of spares and needy customers, Larkin continued to operate as the partner-less Larkin-Sopwith Aircraft Supply Co Pty Ltd for a few months, then re-registered his company as the Larkin Aircraft Supply Co Ltd, or ‘LASCO’ in July 1921.  

Official time-wasting

Against those unsteady early developments, however, Australia’s federal government was beginning to appreciate aviation’s enormous potential for a country of huge distances and scattered cities. A number of airmail contracts were offered for tender in early 1920 – two to extend remote railheads in Western Australia and Queensland, and two to connect the southeastern state capitals Sydney-Brisbane and Sydney-Adelaide. (The important Melbourne-Sydney mail was adequately served by overnight express trains.)

Incidentally, the Western Australian contract was won by Norman Brearly and Western Australian Airways (WAA), which began establishing the longest (by far!) air route in the British Empire in December 1921; while Hudson Fysh and Paul McGuinness had founded QANTAS on the remote Queensland contract in November.

The capital city routes proved more of a problem. The government prevaricated over awarding the contracts before selecting LASCO’s tender for the Sydney-Adelaide service and a bid by Major Frank Roberts for the Brisbane-Sydney service. 

Still there was more official time-wasting over an airfield site in Adelaide – even though local aviator Harry Butler had been offering his airfield just west of the city since 1922 – and, more importantly, over concerns about the reliability of LASCO’s aircraft. At the same time, Roberts was making no headway with preparations to take up his contract.

LASCO’s De Havilland DH.4 G-AUCM ‘Scrub Bird’, at Swan Reach in (late) 1923. First registered in 1921, G-AUCM had been bought by Larkin from a private owner in 1922. (State Library of SA | B-58395)

Australian Aerial Services

In the end Larkin established Australian Aerial Services (AAS) in partnership with Major Roberts, although they never did start a Sydney-Brisbane service. Later, the lack of airmail between those eastern capitals would be seen as part of a cynical manipulation by Larkin, who supposedly used the partnership exclusively for his own objectives. 

Whether or not that’s true, Australian Aerial Services finally launched its Adelaide services from Harry Butler’s airfield at Woodville on June 2nd, 1924, using the Sopwith Wallaby G-AUDU – the old G-EAKS, which had been recovered from Bali by sea after its crash in 1920. 

You can see why the government was worried about Larkin’s equipment…

To shore up confidence, if not the ageing Wallaby itself, AAS  was forced borrow a pair of DH-9s from the RAAF from August 1924. Finally, new DH-50s arrived from de Havilland’s in England in November and the service was put on a more sophisticated footing. 

Fog at Cootamundra and then bad weather on the leg across the Great Dividing Range to Sydney also dogged the service – factors that were of no concern to the fast Sydney-Melbourne express trains which also passed through Cootamundra. So from July 1925, Larkin terminated the route at Cootamundra and established new routes between Melbourne and Broken Hill.

In 1927 he moved LASCO to a new airfield and factory on Coode Island, in Port Melbourne and began building aircraft there. These included modifying his DH.50s and, once he’d employed William Shackleton as his designer in 1928, building an original-design LASCO Lascoter VH-UKT in 1929, the Lark glider in 1931, and the three-engined Lasconder VH-UMY in 1933. 

The staff of Larkin Aircraft Supply Company Limited at Coode Island (now part of Port Melbourne) in 1928. ‘Jimmy’ Larkin is seated, third from right. G-EVBV, in the hangar, was one of two ex-RFC SE5a scouts brought to Australia that year to demonstrate skywriting. (Museums Victoria | 773084)

Too far

Larkin launched another airline to service the Murray Valley without government subsidies in February 1930; began regular services between Melbourne and Adelaide the following month, and re-established the Larkin Flying School at Coode Island in 1931. It must have been an inspiring flying school to attend, with the enormous factory building servicing various aircraft and, from late 1932, producing over 30 DH.60 Moths for the RAAF. More 100 people were working at Coode Island as the Larkin empire peaked…

The LASCO Lascoter, re-engined with an Armstrong-Siddeley Jaguar instead of its original Puma, taking joyrides in the early 1930s. The only one of its type, the Lascoter was the first Australian designed and built aeroplane to receive a Certificate of Airworthiness. (Museum Victoria | 766001)

In reality, the decline had already begun back in June of 1930, when the government withdrew its subsidies for AAS’s southern mail routes. This might explain the determined diversification of the following years. Unfortunately, the Depression was making aviation a suddenly much tougher game.    

A little over a year before, the darker side of Larkin’s business character had come to light when he aggressively undercut a QANTAS bid for airmail services between Comooweal in the far northwest of Queensland and Daly Waters in the Northern Territory. 

This route was firmly on QANTAS’ “patch” and a long, long way from any of AAS’s other operations. It left Larkin contractually bound to provide a service on which he could never make a profit. To make matters worse, he declined an opportunity to extend the service 50 more miles to Birdum, NT, to connect with the railhead from Darwin. 

Horace Brinsmead, Australia’s first Controller of Civil Aviation. A veteran of everything from the Battle of Lone Pine on Gallipoli, to the the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, he was not a man to be trifled with. (Airways Museum Collection)

He then began making very public allegations of bias, bribery and corruption against the Secretary to the Department of Defence, Mr M.L. Shepherd and his Controller of Civil Aviation, Colonel Horace Brinsmead, in regard to their awarding of mail contracts to QANTAS and WAA. 

Larkin’s incessant accusations eventually led to a Parliamentary enquiry, which completely absolved both Shepherd and Brinsmead but permanently tarnished Larkin’s reputation. 

In a country where politicians and political appointees are normally fair game, Herbert Larkin had found a way to go too far. 

In its coverage of the scandal, the hugely influential Smith’s Magazine described him to the Australian public as having: eyes deep set and a little close together; a hard, straight mouth; and a way of glaring hard at the person he is addressing… 

It was hardly an endearing portrait. And Larkin wasn’t helping, by building a reputation for being impatient, tactless and temperamental when things didn’t go his way.

In terminal decline

The LASCO Lasconder became the first Australian-designed three-engined aircraft to be put into regular service, when AAS put it to work on the unprofitable Daly Waters to Camooweal route in June 1933. 

In a telling side-note, the aircraft flew this mail service without a Certificate of Airworthiness, because that vital paperwork had been held up by the increasingly personal dispute between Larkin and the Civil Aviation Branch.

By May 1930, LASCO had grown to over 100 staff. The aircraft in this photo is the one-off ‘Lasconder’ VH-UMY powered by Armstrong Siddeley Mongoose engines. (Museums Victoria | 773094)

Unbowed, Larkin formed a lobby group called the Australian Air Convention in 1932 to influence aviation policy and managed to gather a fairly noteworthy committee for it. However when he offered the British Postmaster General an unsubsidised airmail service between Darwin and Koepang (now Kupang, on Timor) in 1933, using the Lasconder to link up with KNILM air services from Europe, the PMG declined. 

Either Larkin’s troubled reputation had preceded him or the Postmaster was already committed to the globe-spanning Imperial Airways-QANTAS connection being surveyed at the time. Or both. 

Regardless, it was obviously an attempt by Larkin to shore up LASCO’s fortunes, which were now in terminal decline. By late 1933, its shrinking share of the aviation pie was reduced to a series of meteorological flights over Hobart, Tasmania.

Unchanged

Then, as proof that he hadn’t changed his beliefs or his manners, Larkin and the Australian Air Convention were sued by the Western Mining Corporation in February 1934, over more public allegations of corruption in the awarding of aerial survey contracts. 

With Larkin conducting their defence, the members of the AAC were judged and fined as individuals and Larkin was forced to liquidate the struggling LASCO to pay costs. His aviation company’s substantial assets were bought by Airlines of Australia of Lismore, NSW, which went on to become ANA and then Ansett Airways. 

Larkin took himself back to England where he worked in various middling jobs until the next war gave him an opportunity to rejoin the RAF in 1939. 

Commissioned as a Flight Lieutenant into RAF Supply, by 1943 he had been promoted to the rank of Squadron Leader before his forthright nature brought him back into trouble. The details are unclear, but he was accused of revealing sensitive information to the press and, on April 10th, 1943, had to resign his commission and leave the RAF. 

However he quickly found a job with the rapidly expanding USAAF in England as a purchasing officer – a post his experience must have made him perfect for. It certainly worked out for him, and he stayed in the American forces until 1946, when he set himself up disposing of surplus US Army and Air Force materiel into Europe. 

He later made a brief visit to Australia as a representative for Peugot, but quickly withdrew to Europe and continued to make a comfortable living (presumably from selling Peugots, mostly anyway) in France, Germany and Switzerland. 

In 1957, aged 62, Larkin retired to Guernsey in the Channel Islands where he revealed himself as a passionate campaigner for human rights and an equally passionate bonsai gardener – publishing Bonsai Culture for Beginners in 1968. 

He died at St. Martin’s, Guernsey, on June 20th, 1972.

For all that

From this distance, it’s hard to know exactly how to sum up ‘Jimmy’ Larkin. 

You could say his example is a timely reminder that it’s not just what you do that matters, but how you do it. 

A nice, if undated view of the LASCO factory and ‘Melbourne Airport’ facilities, on Coode Island, Melbourne. (State Library of Victoria | 1652357)

And perhaps, despite his reputation, he was simply a victim of circumstance: After the initial excitement, growth and innovation that aviation enjoyed through the 1920s, the bubble burst in devastating coincidence with The Great Depression. LASCO was far from the only aviation business taken down by that unlucky circumstance. 

Above it all, however, Larkin remains one of Australia’s vital First World War aviation heroes: A Gallipoli veteran, a determined observer pilot, a decorated fighter ace, an effective instructor and a successful leader. 

He then came home and established a remarkably forward-thinking aviation enterprise, giving him a solid claim for being Australia’s first true aviation entrepreneur – a genuine visionary and pioneer. 

It seems a shame Herbert Larkin’s only legacy is short street between the carparks at Essendon Airport (YMEN).
History can be an unforgiving judge.

2 thoughts on “Going by air (Part 4)

    1. Yes indeed! There are lots of ways to not make it. In the frustration of things not going right, I guess it’s easy to make them worse. (Life Lesson From Aviation #357.)

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