Pilot No.1

William Ewart Hart

It’s fair to say that most of Australia’s early aviation history happened during and immediately after the Great War…

Most. But not all. 

William Ewart Hart, 20th April 1885 – 29th July 1943

There were a handful of Australians who caught the flying bug early and gave it full rein right here. And one of the most important was Paramatta dentist William Ewart Hart – holder of Australian Aviator’s Licence No. 1. 

The first Bristol Boxkites

For just nine months in 1911 and 1912, Hart was something of a fixture in Sydney skies, giving exhibition flights and joy rides over the city and suburbs. His aeroplane was one of the first Bristol Boxkites brought into the country, as part of a demonstration and sales tour by the British & Colonial Aeroplane Company (‘Bristol’). 

It was that company’s first product – essentially a Farman III, but redrawn and enhanced by Bristol’s engineer George Challenger from dimensions published in aviation media at the time. 

One of the British & Colonial Company’s Boxkites in front of the flying school sheds (which are still standing) at Larkhill. (BAE Systems)

It says a lot about Bristol’s bold outlook that they were attempting to sell planes on the other side of the world within 12 months of being set up! In fact, their ambitious plan included building Boxkites in Australia if they could stimulate the demand.

The sales tour was led by a remarkable Kiwi, Joseph Joel Hammond, whose adventurous life would be worthy of a Hollywood movie.

Born in Whanganui in 1896, he had hunted gold in the Klondike, trapped furs in Alaska, worked as a cowboy in Arizona and been a performer in ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody’s Wild West Show, before touring Europe and learning to fly at the Delagrange School near Rheims and the Sanchez-Besa School at Mourmelon. 

JJ Hammond with the Bleriot XI ‘Britannia”, which was gifted to the NZ Government by the Imperial Air Fleet Committee in June 1913. (Wimmera | flickr.com CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

He earned his Aero-Club de France Aviator Certificate No. 258 on October 4th, 1910. He then returned to England and earned his Royal Aero Club Aviator’s Certificate No. 32 on November 22nd, 1910 in a Bristol Boxkite at Larkhill. 

Obviously an impressive pilot, Hammond was at Larkhill just as Bristol was looking to expand its cohort of company pilots and promptly found himself recruited as lead pilot for the company’s colonial sales tour. 

Hammond arrived in Perth with two Boxkites (Nos. 10 and 11) and a staff of mechanics in December 1910. He proceeded to demonstrate the aircraft from Belmont Park Racecourse – making the first-ever powered flight in Western Australia on January 3rd, 1911. From there, the aircraft were shipped to Altona in Melbourne where they were demonstrated again, this time with a clear eye to winning the Australian Government as a customer. 

They would make a total of 40 flights from Melbourne, including the first cross-country flight in Australia, the first with a passenger, and the first with multiple (two) passengers.

Hammond and his team then moved on to Sydney to give further demonstration flights. In fact, on April 18th, 1911, Hammond made the first substantial aeroplane flight in Sydney – and the first from a nondescript cow pasture at Mascot that is still the site of Sydney Airport. 

Those flights caught the eye of the up-and-coming young dentist, William Hart. 

William Hart

Born in Parramatta on April 20th, 1885, Hart was the third of nine children for prosperous timber merchant William Hart and his wife Maria. He went to local schools was apprenticed to a nearby dentist at 16. He registered in his own right on June 26th, 1906, and proceeded to practise in West Wyalong, Newcastle and Sydney. 

By the time Hammond and his Bristol roadshow arrived in town, Hart had a prosperous dental business and was free to indulge his interest in mechanical matters and, more specifically, aviation. 

Hammond flies the Boxkite at Mascot (actually Ascot Racecourse) in Sydney, during April 1911. (State Library of NSW, Hood Collection Part II)

He followed closely as Hammond and his pilot/chief mechanic Leslie MacDonald made some 25 flights over the city – including a flight to take Australia’s first aerial photographs, when MacDonald took a Daily Telegraph photographer aloft for 25 minutes on May 6th.  

Leslie Falconer MacDonald, who had trained as an engineer with the Bristol Tramway Company before moving to Sir George White’s new aeroplane firm and learning to fly, had earned his Royal Aero Club Aviator’s Certificate (No. 28) just before Hammond. 

So, while Hammond took his English wife to meet his family in New Zealand as the tour wound up in May, MacDonald proceeded to fly the Boxkite around Sydney for several more months. 

Firmly bitten by the aviation bug, Hart approached him about purchasing a machine and, in September, bought the tour’s second Boxkite (No.11), still in its crate, for ₤1,333. The aircraft was shipped to a paddock just northeast of Penrith Railway Station where MacDonald oversaw the machine’s assembly in a tent. (Today, the local street names include Aviators Way, Engineers Place and William Hart Crescent.)

Australian Aviator’s Licence No.1

Before flying could begin, though, the tent and the aircraft were wrecked in a gale. Undeterred, Hart, with some friends and MacDonald’s guidance, salvaged the engine and rebuilt the airframe using wood from his father’s timber yard.

When MacDonald left for England (he would drown after ditching a new Vickers monoplane into the Thames in January 1913) Hart continued to teach himself the finer points of aviation. 

On November 3rd, he attempted his first cross-country flight – an early morning trip from his Penrith field to Parramatta with his younger brother Jack as a passenger. It took 23 minutes to cover the thirty kilometres, and the inexperienced pilot was lucky to land safely in the windy conditions he discovered when he arrived.

The two men had breakfast with their father, then William insisted Jack head home on land while he tackled the blustery return flight alone.  In the end, he only made it as far as St. Marys before landing in a paddock, where he tied the aeroplane down and waited for the wind to subside. 

An eager crowd inspects Hart’s Boxkite, possibly at Sydney Showgrounds after his flight from Penrith on 18 November 1911. (National Library)

Largely self-taught though he was, within two more weeks Hart had passed a series of flying tests supervised by the Aerial league of Australia and, on December 5th he was issued with Australian Aviator’s Licence No. 1. 

This would later be endorsed by the FAI as Royal Aero Club Certificate 199. 

Accidents and inspiration

Hart wasn’t one to wait around for paperwork though, and the November flying weather must have been ideal: On the 18th he took off from Penrith and flew via St. Marys to the Sydney show grounds, claiming the first long-distance (76 km, 55 minutes) cross-country flight in New South Wales. 

Regular local flights followed through the summer and on January 3rd, 1912, William Hart opened a flying school at his Penrith field, the ceremonies being officiated over by local Postmaster C.E. Frazer.

Hart sitting in his Boxkite. The date and place are unclear, but he is possibly in front of his tent/hangar at Penrith and the date would have to be the first half of 1912. (National Library of Australia)

One of Hart’s first students was Major Rosenthal – a burly, 108 kg soldier – and during a demonstration flight on January 6th, the pair gained the dubious honour of having New South Wales’ first air accident. 

Forced down by strong winds Hart attempted to land alongside the railway line between Rooty Hill and Mount Druitt, however he clipped a signal with his wingtip and flipped the Boxkite over. Neither pilot nor instructor was badly hurt beyond some cuts and bruises. In fact, while Rosenthal went by train to have a cut under his eye seen to, Hart went home for fabric and wood, repaired the aircraft on the spot, and flew on to Parramatta. 

In June of 1912 William Hart made several other significant contributions to Australian aviation history when he decided to move his flying school from Penrith to a site he’d picked out at Ham Common near Richmond. 

This new flying field would grow into RAAF Richmond. And his ‘hangar rat’ was a young Edgar Percival, who received his first aeroplane ride from Hart, then went on to found Percival Aircraft in England – famous for its series of sleek ‘Gull’ long-distance racers.

Cover for the program booklet published to mark Hart and Stone’s epic 1912 air race. “It practically marks the birth of Aviation in Australia”, the introduction stated. (National Library of Australia)

Australia’s first air race

Hart began selling joyrides from Richmond. He also took noted cinema pioneer Ernest Higgins on a series of eighteen flights, which gave Higgins enough footage for three films – The Camera in the Clouds (1912), Among the Clouds with a Camera (1912) and Australia Calls (1913).   

On June 29th, 1912, Hart and visiting American aviator Arthur Burr “Wizard” Stone competed in Australia’s first air race, from Mascot to Parramatta Park.

Arthur ‘Wizard’ Stone in the cockpit of his Bleriot, during the NSW leg of his 1912 aviation tour. (National Library)

With the benefit of local knowledge, Hart won easily when Stone became confused after taking off in his Bleriot XI and followed the Georges River west instead of the Parramatta.

Following his victory, Hart was flying home when he was forced down in a small paddock by a road. With not enough room to take off again, he had to get seven panels of fencing taken down and have the big biplane pushed out onto the road before he could get back into the air. 

Shortly afterwards he landed in an another small paddock by a narrow road. Wary of destroying even more of the region’s fencing, he attempted to take off over the lane but the tail clipped the near-side fence and tipped him into the far one, shattering the propeller. Uninjured, Hart was soon back on the scene with a replacement propeller and took off successfully – down the road this time. 

An artful image of Hart flying his Boxkite above a suburban Sydney steam train in 1912. (State Library of NSW)

By August, he had also designed a two-seat monoplane with 50HP Le Rhone rotary, a which was being built for him at Wagga Wagga. After the initial flights proved successful, he had it brought up to Richmond but crashed badly on his first test flight. 

Witnesses reported the taxi tests seemed normal but when he lifted off the motor ‘went wrong’ and the machine went ‘hopelessly out of control’, nose-diving into some open land.

Hart was found badly injured but conscious. He thought he’d broken his back, but it turned out to merely be a piece of wreckage pressing into him. He was patched up on the spot by the No.1 Light Horse Field Ambulance, which was stationed near Richmond at the time, before a long recuperation in the Hawkesbury District Hospital. 

Sadly, it was the end of his flying career.

Back to earth

In 1916, Hart enlisted as a Lieutenant with the newly formed No.1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps at Point Cook, and sailed with them to Egypt that March as an Instructor. But when the Squadron went to Britain for final training, a Medical Board found Hart was epileptic and declared him medically unfit.

He was returned to Australia and discharged on September 11th.

Hart in uniform – clearly under canvas and sporting a moustache, so presumably while in Egypt. (AWM DAAV00008)

Once again, he turned back to dentistry and opened a large practice in Sydney, occupying a whole floor of Boomerang House in King Street. He seems to have practised quietly and successfully from then on. He married Thelma Clare Cock on 10 August 1929 and made a long trip to Britain and the USA in 1930. 

When World War Two broke out, he again volunteered for service with the Royal Australian Air Force – and was again rejected on medical grounds. However we did become Vice President of the Air Force Association. 

Then, on the morning of July 29th, 1943 Hart suffered a fatal heart attack while walking down Bathurst Street in Sydney. He staggered into a laneway and sat down against the wall, where he died quietly and alone.

It was six hours before anyone noticed the body. 

Although busy with a global war, the RAAF honoured Australia’s first aviator with a flypast at his funeral. The following year there was a movement to have Richmond Airport renamed in his memory. Seventy years later, his name was again put forward for the new Western Sydney airport at Badgerys Creek.

In the end, neither suggestion got off the ground. He wasn’t even shortlisted for a Qantas A380…

For all that, William Ewart Hart is a vital figure in our aviation history. And his relative obscurity today is simply incredible. 

He wasn’t just one of the true trail blazers. He was Australian Aviator No. 1.

Hard to believe this is Sydney International Airport – but it is! Hart skims the rough turf of the Ascot Racecourse that stood at Mascot, under what is now the long term carpark and the threshold of RWY 25. (National Library)

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