When Bert Hinkler flew solo from England to Australia

Bert Hinkler

Bert Hinkler is a mostly forgotten early Australian aviator but there was a time when he was idolised as the country’s foremost flier. Born in Bundaberg, Queensland in 1892, his unfinished autobiography said “flight ever fascinated me” and like most of the early pioneers of flight he did not live to be an old man. Hinkler died aged 40 after crashing his plane into the mountains of Tuscany in Italy. Il Duce Benito Mussolini, himself fascinated with flying buried Hinkler with full military honours and he was mourned across Australia and the world. Grantlea Kieza tell his story with gusto in Bert Hinkler: The Most Daring Man in the World.

Hinkler got into aviation as a young man in Bundaberg after hearing of the stories of the Wright Bros early flights in America and Frenchman Bleriot’s first dash across the Channel. In 1910 Harry Houdini became the first man to fly a plane in Australia at Digger’s Rest near Melbourne. After Lindsay Campbell exhibited a glider at a Longreach show Hinkler was inspired to create his own which he built from models in The Aero. He build his Glider 1 in the backyard which aged 19 he tested successfully at nearby Mon Repos beach.

When American aviator Arthur Burr “Wizard” Stone visited Bundaberg in 1913, Hinkler told him he knew the problem with his plane and after the American expressed disbelief, Hinkler told him about his gliders. Stone took his advice and it worked leading to a job offer as a mechanic for the American on his tour of Australia. With this experience under his belt Hinkler decided to travel to England with an endorsement from Stone. He got a job with Sopwith Aviation in London where he helped build planes and nurtured his dream of becoming a pilot.

When war broke out in 1914 Hinkler joined the new Royal Naval Air Service as a mechanic. At Whitley Bay he eventually flew as a passenger in a two-seat Gnome-powered Bristol hunting German Zeppelins. He was eventually moved to Air Wing and trained as a gunner. Assigned to France he would sit behind the pilot in a tandem cockpit and do battle with enemy planes and bomb German positions in the Saar. When the RAF was formed in 1918 he was made a Second Lieutenant (Technical) and trained as a pilot in Marske-by-the-Sea, Yorkshire.

After graduation he was assigned to the Italian front at the controls of a Sopwith Camel. The RAF supported the Italian assault on Vittorio Veneto in October 1918 and Hinkler led an attack on Austrian troops fleeing the front. He flew 50 operations in the final months of the war. He came back to Britain deciding he wanted to fly all the way home to Bundaberg. In 1919 Prime Minister Billy Hughes offered £10,000 to the first Australian or British crew that could fly London-Darwin and Hinkler was keen, becoming the first official entrant.

But when the rules were released he was unable to fly needing a navigator and a plane with 3000km range due to the scarcity of airfields in India. In the end there were six official entrants and brothers Ross and Keith Smith were first across the line in 27 days. A disappointed Hinkler stepped up the search for a plane that would make the dangerous journey alone. That plane would be an Avro Baby.

Avro was Alliot Verdun-Roe who made planes at Southampton. His Baby was a tiny plane with a 35hp engine and importantly it needed just 45m to take off. In 1920 his first attempt to fly to Australia ended in Turin over fears of getting stuck in a war in Syria and a year later he sailed back to Australia with the Baby as cargo.

Arriving in Sydney he unpacked the plane and beat his solo distance London-Turin with a flight to Bundaberg to great local acclaim. He went back to England where he raced planes in competition but kept alive his dream to fly to Australia. It wasn’t until February 7, 1928 that the timing was right and he set off from Croydon in his Avro 581 Avian plane. as usual without fanfare. He loaded the narrow cockpit with Ovaltine chocolate, a few biscuits and a flask of hot coffee. He also had a bottle of port, 400 cigarettes and official letters to take home.

Aided by pages from a Times Atlas map, he set off over the Channel and down through France crossing the Alps and wondered where he would stop as it approached nightfall. In the dark he made it to Rome where he flashed a feeble SOS with his torch. But with no-one to send up flares, he risked a dark landing and after a long wait to get through customs, he caught a tram into the city centre at 11pm, getting to bed in a hotel by 1am.

Four hours later he was up and went back to the airport where he saw in daylight the radio masts and wires he somehow missed while landing. Day 2 was a flight to Valletta in Malta, 900km away and Hinkler risked the sulphur fumes of Vesuvius and passed the snow-capped peak of Etna before arriving at the Malta RAF base at 3pm. He enjoyed dinner at the mess knowing that it would be the last of familiar pleasures.

The following morning he set off over the Mediterranean and made it to Benghazi, then on another 400km to Tobruk but with darkness falling he was forced to land 60km short of his destination. After a sandwich and coffee he took out the cockpit seat to use as a pillow, removed the inflatable boat and pumped it up. Upturned it was 2m long and a perfect bed. He set an alarm for an hour before dawn and fell asleep.

In the morning he was approached by two Arabs who had never seen a plane before. They helped Hinkler clear the rocks and camel thorn off an uneven runway. He flew quickly to Tobruk, refuelled and set off towards Ramla in Palestine, having no authority to land in Egypt. Again he fell short and needed another rough desert landing. In exchange for cigarettes, a bunch of locals helped him drag the plane to harder ground for take off. Day 5 he followed the railway line 100km to Ramla RAF base where he did an engine check.

The RAF persuaded him to stay the night and he ended up carousing in Jaffa till 1.30am. The following day he flew over the Biblical towns of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Jericho over the Dead Sea and eventually on to Basra at the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates. There he landed at the air base run by Imperial Airways and worked on his plane till after midnight.

On Day 7, February 13 he had a 1400km run to Jask on a Persian peninsula opposite the Emirates. Jask was a desolate outpost for the Indo-European telegraph line and transit point for Europe-India flights. Hinkler took a bicycle into town and rode back to the Avian before dawn where he was shocked to find a dripping leak in the main fuel tank. He reckoned his fuel loss would still get him to Karachi, 1000km away though it was a race against time as the fuel loss was worse than he calculated. He just about made it, again landing at a RAF base and now the talk of the world as “Hustling Hinkler” having broken the record for the longest flight in a small plane.

The RAF men gave Hinkler a pith helmet to cope with the sun but it didn’t allow him to plug his ears the way his helmet did and on the next leg the ringing in his ears gave him a massive headache. Almost dizzy and stone deaf, he found a landing at Cawnpore (Kanpur), 1200km away and went straight to bed at 5pm. Refreshed at daybreak he set off again to Calcutta (Kolkata), wearing his helmet and a big crowd greeted him at the airport. Locals helped him work on the plane till midnight and he went into the city to sleep.

Day 11, February 17 Hinkler was bound for Rangoon (Yangon) in poor visibility.,flying by compass. He arrived on Rangoon racecourse at 2.30pm and local Shell reps put on a dinner for him while his flying suit was washed. Australian papers were now predicting he would obliterate the 27 day record of the Smiths though the Australian government was less impressed with foolish flyers killing themselves and said they would not provide facilities or forecasts.

Uncaring, Hinkler left Rangoon 6.30am the following morning and set off for Victoria Point (Kawthaung) on the Malay peninsula. He was chased by a rain storm all day ending his hope of seeing a tiger from the air and got in at 2pm. That left a 1300km trip to Singapore the following day which saw him caught in a tropical storm before landing in the wrong spot. The drenched pilot was redirected to Singapore’s racecourse.

There Hinkler met fellow aviators Bill Lancaster and Chubbie Miller who were also flying from England to Australia and survived almost crashing into the Arabian Sea, being shot at by Arabs and having a snake aboard at Rangoon. They were awaiting repairs now at Singapore – Bert left after them and would arrive before them. Lancaster gave Hinkler strip maps for the Darwin to Camooweal route that would be easier to use than the Times atlas.

The following morning was a difficult takeoff on soggy ground and he just cleared the fence. Hinkler dodged the rain all the way to Kalidjati on the island of Java, annoying the official welcoming party waiting in the rain at Jakarta, 125km back. He also annoyed Dutch officials by failing to notify them of his arrival in advance. Again uncaring Hinkler set off on Day 15 1400km to Bima on the island of Sumbawa where he relaxed in the Dutch commissioner’s Roman bath. Sleeping on the veranda he was kept awake all night by mosquitoes.

Day 16 was the difficult final 1450km leg to Darwin, more than 10 hours of flying with half of that across the desolate Timor Sea with not a ship in sight. Hinkler hoped there would be a few people to shake his hand on arrival but had no idea of the anticipation. Darwin expected him at 2pm but it wasn’t until almost four anxious hours later that Hinkler finally dropped out of the skies, circling the Ross Smith memorial twice before ending his 17,710km journey in under 16 days in front of a huge crowd. It was the longest solo flight made and he was now the most celebrated aviator in the world.

After three days basking in the Darwin glory which included a telegram from King George V, Hinkler took off again at 7am bound 1600km for Cloncurry. He was expected at Brunette Downs on the Tablelands mid afternoon but when there was no sign of him by 5.40pm the alarm was raised. At Cloncurry 20 cars were waiting with their lights on ready for a night landing but Hinkler never showed. The next morning he was still missing and authorities hoped at best he was forced into a bush landing.

The pilot of the Qantas plane from Cloncurry to Camooweal kept a close eye out as did another Qantas pilot on his own search but there was nothing. At Camooweal they heard Hinkler had landed in the Territory yesterday but had not checked in at Cloncurry. Finally just after midday Hinkler touched down at Camooweal saying he’d slept the night in the desert. He had become lost and landed near a windmill where an astonished stockman was pumping bore water for his cattle. He gave the stockman a note to take to Brunette Downs and camped with the herd for the night.

In Camooweal he fueled up then went for a beer at Reilly’s Hotel and stayed the night there at a party in his honour. The following morning the two Qantas pilots gave him an honour guard to Cloncurry where there was a welcome by 100 people. But he soon took off again to Longreach with stops at McKinlay and Winton and arrived at 4.50pm to a band playing See The Conquering Hero comes. There he had dinner with Qantas managers and rang his mother with the promise he would be home in Bundaberg the following day.

He left Longreach at 6.30am on February 27, 1928 and followed the railway east towards Rockhampton. Rumours spread he was going to land there but he didn’t leaving hundreds disappointed. Finally at 4.15pm he arrived at Bundaberg where the entire town and even the Premier of Queensland was waiting at the landing area which was marked by oil fires and a white calico cross. Police could not control the crowd which risked their own lives rushing to the plane. Among them all there was one person he wanted to see and he greeted her with “hello, mum.”

Hinkler told the press it was the proudest moment of his life to fly home to Bundaberg and praised “British workmanship and British organisation” for getting him there. Australians could now “look Lindbergh in the eye”, a year after the American flown from New York to Paris. Hinkler was cheap too, he had used just 2000 litres of petrol at a cost of just £45 and another £10 for oil.

With his reputation assured he went on a triumphant tour of Australia before returning to England. He was named the most outstanding aviator of 1928, following Lindbergh a year earlier. He continued to race planes in England and North America. In 1931 he flew south to Brazil and became the first to fly the South Atlantic crossing from Natal, Brazil to Bathurst, The Gambia in a dangerous 22 hour journey through ocean storms.

But in 1933, aged 40, he pushed his luck once too often. Setting off on another solo flight to Australia in a Puss Moth to beat the new record of 8 days 20 hours, he went missing in Italy. His body was found four months later next to his crashed plane in the Tuscan mountains. Mussolini, who aspired to be an aviator himself, buried Hinkler in Florence with full military honours with 100,000 mourners filing past his coffin. Among the many honours for him in Australia in the coming years was the Bundaberg federal seat renamed in his honour in 1984. The Hinkler Hall of Aviation, complete with his house Mon Repos, taken brick by brick from Southampton, remains one of Bundaberg’s major attractions.

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