Tuesday, October 17, 2006

New England Australia Aviation Pioneers - the Virtues

Photo: Australian National Airways Captain Keith Virtue posing with DC-3 VH-ANR "Oana". Keith Virtue was the first Australian pilot to accumulate 20,000 hours.

Source Virtue family collection, from the Cuskelly site. This site includes a range of aviation related material, including the story of Adastra, another of Australia's pioneer aviation companies. The Sydney based Adastra was founded in 1931, finishing its life in the 1970's shortly after its acquisition by East West Airlines and the relocation of its HQ to Tamworth.

My thanks to Bruce Robinson and to John Lee from Chicago for more material on New England Airways and those associated with the company. I am still absorbing this. In the meantime, a brief snippet on another part of the pioneer story, Keith Virtue, who was a pilot with New England and went on to a long and distinguished career in Australian civil aviation.

Thanks to Bruce and John I now know that there is a biography of Keith that also covers the early days on New England Airways and of Airlines of Australia, Joan Priest's Virtue in Flying. (Angus and Roberston, 1975). So I have put this on my list to find, read and report back.

As I presently understand it, Keith was the youngest of ten boys and grew up near Lismore. An elder brother Ralph was also a pilot with New England and was killed in the NEA plane crash that also saw the death of pioneer aviator Leslie Holden plus another. I understand that there is a memorial near the crash site.

Again as I understand it, Keith married one of G A Robinson's daughters. By the end of his flying career Keith had established what was probably a world record of around 40,000 commercial flying hours, a title later taken over by his nephew Jason Hassard, 42,000 hours. I think that Jason was also a pilot with Airlines of Australia.

I will write more later. In the meantime, checking material reminded me that one of Australia's most famous air crashes involved an Airline of Australia Stinson flying btween Brisbane and Sydney in 1937. The plane crashed on the Lamington Ranges shortly after take-off from Brisbane. A search failed to find the wreckage.

Nine days after the crash, Beaudesert grazier Bernard O'Reilly set out on foot to find the plane. Through his superior bush skills he found the crash site and, to his surprise, two survivors in desperate need of medical attention. After making them comfortable, he left them to organise a rescue party. The full story can be found in the Queensland Government archives.

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