Thursday, January 21, 2010

Belshaw's World - tragedy in New England skies

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday  13 January 2010. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010.

On Sunday Morning 18 September 1932 a chartered New England Airways Puss Moth took off from Sydney for Brisbane. On board were the pioneer aviator Captain Leslie Holden and his friend Dr George Hamilton, along with pilot Ralph Virtue.

Holden, a member of the pioneering Adelaide motor building firm after whom the car is named, was then thirty seven.

Enlisting in the AIF in May 1915 as a motor driver, he was one of the first batch of 200 volunteers to train in England for the Australian Flying Corps in December 1916. Holden became an ace, famous for his ability to nurse badly damaged aeroplanes home. This earned him the nicknames of 'the homing pigeon' and 'Lucky Les'.

Returning to Australia in June 1919, he became Sydney manager of Holden's Motor Body Builders. However, bitten by aviation bug and with financial support from friends, he bought a D.H.61 biplane in 1928 which he named Canberra.

Flying the Canberra, Holden operated charter flights from Mascot, Sydney.

Holden DH61 Armidale The photo taken by Leslie Henderson, John Caling’s mother's step-brother and a keen amateur photographer, shows the Canberra in Armidale. This was almost certainly the first visit by a passenger plane to Armidale.

In 1926 gold had been discovered at Wau in the then Australian mandated territory of New Guinea. A rush began.

In September 1931, attracted by the aviation opportunities, Holden and the Canberra made what was probably the first flight from Sydney to New Guinea to begin a successful air-freight business.

The second passenger, Dr George Hamilton, was a Macquarie Street skin specialist. Hamilton was a keen aerial photographer and an old friend of Holden’s. They had flown together often, including the famous rescue flight to the Kimberleys where they had found the missing Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm on a mud bank in the middle of a river.

The pilot, Ralph Virtue, was a member of a pioneering New England aviation family.

His father, Robert Virtue, was an Irishman. Hot-tempered, restless and ambitious, he had bought a diary farm at Bexhill near Lismore. This quickly grew to over 1,000 acres.

Ralph’s brother Keith, the youngest son, had become obsessed with flying. Finally, the old man told Keith that if he could get a licence, he would buy him a plane. Keith did, and the plane (a Gypsy Moth DH 60) was purchased.

As soon as Keith had obtained his commercial license, Keith and Ralph set up Virtue’s Air Travel. The new business made a precarious living out of barnstorming flights, flying training and charter along the coast and onto the Tablelands.

In 1930 after purchasing a second plane, Keith went to the New England Motor Company in Lismore to make arrangements for them to become his booking agents.

The proprietor, George A Robinson, had first founded a motor coach service at Kempsey with his brother. He then moved to Lismore to set up New England Motor Co. By 1930 this was a substantial business with services from Brisbane to Nowra.

Robinson agreed to join the Virtues and New England Airways was born, backed by the New England Motor Co.

In early September 1932, Leslie Holden arrived in Brisbane by boat from New Guinea with his wife and three young daughters. The trip was partly holiday, partly to buy new planes for the New Guinea business. On arrival, the family caught the New England Airways flight to Sydney.

In Sydney, Holden and Hamilton decided to join with friends in a holiday cruise along the Barrier Reef. The chartered New England Airways Puss Moth was therefore loaded with fishing gear, camera film, luggage and a small mail bag.

The weather was not good, but all three were used to that.

The craft arrived at Lismore for refuelling at 1.30 pm and took off again.

Crossing the Coorabell Ridge at low height to keep below the clouds, the plane was caught in a sudden downdraught. Half a dozen witnesses saw the plane appear to turn a somersault and then right itself before the left wing broke off, causing it to crash. All three men were killed instantly.

At first, the media blamed the crash on pilot error. However, while the Puss Moth was a beautiful plane to fly, it would be established that the plane had a fatal design flaw that made it prone to break up in certain circumstances.

Note on sources: This post is largely drawn Jane Priest’s great biography of Keith Virtue, Virtue in Flying, along with Carl Bridge’s ADB entry on L J Holden.

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