During the hiatus between the Great Wars, Australian aviators were taking to the skies at a frenetic pace. A rare band of pioneers, they would import various types from the exotic shores of Europe and America and keep them airborne through a cunning, and not always successful, admixture of repairs, patchwork and cannibalising less fortunate aircraft. Aviation historian Keith Meggs looks back.
Frederic Jaques, who had been employed as a pilot by LASCo in the early 1920s (using the form Jacques), made an application for registration of an Avro Avian (c/n R3/AV/126) on 13 July 1927, on behalf of Wings Ltd, of 125 Queen St Melbourne. G-AUFY arrived by sea in Adelaide on 6 January 1928, was allotted CofA NO152 and, with another Avian, VH–UFZ, it was being operated by Jaques Flying Services from Parafield (SA) through 1930.
After a forced landing on Redhead Beach (NSW) on 25 January 1931, while en-route from Sydney to Ballina, in VH–UFY, the aircraft and Jaques disappeared from officialdom’s orbit, raising questions as to their whereabouts, and it was not until 5 June 1931 that the former was reported as being at G.A. Robinson’s aerodrome at Lismore, in an unsatisfactory condition — its CofR and CofA had expired in March and May respectively.
Three weeks after the report, CAB Inspector Jim Collopy visited Lismore and reported on the condition of the Avian in the following terms:- ‘‘The condition of this aircraft is absolutely unairworthy and any attempt to fly it may possibly result in a fatal accident.’
It had been left in the open, and he used words such as waterlogged, rotted, corroded, decayed and putrid, in describing its condition, which was such that glued joints had come apart and both fabric and ply could be penetrated with fingers. The owner was reportedly in Sydney, confirmed on 8 September 1931 when the DSCA at Mascot, Vern Burgess, reported to Head Office that he had seen Jaques, who advised that he had handed VH–UFY over to Grant Mathison of Mt Eba Station (SA), although it was still then at Lismore.
However, it was then bought by Jack Treacy and was taken to Wikner’s workshop at Parbury Lane to be rebuilt. CAB Inspector Les Ellis called in to see it on 5 February 1932, and again a week later, and reported in part, as follows, (paraphrased):-
‘A completely new fuselage has been built to the old dimensions, but with one-inch-square longerons throughout [an increase] of selected Douglas fir, otherwise known as oregon, and laminated at the tail for bending, much larger forward side-members, and increased thickness in the ply covering throughout. It had been built by Messrs Simpson and Kerig, under Wikner’s supervision, and was quite satisfactory except perhaps for the use of oregon in the longerons instead of spruce, but replacement at that stage would require destruction of the fuselage. Close inspection of the wing spars proved that they were in fact in airworthy condition, and new wings were built up by Joe Vine, using new ribs made to the modified design called for by the Branch, to overcome failures at the trailing edge in the original Avro design.’
Other details advised were that the original Cirrus MkII engine was to be replaced by a Genet Major obtained from the QAN Avro Five which had crashed at Maryborough (on 31 December 1930), and a steel-tube engine mount was to be made for it along the lines of that used on that aircraft, to drawings by Wikner, and with new centre-of-gravity calculations for the installation.
Bracing was to be added to the tailplane, the original undercarriage was to be used, and some metal fittings had been bought from QANTAS.
A request by Treacy was sent to the CCA on 16 March in regard to the retention of the longerons, for which oregon had been used because of its approval for use in DH4, DH9, and DH9A spars. Replacement at that stage would cost him £300, and because of the increased material sizes, approval to retain the oregon was passed to him on 6 May, along with a Genet-Avian engine-mount drawing. However, the latter was too late for the project, as the Wikner mount had been made before its receipt.
Initial flight was made by Treacy on 27 May 1932, and he flew the aircraft for three hours in the next three days, as well as flights being made by Alan Cameron and Ken Frewin. CofR NO186 was re-allotted to it on 14 June and CofA NO152 was forwarded on 12 August.
Based on his wing manufacture, and the fact that he had finished off the fuselage, Vine applied for an Avian endorsement on his GE Licence on 28 July, as he had been engaged to completely rebuild another one. Although the aircraft flew perfectly, some recriminatory correspondence took place over the fact that the wings were rigged with a small error, and with his application, Vine gave his side of the story, which was accepted by the CCA.
The Cooranbong Mob
Activities at Cooranbong (about 35 miles south-west of Newcastle, NSW) included the operation of a variety of homebuilt aircraft, beginning with the manufacture, from Clancy plans, of ‘Skybaby Too.’
Mel Pengilly, an experienced woodworker with an engineering background, and Albert Harris, a printer, 19 and 18 years-of-age respectively, began these activities after seeing the Clancy Skybaby undergoing testing at Mascot. They bought a set of plans from Allan Clancy, aircraft material from one of the firms at Mascot, and carried out the work in Pengilly’s shed at Alton Rd Cooranbong, beginning in about 1932-33.
Newton Lawson, who had used a pair of DH9 wings in the construction of a primary glider, joined the group after about 18 months of work had been done, and they all then proceeded to fly the glider. However, it was very unstable and had a very brief life prior to Albert Harris stalling it at 60 feet, after which the wings were sawn up for material for Skybaby use.
Work was spread over about five years (with many holdups due to finance), and the original Clancy-Watt conversion of the Henderson engine was bought from Hilder for £15 after his September 1936 Skybaby accident in Newcastle, although it was necessary to fit a new crankshaft, cylinder, connecting rod, piston, and sump to it.
First flight was made in about November 1937 by Albert Harris, from a paddock behind Pengilly’s place, and it was then flown for about a total of 30 hours from Cooranbong and Wamberal, with a number of new propellers made by Lawson over the period concerned.
The latter had done just a few hours training with the Newcastle Aero Club and, on his first flight in ‘Skybaby Too’ from Wamberal to Cooranbong, fuel-hose particles in the carburettor caused a forced landing and slight damage to the undercarriage. About 12 months later, Lawson had some further trouble when he drifted on take-off at Wamberal, hit a baker’s van with a wing strut, and tipped upside down beside the strip.
Eventually, during a flight by Harris, a fuel-line fracture caused him to ditch it in Lake Macquarie about 500 yards from shore, and he swam in while towing it by the tail skid until its wheels struck the mud bottom. During the subsequent retrieving operations the following day, by launch, and then by truck and wire rope from the shore, the fuselage was pulled in half, along with other damage to the structure.
The remains were stored in Pengilly’s shed, where they were inspected by CAB Inspector Howard on 2 February 1939, and, as a replacement, a partly-completed Heath Parasol was bought from Gillings of Maroubra a few months after the accident. It was towed to Cooranbong where an engine mount and cowls were made to suit the Henderson previously used in ‘Skybaby Too’.
Although it was outwardly a nice-looking aircraft, and was fitted with wheel spats, the standard of workmanship was not all that it could have been and, before Harris tried an initial hop with it, the undercarriage was strengthened, and bracing wires were installed in an attempt to improve the rigidity of the wing-support system.
The initial hop ended with Harris standing it on its nose because of a dry creek bed in the short paddock at Cooranbong, and, after fitment of a new Lawson propeller, it was towed to Wamberal for testing.
Frank Wainman had long given assistance to the group’s aviation activities by providing transport, arranging fuel, and by financing and helping with the levelling and clearing operations. As he had done several hours of flying training with the Newcastle Aero Club, his request to taxi the Heath was therefore acceded to, but he became airborne and was unable to maintain height while attempting to turn, so that the aircraft mushed into the ground and was substantially damaged. Harris actually considered that it was the best thing that could have happened to it because of the numerous defects in it, and the pieces were just put into storage at Cooranbong — the engine eventually found its way to Max Breen of Gunnedah, possibly with the remains of ‘Skybaby Too’.
The next move was the acquisition of Alan Mogg’s ‘Miss Mogal’, a Pietenpol Skyscout which had reached an advanced stage by the time the war interrupted its progress. It was arranged that ‘the Mob’ would complete the aircraft at Wamberal and would then operate it at Cooranbong.
A first flight was made by Albert Harris on 28 December 1940, and another three-and-a-half hours flying ended in a ferry flight to Cooranbong on 31 December. It was then stored for about a year, until taken back to Allibone St Ashfield (Syd), where modifications were carried out.
Flying commenced again when Harris flew it at Cooranbong on 19 April 1946.
In the meantime, the group had started building the present Cooranbong airstrip, which was officially approved in May 1952, and each member had individually gained considerable further aviation experience. Harris and Lawson had spent 12 months working at CAC in 1941, then Harris and Pengilly had worked at Clyde Engineering and Clyde Aviation Division during the remainder of the war, mainly as template makers, but later on aircraft overhaul at Bankstown.
Pengilly subsequently went as an engineer to East-West Airlines at Tamworth (NSW), while Wainman gained his Private Licence with the Royal Newcastle Aero Club in 1947. By March 1968, he had some 1,700 hours, and operated the airstrip at Cooranbong in addition to his garage business, until he moved to Sydney in about 1970.
Albert Harris and Newton Lawson were then involved in ultra-light aircraft activities and lived in Georges Hall and Coffs Harbour respectively — Lawson and Dr Rob Jelliffe were jointly engaged in the construction of a Jodel D11 in Coffs Harbour, and Harris was responsible for manufacturing various components for it.
Frank Wainman died after landing Cessna 182 VH–DGF at St Marys (NSW) on 30 May 1971, while flying with Albert Harris, and while holding the position of Secretary of the New South Wales Division of the ULAA.
Newton Lawson and Albert Harris subsequently built an Emerald at Coffs Harbour, and it was flying as VH––EDX in October 1975.
In October 1929, Edwin Blore, of Cundletown (four miles north of Taree on the New South Wales North-Coast), sought information from CAB on any restrictions which might be placed on a home-built aircraft already under construction. The plans for this aircraft had been bought from the Crawford Motor & Airplane Manufactory of Long Beach, California, and were for its model A––1. This company advertised, in its brochure, a complete book on the theory and practice of building and flying aircraft, all for $1.
The aircraft was offered with either a steel-tube or spruce frame — Blore had elected to use the latter, and was at the stage of commencing the ply covering during October. He was advised that it was compulsory for the aircraft to be registered, but that a CofA was only necessary if it was to be used for hire and reward. He went ahead and completed the aircraft and then, in April 1930, applied for registration only, advising that he had mounted an 80hp Le Rhône rotary engine, which fell within the 50 to 150hp range recommended by the manufacturer-designer.
The 13 drawings supplied from America were forwarded to CAB in May, but they were assessed as being the work of an inexperienced person, and did not contain sufficient information for a technical investigation to be carried out. As Blore decided to obtain a CofA, he was advised to consult an experienced engineer and to seek his aid in completing the design data and drawings, to the standard required for CofA issue.
In June, Blore contacted T.D.J. Leech of Sydney University for the purpose of having the aircraft stressed, and later sent the drawings to him. However, nothing further is known of the progress on this aircraft, and CAB requested advice on progress on various occasions through to November 1931, with no reply. The fuselage was still at Cundletown in 1960.
At the ‘All Australian Exhibition’ in Adelaide in June 1930, a two-seat monoplane was exhibited, complete except for wing covering. A member of the CAB, who was visiting the exhibition, described it as a high-wing monoplane with side-by-side seating for two, all-wood, and very solid looking. It had an all-moving tailplane and was fitted with an old Le Rhône — it actually had Wittber’s six-cylinder Anzani-type radial fitted to it on that occasion, and the Le Rhône was fitted later, before it was flown.
The builder was 20-year-old Clifford Cosh of Olive Gve St Peters Hill (SA), who was a turner and fitter at the South Australian Implement Co, and who had previously built and flown two gliders in partnership with a Laurie Davies. He had brought the 80hp Le Rhône rotary across from Point Cook, and with the help of Trevor Webb, an engineer from the same firm, overhauled it before fitment. It was found to be in good condition.
Cosh had a well-equipped home workshop, and had some assistance with the required welding work from the head teacher of the School of Mines, which he was then attending. Most of his materials had been obtained from LASCo in Melbourne, and he named his aircraft the Cosh ‘Flutter Bie’.
After CAB had written to him for information on the aircraft, and the subsequent examination of the 13 drawings submitted, it was found that it was another Crawford A–1, which Cosh had commenced in about March 1929. He was notified that there was insufficient data in the drawings and that Blore in New South Wales was also building such an aircraft. It was suggested that Cosh contact him and possibly benefit from Blore’s advice from Leech, but he felt that his aircraft differed sufficiently from the original in fittings and details to rule out this possibility, and stated that he would complete any further drawings himself. He was building it solely for experimental purposes and if successful, thought that he might build another and seek certification.
In December, permission was requested, and granted, to have it tested over Christmas by a licensed pilot, apparently to conform with arrangements made for it to be flown from the LASCo airfield at Albert Park by Bert Hussey. It was then taken to a paddock near Parafield where ground runs were made by Cosh over a week or so, and then to the aerodrome where it was hangared. Interview notes made by my collaborator, Jack Pryor, in the early 1960s, show that Cosh was badly injured in a motorcycle accident (and was in hospital for three months) on the night of moving it from the paddock to Parafield.
Although the cowl was made with six small teardrop openings in front of the cylinders for cooling-air entrance, the front panel was eventually removed from the ring cowl, probably as the result of early ground tests.
It was not flown until about 5 April 1931, when G.K. Rice-Oxley (CFI of the Aero Club of SA) and Horrie Miller (Managing Director of the Commercial Aviation Co) each flew it for about five minutes, and both reported insufficient longitudinal control.
It was immediately dismantled, a fuselage extension of about three feet was added, the twin headrests were removed, the ply fuselage covering was replaced with fabric, and a conventional fixed tailplane and elevator was fitted in place of the all-moving unit.
This work was completed by 15 August, but, due to his convalescence, Cosh postponed further trials for six to eight weeks. A CAB inspection made about that time resulted in a requirement for a considerable number of modifications, to which Cosh did not agree, and the aircraft was left in a shed at Maylands (Adel), eventually to be broken up.