Tales from the MacRobertson International Air Races
March 12 - September 17
To celebrate Victoria’s centenary in 1934, Macpherson Robertson sponsored a great air race from England to Melbourne. There were originally 20 entrants of which only 12 arrived in Melbourne. The British winning entrants took a whisker under 3 days, the last plane to arrive took some 4 months.
The Royal Historical Society of Victoria is mounting an exhibition which takes a close look at the entrants in the races (there were two races run concurrently – a speed race and a handicap race) including the Dutch entrant, the Uiver. The Uiver (stork) is the most famous of the entries even though it came second. It was forced by bad weather to make an emergency landing in Albury where the locals used the town’s lights to spell A L B U R Y in morse code and then created a make-shift aerodrome on the racetrack using car headlights to con the plane down. Macpherson Robertson always maintained that the Uiver, a commercial KLM flight that went to Batavia in the Dutch East Indies with a little extra hop to Australia, came closest to his ideal as Robertson sponsored the race to encourage commercial flight not speed.
The first aircraft to finish was the De Havilland DH-88 Comet Grosvenor House, a specially- designed racing aircraft flown by Charles W. A. Scott and Tom Campbell Black. Both pilots were much feted in Melbourne. Photos show a handsome pair being mobbed by thousands. The adulation didn’t last, Campbell Black was killed by a plane propeller just 2 years later and Scott suicided.
Harold Brook was the pilot with the least experience – barely the minimum 100 hours. He had a paying passenger, the 28-year old Miss Ella Lay, who knitted her way to Australia. She was a pilot herself and the only woman to travel the full race distance from Mildenhall in England to Melbourne. Ella stayed on in Melbourne, took up nursing, and in 1941 enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service in the very building where the exhibition is being held (the former Army Medical Corps Drill Hall). Ella died in 2005, aged 99. The Times printed her obituary.
The race generated many more fabulous stories including C. J. “Jimmy” Melrose who at 21 was the youngest pilot and one of the few Australians. Jimmy was funded by his mother and his De Havilland Puss Moth was christened My Hildergarde in her honour. He too died, too young, just two years later in a plane crash.
The last plane to arrive was piloted by Ray Parer and Godfrey Hemsworth and funded by New Guinea miners. Another entry was owned by well-known Australian pioneer aviator Horrie Miller who at the time was managing director of MacRobertson-Miller Aviation. He engaged James Wood and Don Bennett to fly the race however they came unstuck in Aleppo. As Bennett wrote in his autobiography, they “… hit the ground with a fair wallop and the undercarriage collapsed; down she went and the nose went in as we whipped over on our back. I was in the tail of the machine and my velocity from one end of the cabin to the other was remarkable. Even more astounding was the degree of “concertina-ing” of my body which took place at the far end.” That was the end of their race.