In view of the media interest in the re-enactment of the first flight across the English Channel in a Bleriot XI monoplane last week, I thought our blog readers would like to know that the Powerhouse has one too. It made a great pioneering flight here and has a really interesting story.
Ours was shipped to Sydney in 1914, packed in a crate in the hold of the Orontes. It was brought here by a French stunt pilot, Maurice Guillaux, who wowed 60,000 spectators at Victoria Park Raceway. It’s amazing how this flimsy little plane actually managed to fly, let alone do “loop the loops” as well. The Guillaux travelling show took the Bleriot apart again to go by train to Melbourne for more stunt displays, at one stage landing in the grounds of Government House. The plane carried the first unofficial airmail letter from the Mayor of Melbourne to the Mayor of Geelong. Above Geelong racecourse Guillaux gave demonstrations of “upside down flying” and banking, took up six joy riders, one of them a woman, who presumably either sat on his lap or sat behind the pilot’s seat on the fuselage in Guillaux’s safety harness.
But the really big claim to fame for Guillaux was when he was asked to fly the first official airmail from Melbourne to Sydney. The scheduled plane had crashed, something of an occupational hazard at the time, so Guillaux was asked to step in. He carried 88kg of mail for the GPO, 1785 souvenir postcards, official letters and the first air cargo, bizarrely – Lipton’s tea and OT brand chilli cordial and lemon squash. Now that would make a great trivia question! Even in those days there was sponsorship and emblazoned on the underside of Bleriot’s wings were “ADD a little O.T.”!
The 930km flight needed 7 fuel stops at Seymour, Wangaratta, Albury and then Wagga where Guillaux landed at the wrong racecourse causing a sensation touching down near the judge’s box just as a race ended! On to Harden, the plane was buffeted by strong winds and driving rain. Its flimsy fabric wings stretched to breaking point and the exposed and hardworking Gnome engine coughing and spluttering. Guillaux was forced back to Harden, violently airsick, wet and cold, his face swollen from the scouring rain in the open cockpit. Goulburn was finally reached in bad weather and Guillaux followed the smoke from steam locos on the main line towards Sydney.
Ahead of schedule, he landed near a small town in the bush southwest of Sydney. A local resident told Guillaux it was Liverpool and invited him to stay for lunch. A strong tail wind brought him in to the landing spot at Moore Park in Sydney, still ahead of schedule. Too early for the official reception with the Governor-General, Guillaux filled in time flying between Parramatta and Manly before descending in a blinding storm at Moore Park. He was carried shoulder high amid cheering crowds. The postal authorities weren’t too impressed with the flight as it had taken longer than the normal train journey. The flying time was only just over 9 hours 35 minutes. Still, it was the longest airmail flight in the world at that time (18 July 1914). Incidentally, a regular airmail service between Sydney and Melbourne wasn’t established until 1925.
When the First World War broke out in September 1914, Guillaux returned to France and was killed. His plane was left in Australia and sold, used to teach flying and give aerial demonstrations in Victoria. It also carried the first South Australian airmail in 1917.
The Bleriot has been in the Museum’s collection since 1941 and if you want to see it, it’s currently on display suspended in the Transport exhibition at the Museum.
Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator