Soaring above the Transport exhibition is one of the Powerhouse Museum’s treasures, a tiny Blériot XI monoplane. With fewer than 30 aircraft made before World War 1 still preserved around the world, this aircraft would be significant for its rarity alone. But this Blériot, together its French pilot, Maurice Guillaux, also holds an important place in Australian aviation history, pioneering civil aviation in this country by carrying the first airmail from Melbourne to Sydney in July 1914.
To celebrate the centenary of the first Australian airmail, I will be contributing a series of posts on this blog over the coming months, charting the story of Maurice Guillaux, his aircraft and their important contributions to early aviation in Australia.
One hundred years ago today, on April 8, 1914, Maurice Guillaux arrived in Sydney on board the RMS Orontes, with his Blériot XI packed in a large wooden crate in the hold. Guillaux was an experienced aerobatic pilot, with a number of aviation records and prizes to his name.
Ernest François Guillaux (who would later adopt the name Maurice) was born on 24 January, 1883 in the French town of Montoire-sur-le-Loir. Little is known of his early life, but Guillaux obtained his civilian pilot’s licence (no.749) on 19 February 1912 and quickly gained fame as an aviator. By June 1912 Guillaux was a pilot for the Caudron aircraft factory and then Chief Pilot for the Clement-Bayard company. He held a number of early air records, made the first loop-the-loop over Paris and, in April 1913, was a winner of the Pommery Cup, awarded to the pilot who flew the greatest distance, measured in a straight line, in one day. However, when attempting to win this prize again later in 1913, a possibly fraudulent irregularity in his record keeping resulted in his suspension from competition in Europe for ten years. As a consequence of this, Guillaux purchased an aerobatic Blériot XI aircraft and set sail on a world tour, intending to make money by demonstrating his flying skills.
The Blériot XI design was made famous when French aircraft designer Louis Blériot (1872-1936) employed it for his first flight across the English Channel in 1909. One of the most successful aircraft designs prior to World War 1, over 800 Blériot XI were manufactured. Produced in both single and two-seat versions, powered by a number of different engines, the Blériot XI was widely used for competition and training purposes, with military versions in service in many countries
The aircraft purchased by Guillaux was a type specially modified for aerobatics. Known as a “looper” (boucle in French), this stunt machine was fitted with a 50 hp Gnome rotary engine (more powerful than the Anzani engine in Blériot’s Channel-crossing aircraft). Its known aerobatic modifications included a slightly longer wingspan, with the upper cabane taller and braced. Other original aerobatic modifications are uncertain, as the museum’s aircraft has been rebuilt many times, potentially resulting in changes to the engine thrust line, angle of incidence and other characteristics. While this aircraft might look fragile to modern eyes, it was, in fact, quite sturdy-a quality that would prove vital when bad weather was encountered during the first airmail flight.
After performing some aerobatic shows in France with his new aircraft, Bleriot set out for Australia, stopping over in Cairo, where he gave an aerobatic display with two other French pilots, on 20 February 1914. Travelling with Guillaux were four associates, Maistre, Rupeausseu, Cominos and du Coque. Lucien Maistre was the son of a former French vice-Consul in Australia: it may have been his suggestion for Guillaux to commence his world tour in this country. Maistre was variously described in newspaper reports as a representative of the Gnome engine company and Guillaux’ interpreter and manager. Rupeausseu was also described as Guillaux’ manager in newspaper articles. Of Cominos and du Coque little is known, but they are believed to have been mechanics.
Arriving in Fremantle on March 31, Guillaux gave an interview that was carried in several Australian newspapers and indicated his interest in flying from Melbourne to Sydney (or vice versa), if some sponsor would put up the money for the flight. BU the time Guillaux and his companions arrived in Sydney on April 8, there was considerable interest and anticipation in his proposed aerial displays. However, before these could take place, the Bleriot had to be re-assembled, a complex operation in which Guillaux-a knowledgeable, hands-on mechanic, as well as pilot-personally participated.
Look out for the next post in this series, in late April, which will cover Guillauxs first aerial displays in Australia. The Museum will be celebrating the centenary of the first Australian airmail with various events this year. Check our website and that of the Powerhouse Discovery Centre for further details. The Aviation Historical Society of Australia will be conducting a re-enactment of the first airmail flight in July and hosting other commemorative events. I’d also like to acknowledge the research carried out by the Society’s volunteers into the details of Guillaux’ time in Australia, which I have drawn upon in the preparation of this blog post.
Written by Kerrie Dougherty, Space Technology and Aviation Curator