Inside the Collection

The Story of Australia’s First Airmail-part 3

Maurice Guillaux flying Lebbeus Hordern’s Farman “hydro-aeroplane” over Sydney
Lebbeus Hordern’s Farman “hydro-aeroplane” floating on Sydney Harbour in May 1914
Gift of S. Dyson, 1982. P3283-1. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Not content with dazzling crowds in Sydney and Newcastle with his aerial acrobatics, on May 8, 1914, French stunt pilot Maurice Guillaux also made the first seaplane flight in Australia, test flying a Farman “hydro-aeroplane” imported into the country by Lebbeus Hordern (1891-1928), a member of the wealthy and influential Sydney merchant family.

The Maurice Farman “hydro-aeroplane” (“hydravion” in French) was a seaplane developed by the French Farman Aviation Works, formed in 1912 by the union of the separate aircraft building concerns of brothers Henry (Henri) and Maurice Farman. The first Farman seaplanes were variants of the Farman MF.7 military reconnaissance aircraft, which entered service in several countries in 1913. Two touring versions, the MF.8 and MF.9 were produced for civilian use and Hordern seems to have purchased a MF.9 type. 10.6 metres long and with a wingspan of 17 metres, the seaplane was powered by a 70 horse-power (51.5kW) 8-cylinder Renault engine and could reach a top speed of 60mph (96.5kph). It was capable of carrying “two seventeen-stone (108 kg) passengers”. The Farman was a “pusher” configuration, meaning that the propeller was mounted behind the engine, which was itself situated behind the pilot and passenger.

A Farman MF.7 “Longhorn” reconnaissance aircraft
A Farman MF.7 “Longhorn” reconnaissance aircraft, on which the first Farman hydro-aeroplanes were based. Source: Wikipedia

Following his spectacular flying show on May 2 (detailed in Part 2 of this series), Guillaux and his team spent the following week assembling Hordern’s seaplane, which had been imported into Australia, in four large crates, at a cost of £1600. The aircraft was reconstructed in a shed on the beach at Double Bay, “just outside the Victor Motor Works” (a local company manufacturing marine and other small engines). Guillaux exercised an exacting personal supervision of the procedure, so that he was satisfied that everything had been correctly assembled “right to a millimetre”.

The test flight of the completed seaplane took place on Friday, May 8, at around 4pm, in front of a crowd of some 200-300 people. The Farman was wheeled to the water’s edge, fuelled, and then Guillaux and an un-named mechanic climbed aboard. The mechanic, in the passenger seat behind the pilot, set the propeller whirring, which blew a cloud of sand into the construction shed and knocked small children among the spectators off their feet! Skimming across the waters of Double Bay, the seaplane rose “like a great bird” into the air, and Guillaux and his passenger set off on a 15-minute flight across the harbour to Mosman, Manly and then back towards the city, before landing in the waters of Double Bay and covering the distance to the shore “with the speed of an express train”. During the flight the plane was saluted by a Manly ferry, sounding its siren as it passed overhead.

Guillaux with a passenger in Lebbeus Hordern’s Farman seaplane, May 1914
Guillaux with a passenger in Lebbeus Hordern’s Farman seaplane, May 1914. Photogrpah by Sam Hood. Collection of the State Library of New South Wales

Following this first flight of a seaplane in Australia, Guillaux was toasted at an informal gathering in the construction shed. He then made two more 15-minute flights that afternoon carrying, first, Lebbeus Hordern and then the French Consul, M. Chayet. Hordern, already an “enthusiastic motorist”, returned from his flight brimming with excitement for his new toy, declaring that “Flying is the sport for me, after this”. Even before the first flight of the seaplane, Guillaux himself had made somewhat prescient statements about the “utility of the hydro-aeroplane in defending the Australian coastline in time of war”.

After presenting his final public flying show in Sydney on May 9, before an estimated audience of 30,000, Guillaux made twelve flights with the seaplane on Monday, May 11, carrying various passengers. One of these thrillseekers was a 19-year old actress, Louise Carbasse, who would soon come to fame as Louise Lovely, Australia’s first major Hollywood film star of the silent era. Three days later, Guillaux achieved a speed of more than 100mph (160kph) while flying above the harbour, thanks to favourable tailwinds. Later in the month, Hodern and Guillaux announced plans to fly along the coast from Sydney to Melbourne and return in the seaplane, but this journey did not eventuate, although on June 12, Guillaux achieved what was believed to be a world record altitude for a seaplane, climbing to 10,000 feet (3048 metres) with Hordern on board as a passenger.

Actress Louise Carbasse 1913
Actress Louise Carbasse ca. 1913, photographed by Rudolph Buchner. From the collection of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

On May 21, Guillaux announced his intention of settling permanently in Australia and said that he had purchased three aircraft-a hydro-aeroplane, a passenger carrying monoplane and an improved biplane-with which he intended to achieve further aviation feats. These aircraft were said to be due to arrive in Australia in three months. However, the outbreak of the First World War, at the end of July 1914, put an end to these plans.

To celebrate the centenary of the first seaplane flight in Australia, the Seaplane Pilots Association of Australia is conducting a flypast of 14 seaplanes, which will make a circuit of Sydney Harbour between 8.30 and 9.30am on Sunday, May 11. Several of the aircraft will land in Rose Bay and a commemorative ceremony will take place between 9.30 and 10.30am. Later in the day, seaplanes will be on display at Rathmines Park, Lake Macquarie, the site of the former RAAF Rathmines seaplane base.

Look for the next post in this series in June, which will cover Guillaux’ airshows around NSW and Victoria, prior to the first airmail flight. The Powerhouse 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. If you’d like to explore the newspaper reports of Guillaux’ seaplane flights, which were drawn upon for the quotes used in this blogpost, you can find them by searching on the National Library of Australia’s Trove Newspapers site.

Written by Kerrie Dougherty, Space Technology and Aviation Curator

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