The Story of Australia’s First Airmail-part 5

: Crowds gather to see “Wizard” Stone’s Blériot during his regional Queensland airshow tour. Photo courtesy of the Queensland State Library
Crowds gather to see “Wizard” Stone’s Blériot during his regional Queensland airshow tour. Photo courtesy of the Queensland State Library

Despite his fame as a daring aviator, Maurice Guillaux was not the pilot originally intended to fly the first Australian airmail from Melbourne to Sydney. That honour should have gone to an American, Arthur Burr “Wizard” Stone, who had been presenting aerial shows around Australia and New Zealand since 1912.

A.B. “Wizard” Stone was an American daredevil and pilot. Born in 1874, he became a motorcycle ‘wall-of-death’ rider and by 1911 was also a test pilot for the Queen Aircraft Company, which produced an American copy of the Blériot XI. Before coming to Australia, Stone had survived several crashes, including an incident in which he fell 1000ft (305m) into Lake Michigan after his aircraft’s controls failed and the machine plunged into the water. He had also been involved in aviation competitions in Europe.

Stone originally came to Australia in 1912, performing his ‘Globe of Death’ motorcycle show. However, it was the flights that he made in his Blériot XI, as a support act, that proved to be the most popular. Before staging air shows in Brisbane and Sydney, Wizard toured regional Queensland towns giving flying displays, and in May that year, while in Bundaberg, he met an aviation obsessed young man by the name of Bert Hinkler, who became his mechanic. Hinkler would go on to fame as the first person to make a solo flight from Britain to Australia, in 1928. On June 29 1912, Stone lost Australia’s first air race to W. E. Hart, a pioneer Australian aviator who would later observe Guillaux’ first display in Newcastle (see part 2 of this blog series). Stone lost his way over the course of the 20-mile (32 km) race from Botany to Parramatta Park.

Famed Australian aviator Bert Hinkler began his aviation career as Wizard Stone’s mechanic in 1912. He had left Stone to travel to Britain by the time of the planned airmail flight. Photo courtesy of the Queensland State Library.]
Famed Australian aviator Bert Hinkler began his aviation career as Wizard Stone’s mechanic in 1912. He had left Stone to travel to Britain by the time of the planned airmail flight. Photo courtesy of the Queensland State Library.

After completing his first Australian tour, and surviving a few crashes, Stone travelled to New Zealand in 1913, where his first demonstration flight in Auckland ended in pandemonium when he had to land after only travelling 400 yards (365m) due to aircraft problems. Some members of the 11,000 strong paying crowd felt that they had not got their money’s worth and attacked Stone and his plane. Ever the daredevil, while in NZ Wizard also made an unsuccessful attempt at a new land speed record.

Back in Australia in 1914, Wizard Stone and his manager, P.V. Ryan, teamed up with Sydney-based entrepreneur Arthur Rickard, a real estate developer and self-publicist, who arranged with the Postmaster – General’s Department (the forerunner to Australia Post) for Stone to fly the first airmail from Melbourne to Sydney. The Department arranged for special postcards to be produced for the flight, but it seems that they were not so certain of its success, as a message printed on the card absolved the Postmaster-General of responsibility if the flight failed.

One of the postcards made by the Postmaster General’s Department to be carried on the first Australian airmail, with Wizard Stone as pilot. The eagle above the portrait of Stone symbolises the United States, while the waratah above Ryan’s portrait symbolises NSW. EA and VI Crome Collection, A8213-1/6
One of the postcards made by the Postmaster – General’s Department to be carried on the first Australian airmail, with Wizard Stone as pilot. The eagle above the portrait of Stone symbolises the United States, while the waratah above Ryan’s portrait symbolises NSW. EA and VI Crome Collection, A8213-1/6

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The reverse of the postcard, showing the Postmaster-General’s disclaimer. EA and VI Crome Collection, A8213-1/6
The reverse of the postcard, showing the Postmaster-General’s disclaimer. EA and VI Crome Collection, A8213-1/6.

Stone’s airmail flight was originally intended to depart from Melbourne on, or around, May 23, travelling by easy stages to arrive in Sydney on May 30, including stops at Seymour, Wangaratta, Albury and Goulburn-a course virtually identical to that which Guillaux would follow. According to newspaper reports, Stone was planning to make the flight in an Australian-built copy of a Blériot XI, with only the 50hp Gnome engine and double-bladed propeller imported from France. The wings were made by a Brisbane coach-building firm, while Stone is said to have constructed the greater proportion of the fuselage himself in Sydney. This aircraft was damaged in transit from Sydney to Melbourne and required repairs before its first test flight. Presumably, the need to shakedown this new aircraft delayed the airmail flight into June. Unfortunately for Stone, he crashed on June 1 and was seriously injured, while his aircraft was destroyed, leading to the cancellation if his airmail flight. The special postcards already sold for the flight were instead sent to Sydney by rail.

From July 16, I will be posting a blog each day, outlining the stages of Guillaux’ airmail flight. The Aviation Historical Society of Australia is conducting a re-enactment of the first airmail flight between July 12-14 and hosting other commemorative events. The Powerhouse Museum is also 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. If you’d like to explore the newspaper reports of Guillaux’ flights, which were drawn upon for this blogpost, you can find them by searching on the National Library of Australia’s Newspaper Index Trove.

Written by Kerrie Dougherty, Space Technology and Aviation Curator

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One response to “The Story of Australia’s First Airmail-part 5

  • Wonderful series of articles!! Having had the opportunity to view some of the vast Crome collection at the National Library of Australia (http://nla.gov.au/nla.cat-vn742484), many of these wonderful mail covers are very familiar. Slightly off topic. There is a rather nice but small photograph of Guillaux returning to France by R. G. Casey (later of course GG of Australia) on the ‘Orvieto’ as part of the first convoy that carried troops to Gallipoli and the Western Front (http://trove.nla.gov.au/version/206543051) – the photo is part of a fantastic album of photos taken by Casey documenting his life in WW1 which I recently catalogued and digitised at the National Archives of Australia.

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