Inside the Collection

The Story of Australia’s First Airmail-Part 9

Guillaux preparing to take off from Ascot racecourse in August 1914
Guillaux preparing to take off from Ascot racecourse in August 1914. These film frames come from a segment of newsreel in the Museum’s collection. Presented by Mr F Kilian, Editor, Movie Tone News, 1961. P2670-10/2

Despite the rigours of the first airmail flight from Melbourne to Sydney over July 16-18 (as recounted in parts 6-8 of this story), Maurice Guillaux was not one to rest on his laurels. Within days he was in the air again, making several flights with Lebbeus Hordern’s Farman Hydro-aeroplane (see part 3 of this story), including one on July 22 when he carried two passengers, Hordern and Lt. Colonel WWR Watson, on the first three-person flight in Australia. With Hordern perched precariously on the aircraft’s fuel tank, Guillaux took the Hydro-aeroplane up to 1500ft (almost 500m) and put it through a series of manoeuvres, including a thrilling dive towards the water.

In carrying without difficulty a slightly higher total payload (209kg) than the aircraft was supposed to carry (203kg), this flight demonstrated the potential of the aeroplane as a weapon capable of carrying a militarily useful bomb load, in addition to a pilot and bombardier. With the clouds of war gathering in Europe at the outbreak of World War I, Guillaux made frequent comments about the utility of planes in warfare and their probable use in the conflict: “aerial machines would prove perhaps the greatest factor in the present struggle.”

Lebbeus Hordern’s Farman “hydro-aeroplane”
Lebbeus Hordern’s Farman “hydro-aeroplane”, in which Guillaux would carry two passengers, an Australian first, in July 1914, Gift of S. Dyson, 1982. P3283-1

On July 25, Guillaux gave another aerial performance with the Bleriot at Newcastle, drawing a crowd of about 10,000 exactly three months after his first performance in that city. He discussed plans for a tour of the northern regions of NSW, but these would never eventuate due to the war. Guillaux agreed to undertake an advertising stunt for Black and White Whiskey, dropping envelopes containing money over Circular Quay on July 31, but the police cancelled this event over fears of possible injuries in the waiting crowd of 5,000, as people jostled to catch the falling prizes.

Guillaux’ last major aviation display for Sydney was scheduled for Saturday, August 1. Unfortunately for the French pilot, his only serious accident in Australia occurred during this performance. Shortly after his takeoff from Ascot racecourse (on the site of what was later to become Kingsford-Smith Aerodrome), while he was flying at a height of 100-200 ft (30-60m; accounts vary as to the altitude), Guillaux seemed to lose control of the Bleriot, which dipped as if commencing a dive, but then plummeted to the ground, with Guillaux apparently wrestling with the controls. The stunned crowd stood transfixed as the Bleriot smashed into the ground alongside one of the track railings, the body of the aircraft breaking into two pieces.

Frames from a film clip of the Bleriot’s crash at Ascot racecourse
Frames from a film clip of the Bleriot’s crash at Ascot racecourse, showing Guillaux being led away, bandaged, for hospital treatment. Presented by Mr F Kilian, Editor, Movie Tone News, 1961. P2670-10/2

Trapped in a tangle of broken fuselage and wires, the half-conscious Guillaux was rescued from the wreckage by members of the crowd, who cut away the debris and carefully lifted him free. Although he suffered cuts to his face, arms and legs, his clothes were badly torn and the ligaments of his right ankle ruptured, Guillaux luckily did not sustain any more serious injuries. Treated at the crash site, with his head swathed in bandages, he nevertheless waved as he was helped away, at which the crowd cheered wildly and the band played the Marseillaise.

Guillaux was taken in a car to St Vincent’s Hospital, in Darlinghurst, where he was treated by Sir Alexander McCormick. He spent a few days in hospital recovering, receiving many messages of sympathy and support. The Bleriot, however, was quite severely damaged “the framework was broken in two pieces, the tail planes badly damaged….the propeller was smashed to matchwood, the oil tanks were bent into one another and the engine was buried in the ground”.

The cause of the accident seems to have been the steering gear controlling the warping of the wings to provide lateral control (the Bleriot did not use ailerons) jamming in some way. Guillaux reported that he was unable to steer the plane left or right, but he did still have control of the elevator planes and could have landed safely in the crowd; but as this would have meant danger to the spectators he chose, instead, to make the plane dive into the ground away from them.

Newsreel film frames showing he wreckage of the Bleriot after the crash
Newsreel film frames showing he wreckage of the Bleriot after the crash, nose first into the ground. Guillaux clearly had a lucky escape from serious injury. Presented by Mr F Kilian, Editor, Movie Tone News, 1961. P2670-10/2


Look out for the next instalment of Guillaux’ story in September. 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 Trove Newspapers site. The Aviation Historical Society of Australia conducted a re-enactment of the first airmail flight between July 12-14. 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.

Written by Kerrie Dougherty Space Technology and Aviation Curator

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