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Armidale

It's been nearly four weeks since I farewelled my friends and left Armidale, which somehow seems both very recent and very distant. Before I left, I'd planned to post some of my favourite photos of the town, but in the press of events didn't manage to. And after, I found it difficult to decide which in fact were my favourites! But here are some that I like.
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Boeing E75, VH-JLW

This a Boeing (Stearman) Model 75, built in 1941 for use as a primary trainer for the US Army Air Forces. After a postwar career in the US as a cropduster, it was registered in Australia as VH-JLW and is now operated by Fleet Adventures, based at Armidale Regional Airport. And last Friday, as a surprise, and very touching, farewell present from my friends (aided and abetted by my partner), I flew in it!
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In two weeks from today I'll be leaving Armidale for good, and heading back to Melbourne, my hometown. It's mostly for excellent personal reasons, but in part it's also because of the usual early-career academic story of precarious employment. My colleagues at the University of New England have supported me as much they could, but work is drying up and it's clear that any kind of secure position is, at best, a long way off. In addition, with a faculty restructure and as a casual, access to research support is increasingly limited (unfortunately, I had to give up my KCL fellowship). So, after 5 years it's time to leave.

Not that there's a job waiting for me down south, but there are five or six times as many universities in Melbourne as there are in Armidale, so that must help my chances! In the short term I'll have to readjust to life as an independent historian again. I will continue to research and to write, including as part of the Heritage of the Air project, and attend conferences when I can (starting with the International Society for First World War Studies conference in Melbourne, as it happens). Airminded will likely see more activity than it has in the past few years, too.

I will miss my friends here in Armidale. But there's a lot to look forward to in Melbourne!

P. J. Connolly, 3 June 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 836 is a report by Senior Constable P. J. Connolly regarding 'an aeroplane flying in a Westerly direction' seen at 9pm the previous evening at Charlton, in the Mallee region of Victoria, by William Bannon and no less than 'eight other farmers', who all saw the machine together:

One bright white light could be seen, and the [?] buzzing sound heard.

One of the witnesses, a returned soldier named Kenyon, claims 'that he 'is well used to aircraft, & in his opinion it was about twenty miles away'. Connolly has interviewed all the farmers, and 'they bear out Bannon's statement'. He has also 'wired Secretary of Navy Dept'.
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T. J. Wilson, 31 May 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 529 is a statement by Captain T. J. Wilson, master of the SS Koolonga, a merchant vessel plying the Newcastle-Port Pirie route. At 8.15pm on 26 May 1918, Koolonga was off Cape Willoughby, Kangaroo Island, South Australia; Wilson was on the bridge when, 'Casually looking aloft, he saw a dark square object, which he took to be an aeroplane'.

This is my single favourite mystery aeroplane sighting of the whole 1918 panic, mainly because of all the sailors swearing like sailors, which Wilson freely relayed in his statement, and Captain Fearnley, Senior Naval Officer Newcastle, just as freely censored in his report:

  • Nicolson, 3rd Officer: 'By C[hrist]! there's an aeroplane'
  • AB McKinnon: 'There's a b[lood]y Aeroplane!'
  • Elms, Chief Officer: 'God spare my days, that's a b[lood]y Aeroplane!'
  • Sullivan, 2nd Officer: 'That's an Aeroplane' (okay, that one's less colourful, but he was called up from his cabin to the bridge in his pyjamas, so perhaps he wasn't quite awake yet)

I was so amused by Elms's exclamation in particular that not only did I quote it in my article as an example of an aeroplane sighting, I used it as a section heading too. But more seriously, especially when taken together like this, like the conversation of the four boys at Ouyen these excited utterances speak to the immediate responses of witnesses: they were startled, amazed, stupefied by what they were seeing, but also very sure about what they were seeing. According to Wilson, he'd just seen what 'he took to be an aeroplane' when Nicolson said 'there's an aeroplane'; he avoided asking Elms and Sullivan leading questions when pointing out the object to them, but they both independently identified it as an aeroplane. Still, we don't know the context for the sighting; perhaps they'd just been discussing mystery aeroplanes at the captain's table and guessed what everyone else was thinking. On the face of it, though, it's an impressive report: five experienced seamen who presumably were familiar with the usual natural phenomena seen at sea, all instantly agreeing that this was not natural.
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C. Joyes, 22 May 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 134 is a report by Constable C. Joyes, Victoria Police, about an 'Aeroplane seen in the vicinity of Dromana', a seaside resort town about 70km from Melbourne.

Doctor J. G. Weld of Dromana reported to me today that he saw an Aeroplane about 530 am yesterday morning (21st [May 1918]) flying between Port Phillip Bay and Western Port Bay, and finally flew in the direction of the Naval Base. The Dr was visiting a patient when he saw the lights he called his wife and two male friends, and they also saw the lights, sometimes the lights would disappear as if behind a cloud. The Dr. states he did not actually see the machine nor did he hear any noise.

There's not a lot to say about this one. In my article I use it as an unusual example of someone of a relatively high social status reporting a mystery aeroplane; the typical witnesses were working or lower middle class. Hard to know what they actually saw; perhaps Canopus which was very low on the SSE horizon at the time, but there's not enough information to make a judgement -- and anyway, the report does say lights, plural. Oddly, the report is addressed directly to 'the Minister for Navy', perhaps due to an internal police directive, though the Minister would have been less than interested by this stage. And, in yet another addition for the errata file, I originally read the constable's name as 'Joyce' but looking more closely it's clearly 'Joyes'.

Adelaide Twist, 18 May 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 138 is a statement made by Adelaide Twist, a bookkeeper from Macarthur in the Western District of Victoria, to Mounted Constable J. C. Pickett. She states that on 11 May 1918 she and her sister were walking home at about midnight, and

Just as we were about to go in our gate my sister noticed one big light in the sky, and drew my attention to it. This light at first was very faint and afterwards became much brighter. This light appeared to move about and then a similar light appeared. I should say the second light was about 100 yards distant from the first. They then came closer together, I should say half-a-dozen yards apart. They then appeared to get higher and closer and more brilliant. They then became very faint, one went to the left towards Portland and the other disappeared. My sister and I watched these lights for about ten minutes [...] I should say the lights were twenty or thirty times larger than stars.

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 139 is the statement of her sister, Maud Twist, a music teacher (their white collar occupations are why I cite this report in my article). It broadly matches Adelaide's statement, but there are some discrepancies, most glaringly that 'The lights I did not notice come any closer to one another', a direct contradiction. Where Adelaide says Maud was the first to see the light, Maud says that when she remarked 'What is that peculiar light in the sky?', Adelaide's response was 'I was just looking at that'. Maud also provides some additional information (or remembers things differently):

Both lights appeared to be moving about and one in particular seemed to be coming straight towards us. These lights were not as brilliant as motor car lights [...] I did not hear any sound, only the wind blowing.

Both women note that there was lightning about that night, but were certain that that was not what they had seen; Maud adds that 'The lights appeared too brilliant and were moving [so] that satisfied me they were not stars'. Nor they say they thought they had seen aeroplanes; however, in Pickett's earlier report (at NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 136), he says that 'they were under the impression that as the lights were travelling they were from aeroplanes'.
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Australasian, 29 December 1934, p. 9

An interesting confluence of old and new: an Australian advertisement for a steamship passage to Britain to see both royal pageantry and aerial theatre, in the form of the 'Hendon Air Pageant', symbolised by aircraft performing aerobatics and trailing smoke:

In 1935 His Majesty the King will celebrate the Silver Jubilee of his accession. London -- the centre of the Empire -- will be en fete. This is the year for a trip Home!... You can go Orient at fares from £38, plus exchange.

In the event, the King did not attend the 1935 RAF Display. Presumably he was saving his energy for the formal Jubilee Review, a flypast at Duxford featuring 356 aircraft from 37 squadrons. Hopefully any Australians who went Orient to see Hendon also stayed the extra week for Duxford!

Image source: Australasian (Melbourne), 29 December 1934, p. 9.

J. M. Jenkin, 16 May 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 842 is a copy of a statement by Joseph Jenkin, a farmer from (or near) Woomelang, witnessed by Mounted Constable J. C. Thornton, Victoria Police. It reads:

that at about 8 a.m. on 11th May 1918 I was inside my house gettinh [sic] ready to go to Woomelang when I heard a noise similar to that of a motor car which seemed to be quite close to the house. I went outside to see who it was and what they wanted; but could not see a motor-car in sight, I can see a distance of about 1 mile in any direction from my house and am posively [sic] sure that there was not a motor-car about. I did not think to look into the sky for an aeroplane, but I now feel confident that it was one. At 9.5 a.m. on the same day I again heard the noise which did not last for quite a minute. I looked again to see a motor car approaching but could not see one in sight. I put my horse in the gig & went to Woomelang and there were no fresh motor car tracks on any of the roads. On my way home I took particular notice of the cross roads and could not see any fresh motor car tracks. The first noise I heard lasted a little longer than the second and both sounded alike which sounded like a motor engine being eased off. If there had been a motor car on the road the tracks would have been conspicuous as there had been rain during the night previous.

Thornton also took statements (at NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 841) from three other Woomelang residents, John Kelly, who had also heard an engine at the same time as Jenkin without being able to see the source, and Alice Ussing and Mary Harper, who at 8.45pm the night before independently saw a bright light to the south, high above the ground. (Achernar was setting then to the south, but maybe Canopus, at about 40 or so degrees above the horizon, fits 'high'.)

In my article, I use Jenkin's statement as evidence for the thought process witnesses might have gone through when seeing or, as in this case, hearing something unusual. It's clear that the sound of a combustion engine was sufficiently unusual in a rural area like this for Jenkin to go outside to look when he heard one; but equally, he was familiar enough with motor cars to know what their tyre tracks looked like. So they were not all that rare, just uncommon. Conversely, aeroplanes were almost literally unimaginable: Jenkin didn't at first that the engine noise could be coming from the sky, so he didn't look there. Kelly, his neighbour, said much the same thing. In fact, as Thornton's own report (at NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, pages 843 to 844) reveals, it was only after discussing the mysterious sound with each other that 'They afterwards came to the conclusion and now believe that the noise was that of an Aeroplane passing'. Similarly, neither Ussing nor Harper seem to have thought that the light they each saw was anything to do with an aeroplane at the time; it seems that it was only 'after hearing what Mr Jenkins [sic] had said' that they came forward with their information (though Harper, at least, did think it sufficiently strange at the time to point out to her husband). So 'hearing/seeing an aeroplane' in this case was a social construction, a mutual conclusion arrived at after the fact through peer discussion.

K. O. Mackenzie, 13 May 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, pages 325 through 327, is a report from Lieutenant K. O. Mackenzie RANB (Royal Australian Naval Brigade), though in fact the bulk of it is his rendering of a statement made by James Aitken, a 'mail contractor' from Waratah Bay, regarding an aeroplane he had seen at Cape Liptrap on the Gippsland coast:

on 25th April [1917] at 12-45, p m, was having dinner at Cape Liptrap Lighthouse. I saw what looked like a seaplane about a mile seaward having a long torpedo shaped body of grey colour, weather was hazy with no sun. When heading towards me the seaplane was hard to see; looked like a beer barrel, two wings on either side being difficult to see when end on, at times looked to have a long tail [...] He appeared to keep close along shore flying low; at times he went up about six hundred feet judging by height of Lighthouse which is 210 feet high. Could not make out figure in seaplane - he turned very rapidly and when rising sent out black smoke [...] he was in view for about 25 minutes - lost sight of him at ten past one.

All very interesting. I could go on, and when I started writing this post I did. But this report is not from 1918 but 1917. Why is it here at all?
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