The Yamba ‘aeroplane’

In May 1911, two policemen were sent out from Yamba, a logging town at the mouth of the Clarence River in northern New South Wales, to investigate something odd which had been found on 'top of a sandhill near Ryan's waterhole, about six miles [away] and about 400 yards in from the beach':

a rudely-constructed aeroplane, 30 feet in length and 4 feet wide, with a wing on one side about 2 feet wide. Extending the full length in the middle was a sort of platform with a seat roughly fixed with fencing wire and padded with old bagging. Scores of fine wires were fixed to the platform and extending to all parts of the structure. There were two keels braced together with split bamboo rods, every six inches, like the timbers in a boat. Every joint was securely and neatly capped with fine wire. Only two nails were used in the whole construction [...] The most peculiar thing about the craft was
that it could be plainly seen that the only tool used in preparing the timber had been a knife [...] The whole floor of the structure was covered with newspapers pasted together, forming a very thick pad.1

None of the newspapers was dated later than 3 May 1911, and the aeroplane 'appeared to have been only a short period of time at the spot where it was discovered, as the papers were quite fresh and not discoloured'.2 Another odd detail was

that from low water mark on the beach near the sea is a deep and narrow track from the water's edge up the steep sandhill to where the airship was lying, appearing as if something from the sea had been dragged up to the spot where the structure was lying.3

One report suggested that 'the plane had evidently been damaged, since one of the flaps had been damaged', though here 'plane' should be taken to mean 'wing' rather than 'aeroplane'.4 Since 'There is no trace of any engine about', it was surmised that the machine was a glider:

The builder had evidently taken an aeroplane for a model, and attempted to construct a single plane, which would allow him to float with tbe wind from the top of one of the sand hills of the Terrace.3

But who was this mysterious builder? Suspicion quickly fell on 'an elderly man [...] a stranger to Yamba, who bought stores and papers a few times from local people' and who 'has since disappeared'.3 Within a few days of the initial story, it was being regarded locally as 'a hoax'.5 That can't be ruled out, though the possible motivation (other than sheer perversity) of leaving a fake aeroplane for somebody to stumble across is unclear.

It seems more likely to me that the builder was somebody who, having read about all these flying machines in the newspapers, decided to try their hand at it, beginning with a Wright-style glide across the sand dunes, but then, realising that it perhaps wasn't quite as easy as all that, just abandoned their contraption to the elements. There were plenty of such would-be inventors about, some of them spurred on by the Defence Department's prize for an Australian-built aeroplane. The competition was announced in June 1909, and entries closed the following June, but there was then a further year, that is until June 1911, for the competitors to demonstrate their aircraft. As it turned out, only John Duigan in Victoria was able to produce anything that was actually flyable; but perhaps one of the other 44 entrants was making a last-minute bid to meet the deadline?6

Interestingly, a number of newspapers connected (if only by implication) the Yamba machine with what seems to have been a small mystery aeroplane wave around May 1911:

  • Riddell, Vic, 29 April: 'mysterious lights [...] seen in the sky [...] showing flashes of red, green and white'7
  • Melbourne, 29 April: 'an aeroplane' seen by several witnesses in adjacent suburbs3
  • St George, Queensland, 5 May: 'a flying machine carrying two men'2
  • Bega, NSW, 7 or 8 May: 'an aeroplane'8
  • Bathurst, NSW, 4 June: 'an aeroplane' with 'lights'9

I think these had even less reality than the Yamba aeroplane. Duigan was considered in the case of the Melbourne aeroplane, but then ruled out as he was in Bendigo at the time.10 The only aviator active in Melbourne in this period was the New Zealander Joseph Hammond, but he was in Sydney on the date in question.11 When questioned by a journalist, he had some choice words to say on the topic of mystery aeroplanes:

'There's always some mysterious 'plane whizzing about somewhere in the sky,' remarked Mr Hammond. 'So many of them have been reported that it's a wonder they don't interfere with the astronomical observations. It's a marvel to me that somebody down at Bermagui didn't get on to the eclipse as a Japanese monoplane filled with scowling Samurai, who yelled 'Banzai' as they shot over the country. Bermagui must be losing its punch.

'When I was down in Melbourne I was talking with some fellows in a motor-garage, and as we left the door we found about 500 people on the street yelling out excitedly, "There he is," and all with their heads raised in the attitude of fowls having a long drink. I asked a man what the excitement was, and he told me that "Hammond had just flown across the city."

'Another time a lot of people swore that just about dusk an aeroplane was seen hovering over a hill in the distance. Next morning it was found that the 'plane was a tree that had been growing there since the days of the Eureka Stockade. Don't talk to me about mysterious aeroplanes.'12

I think there's something in that for all of us.

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  1. Sydney Mail, 17 May 1911, 55. This is a fairly close (and much easier to read) paraphrase of the original story in Evening News (Sydney), 13 May 1911, 5, 8. []
  2. Sydney Mail, 17 May 1911, 55. [] []
  3. Ibid. [] [] [] []
  4. The Age (Melbourne), 15 May 1911, 6. []
  5. Sydney Morning Herald, 18 May 1911, 9. []
  6. Michael Molkentin, Australia and the War in the Air, vol. 1, The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War (South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2014), 3-4. []
  7. Sun (Sydney), 3 May 1911, 10. []
  8. Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 9 May 1911, 6. []
  9. The Age (Melbourne), 5 June 1911, 7. []
  10. Sun (Sydney), 3 May 1911, 10. []
  11. Sydney Morning Herald, 2 May 1911, 10. []
  12. Sun (Sydney), 2 May 1911, 4. []

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