Australia

Airem Scarem

In an earlier series of posts I discussed Australia's first airship, the White Australia, which flew in 1914. It turns out that there was an earlier Australian airship, of a sort: the Airem Scarem. Indeed, according to a 1907 newspaper advertisement it was the 'First Airship below the line' (equator, presumably). From the above photo, taken in 1908, Airem Scarem was a trim little vessel, though the envelope is a bit on the small side and the propulsion system, which seems to consist of no engine and two tiny propellors fore and aft, hardly seems adequate. Fortunately the Airem Scarem was assisted in its flights by being suspended from a cable -- which has been crudely whited-out from the above photo -- because it wasn't a real airship at all but rather an amusement park ride, at Wonderland City in Tamarama, a beachside suburb of Sydney.
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Not a phantom airship

It is seventy years since since 24 June 1947, when Kenneth Arnold saw nine crescent-shaped objects flying at high speed past Mt Rainier; in other words, seventy years since the emergence of the UFO phenomenon. Often, when I talk or write about phantom airships, the topic of UFOs comes up, and with good reason. The similarities are obvious: both modern UFOs and the earlier mystery aircraft are to a large extent unknown objects seen in the sky, upon which we project our own fears and fantasies. Once those fears and fantasies reflected the concerns caused by coming of flight; then they reflected the concerns of the dawn of the rocket/atomic age.

And yet, when the topic of UFOs does come up, for the most part I will do no more than note the obvious correspondences, and disclaim any interest in the modern manifestation of the phenomenon. In other words, I run the other way. So why is that?
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G for George

Here in Australia, yesterday, the first Sunday in June, was Bomber Command Commemorative Day. The occasion was marked with ceremonies in most state capitals. The major event, at the Australian War Memorial (AWM) in Canberra, spanned the whole weekend and included a flypast by a RAAF Hornet and a wreathlaying ceremony, which remarkably is claimed to be the third-most attended commemoration at the AWM, after Anzac Day and Remembrance Day.
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New England Airways Ltd Avro 618 Ten

Some big news. Today the Australian Research Council (ARC) announced that it is funding Linkage Project LP160101232, 'Heritage of the air: how aviation transformed Australia' to the amount of $440,000 over three years, with financial and/or in-kind contributions from Airservices Australia, the National Museum of Australia, the Civil Aviation Historical Society, and the SFO Museum. The project's official summary reads:

This project aims to generate new understandings of how aviation has transformed Australian society over the last hundred years, and how the technology of global mobility has shaped people, cultures and communities. Whilst aviation has transformed Australian society over the last hundred years, its heritage is under-appreciated and at risk. The project will build a partnership between the aviation industry, community groups, museums and a multidisciplinary academic team to develop fresh insights from under-utilised sources of aviation heritage, communicate their unique stories to the public through innovative exhibitions and publications, and help conserve it for future generations. As a result, the project will make an important contribution to culture and society by enabling community access to neglected and at-risk sources of aviation heritage, and engage the public's fascination with aviation through new interpretations of its extraordinary social and cultural impact.

The reason why this is big news, apart obviously from the scholarly value of this research, is that I am on the project as a Partner Investigator. What that means is that I will still be working as a lecturer, but some of my research time will now be devoted to Heritage of the Air working as part of the project team:

I'll no doubt have more to say in future about the actual plans and progress of the project, and my involvement in it. But for now I'll just say that this is a big deal for me, as it's the first major grant I've been a part of, and it's the kind of thing that humanities academics increasingly need on their CV these days, at least in Australia. So I'm grateful to Tracy for giving me this opportunity, and I look forward to working with her and the rest of the team over the next few years!

Image source: National Library of Australia.

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Coppin's balloon medal, 1858

In the rather enjoyable Falling Upwards, Richard Holmes spends most of his time discussing the history of ballooning in Britain, France, and the United States. However, he does briefly talk about the first balloon flights in Australia:

In 1858 the British balloon the Australian made some startling flights over Melbourne and Sydney. There was a late-summer ascent in March from Cremorne Gardens, Melbourne, in which a basketful of local dignitaries sailed over the Botanical Gardens in bright moonlight, with a magical sight of the festival fireworks far below. But, attempting to land at Battam's Swamp, they found themselves in a working-class district, and the balloon basket was seized by a violent crowd. Amid vocal democratic objections to such 'superior' transport, the distinguished guests were forced to escape by jettisoning champagne bottles, picnic hampers, several bags of sand ballast, and finally throwing off a few hardy objectors still clinging to the sides of the basket.1

I'd never heard about this 19th century aerial riot, or near-riot, in my home town. However, Holmes doesn't cite any sources; and while something like this did happen, when compared with contemporary press reports his account appears to be deficient in several respects.
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  1. Richard Holmes, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air (London: William Collins, 2013), 94-5. 

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John T Collins, Aerial Pageant

A drawing by an Australian, John T. Collins, perhaps as a student exercise. Unlike in Britain, there was no dominant 'aerial pageant' here but rather many local ones, so it seems like a generic advertisement. It's dated to 1932 or 1933, but assuming the context is Australian then those would be Hawker Demons and it would be more like 1935 or 1936, when they entered RAAF service and represented the latest thing in aerial warfare down under.

Image source: State Library of Victoria.

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White Australia and the Empty North (1909)

The previous post in this series was supposed to be the last. But in the course of taking two months to write it, I managed to forget about another, earlier association between a White Australia and an Australian airship. This one wasn't a real airship; it was a fictional one which appeared in Randolph Bedford's 1909 play, White Australia; or the Empty North -- effectively an Australian version of Guy du Maurier's An Englishman's Home. Does this shed any light on Alban Roberts' 1914 airship, White Australia?
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People are nice. At the AHA today, I bumped into Bart Ziino, who gave me a present: the sheet music for a 1939 ballad called 'Lords Of The Air'. I'd not heard of it before, though I've probably heard it before as it was played in several episodes of Dad's Army. You can listen to that version above; it's a somewhat different arrangement as it's for an orchestra, not the piano. Here are the lyrics:

The British Empire proudly stands
As in the days of old,
Our fathers fought o'er land and sea,
Their history is told
In our new battle-field, the sky,
Prepared to do or dare
Let this be our new battle-cry
'Britannia rules the air.'

England our island home,
Land of the free,
England unconquered yet
O'er land and sea,
Lord of the heav'ns above
Answer our prayer,
God keep Britannia’s sons
Lords of the air.

Source: Michael North and Davy Burnaby, 'Lords Of The Air' (Sydney: D. Davis & Co., 1939).

'Lords Of The Air' was described as one of the 'newest compositions' in early November 1939, so perhaps it was inspired by the Wilhelmshaven raid on the second day of the war, which achieved a propaganda victory if nothing else. 'Lords Of The Air' certainly captures that sense of wishful thinking and empty boasting; it perhaps aspires to be a 'Rule, Britannia!' for the air age. By the end of 1939 it does seem to have become the most successful of several collaborations by Michael North (music) and Davy Burnaby (words), often being sung alongside better-remembered songs as 'There'll Always Be An England' (as recorded by Joe Loss and His Concert Orchestra, featuring Monte Rey) and 'We'll Meet Again'. My copy was printed for the Australasian market, and here too it was a popular choice for patriotic concerts and community singing, particularly during the period of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz (in fact, I suspect you could use its popularity as an index of concern about the progress of the air war in Europe).

So 'Lords Of The Air' turns out to be a nice little marker of patriotic airmindedness from the start of the Second World War. Thanks, Bart!

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The Australian airship of New Zealander Alban Roberts seems to have had only three outings, all in 1914. The first of these was a tethered test at the Sydney Agricultural Showground on 23 June, in which the envelope was filled with hydrogen, united with the nacelle, and 'dragged into an open space, to undergo its first trial flignt'.1 The test was successful, in that the airship rose 80 feet into the air while carrying a passenger (Mrs Roberts), as far as the tethers would allow. This was reassuring, since a recent storm had allowed air to enter the envelope, displacing some of the hydrogen and lessening its lifting power. The airship was also able to move forward under its own power, again with someone on board (Mr Roberts, this time). However, this was not a particularly impressive feat: despite the near-complete absence of wind, and despite having detached everything detachable in order to counteract the loss of hydrogen, it was able to move no faster than 'walking pace'.2 The airship also suffered some damage, when part of the nacelle collapsed under Colin Hall, Roberts' chief mechanic. As he was some 30 feet up at the time, he had to clutch at the tethers until the airship could be pulled back down. At least this spectacle 'provided a fund of excitement for the privileged onlookers'.3
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  1. Maitland Daily Mercury, 24 June 1914, 5

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Ibid.