Saturday, 12 November 2016

Townsville on the Move

Townsville has long had a love affair with all things aviation. The success of the recent T150 Defence Force Air Show and RAAF Base Open Day capped off a tradition of flocking to see air shows and displays that has existed in Townsville since the 1930s.
The 'Star of Townsville' at Ross River Aerodrome, 1930.
Photo: State Library of Queensland.
When the Star of Townsville flew into the city for the first time in March 1930, thousands of excited locals were gathered at the newly constructed Ross River Plains aerodrome to see it land. The Queensland Air Navigation Company Limited’s Avro 618 Ten - named the Star of Townsville - was a tri-motor monoplane capable of carrying eight passengers and two crew between Townsville and Brisbane in just one day.

The following day the Mayor, Alderman W.J. Heatley, was invited to christen the Star of Townsville, something he was pleased to do, as he felt that “aviation was soon going to be a big mode of travel in Australia”. A propeller on the Star of Townsville was decked with flags and a bottle of champagne, which the Mayor duly broke with a decorated hammer.

Later in the day, locals were able to take a half-hour flight over the city in the Star of Townsville, and that weekend, an air show was held at the aerodrome that attracted 10,000 people - approximately a third of the city’s population.
Southern Cross arriving at Essendon aerodrome, Melbourne, on 13 June 1928, on a tour following the trans-Pacific flight. Austin Byrne collection, National Museum of Australia. 
A little over two years later in July 1932, crowds again flocked to the Ross River aerodrome, this time to see famed aviator Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith and his Southern Cross. “Smithy” flew passenger joy flights over three consecutive days, for the cost of 20 shillings per flight. The 25-mile flight promised to take in the sights of Magnetic Island and Cleveland Bay, but the cost must have been a little steep for some, as a second aircraft was scheduled to run flights in conjunction with Smithy. The de Havilland DH50, piloted by Mr O.B. Hall, conducted the same flights for half the price - 10 shillings - “to suit the pockets of those who cannot afford the higher price”.

Because of its close proximity to the river, the Ross River aerodrome was prone to seasonal flooding and by 1938 the Townsville City Council were planning a new “all-weather” airfield. They chose a site on the Town Common, because it was considered a dead-end, with little likelihood of nearby residential development in the foreseeable future. Soon, the Royal Australian Air Force chose to set up a base at the new airfield at Garbutt, and the future of air travel in Townsville, for both commercial and defence purposes, was secured.

The enthusiasm for air travel was such that people all over the world believed that before long air travel would be as common as travelling in a motor vehicle. A Frenchman named Henri Mignet had this in mind when he designed a small aeroplane in the early 1930s called the “Flying Flea”. Apparently anyone with basic carpentry skills who was capable of following Mignet’s instruction book could build their own Flying Flea for roughly £100. Amateur flying enthusiasts seized the opportunity and 1,000 of the aircraft were built and flown in England in 1935 alone.

But the aircraft’s safety credentials were less than ideal. After seven fatal nose-diving accidents in France and England up to May 1936, the Civil Aviation Department moved to temporarily ban the Flying Flea from Australian skies. A 1936 report of the French Air Ministry based on full scale tests in a large wind tunnel, found the Flying Flea suffered from “lateral instability” and poor handling qualities, and was not powerful enough to satisfy the requirements for a certificate of navigability.
Pilot Bill Stewart and James Carey, who built the plane, standing beside the Flying Flea.
Photo: W.J. Laurie, JCU Library Special Collections.
Townsville’s first (and possibly only) “Flying Flea” was built by Mr James Carey with the assistance of his father, Mr William Carey, who both lived in North Ward. The machine was powered by a four-cylinder motorcycle engine and could fly at a speed of over 60 miles an hour. Carey’s friend, Bill Stewart, was the first to fly the machine, in October 1938. Mr Stewart went on to join the RAAF as a pilot and saw service during World War II. He was killed in an accident in England at the end of 1941 and was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal.

After design improvements, the ban on the aircraft was lifted. However, even though the Flying Flea was popular in Australia, it is likely that less than ten of the aircraft were ever actually flown here, making Townsville’s Flying Flea a rare bird indeed.

This is the final article in the JCU Library Special Collections’ series of eight articles written by Trisha Fielding, which utilise the Collections’ varied resources to explore the historical themes for its “Townsville Past & Present” T150 project.

To read the JCU Library News blog post on the displays pertaining to this theme, go to: