Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

History Revisited - how one TAS Old Boy took to the skies

P G Taylor and Charles Kingsford Smith welcomed in Hawaii on the first Australia-US plane flight
“Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines” captures in comedic form some of the strangeness and excitement associated with aviation’s early day. A number of the early Australian pioneers had connections with Northern New South Wales.

Sir Patrick Gordon Taylor (1896-1966), more commonly known as PG or Bill, was born at Mosman, Sydney, on 26 October 1896. His father, also Patrick, was a successful businessman who built up considerable business interests fuelled by urban growth on Sydney’s North Shore assisted by judicious company re-arrangements.

Taylor early acquired a sense of adventure and a love of the seas, roaming Pittwater in his dingy including an expedition to uninhabited Lion Island, site of a major Little Penguin Colony. Taylor’s parents chose to send the boy to The Armidale School to complete his education. There he finished his schooling as senior prefect.

Rejected by the Australian Flying Corps, Taylor went to Britain and was commissioned into the Royal Flying Corps in August 1916. There he served with distinction, winning the Military Cross and being promoted to Captain.

Like many First World War pilots, Taylor acquired a love of flying. During the 1920s, he flew as a private pilot, completing an engineering course and studying aerial navigation. He was drawn into the circle around Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm.

In 1933 and 1934, he flew between Australia and New Zealand as Smithy’s second pilot and navigator on the Southern Cross, acted as navigator on Charles Ulm’s return flight to England and with Smithy completed the first Australian-US flight. However, it was the events of May 1935 that established Taylor as a heroic figure in the public mind.

On 15 May, a heavily laden Southern Cross took off for New Zealand on the King George V jubilee airmail flight with Kingsford Smith as pilot, Taylor as navigator, John Stannage as radio operator.

Six hours into the flight, part of the exhaust manifold on the centre engine broke off, badly damaging the starboard engine propeller. Smithy closed down the engine, applied full power to the other two engines and turned back for Australia while the crew jettisoned the cargo.
This is one of the few airmail letters that survived the flight.
 The oil pressure on the port engine began to fall rapidly, dooming the flight. Climbing out of the fuselage, Taylor edged his way against the strong slipstream along the engine connecting strut and collected oil from the disabled starboard engine in the casing of a thermos flask. He then transferred it to the port engine.

Assisted by wireless operator, John Stannage, Taylor had to repeat this process six times before the aircraft landed safely at Mascot some nine hours later.

In 1946, these events were dramatised in the Columbia Pictures/Ken Hall production Smithy, with Taylor playing himself. Not unexpectedly, the film was popular at the Saturday night films put on for TAS boys!

Taylor went on to a long and successful career as pilot, businessman and, perhaps less expectedly, writer, publishing eight successful books with adventure, flying and sea themes.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 5 August 2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015.

Coincidentally, at the time this column came out,  freelance writer and film maker Rick Searle released a biography of Patrick Gordon Taylor, The Man Who Saved Smithy. You can hear an interview with Rick here. .

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