THE KALGOORLIE BIPLANE - 1915
As previously recounted the first aircraft to fly in the state was the Bristol Boxkite flown by Joseph J Hammond from Belmont Park Racecourse. After his demonstration flights in Perth, Hammond had taken his aircraft to Melbourne and Sydney subsequently selling number 11, which had never been out of its crate, to Mr W E Hart. Hart taught himself to fly in this aircraft and obtained, in December 1911, the first pilot's licence issued in Australia. Hart flew the Boxkite extensively until it was finally destroyed in the last of a series of crashes. The engine survived and it is believed that this was subsequently purchased, in 1914, by four young men in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, who had dreams of building their own aircraft. These were Roy Burton, Paul Ghents, Stan Parker and Frank Oldfield. Western Australia was not technically advanced in the early part of this century but there was a centre of technical knowledge in the mining town of Kalgoorlie, some 600 km from Perth. Kalgoorlie, since the 1890's had been a major centre of gold mining and a School of Mines had been functioning there since 1903.
The catalyst to their plans seems to have been the arrival of Arthur Geere. Geere was born on October 18, 1887 in Bromley, Kent and is reputed to have worked in the Vickers aircraft factory prior to obtaining his pilot's licence, number 310, in a Vickers Monoplane at Brooklands on October 1, 1912. He then became an instructor at the Avro School of Flying at Shoreham where he was involved in the attempted rescue of Richard Norton Wright who crashed in an Avro Biplane on June 29, 1913. Wright had gained his licence, number 462, on April 22 and was therefore relatively inexperienced at the time of his death. On the day of the crash Geere had warned him not to fly circuits as the engine was not giving full power, but Wright ignored the advice. The aircraft stalled, crashed on the field and burst into flames. The pilot was unable to free one of his feet from the wreckage and was trapped. Despite desperate attempts by Geere and others to free him he was burned to death. The exact date and reasons for Arthur Geere's departure from the United Kingdom are not known but he is recorded as being in Kalgoorlie at the end of 1913.
Geere and the four young men previously mentioned formed, with some eleven others the "Kalgoorlie Aeroplane Syndicate" with twenty shares of £25 each. They sent to the United Kingdom for a set of Royal Aircraft Factory specifications and an engine was purchased. Geere was one of an elite group of British aviators who not only gained their licences before the First World War but also built and flew an aircraft of their own.
They began construction of the components in Wellsman's Furniture Factory in Boulder Road, which was owned by one of the syndicate, and when more space was required the work was transferred to premises in Egan St.
When the engine arrived in Kalgoorlie in January 1915 it was found to have two cracked pistons and replacements for these were cast at the Kalgoorlie Foundry by Roy Burton. It was reported that a new engine at a cost of £225 had been ordered from the United Kingdom but "that this had been requisitioned by the Home Authorities" resulting in the purchase of Hart's engine. If this is in fact true it was most unfortunate as the engine was a constant source of trouble.
In January 1915 the construction of the aircraft was sufficiently advanced for the Western Argus to report that it was a two bay tractor biplane "which bore a close resemblance to a type being developed by the British War Office". It was powered by a 50 h.p. Gnome rotary engine, which was expected to give a duration of about three hours on twelve gallons of petrol. The span of the upper wing, which had a small degree of dihedral, was 10.36 metres and the lower 9.14 metres chord, was 1.83 metres and the total wing area measured 35.3 sq metres. The length was exactly 7.32 metres. Empty weight was estimated at 386 kgs and all up weight at 522 kgs. The fuselage and landing gear were made of Hickory as English Ash was unobtainable at the time construction commenced, however a supply of Ash became available before the wings were started and the spars were made of this material, while the ribs were formed from three ply veneer and yellow Pine. The tail plane and rudder were manufactured in clear Pine and supported by four tubular steel tension braces. Two rubber tyred, steel wired wheels were attached to a tubular steel axle. All appropriate parts were wire braced. The workmanship of the hand beaten metal cowling attracted much favourable comment. The fuel tank was placed, on the centre of gravity, directly under the passenger's seat and fuel conveyed by a pump to a small tank just behind the engine. Alongside this tank was one containing lubricating oil. The propeller, which was laminated from Italian walnut had a diameter of 2.44 metres and a pitch of 1.4 metres and it was estimated that 89 kph could be achieved. The highest recorded speed subsequently achieved by the aircraft was 102 kph. Apart from the engine the only parts not manufactured in Kalgoorlie were the standard wire braces which were imported from the United Kingdom.
It was "confidently expected" that only a few more weeks work were required for completion but it was not until the middle of April that the aircraft was sufficiently advanced to go on display in the Kalgoorlie Town Hall. Construction had been under way for almost a year, consuming all the spare time of the builders. Costs of materials had been higher than expected and the syndicate gratefully acknowledged the generosity of local businesses in supplying parts and services. Major costs to date had included: wood, bolts, fabric, dope, brass, copper and other metal work, lighting and power and of course the engine. The total expenditure to date had exceeded £400. The syndicate encouraged visitors and in true public relations fashion always took time to talk to them. Photographs were taken at all stages of construction and these as well as the aircraft were soon to be displayed in the Kalgoorlie Town Hall.
From the 16th to the 23rd of April the aircraft, together with a selection of photographs of its construction, was displayed to the public. Three hundred people attended on the first night and it was on this occasion that the design was attributed to Paul Jaentch raising doubts as to the extent of the specification reputedly requested from the Royal Aircraft Factory. Roy Burton received praise for his ability to raise money for the project and lectures and lantern slide shows were given on succeeding evenings.
Immediately following this exhibition the aircraft was transported forty kilometres to Coolgardie for final preparation for its first flight. This took place on May 26, 1915 when, piloted by Arthur Geere, it rose to a height of about 9 metres during a short flight across the racecourse. Geere must have been happy with the flight characteristics for he immediately made three more such short flights, each time carrying a passenger. Mr. C. Mason had the privilege of being the first. On the fifth and last flight of the day, with Geere flying solo, he took the aircraft up to 61 metres and made a wide circuit of the surrounding area. Flying took place on June 3 and again on the 6th. On the latter occasion three passengers were given short hops before the aircraft was more fully tested. The following day Geere took off from Bowes Paddock, some three miles from the town centre and landed in the main street to be met by members of the syndicate. The aircraft averaged 76 kph on this flight. Confidence was such that the flight to Kalgoorlie was to be attempted the following week.
On June 10 Geere took off and flew for about 12 km in the direction of Kalgoorlie before the engine cut out. Unable to restart it he made a successful landing at the nine mile peg with the aircraft sustaining only minor damage to the lower wings. It was decided not to try repairing the aircraft on the spot but to take it back to Coolgardie and so it was loaded onto a horse drawn lorry. At this point, tragically, one of the horses bolted and dragged the aircraft into a telegraph pole before finishing up fifty yards into the bush. The fuselage and the lower right wing were badly broken, possibly beyond repair.
Arthur Geere remained with the aircraft overnight at the crash site and brought it into the town the following day to be deposited in Tangye's warehouse. Repairs seem to have taken until October when the aircraft was again reported to be flying. The next attempt to fly to Kalgoorlie was made on October 11. Geere took off at 3 pm. but due to turbulence which he called "remous" or "sun bumps" he returned to the racecourse until it was cooler. Taking off again at 5 pm. he made two circuits of Bowes Paddock and then headed north-east towards Kalgoorlie at a height of 366 metres. As he approached Kurrawang, some ten miles from Kalgoorlie, vibrations caused the filler cap of his "naphtha tank" to fall off. With fuel splashing into the aircraft Geere considered it safer to land than risk a fire so he touched down immediately in front of the Kurrawang Hotel and spent the night there.
Next morning he took off at 6 am. and was approaching Binduli Station when an exhaust cam broke off and he again decided it was more prudent to land. The field in which he chose to land proved to be somewhat small and he buckled a wheel rim when the "KalgoorIie" struck a sapling. The rim was straightened but it collapsed during take off and the aircraft finished up on its nose. Damage was slight but the replacement rim had to be brought from Perth and it was not until the 18th that Geere was able to complete his flight, bringing his eight day, forty kilometre odyssey to a successful conclusion on the Kalgoorlie Racecourse shortly after 6 pm.
On October 24, 1915 a fund raising demonstration was held at the Kalgoorlie Racecourse. The aircraft was on static display in front of the Leger Stand from about mid-afternoon and just prior to its first flight of the day it was christened "Kalgoorlie" by Mrs. Davidson, the Mayor's wife, who smashed a bottle of champagne over the engine cowling. The neck of the bottle was retained as a souvenir. The colour of the aircraft is unknown but it was dark overall with K A S on the rudder in a lighter colour. Before a crowd of 3000 people who had paid to get in, and a like number, "who were not prepared to the extent of a shilling or two to support the syndicate of young men who for many months past made many sacrifices to give Kalgoorlie the honour of a successful locally built aeroplane." outside the racecourse Geere took off after a run of only 91 metres. He climbed to a height of 305 metres and made three wide sweeps of the area. On landing he stated that from that height he could have landed safely at any point around the town had his engine failed.
On the second flight it was proposed to carry aloft a "lady passenger" and an auction was held to select the one to be honoured. Mr J.J. Brown was successful with a bid of thirteen guineas and his seventeen year old daughter dressed, perhaps appropriately, in black, was helped into the passenger's seat. After a short delay in starting the engine, which apparently did nothing for Miss Brown's state of mind, the "Kalgoorlie" again took off. Geere subsequently stated that she showed early signs of nervousness and was soon heard screaming "Let me out!" over the noise of the engine. This caused the pilot some concern which increased when the lady tried to stand up as the aircraft was struck by a gust of wind. Geere's attention to flying was distracted as he endeavoured to keep her in her seat and he commenced his descent a little too late. Touching down too far across the landing area his speed carried him into the fence around the track. Fortunately the aircraft had been almost stopped when it struck the fence and damage was restricted to a propeller blade, axle bar and three or four ribs on the trailing edge of one wing. Replacement cost was estimated at about £10. Miss Brown subsequently denied that she had stood up or had tried to climb out.
Repairs were speedily carried out and on November 29 two further flights were carried out to raise funds to send "local aviators" to the United Kingdom so that they could enlist in the Royal Flying Corps. Following the two flights ground hops were given to two ladies and two gentlemen. The "Kalgoorlie" was then taken by rail to Northam and on December 1 Geere made two flights from the racecourse. Both flights were greeted with great enthusiasm by a large crowd. A further flight of some twenty minutes duration was made from the golf links on December 5, after which the aircraft was transported to Perth by rail. It arrived there on the 6th and was re-assembled at Belmont Park in preparation for a series of demonstration flights later in the month.
The aircraft was test flown on the 10th in preparation for the exhibition on the following day. The "West Australian" carried an advertisement for "Plume Benzine Light as a feather, strong as an ox." which promised that the "Gnome engine will perform its exacting and heavy duty" on this product. In comparison with the large attendances at the country townships the flight from Belmont Park Racecourse attracted only three hundred people, but amongst those who did attend were Sir Harry Barron, Governor, Mr. Scadden, State Premier, Mr Collier, Minister of Lands, and the Mayor of Perth. After some difficulty in starting the engine the aircraft gave an extensive demonstration of its capabilities, keeping well away from the city as it was believed that many people hoped to see the aircraft fly without having to pay to do so.
On the following Saturday, the 18th, a further exhibition flight from the Perth Oval was arranged and the aircraft flew over the city on its positioning flight from Belmont Park. Shops and offices rapidly emptied as people rushed to see what for many was their first sight of an aircraft in flight. There is a report that this flight was made to advertise a "well known gold fields beverage." Despite, or perhaps because of this free sighting, the crowd at the Oval was again disappointing with a mere four hundred turning up.
The Western Argus interviewed Geere in Kalgoorlie shortly after Christmas and he made a number of interesting statements. There was disappointment at the poor support which they had received "on the coast" but they were hopeful that the next exhibition would be better attended. The syndicate had arranged, in conjunction with the Red Cross Society, and with the approval of the Post Master General's Department to operate the first "aerial post" in Western Australia, between Perth and Fremantle, a distance of twelve miles, at a rate of 6d per letter. In addition a further flight would be carried out to help raise funds for the Perth Childrens' Hospital. Finally he stated that H.W. Davidson, the Mayor of Kalgoorlie, would be taken up for a flight on his arrival in Perth a few days hence. There is however no record of any of this happening.
Despite an enthusiastic interest in the aircraft's future activities Geere told the press that he was going to enlist in the Australian Army early in the new year and apply to join the Flying Corps.
The "Kalgoorlie" was again flown on January 12, 1916 when Mr. Don Pedro paid for a flight. As the aircraft had been parked un-attended at Belmont Park for some weeks it required about an hour's work before it was airworthy again. Geere seemed reluctant to take his passenger up without a test flight so he took off solo just after 1 o'clock, flew over the city and landed on the Esplanade adjacent to the Governor's House. If it was his intention to escape from Mr. Pedro he was unsuccessful as the gentleman followed him by car and persuaded Geere to take him up. Pedro's persistence was rewarded by a fifteen minute flight.
This seems to have been the aircraft's last flight. There is a report that it was grounded after a cylinder head was found to have been irreparably cracked and this may have started to show up during the preparations for this flight.
Following his association with the Kalgoorlie project Geere travelled to Victoria and was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Australian Imperial Force on January 25, 1916. He sailed on H.M.A.T. Orsova from Melbourne on March 16, 1916 for the Middle East as a member of "A" Flight, No l Squadron, Australian Flying Corps (No 67 (Australian) Squadron, Royal Flying Corps). The squadron had a strength of 28 officers and 195 other ranks and was the first complete squadron to be sent from Australia. He was promoted to Captain, and Flight-Commander, on the April 20, 1917 and transferred, in May 1917, to No 71 (Australian) Squadron R.F.C. (No 4 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps) then under training in the United Kingdom. It is not known if Geere went to France with No 71 Squadron when the unit transferred to the Western Front on December 18, 1917, however he is shown in the A.I.F. lists as being on its strength in January 1918. Geere's final posting was to No 1 Wing Aircraft Repair Depot.
He returned to Australia on September 9, 1918 and was discharged from the service on the 4th October. He was appointed to the Reserve of Officers on October 1, 1920 and remained on this until 1929.
The aircraft was then put into storage in the premises of the Union Brewery and survived relatively intact until 1929 when it was acquired by the Flying Corps Association in August of that year and renovated for the Centenary Pageant. At the time the Association received the aircraft it was intact but totally devoid of fabric, but over one weekend members recovered the wings and fuselage with sign writers calico and white wash paint, instead of high quality doped linen, as an economy measure. The aircraft was then painted in a "bizarre" pattern of whitewash, red ochre and calamine. After the Pageant the aircraft was donated to the Perth Museum for preservation. Although the aircraft had been complete when the Flying Corps Association worked on it, the Traffic Department had insisted on the wings being removed before it was allowed in the pageant and it was in this partially dismantled state that it was subsequently handed over to the Museum and Art Gallery in the expectation that it would be put on display. In July 1930 Art Gallery staff were packing some paintings for return to Melbourne when a heavy shower of rain occurred. It was subsequently reported that "a caretaker covered them with the only material available, part of the wing of an aircraft." In connection with this incident a letter appeared the following day in a local newspaper describing the condition of the aircraft. The fuselage, minus wings, was "reposing unprotected like so much junk " in a corner of an open courtyard.
The derelict airframe apparently survived until after the end of World War 2 when it was removed and destroyed. Today the only known remains of Western Australia's first locally built aircraft are as follows.
One propeller in the Golden Mile Museum in Kalgoorlie
One propeller in the Royal Aero Club Jandakot
One propeller, one piston, two wheels and the original plans in the Aviation Heritage Museum in Bull Creek, Perth.