On this day: Hinkler’s solo flight from England to Australia

By Natalie Muller 7 November 2013
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The first solo flight from England to Australia was completed on 22 February 1928 by Australian aviator Bert Hinkler.

A SMALL CROWD WAS waiting at the Darwin airstrip when Bert Hinkler’s Avro Avian aircraft touched down on 22 February 1928. He had travelled around 18,000km since taking off from Croydon, England, just over 15 days earlier, making history as the first person to fly solo from the UK to Australia.

It was also the longest solo flight yet recorded at that time, and, on completing the record-breaking journey, Bert became a national hero. He captured the public’s imagination at a time when flying long distances was still unfathomable for most people.

The flight wasn’t without its complications – in South East Asia Bert was held up by wild weather, and over the Middle East fuel started leaking from the plane.

“He just fixed that with soap and water and made a little plug to stop the fuel leaking,” says Lex Rowland, president of the Hinkler House Memorial Museum and Research Association. “He was a great improviser. The pressure was on all the time – he was on a mission, he was going to get to Australia and that was it.”

When Bert toured the country after his epic journey, the welcome he received was enormous, particularly in his hometown of Bundaberg on the Queensland central coast.

“There was close to ten thousand people,” says Lex. “The whole town turned out and children were given holidays. People came from outlying areas as far as 100km away…in their horse and buggy.”

In Canberra, Prime Minister Stanley Bruce presented him with a cheque for £2000 and named him an honorary RAAF squadron leader.
In 1933, Bert made a second attempt to fly to Australia, this time in a Puss Moth airplane. He was killed when the plane crashed on the slopes of the Apennines in northern Italy.

A fascination with flight

Bert was fascinated by flight as a child, and he never lost this obsession. He was known to have photographed and studied Ibises while experimenting with gliders in his late teens.

“In Bundaberg the whole community had their eye on Bert Hinkler,” says Lex. “The local newspapers reported quite vividly his successful flight [with his glider] down on Mon Repos beach where he flew for about thirty metres. He’d conquered the rules of the Ibis: he had actually flown himself.”

Bert spent his twenties in England, getting experience in the aviation industry, and as an aerial gunner in the Royal Naval Air Service during World War I. When he returned to Australia in 1921, he brought a tiny Avro Baby aircraft with him, which he flew in Bundaberg, sometimes delivering mail or putting on acrobatic displays overhead.

Crossing the South Atlantic

In 1931 Bert made history one last time when he chartered the first solo flight across the South Atlantic Ocean. According to Lex, his flying companion was a marmoset monkey given to him by the people in Brazil.

This trip – from Canada, via Jamaica, Venezuela and Brazil, and on to England – is considered his most perilous flight, mainly because the weather was fierce, and because he had to cross vast expanses of ocean. But Lex says the 1928 flight to Australia was still Bert’s greatest achievement.

“It was a momentous time,” he says. “When Smithy [legendary aviator Sir Charles Kingsford Smith] was doing his flights, so was Bert Hinkler. When Bradman was making his centuries, Bert Hinkler was there.

“He was a man of that period… they were just a different generations of Australians.”