Edited by Franca Frederiksen, Alice Springs NT
The first aeroplane landing in Alice Springs
The following is an edited version of the pilot’s own account of his flight to Central Australia on 5 October 1921, as printed to mark the fiftieth anniversary of that flight in the Centralian Advocate 14 Oct 1971.
Introduction, as per Editor, Centralian Advocate:
Great interest centred around the flight which commenced from Port Melbourne Aerodrome on September 26, 1921 and from the beginning the public seemed to realise that success would attend this first attempt to penetrate the interior by aircraft.
The world has learned to associated success with the efforts of Lieutenant F S Brigg, this youngster whose flying record compares more than favourably with any other pilot in the world.
Lieut. Briggs, like all men of action, does not waste words but the following report deals with all of the vital facts and phases of the historical journey.
First Stage: Melbourne to Adelaide via Nhil (26 September, 1921)
Took off from Port Melbourne Aerodrome at 10.10am on September 26 before a small but enthusiastic group of well-wishers. Weather was clear with good visibility but windy. When we got to Bacchus Marsh air became very rough.
Soon over the city of Ballarat, which from the air, gives an impression of solid prosperity. The paddocks, some cultivated, some fallow, with multi coloured flowers overgrowing them gave a countryside an aspect of a patchwork quilt below us. Habitations looked like so many ant hills and their occupants like so many ants running busily to and fro.
Just after passing Ararat, with the Grampians towering on the left, a large eagle took exception to our invasion of his domain and attacked us from about 1000ft. I skidded the machine to avoid contact when other feathered antagonist missed us by a few feet – we could see his neck feathered ruffled in anger.
I stopped following the railway track at Stawell cutting across country to Horsham where we spotted its big white silo from fifty miles before reaching the town, then onto last stretch of 40miles to Nhil, landing after 2 hours 35 minutes flying from Melbourne.
Mr Birtles informed me that the rough passage had caused him to lose his breakfast and Mr Bailey, the engineer, confessed to feeling very uncomfortable. I was please to land as holding a big machine speeding at 110mph through rough conditions is very tiring both physically and mentally, especially when the pilot has been at it for more or less continuously for the past five years.
We refuelled and after a short smoko took off for our final stop, Adelaide. The air was still rough and the wind against us, but forty-five minutes cruising found us over Serviceton then Bordertown, with the 90 Mile Desert stretching out before us.
The Desert doesn’t look very promising with scrub overgrowing it and the white sand gleaming through but every few miles we passed over isolated cleared paddocks on which grew health looking green crops. Hope springs that one day what looks desolate waste will be a vast wheat belt and with an irrigation scheme, even vaster possibilities. For one to see the country as it is now and to visualise what it may become, it must be seen from an aeroplane.
At Tailem Bend the desert ends and the refreshing sight of the rich valley of the River Murray begins at Murray Bridge, prosperity written broadly on both banks of the stream. From altitude, the river looks like a narrow silver ribbon running north to Morgan and south into Lake Alexandria – we could even see the river’s mouth and the sea beyond.
By this time the air turbulence had reduced, and the sun was sinking but as my course was due west, I had to look right into its powerful rays. My eyes soon felt the strain and I was sorry my goggles weren’t tinted to soften the strong glare. I was happy to find myself over the Mount Lofty Ranges which are a grand sight and Adelaide was very soon below us. Neatly planned and laid out, it is always a pretty sight with the ocean gleaming in the near distance and the ranges bounding it on the other side.
I circled the General Post Office and Town Hall by way of greeting and to show my pleasure at once again being over my home city before landing at the Albert Park Aerodrome two hours and forty minutes after leaving Nhil, making total flying time from Melbourne five hours fifteen minutes. There was a large crowd of friends and sightseers assembled to welcome us.
Second Stage: Adelaide to Maree via Carrieton (30 September, 1921)
After two or three days to permit Mr Bailey, our engineer, to give our engine the final ‘once over’ and to obtain photographic and other supplies. We were farewelled by a large number of friends at the ‘drome’ on Friday 30, departing at ten o’clock after a half an hour delay due to a heavy shower of rain.
Speeding towards Carrieton, our first fuel stop, we passed through several rainstorms before weather cleared except that air became rough. Before we knew it, we’d reached Gawler but, as were flying through a heavy shower of rain and low clouds, I doubt if the residents more than heard us. In an incredibly short space of time, we were flying over Hamely Bridge and other towns on the way to Peterborough. One could not help but admire the rich agricultural country we were passing over, but as scenery, it begins to get monotonous.
While I was musing over the lack of change in the country below, I found myself over Carrieton and landed in a paddock a mile from the town beside a sheep shearing outfit hut. A, Mr Reid, was in charge and he very quickly took charge of us sitting us down to an excellent lunch. My companions passed me a vote of thanks for showing such good judgement by landing within twenty yards of such good friends and a fine hot lunch!
Residents went to see the machine, and, on our return, we discovered it had more names on it than any census return ever revealed! After a short rest we again leapt into the atmosphere – destination, Maree, or as it was once named, Hergott Springs, cutting across country to Craddock and then over to Hawker, where I followed the railway line again.
The country changed becoming very dry and hungry looking, but nevertheless I believe it is good pastoral country. A gust had sprung up and the air became very rough indeed with many whirlwinds, or willy-willies. I was kept very busy controlling her as one minute she would try to turn completely over and then next moment go in any direction but the course I was trying to hold her on.
Once we dropped fully one hundred feet in a most disconcerting manner – Mr Bailey later informed me that the luggage nearly shot clean out of the bus! Visibility was so good that we could see across Lake Torrens which looked a huge gleaming salt pan, and beyond.
We passed over dry creeks and river-beds and several big mobs of cattle being driven south from Northern Territory stations to southern markets. As I looked out over the bare red country, I wondered how the wretched cattle got enough pasture to keep them going for their three and six months on the road, and it’s a lucky outfit that gets its mob down with only a twenty five percent loss.
Two hours and ten minutes flying time from Carrieton saw us safely on the ground at Maree where the township had turned out to welcome us. We learned that our progress was telegraphed from every town as we passed over and that great interest was being taken in our flight.
Third Stage: Maree to Oodnadatta (2 October, 1921)
Next day, October 2, at 8.45am before a large crowd of interested spectators we took off for the railhead, Oodnadatta. We reached South Lake Eyre in fifteen minute finding it dry except for an area of about half a mile broad and a mile long along its southern shore, presumably banked up by the wind. The rest of the lake was gleaming white with salt deposit.
North Lake Eyre was too far distant to see properly – all I could see was white with salt deposit. An aeroplane making Maree is depot, could quickly and easily make an aerial survey of the two lakes. The result might prove valuable and certainly interesting to the Government.
Away to the west a continuous range of hills ran parallel to the railway line and seemed to invite exploration. As I gazed out upon the miles of country, I could see fully fifty to one hundred miles on either side and could not help but think that the aeroplane is indispensable for survey work over large tracts of unexplored country as more can be seen and its value estimated in one hour than six months of laborious work and hardship endure by camel or horse transport. There is great scope for this valuable work to be done by the Royal Australian Air Force, removing the burden from civil aviation companies’ shareholders who, so far, have carried out this work uncomplainingly. The reports which would thus be made to the Controller of Civil Aviation would greatly assist and facilitate this work.
The country retained that bare and hungry appearance, but I noticed that the creeks and rivers had many waterholes, some of which looked large and deep, and presumably more or less permanent.
So far, the engine had been running very sweetly but just after passing Warrina, fifty miles from Oodnadatta it suddenly gave trouble, and I was forced to land.
Almost simultaneously, a party of five men on a motor trolley came along the railway line and seeing us, came across. But as they were in a hurry, and not knowing the extent of our trouble and thinking our delay might be indefinite, left us a waterbag and said they would phone Oodnadatta from Warrina, which was about ten miles behind us and had already reported us as having passed over.
Fourth Stage: Oodnadatta to Charlotte Waters Telegraph Station (4 October, 1921)
We spent a day at Oodnadatta where I saw some Aboriginal people from a distance. Like Maree, the surrounding country is bare of vegetation and all I could find of interest were camels, goats and the like. The ground is covered with small smooth stones the size of a marble to a cricket ball which shot from beneath the tyres like shrapnel and with considerable force. We left on the morning of the 4th for Charlotte Waters in the NT. Again, the whole town turned out to see us off despite the early hour of six in the morning. We were in the air much too early to catch the camel trains or any other transport on the pad, but I observed a few camps stirring beside the way, mostly near waterholes.
A short run brought us over Blood Creek Homestead with Charlotte Waters Telegraph Station sighted in the distance. We were welcomed by the only two white people, Telegraph Station staff, who at once made us at home and very comfortable. The other residents, Aboriginals, also gathered to see us land while some first hid in the bush but then gathered enough courage to approach the “big eaglehawk” as they termed the machine.
Fifth Stage: Charlotte Waters to Alice Springs (5 October, 1921)
We left Charlotte Waters on October 5 at 6.45am on the last stage to Alice Springs. The track and telegraph line ran together. After a few minutes in the air, I saw New Crown Point Station three of four miles off to the right of the track, next passed over Goyder soakage and then onto the river Finke. Following the Finke for a few miles we passed over Crown Point Station – the Station got its name from the peculiarly shaped hills that border it. The hills are quite flat on top and look like miniature elevated plateaux.
Soon we arrived over Horseshoe Bend which looked very pretty nestling between the Finke and a hill behind the few buildings, as though to shelter them. The nearby plain appeared to be bare ironstone country, but when I looked more closely, I could see that it had been swept by fire which must have burnt through hundreds of square miles of grassy and scrub country.
Ahead, I could plainly discern Heavy Tree Gap the gateway to Alice Springs which is prettily situated in the valley behind and alongside the Todd.
Very quickly I was over The Gap and the MacDonnell Ranges, and my destination. I immediately spotted the ground selected and prepared for my landing. It was easy to distinguish as the long grass had been burnt off and in consequence stood out from the surrounding country.
A large crowd had assembled to welcome us and as I pulled up safely beside them, they gave us a rousing reception.
I felt very pleased to think I had safely piloted the first aeroplane to fly into Central Australia. My impression of the route is that 75% of it is safe flying country.
Who was Lieutenant Briggs?
Francis Stewart Briggs was born in Calcutta in 1897, and as a boy moved to South Australia in the Adelaide suburb of Prospect. He went onto train as a pilot and flying in WW1.
In November-December 1920 the Australian continent was flown over in an east-west direction for the first time, when F. S. Briggs flew C. J. de Garis and mechanic O. J. Howard on a round trip Melbourne-Perth-Sydney-Melbourne in a De Havilland 4 aeroplane. Designed during the war as a day bomber, the performance of the DH4 eclipsed that of the BE2e to the extent that it covered the 9,600 kilometres in almost exactly the same number of flying hours that took Wrigley and Murphy less than half the distance.
This outstanding flight, much of it over sparsely populated and featureless country, was only one of several that put the name of Briggs into the record books, and yet he rarely gets a mention when noteworthy fliers are being discussed.
R.G. Kimber article regarding the landing:
The first aeroplane to visit Alice Springs landed on 26 September 1921.4 This event was described to me on 26 March 1982 by Mrs Ada M. Wade:5
That first plane, it landed right near Billygoat Hill, just this [south] side. We were very interested. The Aborigines, though, they cleared out. They reckoned it was a Devil-Devil or something. We went down and had a look at it. The Aborigines, they threw their spears at it, some of them. They went bush. They didn’t come back. Not ’til after it was gone.