A Very Big Deal – Charles Kingsford-Smith’s flight to Wigram, 11 September 1928

When it’s so easy to cross the Tasman, many people do – a winter holiday on the Gold Coast, a show in Melbourne, shopping in Sydney, family in Perth …thousands of Kiwis travel to Australia every year, and its easy to forget that the very first trans-Tasman flight was less than 100 years ago and was A Very Big Deal.

The Southern Cross. [10 September 1928] CCL PhotoCD 17, IMG0015
The Southern Cross. [10 September 1928] CCL PhotoCD 17, IMG0015
The flight time was 14 hours and 25 minutes, with the three-engineed Fokker plane Southern Cross flown by Australians Charles Kingsford-Smith and Charles Ulm along with navigator Harold Litchfield, and radio operator Thomas H. McWilliams. This flight was only the latest in a series of ‘firsts’ for Kingsford Smith and Ulm: in June 1927 they completed a round-Australia circuit in 10 days, 5 hours; then on 31 May 1928 they  made the first eastward trans-Pacific flight, leaving from Oakland (California) to Brisbane, via Hawaii and Suva, in 83 hours, 38 minutes of flying time. In August 1928 came the first non-stop trans-Australia flight from Victoria to Perth.

An unsuccessful attempt to fly the Tasman had been made by two New Zealand Air Force pilots – Captain George Hood and Lieutenant John Moncrieff in January 1928. The crew of Southern Cross dropped a wreath to their memories approximate 240 km off the coast of New Zealand.

Initially Kingsford-Smith and Ulm planned to depart Australia on 2nd September, but were forced to delay departure due to poor weather, departing Richmond (near Sydney) on the evening of 10th September. The flight was made in stormy – at times icy – conditions, with landfall near Cook Strait.

The crowd that greeted them in Christchurch was estimated at between 30 and 40,000, and the whole country celebrated the achievement – finally we were connected to the rest of the world.

Charles Edward Kingsford Smith, and others, upon the arrival of the aeroplane Southern Cross at Wigram, Christchurch. Evening post (Newspaper. 1865-2002) :Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: 1/2-084047-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. https://natlib.govt.nz/records/23012759

While the New Zealand Air Force overhauled their plane, Kingsford-Smith and crew were taken on a triumphant nationwide tour. Their return flight from Blenheim to Richmond took 23 hours due to severe weather, fog and a navigational error. On landing they had 10 minutes of fuel left.

It was another twelve years before a regular air service by flying boat began in April 1940, and flight time was 9 hours.  Thank goodness it doesn’t take so long now!

Kingsford-Smith went on to make further record-breaking flights and was knighted for services to aviation in 1932.

Kingsford Smith & Sumner school. Kete Christchurch PH13-058.jpg
Kingsford Smith & Sumner school. Kete Christchurch PH13-058.jpg

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7 May 1917: Canterbury Aviation Company makes first flights from Sockburn Aerodrome

Canterbury (NZ) Aviation Co. Ltd  was formed in August 1916, and purchased land for a flying field 3 months later. The Company was chaired by Sir Henry Wigram, who had tried to have a state-backed flying school established and when that attempt failed,  decided – along with his fellow directors – to establish their own. By the end of December that year, 40 pupils had enrolled to learn to fly.

C M Hill, Chief Instructor. Image from The First Hundred Pilots

The first flight was made by instructor Cecil M. Hill (pictured at left) on 7 May 1917, and by 1919, 182 pilots had been trained.

In 1923 the government decided to take over the company and run the airbase under a military umbrella: in June the base was officially handed over and renamed Wigram Aerodrome. Sir Henry Wigram continued his support: donating £2500 to the Government for the purchase of an aeroplane – a Gloster Glebe fighter – and gifted a further 81 acres of land in 1932.

Over the years the Wigram Aerodrome has been part of not just local, but national history as well:

Charles Kingsford-Smith (1897-1935) made the first Tasman flight from Sydney to Christchurch, arriving at Wigram Aerodrome on 10 September 1928. His aircraft is pictured on arrival. File Reference CCL PhotoCD 17, IMG0015
Neptune Lockheed aircraft at Wigram for Operation Deep Freeze 1961. Entry in the 2014 Christchurch City Libraries Photo Hunt by Dave Howell. Source: Kete Christchurch, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 NZ

The Museum opened on 1 April 1987, and the Base itself closed to commercial air traffic in March 2009. The final Wigram Air Show was held the previous month.

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Remembering Richard Pearse 1877 to 1953

My name is Richard William Pearse and today it will be 63 years since my death. You know me because I was one of the first people in the world to fly a powered aircraft. Some of you even believe that my flight preceded that of the Wright Brothers and you would be right, it did by several months.

Richard Pearse 80 cent stamp
Richard Pearse stamp, 1990. Image used by permission of New Zealand Post.

But many years ago I conceded quite publicly that by my own rigorous standards I hadn’t achieved controlled and sustained flight. It was quite a ride though when I did achieve take off and stayed in the air for over a hundred metres before ‘landing’ atop the large gorse hedge that bordered my property in Waitohi. My collarbone and I fared about as well as my plane did when I hit the hedge and we were both the worse for wear afterwards.

So while I could obviously get my plane in the air I needed to set about solving the problem of aerial navigation. Despite my work, this is where my well funded counterparts in the Northern Hemisphere had the advantage until finally as I wrote in the Evening Star on 10th May 1915;

…as aerial navigation was already an accomplished fact, I decided to give up the struggle, as it was useless to continue against men who had factories at their backs.

But other events would also define my life. In 1910 I became very ill with typhoid and spent three months in bed and a further six months convalescing. It was with particular significance that only a couple of years later Wilbur Wright died from the same illness. I moved to Milton, Otago not long afterwards to farm sheep and took my designs and aircraft with me but the landscape was unsuitable for trial flights. I put my efforts into inventing farm machinery instead.

Richard Pearse Patent Drawing1906
Richard Pearse’s Fantastic Flying Machine, drawing from Richard Pearse’s patent, July 1906 [patent number #21476], Archives New Zealand (CC BY-SA 2.0)
In 1917 I was conscripted into the army and was placed with the Otago Infantry Regiment. I am 40 years old and despite enjoying walking the hills around my home and playing golf and tennis; I am unprepared for the toll army training will take on me. It soon became apparent that the typhoid had left its mark and I was eventually found to be physically unfit for further military service and discharged. I was home by the end of 1918.

By 1921 wool prices were plummeting so I decided it was time to sell up and I relocated to Christchurch. Here I eventually purchased three houses, two of which I rented out and lived off the proceeds so that I could continue my work. I dreamed of a plane in every home, but this was not to be. As time passed and my work continued to reside in relative obscurity; I became unwell and lived out my years at Sunnyside Hospital. I died here on 29th July, 1953.

But in a strange twist of fate my work lives on and is celebrated today. The recognition that eluded me in my lifetime has been heaped upon me in death. My utility plane and my years of research were discovered at my Christchurch home and a dump in Waitohi with thanks largely to my champion George Bolt. A replica of my plane was constructed in the mid 1970s, it toured the country and is now on display at Auckland’s Museum of Transport and Technology. They even tested it in a wind tunnel to see if it would fly. Unsurprisingly, it did.

Richard Pearse's Aeroplane No. 1 replica, MOTAT, Auckland, New Zealand, 5 April 2010 photo by Phillip Capper
Richard Pearse’s Aeroplane No. 1 replica, MOTAT, Auckland, New Zealand, 5 April 2010 photo by Phillip Capper (CC BY 2.0)

More information on Richard Pearse

15 October 1953: The worst RNZAF air accident in New Zealand

A crash at Wigram in 1953 remains the worst RNZAF crash in New Zealand history, killing seven men.

Two Royal New Zealand Air Force De Havilland Devons, the NZ1811 and NZ1810 from RNZAF Station Wigram, collided over Wigram Aerodrome. They had been part of the  last section of a 27 aircraft flypast over Harewood International Airport (as Christchurch airport was then called) marking the 1953 London to Christchurch Air Race Prize Giving Ceremony.

De Havilland Dove ZK-AQV aircraft, location unidentified.
De Havilland Dove ZK-AQV aircraft, location unidentified. Whites Aviation Ltd :Photographs. Ref: WA-12933-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23036102.
The Dove is the civilian version of the Devon

When the formation broke up as the aircraft prepared to land back at Wigram, NZ1811 was struck on the wing by its “No. 2”, NZ1810.  Both aircraft immediately lost control and plunged to the ground in a paddock at nearby Halswell, killing all aboard. This is still the highest loss of life incurred by the Royal New Zealand Air Force in a single New Zealand accident. They were:

Squadron Leader: Sholto R Duncan

Pilots: Flight Lieutenants Ebbett and Flight Lieutenant Ziesler.

Crewmen: Brian J Keogh, Eric Melrose, William Sharman, Russell Woodcock.

Now this terrible accident has been commemorated in Wigram by naming two of the new streets Edwin Ebbett Place and Erling Ziesler Lane

To read the original account in The Press of 16 October 1953 p. 10, you can visit the Central Library Manchester Street, and see the pages in microfilm – ask one of our lovely staff for assistance if you haven’t used microfilm before.

Following the 75th Anniversary of Wigram Air Base on 25 August 1992, it was closed on 14 September 1995.

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