Hundreds of feet above churned desolate ground, the battery sergeant major escaped the rushing wind and reached down to remove the floorboards from beneath his feet. He could clearly see lines of trenches filled with tiny figures. Their action of pointing him out with rifles suggested they were shooting at him. He held the bomb with his right hand, his left on his knee to steady. Taking aim between his feet, he let go, and watched the explosive hurtle to the enemy below.
I was reliving the earliest use of aviation, flying in a 75-year-old de Havilland Tiger Moth hangared at the Caboolture Airfield. Fabric wings, wooden struts, and a wooden propeller that had to be turned by hand to start the engine. She was built more like a kite, and took off just as easily. We lurched slightly in the wind, the open cockpit giving a fresh air of what original flight was like. The mechanical controls were super responsive.
Flying from Caboolture, over Bribie Island, Moreton Bay, Redcliffe, and towards the volcanic Glasshouse Mountains. The early morning calmness and beauty made it a memorial flight of sorts, remembering family members who had borne witness to the foundation of flight. The continuing centenary of the First World War made battle memories inevitable, however my daydreaming began before that.
My grandfather told me of his excitement as a 12-year-old boy in 1910 when Harry Houdini made the first controlled, powered flight of an aeroplane in Australia. Grandad lived to the west of Melbourne not far from the great Houdini’s paddock. The excited boy later witnessed the first aeroplane landing in the district. It’s like being on the moon when Neil Armstrong took his giant leap.
Four years later, world war broke out and the newly formed Australian Flying Corps tentatively took to the skies.
Frank Smith, a motor driver from Magill in South Australia, served in the 1st Squadron AFC with Ross Macpherson Smith who was pilot for T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), and with his brother later became the first to fly from England to Australia.
Also in the squadron was James Mercier, a carriage builder from Campsie, New South Wales. His brother Fred is famous in family lore for kicking Lawrence of Arabia up the backside when, dressed as an Arab, Lawrence ignored Fred’s demand to leave the encampment area.
Meanwhile in Europe, Bertram Richardson was a Footscray jeweller who served in the 6th Squadron. When the war was over, he came home with Australia’s leading WW1 ace Arthur Cobby and the Queensland Premier.
The battery sergeant major who dropped bombs from between his feet was my dad’s uncle Les Barclay from Melbourne. Before the war he was a chorister with the JC Williamson troupe. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, second only to the Victoria Cross, for keeping his battery firing as the Germans advanced on Villers-Bretonneux. “He (my dad) adored his father and was somewhat in awe of him,” a granddaughter of Les said, speaking of the esteem in which Les was held by the family.
The Tiger Moth was keen to stay in the air, so had to be coaxed and landed with a gentle bounce. Kangaroos looked up with an air of disregard, comfortable with the knowledge to stay away from the centre of the grass runway. They were blissfully unaware that I’d just returned from a journey of over a century back in time.
Click here to see the 2:29 memorial flight video.