This week the Royal Australian Air Force commemorated one hundred years of service. My dad served in the RAAF in New Guinea during the Second World War, and his uncle went up in biplanes during the First World War and dropped bombs on the trenches below by removing the floorboards from under his feet. Between the wars there were incredible technological developments, around the world adventures, and tall tales. One such story I heard was considered more an urban myth than fact, so I decided to investigate. I told a version of this story on West Bremer Radio.
Godfrey Massey Ball was born in Ireland and over thirty years ago he used to hang around at the Royal Queensland Aero Club at Archerfield on Saturday mornings. He was in his 80’s and was an old Spitfire pilot who while serving with Fighter Command in the Second World War was Mentioned in Despatches and awarded the Air Force Cross for “an act of exemplary gallantry while flying.”
His father was in the British security service MI5.
Godfrey told stories including one about an early member of the club who risked their life and broke the law by flying under a Brisbane bridge shortly after it opened in the 1930s.
The Royal Queensland Aero Club was founded in 1910 making it one of the world’s oldest aviation organisations and the oldest in the southern hemisphere, meaning that romantic reminisces of the air abound.
Nobody knew whether to believe Godfrey. After all he was old, born in Ireland, and his father was a spy, so you could never be sure what was true or not. In any case, he was living on a property up in the North Burnett in the 1930s when the flight supposedly happened, so how would he know.
If Godfrey’s story is true about a 1930s Brisbane bridge, then there were only two bridges opened in Brisbane during that time – William Jolly Bridge in the city in 1932, and Walter Taylor Bridge (pictured above) at suburban Indooroopilly in 1936.
William Jolly Bridge has three main arches of seventy-two metres each, while Walter Taylor Bridge’s largest span is one hundred and eighty-three metres which when it was opened was the longest span of any suspension bridge in Australia. It was built using cables left over from the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Given the relative length of the spans and the temptation that the longest would have been for thrill-seeking aviators, then the bridge in Godfrey’s story must be the one at Indooroopilly.
Early members of the Royal Queensland Aero Club included Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and Bert Hinkler. New Zealand barnstormer Jean Batten was hosted by the club. She’d completed a number of record-breaking flights including the first-ever solo flight from England to New Zealand in 1936.
In 1937 she based herself Archerfield to help in the search for the Stinson crash that was ultimately and famously found, along with two survivors, in the McPherson Range by Bernard O’Reilly.
While in town Batten was entertained by fellow aviators Captain Stanley Woolridge Bird and Jack Moran.
Captain Bird was another record-breaking aviator who began his flying career in the First World War. Jack Moran, however, was somewhat different.
Jack’s full name was John Horatio Fleming Moran. He was named after his grandfather Walter Horatio Wilson who was Queensland’s postmaster-general and attorney general prior to Federation.
He was an oil presentative and sales manager at Moxon Motors. In 1930, Jack and another aviator flew a Gypsy Moth on a marketing tour sponsored by Shell that covered six and a half thousand kilometres around Queensland.
Jack was also one of Queensland’s great all-round sportsman of the 1920s and 30s. He was a successful car racer, proved his skills with hydroplanes and yachts, he was the Queensland junior tennis champion, he golfed and fished better than most, and of course he flew. By the start of the 1930s he had over thirty trophies to his credit.
But my research to prove Godfrey’s story was going nowhere. However, that was until by complete chance I visited a home in Rosalie in Brisbane.
I was there to meet with descendants of a family as part of my research for a book about an historic house ‘Dovercourt‘ – I’ll tell you about that book another time.
During the visit, I was shown loads of original old photographs of very early aviators, including one of Jean Batten at Archerfield. Also in the photo was Jack Moran who was actually a relative of the family that I was visiting.
It turns out that Jack was a bit of a lad. It was thought that he never worked particularly hard but enjoyed his sports and most of all he loved flying.
Jack was just fifteen-years-old in 1919 when he was the first pupil of the Royal Queensland Aero Club as it started flight training after the First World War.
By the time that the Indooroopilly bridge was opened in 1936, Jack was living in Dean Street at Toowong. This was just three kilometres away so he would have been well-acquainted with the new structure. He also owned a Tiger Moth which was the perfect aircraft with which to attempt such a risky flight.
The family confirmed for me that it was indeed Jack Moran who made that flight under the bridge.
He’d flown his Tiger Moth under the Indooroopilly bridge, its wheels just feet from the water, shortly after it was opened on St Valentine’s day the 14th of February 1936 – much to the chagrin of his family.
There are no photographs recording the event, there are no news stories, but it did happen eighty-five years ago.
And so it turns out that Godfrey Ball – the Irish-born Spitfire pilot and son of an MI5 agent – did tell at least one story at Archerfield that was true, and it was a beauty.
CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO A VERSION OF THIS STORY TOLD LIVE ON RADIO.
Walter Taylor Bridge 2021 – my own
Godfrey Massey Ball – Spitfire Association
Jean Batten at Archerfield – Brisbane Telegraph, 26 February 1937, page 3
Jack Moran – Sydney Referee, 12 August 1931, page 24