On a wing and a prayer

On a wing and a prayer
Album in Trove recalls Australia's early years of flight
18 July 2017

Basil Watson in homemade biplane

Basil Watson seated in partially constructed biplane in the family home 'Foilacleugh', Elsternwick, Victoria (1916). http://trove.nla.gov.au/work/222558881

Now available in Trove, this picture of a magnificent young man in the flying machine he built himself, is part of a 12-photograph memorial album recently obtained from Museums Victoria. It captures the idealism of a pioneer aviator who had everything to live for, but in 1917, Basil Watson flew into Australian aviation history to become what is believed to be the nation’s first air fatality.

He was just 23.

Produced for Watson’s funeral, the album is not only a touching tribute to a cherished son but an exquisite pictorial record of his achievements and tragic death, which the newspapers reported in detail. Museums Victoria already had in its collection parts from Watson’s plane that his father had donated, some of the earliest aviation artefacts acquired.

Senior Curator in MV’s Engineering & Transport Humanities Department, Matthew Churchward, says he used Trove digitised newspapers extensively to navigate the short but significant life of Watson, who built and flew the most sophisticated Australian aircraft of its time.

“As a curator I was keen to pinpoint what he did,’’ Mr Churchward said. “By going through Trove, I was able to establish the key different public flying demonstrations he gave and the actual dates, the chronology through the newspaper reports, which have fantastic detail.’’ Mr Churchward said he was able to establish a much more detailed picture of Watson's career and the connections between his family and other pioneer pilots such as Harry Hawker and the illusionist and stunt-performer, Harry Houdini. “Looking at contemporary newspaper reports also helped to give a vivid picture of the challenges of his pioneering flights and public response to them,’’ he said.

On 29 July 1916, on Watson's 80-minute flight from Melbourne to Bendigo, The Argus reported:

“In passing over Mount Macedon he encountered some air currents which turned him upside down, and he experienced a little difficulty in recovering his equilibrium. The airman entered clouds before reaching Macedon, and lost sight of everything for some time. When he got clear of the clouds he was close to Castlemaine, which was practically the first town he saw on his trip.’’

Basil Watson in completed biplane

Basil Watson seated in completed biplane in the family home 'Foilacleugh', Elsternwick, Victoria (1916). http://trove.nla.gov.au/work/222558884 

Watson was born into a well-to-do Bendigo family that had benefited from a couple of fortunes, first in quartz mining and then property. His father James had a passing interest in the cutting-edge technologies of the day, including aircraft, and young Basil seems to have followed suit. He came under the wing of Hawker, following him to England to work with the Sopwith company as a mechanic, and advanced rapidly through the ranks.

During the Great War Watson test flew planes for the Imperial Army before being badly injured in a crash in 1915, ending his military career. Undaunted, he returned to Melbourne and in 1916 built his own plane, based on a Sopwith design, in the family home. Mr Churchward said it was the first plane in Australia capable of advanced aerobatic manoeuvres and in 1917, Watson exhibited it and staged demonstration flights. He also appears to have become an honorary member of the Australian Flying Corps based at Point Cook, where the plane was hangared.

Early in 1917, Watson worked with a promoter to carry the first air mail from South Australia to Victoria on a return flight from Mt Gambier to Melbourne. The promoter produced and sold special stamped postcards for the event, and Watson collected further mail on the way. On 28 March 1917, he took off from Albert Park for Point Cook where he performed an aerial display for the troops stationed at the nearby army camp.

Mr Churchward said that during a loop-the-loop a small clip came loose and the wings collapsed, sending him into a headlong dive. “Reports say he steered the plane away from the airfield so as not to crash into spectators and towards the shallow waters of Port Phillip Bay where he was found dying,’’ he said. There was a huge outpouring of grief, with thousands of mourners lining the streets for his funeral, for which the Australian Flying Corps provided pall bearers and a guard of honour for his coffin, draped with a Union Jack.

His family placed a memoriam in newspapers every year for the next decade.

Basil Watson plane wreckage

Inspecting the wreckage from Basil Watson's fatal aircraft accident, Port Cook, Victoria (28 March, 1917). http://trove.nla.gov.au/work/222558894


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Thanks for sharing that story Ian. It was a really fascinating story to research and all done from the comfort of my lounge room, with thanks to Trove.
I am new at all this Trove blog...Wow! That was so interesting, and so tragic. I have read a few books on early female aviators but this cutting edge first flight research is great. The information about the crowds upset at his accidental death shows his daring-do was appreciated - that innovative 'larrikin' Aussie thing, maybe, that we seem to really admire and appreciate. I nursed a charming elder who had married one of the first beautiful hostess poster girls for the first Australian airways ( I forget the airline name, sorry) before it became Ansett. She looked stunning and the family still has her portrait original poster photo. I am currently trying out Trove research as part of my History BA and am glad I took time out off studies tonight in a dark and dingy computer lab to broaden my horizons and boost morale reading your very interesting research results. As a visual learner, I appreciate the quality and topics of the excellent detailed photographs you included, thanks again, Ian. Hope to see more of your work. Cheers, 99