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This post was originally writen for the regular feature In the Frame in The National Library of Australia Magazine
In 1914, only four years after Australia’s first powered flight, aviation remained a wonder. In March that year, the French aviator Maurice Guillaux arrived by ship, with his Blériot monoplane and a team of mechanics, to demonstrate the possibilities of flying to large and appreciative Australian crowds.
A former wheelwright, a ‘debonair’ and ‘dapper’ little man (according to the many press reports of his exploits), Guillaux’s ‘fancy work’ thrilled crowds, his plane looping the loop (his trademark manoeuvre) and swooping on spectators, who ducked and cheered. Hailed as the ‘Wizard of the Air’ and the ‘Air Porpoise’, he became the first to fly a hydro-aeroplane from Sydney Harbour.
The possibility of war shadowed Guillaux’s exploits. He took the Minister for Defence for a flight over Sydney, joked with reporters about dropping bombs on Australia’s new fleet and predicted that the ‘next war’ would be won by the side best able to master air combat.
In June, Guillaux announced his intention of flying between Melbourne and Sydney, an unprecedented journey involving careful reconnaissance and the stationing of mechanics at several towns on the way.
Wearing a leather jacket and tricolour scarf over his street clothes, and carrying 1,785 postcards and messages from dignitaries in Victoria to their Sydney counterparts, Guillaux left Melbourne on the morning of Thursday 16 July 1914.
He navigated by compass and, more prosaically, by following the railway, flying via Seymour, Wangaratta, Albury and Wagga Wagga, stopping for the night at Harden. As he passed low over towns like Culcairn, bells rang and train whistles hooted, with school children and their teachers craning for a sight few had seen before. Delayed by wet weather, he lost a day, but took off for Goulburn, Liverpool and Sydney on Saturday 18 July, to be greeted by a huge crowd at Moore Park. (The Blériot monoplane he used has been preserved by the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.)
Two weeks after his epic flight, Maurice Guillaux was injured in a crash, but he volunteered to serve as soon as news of the outbreak of war arrived in the first days of August. By early 1915, he was back in France testing new warplanes. In 1918, word reached friends in Sydney that Guillaux had been killed flying a new aircraft the year before.