At last: SUNDOWNER OF THE SKIES is released!
Sundowner of the Skies was released at the end of May. How lucky to have this extract published in my favourite magazine the day after its release.
Crazy Brave, Weekend Australian Magazine, 1-2 June 2019.
By Mary Garden
In the early morning of 16 October 1930, Oscar Garden taxied his tiny second-hand Gipsy Moth across a South London aerodrome in the grey light and, with a wave of his hand to the only person there to farewell him, took off. That person was a representative of the Vacuum Oil Company, who had agreed to provide fuel supplies at his planned stops along the 12,000-mile route to Australia.
Unlike other early aviators, 27-year-old Oscar sought no publicity. On the day he left, The Sun wrote:
A young man landed on Croydon airport in a light plane yesterday afternoon and from it stepped a young man who announced his intention of starting at 4 am today, on a flight to Australia. After stating that his name was Oscar Garden and that his home was in Christchurch, New Zealand, he climbed back into his machine and flew away. Aerodrome officials have no idea where he came from.
This was the first anyone knew of his intentions, apart from Vacuum Oil Company who had agreed to keep his plan secret. A reporter managed to get in contact with Oscar’s sister May, in Christchurch, who told him she had received a letter from him a week ago, but he had made no mention of the flight. Oscar was always on the move – born in Scotland he had spent time in England, Australia and New Zealand, where he finally settled. May said her brother had unusual determination and initiative. ‘He’s always done everything he said he would, and unless he has bad luck I’m sure he’ll get through.’
Oscar said he tried to keep his date of departure secret from his family and friends, as he did not want to be talked out of going. He had visited his mother Rebecca, a fortnight before, but had not told her of his plans. She told a newspaper, ‘He kissed me, and flew into the sky like a bird. I was nearly ill when I read in the paper that he had left Croydon. He is well named “the mystery man” for he tells nothing of his movements, and is full of daredevilry… [but] I am proud of my boy. He neither drinks nor smokes’. She was also concerned he was not wearing a hat.
When First Officer Reginald James Bunning, his flying instructor, found out about his plan he said Oscar was foolhardy and didn’t have a hope in Hades. Bunning had a point. Oscar was a novice. He had been flying for only three months and had a mere 40 hours solo flying experience. His longest flight to date had been about five hours.
Around this time a number of aviators were competing in an unofficial England to Australia air race, determined to attack Bert Hinkler’s record. Oscar decided to join the race, just to see if he could make the distance, it seems. To stand any chance he would have to do 15 or 16 hours a day; his longest flight had only been between five and six hours. It is difficult today to imagine the courage, endurance and foolhardiness of pioneer aviators. Apart from the compass they had no instruments and relied on dead reckoning and their own wits. They had to fly at low level through turbulence, dust storms and the darkness of tropical storms. They would sit hunched up in their tiny cramped open cockpits for hours at a time with no protection from the weather.
Oscar got off to a bad start. After leaving Croydon on that first day, poor weather and fog forced him down at Lympne, near Folkestone. This meant that his official departure from England was not until the next day, the 17th October, when he set off at 6.18 am. The weather conditions were not ideal as a southerly breeze was blowing banks of fog in from the sea. By the time he reached Munich, 9.5 hours later, he began to question whether the whole thing was such a good idea: ‘Whatever am I doing. I must be mad.’ When it was time to leave Munich, the journey almost ended there. The usual procedure to start his plane was to stand in front and turn the propeller. But when he tried this time, the plane suddenly ‘became alive, plunging and buckling like a runaway horse’. “…I called to a German mechanic and he grabbed the wing, while I tried to climb aboard. But…I saw the ‘prop’ coming straight for me, and I fell face down on the ground. It passed directly over me, as did one of the wheels.” When he staggered to his feet, he was hit by the other wing tip and knocked to the ground. The German mechanic let go in a panic and another dashed in to steady the plane while Oscar, dazed, climbed along the wing into the cockpit and turned off the throttle. Even after he was checked by a doctor, the German police tried to persuade him to remain there a day to rest but he decided to push on.
Miraculously, 18 days after leaving Croydon – surviving several forced landings including a spectacular crash in darkness near Jhansi in central India - he landed at Wyndham Aerodrome in WA at nightfall. Nobody at Wyndham was expecting him. When Stanley Brown, a pilot for Western Australian Airways heard the sound of a plane overhead he quickly drove out to the airstrip. He was stunned to find Oscar standing on a drum doing engine maintenance. His first request was for a cigarette; he would have needed one. That last perilous leg over the Timor Sea had been in his mind from the outset. As he said: ‘There was no doubt that every aviator coming to Australia must have a certain amount of dread of the last long, lonely hop over the sea in a one-engined machine’. Oscar had no life-jacket or inflatable dingy.
Rebecca was relieved to hear her son had landed safely in Australia. ‘Thank God it’s over. I am delighted with the performance. My boy has done what he set out to do. I did not sleep on Monday night, wondering how my only son was faring.’
The flight captured the world’s imagination. With few preparations for the long journey, he had given ‘the impression he was just setting out on a short pleasure trip’. It was commenced without blare of trumpets, and the wires were not burned up to report its progress to the world. He became the fifth aviator – and the youngest and most inexperienced - to complete a solo flight from England to Australia. His flight was the third fastest after veteran pioneer aviators Charles Kingsford Smith (10 days in 1930) and Bert Hinkler (15 days in 1928).
Until I embarked on this journey to write a book of my father’s life, I knew little about his flying days. He seldom talked to me about anything, except to bark orders. He commanded our family as if he was still the captain of a flying boat. When he was alive the idea that someone might write a book about him came up in conversation and he seemed quite keen on the idea. In 1992 I wrote an article, essentially an overview of his flying years, and sent a draft for my father to check. He was chuffed and scribbled a few corrections in pencil in various places. I posted the final version to the Sydney Morning Herald and was taken aback at the reply: “…Unfortunately, the SMH doesn’t publish fiction.’
In 2005 I decided to have another go, though my father was gone: he died in 1997, I had left it too late to talk to him about his life. I was still curious about his 1930 flight and so I wrote a long-form feature article and submitted it to The Australian Financial Review which went on to publish it. There was a huge response. I received emails from people all over the world. Deepak Somar, a retired pilot for Air India, said, ‘I consider your father’s solo flight from England to Australia in 1930 the single most sustained feat of courage in aviation, since he had little flying experience, he did the maintenance himself, and navigated with just an old-fashioned compass. It would make a good movie.’ Ian Mackersey, a New Zealand writer acclaimed for his deeply researched and revelational biographies, including those of aviators Jean Batten and Charles Kingsford Smith, wrote: ‘He was a remarkable man. Because he was so low-key about it, his aviation career is little known here.’
Of those who survived those early years of long-distance flying, Oscar was one of a handful who went on to a career in commercial aviation. In 1943 he became Chief Pilot and Operations Manager of the fledgling airline Tasman Empire Airways Limited, the forerunner to Air New Zealand. He left TEAL in 1947, three years before I was born and became a tomato grower. He never flew a plane again. After that he was soon forgotten.
In 1979 Ian Driscoll, a noted aviation writer, pointed out that Oscar Garden must be the most unnoticed of New Zealand’s airline pioneers. What puzzled me was that if he had been that famous and successful, why was he forgotten? In spite of his flaws and foibles, Oscar Garden – my odd father – is one of history’s great aviators. He deserves to be remembered.
Edited extract from Sundowner of the Skies, the Story of Oscar Garden - the Forgotten Aviator, by Mary Garden (New Holland, $29.99).