Sundowner of the Skies

Oscar Garden: Sundowner of the Skies

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I began writing about my father in 2005. At the beginning I thought I had enough material for a single feature. But I’ve had 19 articles published, with one yet to be published for The Aviation Historian (UK)And I have ended up writing a book, Sundowner of the Skies: Oscar Garden, the forgotten aviator. This has taken years of research. I gave up on it all for a while and went to university and ended up doing a PhD. Hopefully, Sundowner will be published in 2019.

Here is a synopsis:

My father, Oscar Garden (1903-1997) was once a famous aviator and achieved notoriety when he became the youngest and most inexperienced pilot to fly solo from England to Australia. In the early morning of 16 October 1930, he set out from Croydon Aerodrome in a second-hand, open-cockpit Gipsy Moth he had named Kia Ora, Maori for good luck. On his feet he wore carpet slippers and he had half a dozen sandwiches on his lap. His 18-day-flight was the third fastest after Bert Hinkler and Charles Kingsford-Smith who both had over a decade of flying experience. My father had a mere 39 flying hours. He was lucky to survive the trip as he had several forced landings including a spectacular crash in darkness near Jhansi in central India.

When he landed at Wyndham – the first to do so as other aviators had all landed at Darwin – no one was expecting him. The Australian press dubbed him ‘Sundowner of the Skies’. Sundowner describes an Australian swagman who arrives unexpectedly out of nowhere on sundown, and disappears the next morning. The name suited my father perfectly. He was forever on the move.

He was one of the few survivors of those early years of long-distance flying. After barnstorming throughout Africa and the Middle East, he settled down to a career in commercial aviation. He flew for British Airways in the mid-1930s before transferring to Imperial Airways where he learnt to fly the luxurious Short Empire flying boats. In April 1940, he delivered the second flying boat, Awarua, to Auckland for Tasman Empire Airways Limited (TEAL), the forerunner of Air New Zealand. In 1943 he became TEAL’s Chief Pilot and Operations Manager; as the ‘Boss’ of this fledging company, he steered it through its formative years. He left suddenly in 1947, three years before I was born, and became a tomato grower. He never flew a plane again.

This book is my journey of discovery. Until recently, I knew little about my father’s flying adventures or his family’s Scottish history. He seldom talked to me about anything, except to bark orders. What puzzled me was if he had been so famous, why was he forgotten? And why was he such a bastard of a father. Why didn’t my mother leave him? My journey uncovered the ghosts of his past – alcoholism, mental illness and violence; his tumultuous childhood in the far north of Scotland with his parent’s acrimonious marriage breakdown. The intergenerational trauma from this that impacted my childhood, my life. And yet digging up my father’s past was healing for me. It helped me understand in part why he became who he was.

My father’s contributions to aviation spanned almost two decades. Fellow pilots ranked his 1930 flight with the achievements of Charles Kingsford Smith, Bert Hinkler and Amy Johnson, who all died in crashes. He survived to contribute so much more. And yet what is his legacy? There is nothing, anywhere. In spite of his flaws and foibles, Oscar Garden – my odd father – is one of history’s great aviators and deserves to be remembered. 

I have been lucky enough to get these Endorsements for Sundowner:

This is a book heading toward two horizons, one to be found on the latitude of history, and another that must be navigated through the human heart. Author Mary Garden travels back through the turbulence of her own startling family history to find her father, Oscar Garden, a legend of long-distance aviation who soared through any sky but crash-landed the one-way journey of his life on earth. Garden has approached this book with the same disregard for self-preservation that saw her father fly to Australia from London in 1930 in a second hand plane with only 39 flying hours under his belt. A rattling, searing, soulful story that takes flight on the Gipsy Moth wings of the author’s relentless research and willingness to pull back every curtain of this extraordinary man’s life, sometimes at her own emotional peril. I didn’t want this trip to end.
Trent Dalton, author of best-selling novel Boy Swallows Universe. 

Oscar Garden was not just a great early flyer but a strange and lonely and self-defeating man. His daughter, Mary Garden, allows him his achievements but is clear-eyed about his failings: his almost pathological self-centredness, his hardness and cruelty as a father. Sundowner of the Skies is an important piece of aviation history and a courageous personal story, vividly told.
Maurice Gee, author of more than 40 books including Plumb long regarded as one of the finest novels ever written by a New Zealander.

 Many pilots build hours on the way to their commercial licence by flying locally, but imagine the courage of Oscar Garden deciding to gain experience by flying solo from England to Australia in 1930.  With just 39 hours of flight experience, Oscar’s achievement was extraordinary. This is a little-known story that needs to be told!
Dick Smith, business entrepreneur, record-breaking aviator and author of Earth Beneath Me.

 The story of Oscar Garden’s extraordinary career in aviation is a remarkable and historically significant one, and the time for his name to join those of his illustrious pioneering contemporaries – including Charles Kingsford Smith, Bert Hinkler, Amy Johnson and Jean Batten – is long overdue.
Nick Stroud, editor of The Aviation Historian (UK) and author of Vickers Viscount.

This is very accomplished writing, and author Mary Garden has a graceful way of moving between archival material and her own perspective. There is also a great deal of surprise and wonder on the level of narrative and storytelling.
Kristina Marie Darling, editor-in-chief of Tupelo Press (Massachusetts) and author of 30 books including Je Suis L’Autre: Essays & Interrogations.

Below are the feature articles I have written on my father's flying adventures. If you would like copies of any please email me.

  • 2013, ‘Sundowner of the Skies’, The Aviation Historian, Iss. 5, pp. 12-25.

  • 2008, ‘Flying is Good for You’, Flight Path, Vol. 19, No. 2, pp. 20-7.

  • 2007, ‘Sundowner of the Skies’, Living Orkney, Iss. 19, June, pp. 14-25

  • 2007, ‘The Plane Facts’, The Weekend Australian, February 10, Travel, p. 5.

  • 2007, ‘Tracking the Truth’, Dotlit: the online journal of creative writing, QUT, Vol. 6, Iss. 1.

  • 2007, ‘He needed a drink, but they brought him boiled eggs!’, Northern Times, January 19, p. 7.

  • 2007, ‘New motor service helped transform life in the North’, Northern Times, January 12, p. 7.

  • 2006, ‘The First Landing’, Flight Journal (Connecticut), December, pp. 42-3.

  • 2006, ‘Flying is Good for you’, LogBook, (Florida), Vol. 7, No. 4, pp. 28-33.

  • 2006, ‘Sunday Flying, Oscar Garden Charged’, New Zealand Memories, Iss. 62, October/November, pp. 14-18.

  • 2006, ‘Plane Sailing’, the Southland Times, Inform Section, February 25, pp. C1-C2.)

  • 2006, ‘Oscar for a Bay Aviator’, Bay of Plenty Times, January 11, p. 13.

  • 2005, ‘Historical Hiccups in the South Island of New Zealand’, Flightpath, Vol. 17, No. 2, pp. 28-31.

  • 2005, ‘Sundowner of the Skies’, Logbook (Florida), Vol. 6, No. 4, pp. 22-9.

  • 2005, ‘Landing on Stewart Island‘, New Zealand Geographic, No. 76, pp. 20-3.

  • 2005, ‘Flight from the Blue’, The Christchurch Press, October 15, Mainlander D7.

  • 2005, ‘When Sunday flying trips were banned’, Timaru Herald, 6 September, p. 9.

  • 2005, ‘Off on a Wing and No Fear’, Timaru Herald, 16 July, p. 21.

  • 2005, ‘To Australia on Two Spare Springs’, Otago Daily Times, July 2-3, p. 4.

  • 2005, ‘Sundowner of the Skies’, Journal of the Aviation Historical Society of Australia, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 60-3.

  • 2005, ‘Oscar Garden: An Unsung Hero’, Pacific WINGS, June, pp. 11-13.

  • 2005, ‘Sundowner of the Skies—Mary Garden takes flight with her father’, Weekend Financial Review, 24-8 March, pp. 6-7 Review section.