Sundowner of the Skies

Oscar Garden: Sundowner of the Skies


I began writing about my father in 2005. At the beginning I thought I had enough material for a single feature. But to date I’ve had 19 articles published, with one scheduled for The Aviation Historian sometime soon. And I have ended up writing a book, Oscar Garden: Sundowner of the Skies. This has taken years of research. I gave up on it all for some years and went back to university and did a PhD, but returned to it a few years ago.  I hope to have it published in 2019.


Here is a synopsis:

This is my story of my father, Oscar Garden (1903-1997). He was once a famous aviator and achieved notoriety in 1930 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 had 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.

I don’t ever remember loving my father. I hated him and feared him. Many nights as a child I would curl up under the sheets and weep for what seemed hours, praying to Jesus to please help me, but he never came. I also hid a lot – under bushes, in the long grass, in caves down on the beach. I couldn’t wait to grow up, to leave home, and to get right away from the mad Gardens. 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 book is also the story of an unsung hero. 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 to aviation. 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. 

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.