Wrigley and Murphy
Australia’s first transcontinental
1969 postage stamp commemorating the flight
This publication is part of our action to commemorate the centenary of the first flight from England to Australia (November 12 to December 10, 1919). This feat, performed by Ross and Keith Smith, Jim Bennett and Wally Shiers, is rightly regarded as one of the greatest pioneering flights of all time, and it is great to see that it is getting the attention it deserves.
The major commemorative event
commemorating the centenary of the 1919 air race is an event involving electric
and hybrid aircraft, as described on the website https://www.greatairrace.com.au/ .
Aircraft will leave from Biggin Hill (UK) and arrive in Darwin on 10 December
In Adelaide, the History Trust of
South Australia CEO Greg Mackie OAM leads a group who are also working towards
commemorative activities in 2019-20. A principal aim is to ensure more
appropriate display of the Smiths’ Vickers Vimy aircraft, for example within
the planned new terminal at Adelaide airport.
The Aviation Historical Society of Australia (NSW) has suggested that, as well as these events, the flight from Darwin to Adelaide should also be commemorated. A committee has been formed and stands ready to assist.
Contact can be made
by email firstname.lastname@example.org
or phone Tom Lockley
, 0403 615 134.
printing February 2019,
Aviation Historical Society of Australia (NSW) Inc
Box 301 Pyrmont NSW 2009
After the Vickers Vimy reached Darwin, the onward flight across Australia was not an official part of the original challenge, but for the crew and indeed for the nation as a whole it was an essential part of the journey. This section occupied over 20% of the total distance covered. Maps for much of the area were very rudimentary and much of the area was very sparsely populated: excluding the First Nation peoples, there were only about four thousand other inhabitants of the entire Northern Territory. The dreaded ‘rainy season’ was approaching. Even more worrying was the state of the Vimy: the Rolls Royce Eagle engines required a major overhaul after 100 hours, and by the time the Smiths had reached Darwin they had already done 147 hours. A propeller, damaged when it hit an eagle near Calcutta, was causing concern.
Realising that the Australian stage of the flight was indeed a major undertaking, many preparations had been made by the Government and the race organisers. On the instructions of London-based organisers, Hudson Fysh and ‘P J’ McGinness were sent to explore a route around the north of Australia, and they made an epic journey from Burketown, basically along the Gulf of Carpentaria to Elsey Station south of Katherine. The journey effectively proved that this route was quite impractical.
A route from the railhead at Cloncurry to Newcastle Waters was much preferable. It had almost certainly been suggested by Dr Griffith Taylor, University of Melbourne meteorologist who had lectured at Point Cook during 1918.
The route had been explored by a group organised by Reginald Lloyd, a businessman who in January 1919 had proposed the establishment of an airline to Britain. Only a few members of this expedition, mounted on Indian motorcycles, had reached Darwin on August 2, 1919. Steps were immediately taken to organise fuel and lubricant supplies for the air race along this route: this was relatively easy at towns served by the railway, but the Cloncurry to Newcastle Waters stages had to be supplied by motor transport, a mighty task.
It was decided to send an aircraft from Point Cook to test the route. This booklet is a very basic description of this remarkable flight, which ranks among the really great Australian pioneering aviation achievements. Time was pressing: Ross and Keith Smith were in Italy, en route to Darwin. So Royal Aircraft Factory BE2e serial number B6183 set off from Point Cook, Victoria, on 16 November. The aircraft was actually of pre-war design, received at Point Cook in September 1918, but the best available for the purpose. It had been quickly fitted with an extra fuel tank and carried a number of spare parts.
Melbourne aero historian Kevin O’Reilly has acquired photocopies of Henry Wrigley’s handwritten notes on the flight, and they are fascinating documents. They give the pilot of 1919, following railway lines, rivers and other landmarks, the basic information they need to navigate.
I have added material from other sources, principally the Trove archives, to produce this tribute to an amazing flying feat, which has never received the attention it deserves.
Tom Lockley, February
Distances shown are approximations based on the actual likely route followed each day: railways or overland telegraph where available, or rivers. Where these were not available cattle tracks or other landmarks were followed: see Ross Smith’s comment on page 40. We know that the total flight time was 50 hours 45 minutes, giving an average speed of around 80 km/h.
This booklet deals with the first aerial crossing of the Australian continent, November-December 1919 and is based around the handwritten survey report produced by Henry Wrigley (right, in picture). With Arthur ‘Spud’ Murphy (left), he made the first aerial crossing of the Australian continent, piloting an obsolescent BE2e trainer from Melbourne to Darwin to survey the route which was to be used by aircraft in the historic England to Australia air race. Much of the route was unexplored; most of it was unfamiliar to airmen and in many areas communications were extremely limited. Both airmen were awarded the Air Force Cross for this achievement, and the postage stamp seen on the title page was issued on the fiftieth anniversary of the flight in 1969.
Henry Wrigley (1892-1987), born in Melbourne, was an early graduate from the Central Flying School, Point Cook, in 1916. In September 1917 he went to England with 3 Squadron RAAF and flew RE8 aircraft on reconnaissance missions over the Western Front. He became a flight commander and temporary squadron commander. He was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross (1919) for ‘exceptional devotion to duty’, citing a particular very successful bombing attack near Ors, France, on 29 October 1918, in which he flew at very low level in the face of intense enemy machine-gun and rifle fire.
When the Royal Australian Air Force was formed on 31 March 1921, Wrigley became one of the service’s original twenty-one officers. He had a long and distinguished career, culminating in his appointment, as Air Commodore, first being officer commanding, Southern Area, overseeing the RAAF’s by-now vast expansion plan. The RAAF was to grow rapidly from some 3500 employees at the beginning of the war to about 170 000 at its peak strength in 1944. He was promoted to acting air vice marshal on 1 April 1941 and appointed CBE that year.
In February 1943 he became air officer commanding, RAAF Overseas Headquarters, London, being the immensely popular leader of the thousands of RAAF airmen who served in Europe and North Africa. He retired (reluctantly) from the RAAF in June 1946, and remained active in civic affairs until his death in September 1987 He is respected as a theorist and historian of air power, his most important work being The Decisive Factor: Air Power Doctrine, published in 1979.
Arthur Murphy (1891-1963) also from Melbourne, trained at Point Cook as air mechanic, and became highly skilled in this field. He trained as a pilot in Egypt with the Royal Flying Corps, and in 1918 served with 1 Squadron AFC in Palestine. He also was awarded a DFC and also the Hejaz Order of Nahda, reflecting his role in supporting the irregular Hejaz forces associated with T E Lawrence.
He joined the Royal Australian Air Force after its formation in 1921. He continued in technical and flying roles, making several pioneering flights including a formation flight around Australia in 1927. He was associated with the build-up of the RAAF prior to World War II, including the manufacture of the Wirraway and the Beaufort. This work continued during the war, and he reached the rank of air commodore in 1943—a striking achievement for a man who had enlisted as a trainee air mechanic. His contribution to aviation was recognized by his election as a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society. He left the RAAF in January 1946[RL1] .
The departure of the aircraft had been delayed for some days because of a series of engine failures, but on Sunday 16 November everything went well and the airmen had a very successful flight – in fact this was the longest single-day flight that had been made in Australia.
Captain Wrigley, accompanied by Sergeant Murphy as mechanic, landed at Cootamundra yesterday, en route for Port Darwin. Captain Wrigley, who is surveying the aerial route, was using the type of machine which he used as instructor in England, after flying it in Mesopotamia. This morning at 7 they left for Forbes.
In one part of the journey a lonely 900 miles have to be covered and, as the machine can only carry 500miles' petrol, arrangements have to be made for the stuff to be carried over that section.
From Point Cook to Cootamundra was a non-stop run of 300 miles, which was covered in 4 hours 5 minutes, claimed to be the Australian record.
Cootamundra Herald, 17 November 1919
The coming of the railway to Forbes in 1893 enabled it to develop as a rich agricultural centre.
There was one forced landing at Wyanger (sic), between Forbes and Narromine, due to engine troubles.
Daily Mail, Brisbane, 15 December 1919.
Narromine was one of a number of places that were set up as fuel and oil depots for the air race and, as is seen in the text, Henry Wrigley was pleased with the assistance he received. Lieutenant Dibbs was an officer from Point Cook.
(From Narromine Aviation Museum website)
Aeroplane Arrives in Bourke: CAPTAIN WRIGLEY WELCOMED.
For some days the town has been in great expectancy of witnessing the arrival of an aeroplane in Bourke. Official news stated that Captain Wrigley had left Nyngan at about 9.30 on Friday morning last and long before the time of arrival a large number of residents assembled at the Railway Station to witness him land on the specially prepared ground. Just a few minutes before 11 o'clock the cry went up "There he is!" and the plane could be observed in the southeast, just like the miniatures that hang in the shop windows. The plane gradually lowered and after circling the town landed right opposite the Railway Station at 11 o'clock. His Worship the Mayor (Alderman H K Bloxham) welcomed Captain Wrigley (aviator) and Sergeant Murphy (mechanic) on their visit to Bourke.
The Mayor gave a resume of the development of conveyance to Bourke. First the bullock teams over mountains and plains, taking months from Sydney and Newcastle. … then the railway reached Bourke on September 3rd, 1885. … Then came the motorcars. The first one seen by him was one driven by Mr. Russell Barton junior, and it was a wonder to us all for some weeks. When gradually they became plentiful, and are now to be seen whipping along all our roads, kicking up the dust and perfuming the air. From the eight miles a day bullock team to the 30 miles an hour motor car was a big step. An illustration of how great a step it was given a couple of days ago, when a motor overtook the train at Nyngan an hour and a half after it left Bourke. Now comes the aeroplane.
This can travel at anything from 60 to 120 miles per hour. The nonstop journey from Bourke to Sydney could be made in about five hours. (Captain Wrigley: "About seven hours") The Mayor expressed himself as greatly pleased at welcoming the Pioneer of aviation Captain Wrigley, and of the flight of the first aeroplane that he (the Mayor) had ever seen.
Captain Wrigley briefly returned thanks for the welcome. The work he was on was Government survey work. He intended to proceed to Cloncurry and if possible to Port Darwin. Right throughout the day the aeroplane was an object of public inspection. The aeroplane is a BE2e and is rather an old machine. It consumes 8 gallons of benzine an hour. The propellers consist of four huge blades about six feet long. The altitude of flight from Nyngan was 5000 feet the time was just 1½ hours, an average of about 84 miles per hour.
On Saturday morning at a quarter to 8 o'clock, the aeroplane rose and after circling the town a number of times left north for Barringun which we learn was reached at a speed of about 80 miles an hour. This first aeroplane was without a doubt a novelty to us all, but as the aviators from England will pass through Bourke we will have plenty of opportunities of studying them. One peculiar fault about the planes is that they can not hover or stand still in the air, but must glide about. No doubt this will later on be overcome. It is stated that an aeroplane when a mile high in the air, has a view for 90 miles in any direction.
Western Herald (Bourke, 26 November 1919, page 2)
Another very simple map!
The wool industry in Bourke was greatly facilitated by the arrival of paddle steamers up the Darling River from Victoria and South Australia in 1869. The NSW government built the railway to Bourke as quickly as possible, and by 1885 the line was complete.
Powerhouse Museum collection.
For the first time the route left the railway line, and river beds were good natural markers to be used wherever possible. On this occasion it was necessary to go across country for about 60 miles.
Left: Barringun to Cunnamulla (about 150 km): right Cunnamulla to Charleville (about 200 km). Reports from these areas in the national press were scanty because there were no newspapers in Barringun and Cunnamulla, and information was sent by telegram. The Queensland rail network began at Cunnamulla.
Western Herald 24 November 1919
Darling Downs Gazette, 25 November 1919
The BE2e at Charleville. The wooden box contained two four-gallon tins of fuel and was the standard method of sending petrol or kerosene to remote areas.
The source for this picture is not known. Engine repairs were made here, taking one day.
Right: refuelling the Vimy at Glengarry, 25 December 1919. Shortly after, the Vimy had a major engine failure.
The Google Earth image shows the area between the two river systems.
is to the north if the river, and the airstrips are
surrounded by trees.
There are no sketch maps between Blackall and Winton. The
airmen most probably followed a road route linking the railheads, now the
Again, the airmen did not have a railway or river to follow, so the sketch maps simply detail the areas around Winton and Cloncurry.
CAPTAIN WRIGLEY AT CLONCURRY (Cloncurry, December 2.)
Captain Wrigley arrived at Cloncurry on Sunday morning by aeroplane at 10.45. The sky was clear, the day being an ideal one for the sightseer.
When first detected, the aviator was flying at a height of over 5000 ft, a little east of Cloncurry. He circled and passed practically over the town, and then swerved to the north, where a landing place bad been cleared by Lieutenant McGuiness.
After gyrating a couple of times, he made a gentle landing, the plane only running about 50 yards. The aviators were greeted with a cheer, the plane being the first to arrive at Cloncurry. An immense crowd was present to witness the descent. The journey from Winton to Cloncurry, a distance of 240 miles, occupied 2½ hours. Until Kynuna was reached, heavy head winds prevailed, but after that it was plain sailing to Cloncurry. Captain Wrigley is well pleased with the journey right through.
He only experienced slight engine trouble at Charleville, this causing delay He expects to remain at Cloncurry for five days, and then, if all arrangements are made will start for Darwin, via Avon Downs, Anthony's Lagoon, and the Katherine River. The machine is at present being overhauled at a garage here. Miss Hensley received a letter from Captain Wrigley, the first to be sent by aeroplane to Cloncurry tonight.
Captain Wrigley and Lieutenant Murphy were entertained by the citizens last night and were presented with a gold medal as a memento of the occasion, Captain Wrigley said that in the near future he expected to see Cloncurry one of the principal aeroplane bases in Queensland with two or more hangars.
He considered the site chosen a good one. He had gained useful information all along the route which would be most beneficial to aviators in the future.
Brisbane Courier, 3 December 1919
The aircraft needed major work at Cloncurry, and the railway workshops were used, under the direction of Arthur Murphy.
Engine valves had been burnt out, and Murphy used a metal lathe to make new valves, using a car rear axle. The production of such complex items is a remarkable achievement. They carried a spare cylinder for the RAF (later known as the Royal Aeronautical Establishment) 100 hp engine.
A similar event occurred in the Ross and Keith Smith flight. Following a catastrophic engine failure at Charleville on Christmas Day, 1919. The engine was shipped to the Railway Workshops at Ipswich, where new parts were made, and the aircraft continued its journey on 12 February 1920.
When they left
Melbourne they could get no map of the Territory, but Captain MacGuinness (sic) met
them at Cloncurry, and supplied them with a somewhat out-of-date and misleading
map, the only one available, and the information he had gathered in travelling
overland by motor car. A mistake in the map led them out of their way, and they
had to land at Alexandra instead of going on to Anthony's Lagoon, (sic) much to
the delight of Mr. Holt, of the Alexandra station, who danced with joy at being
the first man in the Territory to welcome an aviator. The next stage was
Anthony's Lagoon, and then they came, with stops at Avon Downs and Newcastle
Waters, to the Katherine’.
(Sydney Morning Herald, 13 December 1919).
At Anthony Lagoon there was a police station and permanent water, and this became a very important stop for the Smiths’ Vickers Vimy.
Between Camooweal and Newcastle Waters is a vast area of open downs country that is uninhabited, trackless, without communications, and at the time of our flight, practically waterless. The only available map of the country between Camooweal and Darwin was absolutely useless in many respects, and features had to be marked on it as we proceeded. As an example of the inaccuracies, a river was shown crossing the track at right angles in the same direction. From our height we were able to see that about two miles after crossing the track it turned sharply, and ran parallel to the track for over 30 miles. There were many faults of this kind, and we corrected them to the best of our ability. Practically the only landmarks were the scrub belts, and these we marked on the map so as to be of use to pilots flying over this route in the future. (Wrigley interview with Newcastle Sun, 16 August 1920)
There are no more of Captain Wrigley’s maps, surely models of minimalism, but giving entirely adequate information to the user. From Camooweal to the Overland Telegraph line, there are no useful rivers or other features. Ross Smith describes, in “14.000 Miles Through the Air”, how the navigation over this area was carried out:
There was nothing on our map to guide us, but the stockmen in Port Darwin told us that if we flew southeast from Newcastle Waters for about 100 miles we would see two large patches of scrub which almost met each other in the form of a V. Then if we went down low, we would see the tracks of a mob of cattle that they had driven over there a few months previously. A few miles further on we would come onto a rough bush road that led on toward Cloncurry.
This ‘rather novel’ form of navigation worked quite well.
The ensuing maps are my versions of Wrigley’s map style, as I found then very clear. I cannot duplicate the neatness, and to indicate the route I have had to use modern roads, which may be of considerable inaccuracy. Where there are doubts about spelling I have used the modern spelling in these maps.
The BE2 at Avon Downs: a rare photo from the flight (AWM-ADB serials)
The modern Avon Downs (Google Earth). Note the airstrip, an essential part of Northern Territory life.
The aircraft at Newcastle Waters.
The last stop, at Katherine, was the most frustrating. They had no option but to land, as they were almost out of fuel and oil. A 1978 article in the Canberra Times described the problems:
Captain Wrigley recalled, ‘They had produced the cleared ground according to the dimensions which they had been given, but the clearance of all obstacles meant no stumps or anything like that in the area. The fact that there were high trees all around didn't mean anything. They put the "T" the wrong way around and on our first attempt, when we were coming in down wind, somebody lit a fire and got some smoke going.
It was an impossible situation and I would say that having under gone a course in Special Flying at Gosport in England in 1918 we were able to put Gosport procedure into practice and get into the landing ground. We finished up with a prop between the trees. We got down all right but the question was how to get off again
The ground party set to with axes, chopped down trees and formed a lane into the prevailing wind. Two days they worked clearing the narrow runway.
This delay meant that they would not be the first aircraft to arrive in Darwin. The Vimy had arrived on November 10. On November 12, at 8am, they took off from Katherine. The aircraft had been lightened as much as possible, carrying only enough fuel for the journey.
With barely a foot or two between the wing tips and the trees, the B. E. roared down the makeshift runway and took off with about three feet clearance above the bush that still stood at the end of the lane.
This is the last of Wrigley’s reports:
The two hundred miles to Darwin was covered in two and a half hours, and at half-past ten, some time before it was expected, the machine made a very pretty landing on the ground at Fannie Bay, and came to rest alongside the Ross-Smith aeroplane. Sydney Morning Herald, 13 December 1919,
It was, indeed, a bit of an anticlimax. Ross Smith wrote in his book “14,000 miles through the Air”: The day we left Port Darwin, Captain Wrigley and Lieutenant Murphy of the Australian Flying corps arrived from Melbourne in an old BE2e machine. They had come up to meet us and had achieved a remarkable performance in having flown so far in a machine four years old.
In the Argus of 15 January Ross Smith outlined an itinerary that put him in Sydney within a week.
The route across Australia was the part of the voyage that he knew least about, as there seemed to be practically no maps of much of it. However he has been greatly helped by the knowledge which Captain Wrigley was able to give him of the country to be travelled.
The Vimy’s flight across Australia was not as easy as Ross had hoped, but that is another story. But there can be no doubt that as well as being an amazing achievement, Wrigley and Murphy’s flight had a considerable effect on the Smith’s flight, and on Australian Aviation history.
About 4200 km were covered at an average speed of around 80 km/hr. As the caption on this AWM photo says, the first flight across Australia by Captain H N Wrigley and Sergeant A W Murphy is virtually unsung but it proved that air travel in the Australian outback was a viable form of transport. The location for this photograph is not known with certainty.
The aircraft was allocated to the Australian War Museum but unfortunately was destroyed in a fire at the Melbourne Aquarium in 1947.