Arctic Aerial Exploration
Antarctic Exploration
Australian record flights
equal flying rights for women!
Calbraith Rogers
Cobham and Hinkler
Byrd and Bennett
Wiley Post
Amelia Earhart
Howard Hughes
Kingsford Smith
Amy Johnson
Beryl Markham
Italo Balbo
Jimmy Doolittle

Alan Cobham and Bert Hinkler

Alan Cobham

Bert Hinkler

Born on May 6, 1894, Alan Cobham came from a simple English farm family and did not particularly distinguish himself as a member of the Royal Flying Corps in World War I. After the war, he became a test pilot for de Havilland and promoted the line of light D.H. planes that culminated in the famous de Havilland Moth models. It was in a precursor of the Moth (a D.H. 50J) that he made a flight from London to Cape Town in November 1925, and then from London to Melbourne and back between June 30 and October 1, 1926, a flight that covered nearly twenty-seven thousand miles (43,443km).

One of the great path finding aviators, Alan Cobham (wearing a white flight suit, flanked by his mechanics), completed several historic long-distance flights in the 1920s that made him a household name in England.

Cobham returned to London amid cheering crowds, dramatically landing his seaplane on the Thames next to Parliament. Neither the flight to Cape Town nor the one to Australia were the first of their kind, but they were impressive because they demonstrated the reliability of airplane transportation and the effectiveness of careful planning.

Neither the London—Australia flight of the Smith brothers in 1919 nor the London—Cape Town flight of Van Ryneveld and Brand in 1920 convinced governments or airlines that routine air transportation between these points was feasible. Cobham’s flights accomplished this, and serious international flights over long distance (in many countries, not just from England) began after Cobham’s flights.

The flight to Australia had been anything but routine. While flying over Iraq, a sandstorm forced Cobham to fly low. Bedouins, probably seeing their first airplane, shot at it and hit Arthur Elliott, Cobham’s co-pilot and long-time friend. Cobham made an emergency landing in Basra and Elliott was taken to a hospital, but he died the next day. This incident underscored the dangers of flying over unknown territory; that Cobham’s flight was able to convince people that flying was practical in spite of Elliott’s death was a tribute to Cobham’s planning and perseverance.

Cobham is shown here returning to London from one such historical flight, to Australia and back. Another of his flights was to Cape Town, South Africa.

Cobham’s next project was to survey the coast of Africa from the air (filming from an open cockpit) in preparation for commercial flights to African, Asian, and South American destinations. He then toured England, sponsoring National Aviation Day exhibitions that entertained and informed the public on the benefits of air transportation. Cobham became a proponent of in-flight refuelling, founding a company that became the world leader in the development of that technology. He died in 1973 at the age of seventy-nine, after a distinguished career in aviation.

Refuelling Alan Cobham's Airspeed Courier G-ABXN from Handley Page W10, 1934

From the close of the war right through Cobham’s flight, one man was determined to fly solo from England to Australia, but no one seemed of a mind to let him. He was a short Australian named Bert Hinkler and he had served in the Royal Naval Air Service during the war.

When flying to Australia became an official challenge sponsored by the Australian government and supervised by the Royal Aero Club, Hinkler proposed to make the flight solo in a Sopwith Dove biplane he convinced the Sopwith Company to lend him. The Aero Club sanctioned some attempts— and eventually the Smiths claimed the prize amid fierce competition—but two fliers were not accepted as entrants: Bert Hinkler, because the Club did not believe it possible to make the long flight solo; and Charles Kingsford- Smith, because he proposed to reach Australia by crossing the Pacific, and the Aero Club did not believe that possible either.

Sopwith withdrew the plane when Hinkler did not qualify, so the Australian flier spent the next few years test flying Avro planes and eventually saved up enough to buy an Avro Baby, a small plane with a 35-horse- power engine. He attempted his solo flight to Australia in May 1920, but had to abandon his plan in Italy because hostilities in the Middle East made that part of the world impassable.

Four years later, Hinkler now considered an accomplished aerobatic flier and racer, bought an Avro Avian, a slightly larger plane (still less than half a ton un-fuelled) that could be outfitted with extra fuel tanks. Knowing his solo run to Australia would not be sanctioned (or even permitted), Hinkler took off from Croydon, England, on the morning of February 7, 1928, virtually in secret.

His wife, an Avro executive, and two passers-by were the only witnesses. Hinkler made the London-to-Rome flight in record time—thirteen hours—but was arrested when he mistakenly landed at a military air field. Bailed out by the British Consul, he continued the next morning, stopping in Malta, Libya, India, Burma, and Singapore, and establishing speed records between London and all those destinations along the way. (It was a great feat of flying stamina and navigation, but Hinkler would always claim, ingenuously, that his most important piece of equipment was his alarm clock.)

By the time he reached Southeast Asia, news had spread of Hinkler’s flight and a huge throng was waiting in Darwin to greet him. He reached Australia in fifteen days, nearly halving the time it had taken the Smiths (along essentially the same route). He was paraded through the streets of Darwin and Brisbane, and awarded medals and cash by the Australian government. The flight had proved to be more than a stunt. It showed that a carefully laid-out plan and solid technical flying could put the Australian continent within two to three weeks from England, a short jaunt in that era.

arrival in Australia

Hinkler, by nature a shy man, became an international celebrity, inspiring fashions, dishes, and even dance steps. He hit the headlines again in 1931 when he flew a de Havilland Puss Moth in the first solo flight across the South Atlantic and the first east-west crossing from Brazil to Senegal, West Africa. Again, he kept his intentions secret (and again he was detained by authorities, this time the Brazilians, who found his papers not in order). Hinkler died in January 1933 in Italy while attempting to set a new England—Australia speed record.

Bert Hinkler poses in front of his famous Avro Avian.