Belmont Park racecourse, Friday 10 December 1915. A visiting pressman from the Perth-based Daily News clambers into the cockpit of the first aeroplane built in Western Australia. His purpose? To explain to his readers ‘how it feels to fly’.
Sitting behind him, the pilot finishes adjusting the array of controls at his disposal and gives the order: “Let her jig, John.”
A man heaves at the propeller, the engine roars and the machine surges forward. The pressman sits back anxiously and takes in every detail as the aeroplane takes off.
His 1,800-word article is published the next day. It is full of loving detail, describing the aerial view of Perth as a ‘picture never to be forgotten’, the surprising noise of the engine as a ‘mixture of cyclone and machine gun bombardment’ and a sudden, small gust of wind knocking the aeroplane ‘like the kick of a ten horse power mule’.
It isn’t enough to stir interest from the public.
The fundraising exhibition planned for that afternoon has a disappointing attendance. The receipts totalling £50 won’t even cover the cost of transporting the aeroplane by train from its birthplace in Kalgoorlie.
In fact, continuing costs and damage to the aeroplane will soon force it to be mothballed – making this one if its last flights.
Building the Kalgoorlie biplane
In the early 1900s, Australia, like many other nations around the world, was beginning to invest in the powered flying machine first realised by Orville and Wilbur Wright’s successful 12-second flight over Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903.
But these developments were being made in the eastern states. There were no plans to build any aeroplanes in WA.
That changed in 1912 when Paul Jentsch, Roy Burton and Walter Peters, mechanical engineering apprentices from the Kalgoorlie (now the Curtin WA) School of Mines, first dreamed of building their own fleet. They were joined the following year by Albert Edward ‘Jack’ Geere, an English pilot in his mid-20s, who at the time was believed to be the only licenced pilot in the state.
The four men contacted others in the gold mining town and formed the Kalgoorlie Aero Syndicate, a group of 20 men who each had an equal share in £500 in capital. The syndicate eventually made contact with the British War Office and obtained plans for a two-seater tractor biplane. These plans were redrawn by Jentsch, who was a skilled draftsman.
The engine was bought secondhand from a crashed monoplane in New South Wales, while steel sheets and planks of hickory were used to build the frame. Construction began in 1914 and took almost 12 months to complete.
It was the first aeroplane built in WA.
Early appearance and test flights
On Monday 26 April 1915, the syndicate displayed the finished frame in the Kalgoorlie Town Hall. More than 300 attendees entered the hall on opening night to inspect the frame, with their admission fees helping the syndicate recover some of their spent money.
For most, if not all, attendees this was their first time ever seeing an aeroplane. The then-mayor H. W. Davidson was particularly excited, reportedly testifying ‘in most eulogistic terms to the energy and ability of the syndicate members to whom enterprise and ability stood as a monument …’ Many attendees also went to Geere’s lectures on aviation.
The following week, the syndicate moved to a large field near the neighbouring town of Coolgardie, where they made their final adjustments. The Royal Aero Society of WA reports that Geere once landed the biplane on Bayley Street (the stretch of Great Eastern Highway as it passes through Coolgardie) and tied it to a veranda post at the local hotel, where the astounded townspeople gave him and his fellow syndicate members free meals and drinks.
The Kalgoorlie Biplane came down on her nose with only a broken propeller, 1915 (photo credit: State Library of Western Australia slwa_b3032516_3).
By mid-June 1915, the syndicate decided to fly the biplane back to Kalgoorlie, with the hope of making a full return on investment with a fundraising exhibition. But the engine failed halfway between the two towns and the biplane crashed on its nose. With remarkable luck, only the propeller was broken and Geere escaped injury.
Later, the syndicate arranged for the biplane to be placed on a lorry, but the horses towing it spooked and knocked the biplane into a telegraph pole, damaging it heavily.
A letter written by one of the then-teachers at the Kalgoorlie School of Mines:
“Several students took part in the biplane which was built in Kalg at this time. It was displayed in the Town Hall and afterwards flown from Kalg to Coolgardie. It came down (safely but damaged on the return flight). It was flown by a chap from England named Geere (also of motor bike fame). One student Paul Yaentsch took a prominent part in the job – another … constructed the laminated propeller. We were very proud of it.”
The lady passenger
Four months after the crash, the syndicate raised enough funds to repair the biplane and returned to Kalgoorlie racecourse to stage their fundraising flights.
One of the biplane’s most well-known flights happened on Monday October 25 1915 after the syndicate auctioned a flight for a ‘lady passenger’. This was won by a Mr J. J. Brown of Boulder, who gifted it to his 17-year-old daughter.
According to an article published 2,000 kilometres away in the Barrier Miner in Broken Hill, New South Wales, Miss Brown quickly became scared. Her actions, which she later denied, caused Geere to crash the plane and in doing so dent the engine cowls and break the propeller, landing axle and lower wing:
“Mr. Geere states that his passenger early showed signs of nervousness, and soon became almost hysterical. Above the sound of the engine he could hear her screaming “Let me out”, at which he felt some concern, and handled the machine with the utmost caution to allay her fears. The aeronaut … was back over the far home turn of the racecourse when the biplane was struck by a gust of wind. ‘This suddenly lifted the right wing,’ said Mr. Geere. … ‘It is a common occurrence, but it put the finishing touch on the girl’s agitation. … I thought she would jump out and I leaned forward, at the same time taking my feet off the lever controlling the rudder, and held her back in the seat.’”
Barrier Miner 5 November 1915, p. 1.
Trip to Perth
In under a month, the syndicate had repaired the damage to the best of their ability and loaded the plane onto a Perth-bound train, stopping at Northam along the way for further fundraising flights and eventually arriving at Belmont Park racecourse.
In fact, when the pressman from Perth’s Daily News viewed the plane, he enthused, “The whole of every portion of the machine was down to the most trivial detail. On every hand is evidence to be found that her makers were not working for gold, but for very love of the labor.”
The last reported passenger was Michael ‘Mac’ de Pedro, the proprietor of the Alhambra Bars on Barrack Street, who was fixated on the plane. The Aviation Heritage Museum states that Geere once flew from Belmont to the Esplanade to escape de Pedro, but the Spanish emigrant tailed him with his car.
Geere ended up rewarding de Pedro’s persistence with a free flight.
Sometime after de Pedro’s flight, a crack in the engine worsened beyond repair and the syndicate decided to mothball the machine in early 1916.
Its propeller was donated to de Pedro, who displayed it in the Alhambra Bars on Barrack Street (now known as 43 Below). Sometime after his death in 1929, it was donated to the Royal Aero Club of WA. It is now displayed in the club house near Jandakot Airport.
The fuselage came into the hands of the Aviation Heritage Museum of Western Australia in 1929 and was displayed in the Centenary of Perth Parade that year. It was eventually donated to the WA Museum but does not survive today.
After it was donated, many of the men volunteered to fight for the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in World War One. Of the original four:
- Paul Jentsch obtained his engineering diploma and draftsman certificate, and then moved to Sydney. He was killed in a motoring accident in 1917.
- Roy Burton served in the AIF as a mechanic. He later became a pilot in Egypt but was severely wounded. He was discharged and returned to Australia.
- Walter Peters worked as a contractor for gun manufacturer Vickers and Maxim in England. He later returned home to work in Perth’s Government Printing works.
- Jack Geere was assigned to the Australian Flying Corp, rising to the rank of captain. He was discharged on medical grounds in October 1918 and returned to Australia, where he later married. He died in 1951.
Honouring the past
For current Director of the WA School of Mines, Professor Sam Spearing, who first learned about the biplane from the Mayor of Kalgoorlie-Boulder two years ago, the story of the syndicate is a reminder about the importance of innovation, courage and fortitude.
“This is what universities strive to instil in their own students and staff,” he says.
“The more I find out about the background of the builders, the more inspiring the story becomes as they persisted with a tiny budget and few resources and support.”
In fact, after his chat with the mayor, Spearing found and framed a photograph of the aircraft taking off. It’s now hanging in the office, in easy view from his desk.
“They set goals and reached for the sky – in their case, quite literally. They crashed it several times and yet they still tried again and again,” he says.
“You don’t anticipate an aircraft being made by mining students. Whatever next!?”
What’s a tractor biplane?
The Kalgoorlie was a tractor biplane. ‘Tractor’ means the propeller is situated at the front of the aircraft, which is exceedingly common today, however many early aircraft were ‘pushers’ where the engine was mounted behind the wings. Biplane refers to the two pairs of wings on the aircraft. The Kalgoorlie had a length of more than seven metres, with a reported top speed of 89-97km/h.