Nancy and magnificent men in flying machines
Nancy Shirtliff's memory of Nelson's first aeroplane landing is tied more to the circumstances of how she missed it, but the distant roar remains a spectacular moment in the 97 year-old's life.
The Avro 504K biplane piloted by "Shorty" Fowler and carrying Nelson passenger Tom Newman left Wellington on November 11 1921 on the inaugural flight to Nelson, which was meant to have ended with fanfare in Brightwater.
Nancy, who was five years old, had walked with her classmates from her school in Spring Grove to the site many miles away, but was heartily disappointed to discover upon their arrival the plane had been unable to land because the paddock was too small.
After an unplanned re-fuelling stop in Stoke, it landed instead on a grassy strip, near the Spring Grove school.
"We were so disappointed. We had walked all the way from Spring Grove School, then had to walk back again."
Miss Shirtliff recalled seeing the plane flying overhead in the distance, and how strange it seemed.
"We were all there, looking at the sky. We couldn't imagine anything coming from the sky, except birds."
Graeme McConnell who is co-writing with Richard Waugh a Nelson aviation history that will help mark Nelson Airport's 75th anniversary celebrations next month, said Miss Shirtliff's experience then would be akin to us seeing a spaceship arrive in Nelson today.
She said the morning after the plane landed, which was a Saturday, her father took her down to the paddock to see the plane.
"It was just so amazing to us, even though we had been told about it beforehand. The next morning it was so impressive, mainly because my father took a Saturday off to show me the plane, because he was always so busy on the farm."
It was some years later in 1940 that Miss Shirtliff, who trained as a nurse, flew for the first time when she went to Wellington to attend centennial celebrations in the Capital.
Mr McConnell said it was likely that Miss Shirtliff was the only remaining living person who recalled the day of Nelson's first aircraft landing, but it was not the city's first aviation event. That honour belongs to American hot air balloonist, Leila Adair, whose death-defying tour of New Zealand in 1894 included a stop in Nelson.
Miss Adair's multi-city tour featured her making a number of spectacular balloon ascents while suspended from the balloon on a trapeze and dressed in a "suitable blue costume", historic newspaper reports revealed.
Mr McConnell said both attempts in Nelson were a "fizzer", with the first one at Trafalgar Park a "complete disaster". He said while her balloon was being inflated someone stood on the trigger which released the balloon and it floated away. It was found later beside the Maitai River.
A second attempt at the Botanics was stymied by the mid winter temperatures, which hindered the balloon's ability to ascend.
"The balloon lifted off but didn't get out of the reserve," Mr McConnell said.
He said the first aircraft landing in Nelson in November 1921 was a significant moment and it precipitated a succession of subsequent flights to Nelson.
"The plan was to fly from Wellington to Brightwater, but they ran out of petrol over Nelson and they only had a four-gallon reserve tank on top of the wing.
"They coughed and spluttered going past the old [Nelson] post office and had to land at Greenmeadows in Stoke," Mr McConnell said.
They took off again, bound for Brightwater, but made Spring Grove their historic landing spot instead.
Two days afterwards another plane arrived from Blenheim, followed by one or two more over the next few weeks.
Mr McConnell said aviation in Nelson was static in 1922, then in 1923 Shorty Fowler made history again by flying the first float plane from Wellington to Nelson.
In 1934 Australian aviator Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, who had piloted the first trans-Tasman flight in the Southern Cross in 1929, landed the aircraft in Stoke during an experimental trans-Tasman airmail flight.
Nelson's historic aviation moments will feature in Graeme McConnell and Rev Richard Waugh's book, The Story of Nelson Aviation to be launched at a function at Nelson Airport on November 30, marking its 75th anniversary. It will coincide with other events planned to mark the occasion, including a community open day at the Air Nelson hangar on Saturday November 30 from 10am to 4pm.
The open day will showcase the region's aviation history through static displays, plus entertainment provided by the RNZAF band and Rebecca Bignall School of Dance. TV weatherman and aviation enthusiast Jim Hickey will be there to meet the public. Classic aircraft and helicopters will also be on display and there will be a fly-over by classic fighters including Nanchangs and an Avro Anson.
- © Fairfax NZ News