Flying history recounted

18:00, Mar 24 2014

BOOK REVIEW: A Passion for Flight: New Zealand aviation Before the Great War
Volume Two: New Zealand Aviation Before the Great War
By Errol Martyn (Volplane Press, RRP $55)

Meticulous Martyn continues the rich history of innovation, imagination and daring of early New Zealand aviation.

This slice still includes a few of the fanciful feathered contraptions, gliders, balloons and parachutes of volume one, but now also the real flight attempts with feasible but problematic machines, and from 1913 the first practical powered flights and achievements feeding into the mainstream development of aviation services.

This gives a context for appreciating the exploits of individuals, such as Invercargill's Herbert Pither, the engineer who gave a self-report of a flight test on a Fouveax Strait beach in 1910.

He gets a chapter practically to himself, along with Francis Potter of Kelso, Otatara's James Paskell and later Dave Cross of Otama.

In fact, Southland again features strongly, with Will Scotland and his crosscountry flights (the first from Invercargill to Gore) in 1914 also getting a definitive chapter.


The miscellany section includes a reference to Olga Sanson's (unfortunately undated) account of Stewart Islander Gibbie Thomson flight-testing a big-wing apparatus.

Martyn's sophisticated trawling of Papers Past and wide connections have elicited all kinds of sidelights making the book a good read even for those whose eyes gloss over technicalities: Mita Taupopoki as the first Maori recorded in flight (as a passenger during his visit to England) in 1911; Damer Allen, the first person with a New Zealand connection to lose his life in an aeroplane accident (attempting to cross the Irish Sea) in 1912; a new candidate for the first aero club at Cobden in 1909, and even a racehorse named Monoplane.

Another southern gem to send local historians searching is the discovery of Nellie Mitchell of Balclutha, the first New Zealand woman to pilot a flying machine (a glider) in Dunedin in 1911.

And, of course, there are the Walsh brothers of Auckland, the official "first flight" achievers, whose on-going aviation achievements merit the recognition they hold.

Martyn is fearless in his opinions, berating the enthusiasm for vaunting "no hopers" ( such as Richard Pearse, who has an airport named after him) while neglecting real achievers such as Will Scotland (who has no significant memorial), but he is also generous in crediting his sources.

Volume three is apparently nearly at the printers, so anyone with additional information stirred up by the first two better be quick to contribute it.

A Passion for Flight: New Zealand aviation before the Great War Volume Three: The Joe Hammond Story and Military beginnings 1910-1914
By Errol Martyn (Volplane Press, RRP $55)

No sooner had volume two of this detailed history of early New Zealand history hit the decks but volume three followed, distinguishing Martyn as a true scholar uninterested in waiting for another Christmas market.

This time the focus is the development of aviation for military use, taking in airships and armaments and a new bunch of experimenters, plus the men who flew, their increasingly elaborate training, and exploits in an era with a very high casualty rate.

A large section is devoted to the career of Joe Hammond, described as the finest fliers of his era.

It's a fascinating story of a man - even his Wild Bill Coady Circus mates labelled him "Dare-devil Joe" for his fearless horsemanship during a varied OE experience, which culminated in flying training in France.

Hammond was enormously popular with colleagues and the public and his death in 1918, aged only- 32, in the United States, clearly robbed New Zealand of a hero, who sounds much in the mould of Sir Ed Hillary, laid- back, fearless, highly competent and with a unique sense of humour.

This era also saw many passengers in the air, including journalists who could convey vivid descriptions of the experience, as opposed to those provided by the more laconic airmen.

Entries on New Zealanders who volunteered military service (as well as those who actually trained) may surprise a few family historians whose families preserve no memories of great-grandad's ambitions to fly.

Oddities include Invercargill's John Thomson (of Thomson and Beattie department store) writing to the British War Office in 1913, offering, terribly tentatively and politely, a bright (but impractical) idea to stop planes turning "topsy-turvy".