The Canterbury (NZ) Aviation Co. Ltd Biplane

If any person in the Christchurch area had looked skywards during late January 1919 on hearing an aeroplane, the chances are that he would have observed one of the few flights made by what must have been the first NZ designed and built land-biplane. This little aeroplane, strongly reminiscent of a Sopwith Tabloid, was designed and built at the Canterbury (NZ) Aviation Co Ltd workshops at Sockburn, near Christchurch, the two persons most concerned with the construction being Mr C M Hill, the company's chief flying instructor, and Mr J G Mackie, the engineer.

The working drawings for this unnamed biplane were chalked out on the black-painted wall of one of the early Sockburn hangars, which full size drawings was apparently quite satisfactory as the biplane performed well in the air. The drawings were so "permanent" that they could still be seen, according to Mr W S Dini, as late as 1938 when he left the RNZAF after 14 years' service. Cupboards had been built along the rear wall of the hangar in later years, and these helped in no small measure to preserve the drawings.

The aeroplane was rolled out of its hangar on 17th January 1919, and in the words of a returned RAF officer, resembled a SE5 fighter. On examination of the only photograph seen of the aeroplane, it is seen to look -more like a Sopwith type from the side and 3/4 front views. The biplane was a two-seater and was fitted with a 30 h.p. Anzani radial motor which was originally used to power one of the School’s Caudron biplane trainers. It had a wing-span of 23 ft 6 in, a length of 20 feet and a wing area of 220 square feet. The all-up-weight was 500 lbs and with a pilot and passenger weighing 10 stone 10 lb each, there was room for 200 lbs of petrol. Main spars were of ash and the wing struts were of cedar, with bracing wires encased in cedar streamlines. Ailerons were fitted (instead of the Caudrons' wing--warping - this was probably the first time ailerons had been seen in Christ church to judge from contemporary comments) and the wings had a slight dihedral. The aircraft, according to the Lyttelton Times of 18th January' was "produced with little or no effort". Wings and fuselage were fabric--covered.

The Canterbury (NZ) Aviation Co. Ltd Biplane

The Canterbury (NZ) Aviation Co. Ltd Biplane.
Picture supplied by the RNZAF Museum, Christchurch, New Zealand.

Mr Hill made the first solo flight in the biplane on 17th January and found that it had a good rate of climb and was light on the controls. It also had a shallow gliding angle for its type, and Mr Hill predicted that it would be suitable for aerobatics. He said on landing that he had never before tested an aeroplane in which everything was so satisfactory, and he praised Mr Mackie's work in high terms. The only alteration he recommended after the first flight was a small one to the control circuits to enable the aeroplane to be flown hands-off in level flight. He found that, trimmed hands-off, it tended to climb slightly. A very short landing was made after that first flight, another good feature.

Plans were then made for a flying tour to Invercargill, the aeroplane to be flown by Mr Hill and demonstrations and passenger flights to be given at selected centres. Passengers would also be booked between several of the towns to be visited, and it was thought that with a full tankage of 27 gallons of petrol, two people could be carried about 200 miles in still air.

The longest passenger flight in NZ on record, according to the Lyttelton Times, was made on 18th January 1919 when Ur Hill took off from Sockburn for a 28 minute flight over Christchurch and New Brighton, with Mr E S Fleming as passenger. This presumably would be the longest passenger flight made by an aircraft of the Canterbury (NZ) Aviation Co.Ltd. Mr Fleming, of the Riccarton Flour Mills, was a brother of Mr W H P (Herby) Fleming of Gore, who had also booked a flight between Gore and Invercargill during the forthcoming tour. Mr E S Fleming’s flight was made at between 2 and 3,000 feet, and there were "no engine troubles". Later flights the same day were made with passengers Mr A V Smith and Mr Notman.

Mr Hill and Mr C W Hervey, secretary of the Company, left Christchurch for Invercargill by car on 20th January to map out the flying tour proposed for early February. The first display was planned for Dunedin on 8th February and it was also planned to carry a passenger from Christchurch to Timaru, refuel there, and pick up another passenger for Oamaru. No passenger was to be carried between Oamaru and Dunedin because of the nature of the country — high ground and fewer choices of landing grounds in an emergency.

The programme laid down was as follows (all dates February 1919):

Dunedin 8 - 10th at Wingatui Racecourse.
Invercargill 11 - 12th at Waikiwi Tram Terminus.
Gore 15th at Racecourse.
Oamaru 18th at Major Orbell's paddock, North Road.
Waimate l9th at Showgrounds.
Timaru 20th at Racecourse, Washdyke.
Ashburton 22nd at Mr F Brett's paddock.

Passenger flights were offered to the Mayors of Waimate, Timaru and Invercargill and also to mayors of all the towns on the route. In some places a public holiday was to be observed in recognition of the unique nature of the display. Special trains were also applied for as it was to have been a big day in most people's lives at that time. Local committees were formed in each town mentioned above and a great interest was taken in assessing Mr Hill' s flying time between each point. A Mrs Kerr booked a flight from Timaru to Ashburton and many people were keen on making cross-country flights.

Mr Hill was very impressed with Invercargill and thought that big possibilities existed for the promotion of aviation in that area. He thought it was well suited for flying, being good open country with plenty of landing grounds. An absolute novice could fly over it in safety, and he thought the time was close at hand when farmers would fly their own aircraft provided that the safety and stability of aeroplanes was impressed upon them.

Unfortunately the southern flight was never made as the biplane was completely wrecked and Mr Hill killed on 1st February. It had been the custom for an aeroplane of the Canterbury (NZ) Aviation Co. Ltd to make a flight over the Racecourses at Addington and Riccarton on Race days, and Mr Hill had been requested to fly over the Riccarton meeting on the 1st. The Hon. H F Wigram, chairman of the Company, asked the Chairman of the Jockey Club if he would like to have an exhibition flight over the Racecourse that Saturday afternoon as an added attraction, and so it was arranged with Mr Hill. Mr Hill took off from Sockburn at 3.11 pm and set course for the Racecourse' where he appeared just as the Lyttelton Plate was being run. He circled twice, and finally flew low over the course, where he was cheered by the crowd as he went past.

Mr Hill waved to the crowd, and then circled again to get more height. Another wide sweep over the course was made at a height of 2000 feet, and then the aeroplane disappeared into cloud. On his reappearance, he dived the aeroplane and came over in a loop. It would appear that the aircraft had some difficulty in going over the top, and soon went into another dive. This final dive was made towards the crowd, and as the aircraft climbed into its second loop, a distinct crack was heard and the port wings collapsed. Mr Hill tried to hold the aircraft straight but this was impossible and the aeroplane then disappeared from sight behind a belt of trees.

When members of the public arrived at the scene of the crash Mr Hill was dead and the aeroplane completely wrecked. At the subsequent inquest and investigation it was found that a flying wire had broken and this in turn had caused the other flying wire to break. The main spars had then cracked and the whole port wing assembly folded up. It was said that ordinary piano wire had been used for the flying wires, instead of cable.

Mr Hill had not previously attempted any aerobatics with the aeroplane and indeed had not permitted anyone else to fly it until he had completely tested it to his satisfaction. It had only made a very few flights at the time of the accident and it was fortunate that no passenger was being carried at the time. It was said that in all the operations of the School, this was the first serious accident sustained, and credit was given to Mr Hill for the way in which he had conducted the School since its inception. Mr Hill had been appointed chief instructor to the School in 1917, taking up his duties in May of that year, and came with the highest references both as an instructor and as a mechanic. During his chief instructorship 182 pupils had been passed for service with the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force, and his death was a great blow to the Company.

The Coroner, Mr T A B Bailey SM, found "That on 1st February, while the deceased was making an exhibition flight over the Riccarton Racecourse, and attempting to loop the loop, one wing of the machine collapsed and the machine fell to the ground, the deceased being killed as a result of the fall, The collapse of the wing appears to have been due to the breaking of one of the flying wires. The machine was built under the personal supervision of the deceased, who was a competent mechanic and he expressed himself satisfied with the machine".

So ended the very brief career of one of the earliest indigenous NZ aircraft. If that flying wire had not broken, who can say how much different early aviation may have been in this country? The southern tour was eventually made by Captain Euan Dickson, Mr Hill's successor, in 1920 in an Avro 504K, but Mr Hill's visit, had it been made, might well have tapped the enthusiasm of the local people, and perhaps more might have been achieved than actually was. However, the aircraft will remain as a credit to its designer and test pilot, short though its life was. Mr Hill was the first person to be killed in an aeroplane crash in New Zealand' although the first aviation fatality was Captain Charles Lorraine, in the balloon Empress on 2nd November 1899, but that is another story.