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Anniversary celebration of the first solo flight across the Tasman Sea

Dr. Peter Clarke, Geelong, Australia - 03/03/06

Seventy five years ago Guy Menzies made the first Trans Tasman solo flight from Australia and crashed near Harihari. On Saturday, 7 January 2006, we had come to the small town of Harihari, on the remote south west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, to commemorate the seventy fifth anniversary of the first solo, single engined flight across the Tasman Sea from Australia. Pioneer twenty-one year old Australian aviator Guy Lambton Menzies had landed an Avro Avian aircraft, “Southern Cross Junior”, in nearby La Fontaine swamp, after a flight from Mascot aerodrome, Sydney. The crossing had been completed in eleven hours and forty five minutes. To avoid censure from the authorities, and worry to his parents, the trip had been made in secret, with the deceptive stated intent of flying to Perth. Encountering extremely hazardous weather, the brave Menzies was driven off course from his planned destination at Blenheim, and mistaking a flax infested swamp for level ground, crashed his small bi-plane, landing upside down. The day’s ceremonies honoured this achievement and the courage of a man, who without life raft or appropriate chart, and with only a primitive compass, pioneered trans-Tasman flight. Well known Australian entrepreneur, aviator and adventurer Dick Smith had declared Guy Menzies a hero, and through respect for the pioneer, and pride in his country, had agreed to re-enact the flight arriving at 3.00pm, and recreating to the hour, the seventy fifth anniversary of Menzies' arrival on 7 January 1931.

By coincidence , just three weeks prior, at home in Geelong, Australia, I had been listening to a Sunday morning rural radio program, when the host introduced Dick Smith, and I was startled to hear Smith mention Harihari, Guy Menzies, the commemorative celebrations, and his plans to replicate the flight. This was my first awareness of the event. Soon after, Dr Max Wearne phoned in to the radio show, and explained that he had just completed writing a book on the life of Guy Menzies, and planned to launch this in conjunction with the centennial celebrations at Harihari. I had been startled, because the Menzies story, unknown to most of my generation, had an immediate impact on me, as my maternal grandparents Ralph and Eva Cox, had entertained Guy Menzies for supper at their Hokitika post office residence, on the evening of the landing, with postmaster Ralph linking the aviator by telephone with his parents back in Australia. This was the first occasion on which a direct telephone call had been made between Hokitika and Sydney!

With some difficulty, I located from a Melbourne bookshop, an advance copy of Dr Wearne’s book entitled “The Life of Guy Menzies- the forgotten flyer.”

Upon opening the book, I was further stimulated to discover a full page photo of Guy Menzies, with my grandfather making that first phone call, and on the opposite page a photograph of Guy taking supper with my grandparents, mother, uncle, local dignitaries, and journalists from Hokitika. The supper photograph is reproduced below showing aviator Menzies (centre front) my grandparents Eva and Ralph Cox (to immediate left and right rear of Menzies), my mother Molly Owens Clarke (nee Cox -then aged 19 years- beside and to the right of Ralph), and my uncle Colin Ralph- (then aged 16 years – third from left).

Guy Menzies at supper with Hokitika post-master Ralph Cox, the Cox family,and local dignitaries, Hokitika post office residence, 7/1/1931.
Guy Menzies at supper with Hokitika post-master Ralph Cox, the Cox family,and local dignitaries, Hokitika post office residence, 7/1/1931.
Photo Source: Peter Clarke
Click here to view a larger version

I had known of the Menzies story from childhood, courtesy of these photographs, together with others showing the crashed plane, from my mother’s photograph collection. This 75 year old album, which my sister and I had been shown as children, I still retain, in original condition.

Thanks to Mike Keenan, Events Coordinator at Westland District Council, Hokitika, I was able to book last minute accommodation at the Harihari Motor Inn, and obtain a seat among the 100 chosen V.I.P guests for the evening celebratory dinner. Unlike pioneer Menzies, the marvel of modern jet travel had enabled a seamless trip from Geelong to Melbourne, across to Christchurch, Air New Zealand Link to Hokitika, and Avis car to Harihari.

Saturday morning had broken over Harihari, after heavy overnight rain, with leaden sky, and the steep hillsides shrouded in low altitude mist. The day proceeded, punctuated with intermittent showers, providing conditions almost identical to those experienced by Menzies. The prevailing feeling of gloom over whether Dick Smith would be able to land, or be diverted to Hokitka or Christchurch, was soon overshadowed by the enthusiasm of the locals, and by my personal good fortune at sharing breakfast with Guy’s brother, Dr Bruce Menzies (a retired Sydney general practitioner), and sister Mrs Kathleen Henderson, wife of an American ambassador, and Mr Michael Menzies,Guy’s stepson, a former RAAF and retired Qantas 747 pilot. I had also met the son of Kathleen Henderson, and son of another sister of Guy’s (Mrs Betty Horsley), and their wives, at breakfast. I was also at this time able to acquaint myself with Dr and Mrs Max Wearne, the New Zealand born, Melbourne based orthopaedic surgeon, and author of Menzies' biography.

Following a stirring, and obviously heartfelt welcome, by the tall and imposing Bryce Thomson, Deputy Mayor of Westland District Council, appropriately clad in period attire, bowler-hat atop, the assembled crowd of 500 or so people waited with eager anticipation. It was heartening to witness V.I.P’s, including police, military and political personnel mixing with the local populace. Proceedings commenced with the opening of Guy Menzies Park by Mr Damien O’Connor, MP for West Coast / Tasman and Minister for Tourism, together with Ms. Helene Hindman whose vision at the local level inspired the initial idea, design and construction of the theme park, located adjacent to the main highway south. Following this a bronze plaque summarizing Menzies flight was unveiled by West Coast Historic Places Trust representatives.

Historic Trust Representatives Jim Keenan (left)and Brian Wood (right) unveil the bronze plaque describing Menzies' achievement.
Historic Trust Representatives Brian Wood (left) and Jim Keenan (right) unveil the bronze plaque describing Menzies' achievement.
Photo Source: Peter Clarke
Click here to view a larger version

A further unveiling of a panel of text and photographs of Menzies and his upturned plane, was performed by Mr Bruce Albiston (Historic Places Trust), and local Menzies Day committee member, Steve Schmetz. This ceremony is shown in the photo below.

Noted  aviation historian the Reverend Richard Waugh blessing the unveiled plaque Note Guy’s sister and brother, Kathleen and  Bruce, beside the Reverend Waugh, Bruce  Albiston extreme right. Note adjacent hangar, housing replica bi-plane, both constructed from volunteer labour and funding.
Noted aviation historian the Reverend Richard Waugh blessing the unveiled plaque.
Note Guy’s sister and brother, Kathleen and Bruce, beside the Reverend Waugh,
Bruce Albiston extreme right. Note adjacent hangar, housing replica bi-plane,
both constructed from volunteer labour and funding.

Photo Source: Peter Clarke
Click here to view a larger version

The morning concluded with the unveiling of a hangar by Bryce Thomson and Lindsay Molloy (Menzies Day Committee Chairman), and a replica Avro Avian aircraft enclosed within, built and unveiled by Mr Max Dowell QSM. Blessings and prayers at each event were offered by the Reverend Richard Waugh.

The gloomy prediction that Dick Smith, who had been in constant contact with Lindsay Molloy, and pilot Murray Bowes throughout his flight, would have to divert away from Harihari, was broken by a miraculous parting of the clouds, about half an hour before his scheduled arrival time of 3pm. Almost to the minute, Dick Smith’s Cessna Caravan aircraft with its powerful turbo-prop engine, made a preliminary sweep at low level over the runway, banked to the left and momentarily disappeared from sight, prompting locals to comment that he was returning to Australia. Soon the landing lights on the wings and nose wheel housing of the Cessna appeared, and the plane landed, kicking up gravel, slewed to starboard ever so slightly and came to a halt almost at the end of the 500 metre, narrow gravel airstrip. This runway had been originally only 300 metres, but was extended with local labour, with an upgraded gravel surface specifically constructed for the occasion. The photograph below shows Smith’s plane immediately after coming to a halt on the La Fontaine runway. Harihari airstrip had instantly become Harihari international airport!

Representatives of the media and dignitaries await the emergence of Dick Smith from his Cessna Caravan aircraft, upon arrival at Harihari.
Representatives of the media and dignitaries await the emergence of Dick Smith from his Cessna Caravan aircraft, upon arrival at Harihari.
Photo Source: Peter Clarke
Click here to view a larger version

In a desire to replicate as closely as possible pioneer Menzies, Smith had carried a packet of egg sandwiches, bore a bag with the word ”Australia” written on it ( Menzies had had to produce such a bag in order to prove to the then disbelieving locals that he was from Australia), arrived wearing jacket and tie, had flown alone, and in an aircraft with a single engine. To the strains of lone piper Dr Barney Mowatt, and with organizing committee members in wait, two cabinet ministers present, and following a delay of several minutes for customs inspection (during which the egg sandwiches were impounded), Smith emerged to the cheers of the crowd. He was accorded a champagne welcome by committee chairman Lindsay Molloy.

Dick Smith, flight logbook in left hand and champagne in right, enjoying a welcoming drink with Mr Lindsay Molloy.
Dick Smith, flight logbook in left hand and champagne in right, enjoying a welcoming drink with Mr Lindsay Molloy.

Click here to view a larger version

Close at hand were further greetings by Dr Max Wearne, Dr Bruce Menzies, and Mrs Kathleen Henderson, as seen in the photograph below.

Greetings on arrival, from left facing camera, Dr Max Wearne,<br>Dick Smith, Mrs Kathleen Henderson - sister of aviator,<br>and Dr Bruce Menzies - brother of pioneer aviator.
Greetings on arrival, from left facing camera, Dr Max Wearne,
Dick Smith, Mrs Kathleen Henderson - sister of aviator,
and Dr Bruce Menzies - brother of pioneer aviator.

Photo Source: Peter Clarke
Click here to view a larger version

Dick Smith had departed Sydney, just a few minutes after 6.00am (Australian Eastern Standard Time) and arrived at 3.00pm (New Zealand time), a flight close to seven hours in duration. While standing on the steps of his plane, Smith gave an impromptu speech, and reading from details recorded in his logbook, contrasted the relative ease of his flight with that of Guy Menzies. He noted that the pioneer aviator had almost frozen at 12,000 feet in his open cockpit, and then courted disaster when he suddenly lost altitude, tasting salt spray from the close proximity of the ocean.

The euphoria and momentum of the day continued with Ms Shirlee Black conveying Smith a kilometre or two in a restored Model A Ford car, to a further unveiling of bronze plaque and information panel close to the original Menzies landing site, adjacent to La Fontaine stream. This plaque set in a large rock was appropriately unveiled by its donor - Dick Smith. A poignant note was added by Dr Bruce Menzies unveiling the adjacent information panel, also appropriate given the funding provided by the Menzies family for such a memorial and their family links to the occasion. Proceedings ended with a final unveiling of the plaque and a speech by Dr Wearne at the precise site of the original landing, a few hundred metres away on the property of Mr Mark Lawn - “La Fontaine”. Mr Lawn had generously agreed to register the landing place as an historic site with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, allowing permanent public access. These final unveilings were preceded by a rendition from the Hokitika Municipal Band. Writing in the Greymouth Evening Star, reporter Lesley Staniland noted:

“Only on the West Coast would you find a brass band sitting
on the edge of a paddock, in full uniform, with instruments
and music stands,welcoming dignitaries and visitors
to Menzies' landing spot in a Harihari swamp”.

Following a social hour, a commemorative dinner at Harihari Motor Inn commenced at 7pm. I felt extremely privileged to attend, knowing that many notable individuals (including organizing committee members) and worthy locals, had forfeited seats in order to accommodate visitors such as me. I was indeed fortunate to have had strong family links with the occasion. With Mr Bryce Thomson as Master of Ceremonies, and with two cabinet ministers in attendance (The Hon. Damien O’Connor MP West Coast / Tasman and Minister for Tourism , and The Hon. Harry Duynhoven-Minister for Transport), a welcome by the Chairman of the Guy Menzies Day Committee, Mr Lindsay Molloy, was followed by a toast to the pioneer aviator by Mr Max Avery, a New Zealand journalist whose vision had inspired the seventy fifth anniversary concept, and whose research in locating the exact landing site, and whose bold request had resulted in entrepreneur aviator Dick Smith agreeing to re-enact the original flight. After a hearty meal, chosen from a most comprehensive menu, true West Coast hospitality, courtesy of Westland District Council, reigned supreme. A sequence of speeches from invited speakers included local MP Damien O’Connor , and Mr Wereta Tainui as a representative of the Maori people of Westland, Mr Tainui recalled the speech of his father who welcomed the pioneer aviator in 1931 with the stirring words:

“ My people came by canoe on water and
Mr Menzies came by canoe riding on the air.
On behalf of the Maori people of Westland
l give you every welcome.”

Further speeches were provided by His Excellency the Australian High Commissioner Dr. Allan Hawke, Dr Bruce Menzies, and Dr Max Wearne. Dr Wearne gave a detailed expose of the history of flight on the West Coast, and throughout Australasia, and spoke of Menzies vision in anticipating ahead of his time a regular cross Tasman air link. Following dessert, speeches were delivered by Air Vice Marshall John Hamilton, RNZAF, who recalled that the engineers from Wigram had arrived at the crash site in 1931, to assist in dismantling the wings, fuselage and tail sections of the Avro, only to find local engineers from nearby gold dredges had attended to this, and so adjourned to the “local” to partake of “legendary coast hospitality”! Colonel Nigel Lloyd O.B.E. representing the Royal Air Force added poignancy to his speech, and the moment, when he presented the wartime flight log books of Squadron Leader Guy Menzies to the organizing committee.

The ceremony concluded with an invigorating speech by Dick Smith, asserting his high regard for Guy Menzies as a personal hero, and modestly contrasting the pioneer’s bravery, with his own vastly different and more comfortable flight, assisted by modern electronic aids. Many guests were won over with his modesty, sincerity and approachability, suggesting his school days filled his teachers with despair, but showing how, with what he considered his good fortune, he had built his electronics empire, concluding with a brief overview of his many exploits by balloon, helicopter and aircraft. These adventures had taken him throughout the world, and the place names emblazoned on the fuselage of his plane, bore testimony of this, with exotic locations such as Timbuktu, Christmas Island, Ho Chi Minh City, places which he promised would soon be joined by Harihari.

In speaking with Dick Smith afterwards, I too was impressed with his vitality, and was moved to suspect that his pioneering spirit knew no frontier. It was if each new challenge or direction enlarged his world. As New Zealand’s own poet and author Allen Curnow has written:

“ Simply by sailing in a new direction you could enlarge the world”.

The organizing committee formed in early May 2005, consisting of Lindsay Molloy (Chairman) and four other local residents, Councillor Bryce Thomson, Helene Hindman, Steve Schmetz and Lynley Levett, were joined by Mike Keenan and Michelle Haskett from the Events Department of Westland District Council. Local resident Shirlee Black joined them in the final weeks and authored a commemorative booklet on the history of the original flight and preparations for the celebrations. In the virtual absence of government funding, their fine efforts are to be applauded. Perhaps they, and we, gained inspiration from the name Harihari or

“a song sung to encourage people to pull together in unison.”

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