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Hart, William Ewart (Bill) (1885–1943)

by William Henry Pinkstone

The other day they buried him, and with honors. Royal Aero Club planes dipped overhead. But the name of William Ewart Hart will live on deservedly so. He had No. 1 Australian flying license. He it was who took the risks, had sundry forced landings, and at an early stage of his air career crashed badly, but miraculously survived the terrible injuries. His lead, however, furnished a commendable inspiration to others to ‘carry on.’

Memory vividly recalls Bill and his big 'bus. He assembled it in a corner of the fenced-in Richmond common, where the Methodist cemetery adjoins, and roped it to the two fences. Every wind that blew strained those ropes. In due course a hangar was erected, in which a clever French pilot housed his machine. So did Stutt, the first flier to land a plane in Cootamundra, and who shortly afterwards lost his life over the sea when trying to locate a vessel overdue to Tasmania.

It was, however, Bill Hart who laid the foundation for a great 'drome, with ample open land around–on one side, miles of Hawkesbury river flats; on the other, the Hawkesbury race-course and the Hawkesbury Agricultural College paddocks.

Very close to the tie-up spot for Bill's 'bus was the homestead of a big dairy owned by Mr. William Percival, whose young son became fascinated with the prolonged preparations for flying. So much so, that he was never on hand to ‘bring in the cows.' His absorbing ambition to be the first man to ‘go up’ with Bill was realised. Result, this boy subsequently went to England and became associated with the production of the Percival Gull planes. Another of the influences of our pioneer in aviation!

Bill Hart, too, had started young in the flying game. Only 56 years old at the time of his sudden death, last week, near his dental surgery in Sydney; when he first flew, in 1911, he was only 24.

A story hangs to the history of the 'bus. An Englishman had been sent out to try and sell flying machines to the Australian Government. He brought a plane with him. The Government was ‘not interested.’ Hammond returned, leaving the plane behind, near Parramatta, with a mechanic, McDonald, in charge. Bill bought it for £1,300, but it was never flown. A gale wrecked the structure, but the engine was good. Bill and his father, who had a timber yard at Parramatta, and the mechanic and others built a brand new plane, and installed the engine therein.

A somewhat strange greeting was accorded Bill the first day he taxied it around the Richmond common. The cows depastured thereon followed him. Not so the horses, to whom the reaction was in contrast, for they took fright, and stampeded ahead.

Later on, as Bill began to fly around the countryside, several owners instituted claims against him for frightening horses that got killed or crippled when galloping away and at the same time looking up at the contraption in the sky, and running into fences, buildings, or other obstacles.

Two outstanding performances–when the aviator gained confidence enough–were a 19 mile cross-country flight home to Parramatta, and a race to Richmond with a Yankee who had brought a plane to Australia.

The former was accomplished in the then world's record of 23 minutes. (Contrast today's speed!)

In the race ‘local knowledge’ helped Bill to a ‘walk over,’ for the stranger to Australia and to Sydney's environs got "bushed" when rising, and headed up George's river instead of up the Parramatta.

Bill, to celebrate a victory of such historic importance–the first air race in Australia (subsequently there was one from Melbourne to Cootamundra!), circled Richmond, amid no end of excitement amongst the residents. Alas! when heading back to his airground, there came a forced landing, and into a paddock too small for a safe take-off for a fly out.

Bill and his 'bus had got down alright, but to get out was another matter! It involved dismantling seven panels of fencing to allow of ‘pushing her out’ on to the road. This would give readers an idea of the size of that primitive old biplane. Shortly afterwards there was a forced landing in another small paddock. It was alongside a lane. But Bill did not like the idea of taking up more fencing. He determined to fly out over the laneway. Well, there was no instrument board in those days; no gadget to record revolutions; it was just a matter of human judgement as to the pace required. The wheels of the machine cleared the first fence, with the nose well up. The tail, though, was too much down, and hit the top rail, bounced up violently, and precipitated the whole caboose into the second fence. Bill was bucked over that fence into the paddock, with bits of the broken propeller falling around him.

Undaunted, he lost little time in landing back with another propellor, and taking to the air again.

His next progressive move was to publicly advertise the first passenger flights. Every road led to Richmond for that auspicious occasion. The towns of Windsor and Richmond and the district were well represented in the crowd. lt was something unique.

I could not get out to the scene till an hour after the scheduled time for the starting of those ‘joy rides,’ and had meanwhile wondered why the plane could not be seen or heard in the air. Explanation: No one was keen to go up with friend William. ‘Terra firma for me!’ said one. ‘I'm for terra cotta’ said another. ‘Keep one foot on the ground!" was among the other excuses.

There, looking quite confident himself, was the pilot; but between him and the spectators was a veritable no man's land.

To me there had been a parting reminder from my wife, that I had family responsibilities, and was not to go flying. On the other hand, I had had a lot of time for Bill, was keen on giving encouragement to his enterprise, and–up we both went.  It was not very high, though.

‘Can't you go higher?’ we called above the roar of the engine behind us; but Bill was doing his best in that regard, which was not much above the tree tops.

Circling back to the take-off we asked what height and pace he thought we had done. He was not sure of either, but felt that the pace, at any rate, was a bit over 60 m.p.h.!

Good business followed that first flight, but the thirteenth sensationally ended in a forced landing in one of the H.A. College cultivation paddocks then under process of being fallowed.

It happened to be afternoon tea time for the students working the fallow, and they were enjoying their tea and tucker, and their horses had their nose bags on.

Down came the plane on the fallow, and away stampeded the horses for their stables, breaking through three good gates en route.

At an aviator's dinner one day in Melbourne, to which several of us from Cootamundra flew with Pilot Arthur Butler, I was recounting the story of Pilot Hart's first passenger flights and the excitement of the forced landing.

Dr. Maxwell, then president of the Cootamundra Aero Club, chipped in: ‘I was there. I was one of the college students learning to work that fallow!’

(The doctor was destined to afterwards see most of Australia from the air. Now, as Brigadier Duncan Maxwell–a prisoner of war since the Malaya debacle–we are hoping that he and so many others will soon be returned to Australia).

After a few minor crashes which damaged the machine more than the pilot, Bill went in for more up-to-date air transport–a monoplane–and was looking forward to getting more kick out of the game.

Alas! on the very first day that he essayed to get past the taxi-ing stage and the mere flying around the common, the mono was passing over the boundary fence when the engine went wrong, the machine got hopelessly out of control, and finally nose-dived on to some open land near the cemetery.

I was near by at the time, and, rushing to the spot, saw the engine half buried, with most of the rest of the plane flattened out, and Bill lying among the debris, terribly injured, but, to my surprise, conscious, and able to speak.

‘My back's broken,’ he said.

A glance revealed that Mrs. Percival was hurrying over from her home. She was a trained nurse. And with her were two men carrying a stretcher.

Meanwhile, I was able to ease the main pain, which I found to be caused by something pressing against a bad wound in the back.

‘Thanks, that’s a lot better!’ he said. ‘I don't think now that it is broken.’

‘That's right,’ I said, by way of encouragement to put up a fight. ‘Mrs. Percival will stop your bleedings, and I will hurry oft for the ambulance and a doctor.’

Poor Bill looked game enough, but much of him was broken and otherwise injured.

The No. I Light Horse Field Ambulance, with its headquarters then at Richmond, was soon to the scene, as were a doctor from Richmond and another from Windsor; and in the Hawkesbury District Hospital there followed a stiff battle to pull Bill through.

I had wondered if he would ever go up again. But he did.

Years afterwards I got a call to go to the Cootamundra drome ‘to see an old friend who wanted to surprise me.’ lt was our pioneer aviator, being flown to West Wyalong, where at an early stage in his career as a dentist he had practised. That town had invited him as an honoured guest at the ‘Back to Wyalong’ celebrations, for they never forgot his enthusiasm for ‘the poetry of motion.’ To Wyalong he had taken the first motor cycle, the first motor car, and the first plane!

But Bill Hart is also remembered by old hands all over the South and Sou’-West motoring around in one of the first cars imported–a first year Ford.

It took a man like William Ewart Hart, with his superhuman sort of energy, and meticulous care to do everything as correctly as possible, determination to succeed, and commendable courage–it took such a man to give Australia its real start in practical aviation. And the ultimate evolution of the art has been remarkable. Vale William! He'll get his wings above!

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

William Henry Pinkstone, 'Hart, William Ewart (Bill) (1885–1943)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/hart-william-ewart-bill-6592/text29051, accessed 13 August 2020.

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