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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Proust, Francis Evans (Frank) (1917–2009)

by Malcolm Brown

Many stories exist of the dedication of newsmen in getting their stories and pictures into the papers. But there would be few exploits as hair-raising as Frank Proust's flight in 1946 to deliver photographs of the English rugby league team playing a local team at Tamworth.

Proust, a qualified pilot, was assigned to fly the film to Newcastle, where a Herald staff car would pick it up and rush it to Sydney in time for use in the second edition.

He took off in a Royal Newcastle Aero Club Tiger Moth knowing there had been heavy snowfalls along the eastern coast. But above the Murrurundi Ranges he found himself in the middle of a terrible snowstorm; unable to return to his point of takeoff, he desperately turned south to reach Scone.

''With no way of knowing where the horizon was, I became completely disorientated, and the Tiger Moth rolled over and commenced a death spin to earth,'' he wrote later. ''I realised that the end was only a matter of seconds away, when the plane spun out of the cloud ceiling into the valley of Gundy.''

Proust had the skill to get the plane level and ended up skimming along the treetops. He saw a sportsground in the valley and made for that, but sensed danger and pulled out, eventually landing in a paddock. He later discovered that the sports field had been covered with equipment impossible to see from the air and landing there would have wrecked his plane and in all probability killed him. His adventure had been watched by the local Anglican minister, who had prayed that he would not try landing on the sportsground, then rushed after him in his car. The two embraced in the middle of a freezing gale.

The photos did not make the paper that night, but the minister got Proust to the railway station to send them on by train.

Proust realised he had been doubly saved. Had the plane not gone into a spin, he would have flown into a mountain.

Francis Evans George Proust was born at Walcha on October 28, 1917, the second of six children of a government surveyor, Alfred Louis Proust, and his wife Dorothy (nee Evans), giving him a rich mix of French and Welsh-Yorkshire heritage. His father was transferred to Sydney and the family lived in Haberfield. When Frank was nine, they moved again, to Grafton.

When he was 13, he flew as a passenger in the famous Southern Cross, piloted by Charles Kingsford Smith. This experience, at a South Grafton air pageant, sparked an interest in aviation which was to last a lifetime. He made his first flight as a student at the age of 17 and at 19 held an unrestricted ''A'' light-aircraft pilot's licence.

Proust excelled at English at Grafton High and in 1935 got a cadetship as a reporter on the Grafton Daily Examiner. He joined the 41st Battalion in the militia and pursued his interest in radio communications, but he resigned after 18 months to focus on journalistic duties.

In 1939, Proust got his ''wings'' for possible call-up in the war that looked inevitable. Bitterly disappointed that colour-defective vision ruled him out of service flying, he served as a wireless operator and instructor. But he continued flying as a civilian, belonging to a group of Australian aviators known as the Early Birds.

In 1945, he got a job on The Sydney Morning Herald. He served as a shipping reporter, a political correspondent and in the Herald's Tamworth and Wagga Wagga offices, where he would fly between towns in pursuit of stories. He became aviation correspondent in 1950, and in 1951 he married Joanne Jaeger.

In a flourishing aviation journalism career, Proust followed the development of commercial aviation in Australia, North America and Britain, and was member of press contingents on inaugural flights of Qantas and other international carriers.

He reported on the discovery of the wreckage of the Southern Cloud, which crashed in 1931 and lay unfound for 27 years, and on the search for the anthropologist Michael Rockefeller, who disappeared in Papua New Guinea in 1961.

Proust had an exuberant personality. His presence at airport media conferences was always noted, by fellow reporters and by the subjects of the interview. Sometimes his eagerness to get into the story prompted him to bypass basic research. One of his reports on airport arrivals began: ''Mr David Sands, who said he was a boxer …'' He was referring to an Australian boxing legend. But once it became known that he was a genuine eccentric, he was treated with benign indulgence.

When the Herald cleased specialist aviation coverage in 1969, Proust moved to general reporting and editing the travel section and the letters page. He retired in 1982 but remained on the casual stafflist another three years.

His name has been given to an Australian National Museum collection of early aviation in south-eastern Australia.

Frank Proust is survived by Joanne, his daughter, Dr Katrina Proust, and son-in-law Dr Barry Newell.

Original publication

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Proust, Francis Evans (Frank) (1917–2009)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/proust-francis-evans-frank-16948/text28830, accessed 21 September 2021.

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