Perhaps the most important civil aviation event ever started exactly 81 years ago today. The hangar doors of RAF Mildenhall opened at 06.30 and twenty contenders took off in rapid succession for the longest air race held at that time – London to Melbourne.
Devised by the Lord mayor of Melbourne, the race formed a part of the Melbourne Centenary Celebrations. A prize fund of $75,000 was put up by Sir Macpherson Robertson, a wealthy Australian confectionery manufacturer (and the race was named after his company…)
Of the original 60 entrants only 20 contenders departed in the rainy dawn. Three of them were purpose built DH-88 “Comet” racers. One of them, the scarlet G-ACSS ‘Grosvernor House’, piloted by C. Scott and ‘Tom’ Campbell Black became the outright winner, arriving in Melbourne after exactly 71 hrs elapsed time…
But the most important aspect of this race is the fact that nr. 2 and 3 arriving in Melbourne were standard civilian airliners and not purpose built racers.
Coming in second, with an elapsed time of 90 hrs, 13 min (and winner of the handicap section) was the standard KLM DC-2 PH-AJU “Uiver”. Third was Roscoe Turner in his Boeing 247 NR257U ‘Warner Bros. Comet’ with an elapsed tim of 92 hrs, 55 mins.
The Uiver carried a crew of four, under Captain R.D. Parmentier, and three passengers. It was the only race entrant with fare-paying passengers. The KLM crew flew the standard route to the East and made excellent time. A slight mishap occurred at Karachi. In their hurry to leave, they ‘forgot’ a passenger and had to go back… But perhaps the most dramatic incident of the race happened during the night of Oct 23/24.
The Uiver got hopelessly lost after becoming caught in a thunderstorm. RAAF signallers at Laverton were trying in vain to contact the plane. They alerted all towns along the route to be ready to help. Radio stations broadcast messages, navy ships switched on their searchlights and railway stations along the Melbourne to Albury line put on signal lamps.
Lyle Ferris, Albury’s municipal electrical engineer, used the entire town lighting system to flash the word ALBURY in Morse code. Just after midnight, the aircraft was heard circling the town. Arthur Newnham from the local ABC radio station 2CO broadcast an appeal for listeners to take their cars to the Albury racecourse and line-up so a landing strip could be illuminated with headlights.
At 1.20am, the Uiver dropped two parachute flares and made its approach to land. It bumped several times on the undulating centre of the racecourse and slithered to a halt 100 yards short of the inner fence. The aircraft was safe.
But the drama was not over. Daybreak saw 8 tonnes of DC2 bogged in thick Albury mud. The Mayor, Alderman Alf Waugh rallied 300 people to dig it out and haul the Uiver to firmer ground. Later that morning, the Uiver resumed its flight to Melbourne, taking second place in the great race and winning the handicap
The race proved beyond any doubt that civil aviation had reached maturity; that standard, all metal airliners could compete against purpose built racers and arrive safely. It was the dawn of intercontinental aviation as we now know it…