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“Way beyond a transport hub”: Darwin’s aviation history from the great race to today

When filmmaker Andrew Hyde set out to research the history of aviation in the Northern Territory, there was no shortage of colourful tales of derring-do.

As the gateway to Northern Australia, Darwin’s aviation story was launched by an international event that for its day has been likened to the Apollo moon landing.

That event was the arrival of the Smith brothers in a Vickers Vimy to claim the £10,000 prize from the Australian Government for the first flight from England in what was dubbed “The Great Race”.

The 10 December 1919 arrival of war hero Captain Ross Smith, brother Keith and mechanics James Bennett and Wally Shiers at what had been a horse paddock at Fannie Bay was just the start.

A parade of famous aerial adventurers — including Bert Hinkler, Amy Johnson, Amelia Erhardt and Charles Kingsford Smith — would go on to pass through Darwin.

Nor would the drama end there: other significant events would include Japanese bomb attacks, cold war intrigue and Cyclone Tracy.

But Hyde chooses to start his film, The Sweet Note of the Engine, with the more contemporary story of the evacuation to Darwin of the victims of the 2002 Bali bombings.

It was an event in which the movie producer was personally involved as a news cameraman and something he says puts Darwin Airport’s strategic location in a contemporary setting.

He recalls a fleet of Hercules aircraft landing at Darwin airport with dozens of Australian victims being triaged on the tarmac.

“The pictures are amazing,” he said.

“I was at the airport that night as a cameraman when those flights came in and it really was, especially the first bombing, quite remarkable.

“Every ambulance in the greater Darwin area was parked at the back gate of Darwin airport — it was just extraordinary.”

It is then Hyde cuts back to the landing by the Smiths and where it all began.

He was inspired to do the film of a comprehensive history of Top End aviation launched by Darwin Airport and authored by Peter and Sheila Forest, The World Flies in and Darwin takes Off!

The son of a newspaper photographer who has become an award-winning Top End cinematographer, he now has his own production company and thought the region’s colourful aviation history would make a good film.

Northern Territory Airports agreed to sponsor the film in partnership with Screen Territory and the National Care and Trauma Response Centre.

Hyde was particularly keen to highlight the courage and resolve of the early pioneers and considers the Smiths’ flight to be the documentary’s highlight.

Their epic trip took 27 days and 20 hours from Hounslow airfield in London at an average speed of 137kmh.

The crew endured freezing conditions in an open cockpit as they made their way across the Middle East, India and South-East Asia to land in Darwin on a wet afternoon.

“To actually spend some time and really delve into that and research it was pretty rewarding,” he says.

“It was a remarkable flight.  I have a grab in the film from a local historian saying and I take his point.

“I did focus a bit on the achievements of Wally Shiers and Jim Bennet, the mechanics that were on that flight, because they tend to get overlooked.

“And as I’m sure you know, the achievement from an engineering perspective was pretty remarkable.

“Those two blokes were in the rear compartment of that aircraft for about a month, getting battered about at 7000ft every day. You can imagine the conditions; they must have been horrific.”

The Smiths plane was not the first to land in the Northern Territory but it was the first to land in Darwin.

It was met not just by the entire town but also by Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness, who less than a year later would found Qantas.

Hyde says getting information about the flight was relatively easy but getting images was more of a battle, even of Fysh in Darwin.

“There’s a bit of film footage of the Smith brothers so I was able to license some stuff from the National Film Archives, which was really fantastic,’’ he adds, noting the search also benefited from “a couple of keen local photographers”.

Hyde’s other favourite is the first solo flight from England to Australia by Bert Hinkler in 1928 and he notes Australians have probably lost sight in recent years of “just how much of a legend he was”.

While the bombing of Darwin was significant, the filmmaker says he didn’t spend a huge amount of time on it because the story is so well known in the Top End.

There were a series of events between the end of World War II and Cyclone Tracy including the infamous 1954 Cold war spy incident involving the Petrovs and Bas Wie, dubbed The Kupang Kid after he stowed away in the wheel well of a Dutch DC-3 in Indonesia and flew to Darwin in 1946.

“The Cyclone Tracy evacuation in 1974 included a world record Qantas 747 flight for the greatest number of people on an aircraft,’’ Hyde says.

“That’s again significant. We had one of the pilots – in fact the second officer on that flight – up here for the launch, which was great.

“And then moving forward from there, there’s just a consistent stream of events that you might call geopolitical like the East Timorese refugees and the Bali bombings.”

Notwithstanding the city’s colourful aviation history, Hyde notes that the people of Darwin have a unique relationship with the airport.

“It was a place for many years that was the only spot in town where you could get a late-night beer,” he says.

“In the film, we talk a bit about people like the Beatles and Frank Sinatra and others here for refuelling and being spotted up at the bar having a late-night drink.

“So the place has always had an unusual relationship with its population — I’m told Darwin people fly six times a year, which is significantly higher than the national average.”

The film was a labour of love over several years and premiered at a special event held in July by NT Airports.

About 100 people attended the event at Darwin International Airport to watch the film which also screened on the Nine Network.

It is believed to have been another world first for Darwin:  an outdoor screening at a secure airside location.

“We believe our airport to be a place way beyond a transport hub for locals and tourists,’’ NT Airports chief executive Ian Kew said at the time.

“We are a part of the history of the NT and strive to support the community of Darwin and the Top End embracing an exciting, unique and frontier destination for visitors and locals alike.”

For his part, Hyde says the thing about the film that pleases him most is acknowledging Darwin’s considerable but sometimes overlooked aviation history and putting people such as Bert Hinkler and Amy Johnson back in limelight.

“They were the biggest names in the country at one point and it’s sort of drifted away a little bit but what they achieved is still very significant,” he says.

By Steve Creedy

About Steve Creedy

An award-winning journalist, Steve began covering aviation in the United States in the early nineties before returning to Australia later that decade and editing The Australian’s aviation section for 17 years. He is editor of Airline Ratings and has co-authored books on industry initiatives aimed at reducing greenhouse emissions.

Steve has joined the AAA to write interesting and informative editorial on the aviation industry.


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