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An aviator whose sense of direction was uncanny, Hinkler broke many records in light aeroplanes


AN AVRO AVIAN AIRCRAFT, piloted by Hinkler, winning an event in 1927.

AN AVRO AVIAN AIRCRAFT, piloted by Hinkler, winning an event at the Bournemouth Air Races in 1927. The Avian had a four-cylinder in-line Cirrus engine and was of metal construction The span was twenty-eight feet and the weight of the aircraft when fully loaded, 1,485 lb. It was in this aircraft that Hinkler later flew to Australia.

ONE of the most brilliant aviators who ever lived, Herbert John Louis Hinkler will be especially remembered for two outstanding performances. One of these was his record-breaking flight from England to Australia in 1928, and the other his even more striking crossing of the South Atlantic Ocean in 1931 from Brazil to West Africa. Both these flights — and indeed his flights generally —were made in light aircraft, without Government assistance and with the minimum of equipment. He made many contributions to the advance of aviation, but his greatest contribution was to demonstrate to the world the immense possibilities of the light aeroplane.

The antithesis of the popular idea of a famous aviator, Bert Hinkler, as he was generally called, was short of stature, with a height of little over five feet. His manner was unassuming and devoid of pretentiousness. He spoke quietly and rapidly. He was, however, gifted with remarkable self-possession, and it was this quality that saved him in countless emergencies.

Hinkler was born at Bundaberg, in Queensland, on December 8, 1892. He was interested in aeronautics before he was twenty years of age. In 1911 and 1912 he experimented with the building of gliders and made several successful flights with this type of aircraft. In the war of 1914-18 he served on the Italian front. It was not till after the war that he gave serious attention to aviation. His first noteworthy flight was in 1920. This was no less than an attempt to fly in a tiny aeroplane from England to Australia.

In those days a long-distance flight of this nature was regarded as a most hazardous undertaking. The completion of an air journey of several thousand miles was considered to be a remarkable feat in itself, irrespective of the time taken on the way. Not yet had aviators set out to break long-distance records established by other aviators. Only a year before, the first direct crossing of the North Atlantic Ocean had been made by Alcock and Brown and the first flight from England to Australia had been accomplished by Ross and Keith Smith. Both these successes had been achieved in large aircraft and after elaborate preparations.

Hinkler approached the problem in another way altogether. He bought an Avro Baby, a miniature machine which may be regarded as the forerunner of today's light aeroplane. He fitted the Avro Baby with a second-hand 35 horse-power Green engine. This engine was already ten years old. Thus equipped, Hinkler proposed to fly nearly halfway across the world.

Small wonder that the sceptics derided and that the authorities frowned on his attempt. Hinkler refused to be discouraged and he took off from Croydon on May 31, 1920, on his adventurous flight. He reached Turin, in the north of Italy, without a stop in nine and a half hours. The distance was about 700 miles. On his first day he had established a record; for this was the longest flight that had up to then been made in a light aeroplane.

Encouraged by this success, Hinkler was determined to continue. Officialdom, however, thought otherwise, and permission was refused for him to fly over the Iraq desert, which lay on the direct line of his route. Reluctantly Hinkler had to abandon his attempt. He returned to London, having flown a distance of 2,250 miles in a total flying time of thirty-four and a half hours. He had failed in his first attempt to fly from England to Australia, but he had triumphantly proved that the light aeroplane was a practicable type of aircraft for long-distance flying.

In the same year, 1920, Hinkler made a remarkable non-stop flight in Australia. In the same class of machine — an Avro Baby — he flew from Sydney to his birthplace, Bundaberg, a distance of 800 miles, in nine hours. His fellow Australians were much impressed with the performance of his diminutive aeroplane and he demonstrated it in various places in the Dominion.

Soon after these successes, Hinkler became a test pilot for A. V. Roe and Company, Ltd. He held this position for seven years and won numerous prizes in competitions. In 1924, at the Light Aeroplane Competition held at Lympne, Kent, by the Air Ministry, Hinkler demonstrated an Avro Avis. This was a small two-seater biplane, with a 34 horse-power Bristol Cherub engine. The Avro Avis was a normal tractor biplane, with equal top and bottom wings, having a span of 30 feet. The wings were made to fold, so that the machine could be housed in a normal motor garage. Fully loaded, the biplane weighed only 950 lb.

In this machine, Hinkler gave a demonstration of aerobatics. At that time there was no question of an Air Ministry certificate for aerobatics and everyone was impressed by the little aeroplane's sturdiness.

London to Riga Non-Stop

Afterwards Hinkler tested an Avro Avian, the type of machine in which he was later to make some of his most noteworthy flights. The Avian was generally similar to the Avis, except that it had a 30-80 horse-power Cirrus engine. It seated two people in tandem fashion, and was of metal construction, The span was 28 feet and the weight, fully loaded, 1,485 lb.

A year later Hinkler accompanied the British Schneider Trophy team to the United States, but his assistance was not sufficient to ensure a win by Great Britain, as the United States won the trophy in 1925.

In September 1927 Hinkler demonstrated the capabilities of the Avro Avian and his genius for aerial navigation. He flew without a stop from London to Riga, the capital of Latvia — a distance of 1,200 miles. This was the longest non-stop flight hitherto made in a light aeroplane. Hinkler's navigational skill was regarded by many people as uncanny. Without any of the modern aids to navigation, he was able to set a course of wonderful accuracy. It was said of him that “he carried a compass in his head”.

The year 1928 was to establish the position of Hinkler as one of the world's greatest aviators. In February of that year he made his record-breaking flight from England to Australia. His machine was again an Avro Avian light biplane, with an 80 horse-power Cirrus II air-cooled engine. The Avian was a two-seater, but the passenger accommodation was taken up by extra fuel tanks, to give long range. The biplane and its engine were two years old.

AN ENGLAND-AUSTRALIA FLIGHT was begun by Hinkler in his Baby Avro in 1920

AN ENGLAND-AUSTRALIA FLIGHT was begun by Hinkler in his Baby Avro in 1920. On the first day he made a non-stop flight of 700 miles from Croydon to Turin, in the north of Italy. The flight took nine and a half hours and established a record for the longest flight by a light aeroplane. The authorities had little faith in Hinkler's aircraft and refused him permission to cross the Iraq desert. As this desert was on the direct line of his route, Hinkler had to abandon his attempt.

This time the authorities made no attempt to ban the flight, as the light aeroplane had by now proved its worth. Thus the fiasco of eight years before was not repeated. Hinkler, too, though a born flier, had doubtless learnt a great deal in the eight years since his first attempt on the England-Australia flight, and aircraft had become more trustworthy and efficient. But even so, there was no Government assistance and no elaborate preliminary work had been done. On the other hand, the aviator was full of confidence and the aircraft was in first-rate condition. So good was this condition that, despite the searching test to which the Avro Avian was to be put, scarcely any repairs to machine or to engine were necessary during the flight of more than 10,000 miles. Hinkler took off from Croydon at 6.48 a.m. on February 7. Flying across western Europe, he arrived on the outskirts of Rome in the evening of the same day. He had flown 1,100 miles without a stop. The distance was not quite so great as that of his London—Riga flight of the year before; but this first day's performance was most encouraging. On none of the succeeding days of Hinkler's flight to Australia was he to cover so great a distance.

On the next day he flew from Rome to Malta, a distance of 400 miles, in six hours. On February 9 he crossed the Mediterranean Sea from Malta to Benghazi, in Libya, and then flew eastwards along the north African coast to Tobruk. The distance from Malta to Tobruk was 980 miles.

The flight was resumed on February 11, when Hinkler flew from Tobruk to Ramleh, in Palestine. This was the shortest leg of the flight, as the distance covered was only 350 miles. The next day Hinkler had intended to fly from Ramleh to Baghdad, but he made such progress that he passed Baghdad and went on to Basra, at the head of the Persian Gulf. He made a non-stop flight of 900 miles in nine and a half hours.

Another long flight — of 800 miles — took Hinkler on February 13 from Basra to Jask, in Persia (now Iran). On the next day he flew 580 miles from Jask to Karachi. Hinkler thus set up a new record for a flight from England to India. He had averaged about 650 miles a day and the credit was entirely his. Not only was he flying alone, but he also tended the machine and its engine at the various stops with little or no assistance. The only defect had been a slight leak in an oil tank which had developed while Hinkler was flying down the Persian Gulf. This leak was quickly repaired by R.A.F. mechanics.

From Karachi, in the west of India, to Victoria Point, in the extreme south of Burma, required four days. On the first of these days — February 15 — Hinkler flew halfway across India over Sind and Rajputana to Cawnpore, in the United Provinces. His day's log was 850 miles. On the next day he completed the crossing of India, with a flight of 650 miles from Cawnpore to Calcutta. At Calcutta Hinkler met the German pilot Konnecke, who had been delayed there on a flight to Japan.

Continuous Rainstorms

The next two days were extremely trying. On the 650-miles stage from Calcutta to Rangoon, Hinkler, like so many other fliers before and since, ran into storms and rain and was much exhausted. He flew across the Bay of Bengal to Akyab, in Burma, and then had to rise to 7,500 feet to clear the Yoma Mountains. The rain continued on the 500-miles stretch from Rangoon south to Victoria Point, and visibility became poor. Hinkler relied on his sense of direction and arrived safely at Victoria Point on February 18.

From now on the route was over the Malay Peninsula. Singapore was reached on February 19 in nine hours without a stop from Victoria Point. The distance was 720 miles. Rain continued to harass the flier and he had to make several detours. Hinkler had reached Singapore in the then remarkable time of thirteen days from England and he had achieved this feat in a light aeroplane.

But Hinkler could not afford to relax. Two of the most perilous days of the whole journey lay before him. On February 20 he headed south-east from Singapore, flew over the Equator towards the Java Sea and found himself in the region of the Netherlands East Indies. He landed at Bandung, in Java, 625 miles from Singapore. The next day, after a flight of 900 miles, he touched down at Bima, a busy port on the island of Sumbawa. Sumbawa lies east of the island of Java. Although Hinkler needed a good night's rest in preparation for the ordeal of the last day, he was kept awake at Bima by mosquitoes.

HINKLER’S BABY AVRO was a monoplane fitted with a second-hand thirty-five horse-power Green engine

HINKLER’S BABY AVRO was a monoplane fitted with a second-hand thirty-five horse-power Green engine. This engine was a V-twin and was ten years old. The Baby Avro was a forerunner of the modern light aeroplane. Hinkler, without cap, is standing beside his Baby Avro during an aviation meeting at Lympne. Kent.

On February 22 Hinkler left Bima for Port Darwin. He was faced with a flight of 1,000 miles, 600 miles of which were over the lonely and dangerous Timor Sea. He had taken with him no food and no water. Doubtless he had reasoned that he would either be successful in reaching the continent of Australia or that if he were forced down on the water there was not the slightest chance of his rescue by a passing vessel, and that therefore there was no point in worrying about provisions. At 4 p.m. Hinkler sighted the Australian coast and at 6 p.m. he landed at Port Darwin after having made the second longest day's flight of the whole journey.

Hinkler had flown from Croydon to Port Darwin in fifteen and a half days. The previous best time had been twenty-eight days. His total flying time was 134 hours, or five days fourteen hours. He had made the first solo flight and the first light aeroplane flight from England to Australia. He had made the longest solo flight on record and the fastest flight so far from England to India. His total expenses had been £50.

His success aroused the greatest enthusiasm in Australia and in the United Kingdom. His progress through Australia became a triumph. King George V awarded him the Air Force Cross. The Royal Australian Air Force made him an honorary squadron leader. Not only was his flight magnificent in itself, but it showed also that an air route from England to Australia was not beyond the bounds of possibility.

Fired by Hinkler’s example, other fliers attempted to beat his record. In 1930 Miss Amy Johnson made her wonderful solo flight from England to Australia. This was the first solo flight by a woman between the two countries. She left England on May 5, 1930, and reached Port Darwin on May 24. She thus failed to beat Hinkler’s record by about three days. In the same year Charles Kingsford-Smith made a successful attack on the record. He left Heston on October 9 and reached Port Darwin on October 19. His time was nine days twenty-one hours forty minutes.

2,000 Miles Across South Atlantic

At the time of writing [autumn 1938] the record from England to Port Darwin is held by the Comet monoplane, piloted by C. W. A. Scott and the late T. Campbell Black,which won the England-Australia race of 1934. The Comet flew from Mildenhall (Suffolk) to Port Darwin in two days four hours thirty-four minutes; it reached Melbourne, the capital of the State of Victoria, in two days twenty-two hours fifty-eight minutes. Although all credit is due to the Comet for its amazing speed over the course, no praise is too high for the achievement of Hinkler in his small biplane six years earlier. In this connexion, on the record-breaking flight in 1938 of Flying Officer A. E. Clouston and Victor Ricketts from England to New Zealand and back, the England to Australia record was not beaten.

Hinkler was not one to remain satisfied with his achievements. He was always hoping to surpass them. In 1931 occurred the supreme flight of his career. This was a flight from New York to London by way of Jamaica, South America, the South Atlantic Ocean, West Africa and western Europe. He spent about six weeks on the way, as he left New York on October 27, and did not reach London until December 7.

Again Hinkler relied on a light aeroplane. His machine this time was a De Havilland Puss Moth. Again he flew without extraneous aid and with the help of the fewest possible instruments. He left North Beach Airport, New York, on October 27 and flew without a stop to Kingston, the capital of the island of Jamaica, in eighteen and a quarter hours. Most of his flight was during the night.

As the Puss Moth did not carry certain equipment for night flying required by the United States regulations, he had to fly nearly all the way over the sea. Had he been allowed to take a more normal route, he would probably have flown over the eastern States of the U.S.A. as far as Florida, and then have crossed the Florida Channel and the island of Cuba to Jamaica. As it was, he set up the first of the many records that he was to establish on this flight. He made the first non-stop flight from New York to Jamaica.


ONE OF THE LAST PHOTOGRAPHS taken of Hinkler. It shows the pilot in front of his Puss Moth aircraft just before he set off on January 7, 1933, on an attempt to beat the record set up by C. W. A. Scott in 1932 for a flight from England to Australia. Although Hinkler was seen over the Alps on the same day as he began his flight, nothing was heard of him for about four months. Then his crashed aircraft was found on the slopes of the Pratango Mountains in the Apennines.

On November 9 Hinkler flew 700 miles across the Caribbean Sea from Kingston to Maracaibo, the important port in the west of Venezuela. He then flew by easy stages to Port Natal, Brazil. Port Natal, which is situated on the east coast of South America, is almost the nearest point on that continent to Africa. Bathurst, the chief town of the Crown colony of Gambia, is the nearest African place of any importance to South America. Hinkler proposed to fly in a light-aeroplane between these points. Such a flight meant crossing about 2,000 miles of the South Atlantic Ocean. Cautious people said that he was courting disaster, as the chances of success appeared to be infinitesimal. Hinkler was determined on the attempt.

He took off from Port Natal on November 25 in apparently favourable conditions. The sky was clear at the start. Soon, however, the weather worsened. Hinkler spent six hours flying only a few feet above the water, with clouds racing overhead. The clouds became worse. Storm after storm spent its fury on the small aircraft. In the middle of the night, instead of flying close to the water, Hinkler was obliged to ascend to a height of 12,000 feet. Even then he could not escape the clouds. His outward vision was obscured; he had no blind-flying instruments. His only aids were two compasses and his own unerring instinct.

At last, when he had only enough fuel for two or three hours more, he crossed the African coast. That was achievement enough in itself. The achievement was made astonishing by the fact that he crossed the coast only about ten miles south of Bathurst. Hampered by bad weather most of the way and without any other guide than his compasses, he had made his landfall with a degree of error in a journey of 2,000 miles that must be regarded as amazing in its slightness.

Many records were set up by Hinkler on this flight, in addition to the New York-Jamaica record. He had made the first light aeroplane crossing of the Atlantic, the first west-to-east crossing of the South Atlantic, the longest nonstop journey in a light aeroplane, and the only solo crossing of the Atlantic since Lindbergh's flight in 1927. On December 7, 1931, Hinkler arrived in London. He had flown 10,000 miles from New York by a decidedly novel route.

British Aviation’s Greatest Prize

In addition to the Air Force Cross awarded by King George V to Hinkler and the honorary rank of squadron leader given him by Australia, he received recognition in many ways. He was awarded the Britannia Challenge Trophy three times. The Britannia Challenge Trophy is generally regarded as the greatest prize of British aviation. It is awarded annually to the British aviator who, in the opinion of the Committee appointed by the Royal Aero Club, shall have accomplished the most meritorious performance in the air during the year. In this connexion the expression “British aviator” includes members of the British Empire; Hinkler was therefore eligible, as an Australian-born aviator. Hinkler won the trophy in 1920, 1928 and 1931.

The South Atlantic crossing gained for Hinkler also the Segrave Trophy and the Oswald Watt Gold Plaque (see the chapter “Some Famous Air Trophies”).

The air, which had shown Hinkler's great qualities, was to claim him in the end. On January 7, 1933, he began another flight from England to Australia with the intention of beating the record set up in April 1932 by C. W. A. Scott, in a D.H. Moth, with a time of eight days twenty hours forty-seven minutes. Hinkler was reported over the Alps the same day as he had set out from England; after that there was no news. An intensive search was begun in the Alps, without avail. In May 1933 some wandering charcoal burners came across the wreckage of Hinkler's machine on the lonely slopes of the Pratango Mountains, in the Apennines. In that desolate spot a monument was erected to his memory. Thus ended the life of an aviator who had crowded into his forty-one years an astonishing succession of triumphs.

IN FIFTEEN AND A HALF DAYS, Hinkler flew in his Avro Avian from Croydon to Australia in 1928

IN FIFTEEN AND A HALF DAYS, Hinkler flew in his Avro Avian from Croydon to Australia in 1928. This achievement was the first solo flight and the first light aeroplane flight between England and Australia. For this flight Hinkler was awarded the Air Force Cross and made an honorary squadron leader of the Royal Australian Air Force. His total expenses for the trip were £50.

You can read more on “Charles Augustus Lindbergh”, “The Designer of the Avro” and

“Charles Kingsford-Smith” on this website.

Herbert Hinkler: The Brilliant Navigator