The Department & the Vickers Vulcan

(Photo: CAHS collection)

In December 1921 the Civil Aviation Branch (CAB) decided to call for tenders for the operation of a subsidised air service to link the Queensland railheads of Charleville and Cloncurry. The chief advocate of this service had been Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service (Q.A.N.T.A.S.), but when the tender came out they had to compete with a number of other interested parties for the contract. One of the first, and most important, questions that arose what what type of aircraft they should tender with. Q.A.N.T.A.S. favoured the DH9C or Bristol Tourer but Colonel Brinsmead, the Controller of Civil Aviation (CCA) in the CAB, favoured a new aircraft just on the drawing board - the Vickers Vulcan.

The story of the Department's involvement in promoting the Vickers Vulcan in Australia is well told by Sir Hudson Fysh, then a Director and General Manager of Q.A.N.T.A.S., in the first volume of his autobiograhpy Qantas Rising:

"The Vickers Vulcan (later named 'The Flying Pig') was just coming out and on paper looked good, except that it seemed under-powered for our inland conditions. Colonel Brinsmead was very keen on it, and since we had Larkin tendering against us with the large Handasyde it appeared obvious that we would not secure the contract if we tendered a smaller type.

Here was a dilemma indeed...

Colonel Brinsmead continued to recommend the Vickers Vulcan.... On the 31st [of January 1922] we tendered with Vickers Vulcans.

The aeroplane was ahead of its time for passenger, mail and freight carriage, but with support from the public we felt we would get by somehow. The first thing was for the machine to meet a contract we were preparing as to performance, especially on the all-important rate of climb with full load.

We also sounded out agreement to a tender with only two aircraft instead of three, which would adequately cope with our once-weekly service and would entail only about 676 hours' flying a year. No, the tenders were open, and it was felt success would swing heavily towards the tenderer with the lowest price, the most imposing aircraft, and the greatest number of them.

At the last moment I heard that a northern tenderer had offered four Vulcans... However we decided to risk it with two Vulcans, and I hastily added a supporting DH4 and put the tender in hoping for the best."


The 'Flying Pig' - Vickers Vulcan G-EBET. (Photo: CAHS collection)

"On 2nd February 1922 I was able to wire McMaster [Q.A.N.T.A.S. Chairman] jubilantly from Melbourne: 'Tender accepted this morning...'

I now bought Ray Parer's DH4...and went off to Sydney to work out with our solicitors the contract with Vickers' agents, William Adams.

The aircraft were to cost us £3,700 each, and in addition to delivery dates and other details the main thing, of course, was performance. We got Vickers to agree to this, and I remember that the critical point was that the aeroplane had to climb to 10,000 feet with a full load on 13.5 minutes. This was a rate of 741 feet a minute and we knew that this would just do."

Back in Longreach, Fysh and Q.A.N.T.A.S. set about making plans for the commencement of the service:

"We had of course been making all our plans with the Vickers Vulcan in mind, but received a bombshell when a delay in delivery was indicated, followed by extreme doubt as to the suitability of the aircraft. This followed testing of the first aeroplane to be produced, when performance was away down on the contracted figures; the weight was much heavier than calculated."

Q.A.N.T.A.S. hurriedly made plans for substitute aircraft with which to commence their service. Meanwhile:

"...the Vulcan was tested in England and could climb to only 10,000 feet in 20 minutes instead of the 13.5 stipulated.

We refused the aircraft; but Vickers, not knowing our climatic conditions and having no reason to have confidence in our advice, insisted in sending it out at their own try to induce us to accept. The Controller of Civil Aviation also still had hopes for the aeroplane, and shortly after the service opened he flew to Longreach to see us. The departmental aircraft was a Bristol Tourer [G-AUCA] with a good performance.

...He [Brinsmead] met the Board [of Q.A.N.T.A.S.], was sympathetic in our now dire need, but induced us to defer a final decision till the aeroplane could be tested in our conditions.

On 31st January [1923] I had written to Colonel Brinsmead:

'I contend that a Vulcan in our conditions and on a hot day, would not get off the ground with full load.

'I hold that this Service and its conditions cannot be compared with the Western Australian Service, unless we have similar machines. A Bristol with a Puma engine is a high-powered machine...

'As I am writing this the thermometer stands at 110 degrees in the shade, only a slight breeze is blowing and today both Huxley and Back [Q.A.N.T.A.S. pilots] would agree with me that it would be positively unsafe to fly either the Avro Dyak or the Armstrong Whitworths with load between the hours of 11 a.m. and 8 p.m.

'Considering the above, is there any hope of the 'Vulcan' out here on a hot day? Unless the Vulcans will climb fully loaded to 10,000 ft in 13 1/2 minutes, it is impossible for me to recommend their acceptance. Their original specified performance would allow a load of 5-6 passengers, and cruise at under 1650 revs...

'To conclude, I stress that the first aim of this Company is absolute reliability of machines, and safety to passengers, as it is only on these conditions that commercial aviation can be built...'

On 13th February Brinsmead replied agreeing that the Vulcan would not meet our requirements efficiently in the summer months and granting us permission to cancel our contract with Vickers if we wished. The machine had arrived in Melbourne and was ready to be tested.

...Vickers were still optimistic and we agreed that the machine should come up to Longreach for final testing at their own expense. We ourselves, being on our last legs for aircraft, still hoped for some sort of miracle, and that we would be able to accept.

The Vulcan duly flew to Longreach, escorted by Captain Jones and Inspector Buchanan in the departmental Bristol Tourer, after a satisfactory trip from Melbourne. In those days the Vulcan, though rather squat and bulky for its power to the experienced eye, was an advanced aeroplane indeed with its beautifully upholstered cabin holding eight passengers. People came from near and far to see this impressive monster - nothing like it had ever been seen in Australia, and here it was in a small outback town.

On 27th March 1923 the Vulcan was tested, most of the Qantas directors being there to take the flight...

Finally Wigglesworth [the Vulcan's pilot] climbed into the high cockpit, the prop was swung, the Rolls came to life with a roar, chocks were away, and without any preliminary run up or taxiing out to the runway, opened up full out and careered away over the soft open downs country of the aerodrome. We cleared the fence by inches.

At 500 feet we just stuck there; not another inch of climb could Wigglesworth get out of her. Circling, we felt the gentle lift of a rising current and began to gain a little with the Rolls booming away full out in its struggle to drag us up against the force of gravity.

The heat in the cabin bacame terrific as we flew on and on, but at last Wigglesworth had to admit defeat and down we came to a good landing.

The result of the test was that after some forty-five minutes in the air carrying only approximately half the stipulated payload we had not even reached the contracted height, let alone the time stipulated to get there. All we could manage was 5,750 feet. After all, my statement of opinion that on a hot summer's day carrying full load the machine would not get off at all did not seem too far short of the mark.

Off I went [by rail] in a great hurry to see Colonel Brinsmead and, on the way, to negotiate...for cancellation of the Vulcan contract.

In Melbourne, I found the Controller most anxious to assist us...

Returned to Longeach, I found that Jones and Buchanan, Civil Aviation officers who had flown up for the Vulcan tests, had set off for Melbourne only to crash badly at Bourke. They were both in hospital there."

Thus ended the expensive and frustrating saga of the Vickers Vulcan. The misplaced faith of the CCA in the aircraft and the encouragement of Q.A.N.T.A.S. to use it against their own better judgement fortunately did not permanently sour relations between the airline and the Department. As Fysh notes:

"... early in our history we instituted a policy of working closely and loyally with our authority, the Civil Aviation Department, recognizing the fact that we were working together for the one end of furthering the advancement of air transport in Australia."

And, of course, under the patronage of the Department Q.A.N.T.A.S. went on to bigger and better things.

Extracts from Qantas Rising: The Autobiography of the Flying Fysh by Sir Hudson Fysh, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1965.

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