The First Hundred Pilots: Foundation of the Flying School

Preliminary Work.—The Provisional Board of Directors appointed at the inaugural meeting, held office until the first general meeting of the Company, on December 7th, 1916. Immediately after its constitution, it proceeded to set up committees to attend to the promotion of the Company generally, to select a site for the aviation ground, to prepare plans and supervise the erection of buildings, to order aeroplanes and manufacturing and repairing machinery, to attend to finance and office management, to define the relationship of the school to the Defence Department, and to obtain the recognition of the War Office and the Royal Flying Corps.

Mr. C. W. Hervey was appointed Secretary, and his office, 59 Cathedral Square, Christchurch, was registered as the office of the Company. The prospectus was filed until the Company was registered on September 20th. On October 27th a sufficient number of shares had been applied for to enable the Directors to proceed to allotment.

Choice of Site for Aerodrome.—It may be thought that with the wide area of the Canterbury Plains from which to choose, there should have been no difficulty in selecting a good aerodrome. At least a dozen excellent sites were offered and inspected, but the difficulty of the problem lay in the desire of the Provisional Directors to select the best site possible, and one which could not be eclipsed by future rivals. They looked ahead to the time, after the war, when an aerodrome would be a practical necessity for every city the size of Christchurch, when the postal service would be carried by air, and private owners would want their hangars and aerodrome just as motorists now need a garage. Accessibility to the city would then become a point of primary importance. It so happens that Christchurch is surrounded by a barrage of suburban residence with their gardens and orchards, and worse than all, from a flying point of view, with an entanglement of telegraph, telephone and electric light and power wires. The site finally selected is under six miles from the centre of the city, and within a few minutes' walk of the electric trams and of a railway station (Sockburn). The original purchase consisted of rather over a hundred acres, but has since been added to. The land had been used as a small grazing farm, and was mostly in grass, but a good deal of levelling had to be done to improve the surface, and the intersecting hedges and plantation taken out. The site possesses other special advantages. It adjoins the Canterbury Park Trotting ground, which affords good landing ground in case of emergency and is not likely to be built over, and perhaps more important still, it is within reach of electric light and power supply from the Government installation at Lake Coleridge. Looking towards the south and east the Port Hills form a fine background, while on the west the snowy summits of the great chain of the Southern Alp stretch in an unbroken line along the whole horizon. Both ranges are too far away to cause any atmospheric disturbance at the aerodrome. (Subsequent experience over a year has enabled Mr Hill, the Company's instructor, to say that the climate and wind conditions are exceptionally favourable for flying, and that his pupils have been able to put in far more hours per week than he could ever get done at Hendon). The lay of the ground has allowed a straight, level course of nearly a mile to be laid out in a direction favourable to its use when the prevailing winds are blowing, and here several pupils can practise straight flights, simultaneously, without interfering with one another.

The Provisional Board of Directors did valuable service to the Company, and when the time came: for them to relinquish their office they had not only secured a site and placed orders for three machines, but had collected information which was of great use to the Permanent Board which succeeded them.

Board of Directors

Elected at the First General Meeting of the Company, December l7, 1916, all of whom are still in office.

HON. H. F. WIGRAM, M.L.C., Chairman.
RICHARD ALLEN, Riccarton Mills.
ROBERT BELL, now Managing Director of the Lyttelton Times Co.
A. W. BEAVEN, of the engineering firm of Andrews and Beaven.
COL. R. A. CHAFFY, Officer Commanding the Canterbury Military District.
C. H. HEWLETT, Canterbury (N.Z.) Seed Co., Ltd., now President of the Canterbury Chamber of Commerce.
GEORGE HUMPHREYS, of the firm of Fletcher, Humphreys and Co.
C. W. REID, of the firm of Pyne and Co.
Technical Adviser: PROFESSOR R. J. SCOTT, M.I.C.E., of Canterbury College, Christchurch.
Auditor: WALTER J. MOORE, F.P.A., N.Z.
Secretary and Office: C. W. HERVEY, 59 Cathedral Square, Christchurch.

The new Board had a very busy time for the first few months. It had first to plan the lay-out of the whole works, the hangars, the repairing shop, the pupils' quarters, and those of the staff, and order the plant and machinery. One of the first difficulties met with was the delay in obtaining shipment of the aeroplanes ordered. It chanced that both the French and British Governments were concerned, as the engines came from France, and the planes from England, and the consent of innumerable departments of each Government had to be obtained. Weary months went by while our London agents were struggling with Government red tape, and it was not till April, 1917, that the first machine arrived. The delay had one advantage, the preparatory work at this end had not to be hurried, and time was accordingly given to the consideration of every detail.

Instructor.—Another matter which engaged the early attention of the Board was the appointment of an instructor. It had been contemplated that the position should be offered to Lieutenant Scotland, a young New Zealander who had brought out an aeroplane, and had made some pioneer flights here, and at the outbreak of war had volunteered for service and been sent to Mesopotamia, where he served with the Royal Flying Corps. He had been invalided back to New Zealand, and it was thought that his health would soon permit him to take up tuition work. Soon after the election of the Board, Lieutenant Scotland definitely declined the position on account of health, and the Board had to look elsewhere. There were several candidates for the post, but before making any appointment the Directors asked and obtained the assistance of the Government in making enquiries through the High Commissioner in London. The High Commissioner strongly recommended Mr. C. M. Hill, who had been chief instructor in the Hall Flying School, at Hendon, England. Mr. Hill was appointed, and arrived in Christchurch on May 3, 1917, about a fortnight after the first machine had been delivered.

Aeroplane Fleet.—One of the first acts of the Provisional Board had been to take over the contract entered into by the Chairman for the purchase of two Caudron-Anzani aeroplanes, and to order a third machine of the same make. The first machine to arrive, though not the first ordered, was a 60 h.p. dual-control, and after the first few flights it developed structural weakness in its engine, and had to go into dock for extensive repairs. While these repairs were being carried out, Mr. Mackie set to work to build a plane for a 46 h.p. engine, originally imported by Lieut. Scotland, and afterwards purchased by the Company. The pupils all lent a hand at the building, and the new machine was flown by Mr. Hill on July 21. It was christened "Whitewings" by the boys, and was a great success, all the pupils for the first few months taking their tickets on it. Mr. Mackie came to us from the Auckland School, where he had already established a reputation as a builder of aeroplanes. Since he has been with us he has built several more planes, which are not only cheaper than the imported models, but considerably lighter and possessing greater stability, so much so in fact, that we are now importing engines only, and building our own planes. Mr Mackie has been equally successful as a maker of propellers, so that except for engines the Company is independent of the imported article. The two other machines originally ordered arrived later, and others have since been imported, so that at present the Company has a sufficient reserve of machines to ensure the continuance of training without interruption.

The School's Progress.—The school may be said to have started operations on June 10th, 1917, when the first passenger flights were made in Canterbury. There was then only one machine, the 60 H.P. two-seater, and in it Mr. Hill took up, successively, the Chairman and Mrs. Wigram and the six pupils then in residence. A month later the first machine built on the premises became available, and on this machine, on August 24, all six pupils took their certificates, flying the machine they had helped to build. Major (now Colonel) Sleeman, I.G.S., was the Supervisor, and complimented Mr. Hill on the excellence of his pupils' performances. Four days later Mr. Mercer, who had joined the school a great deal later than the others, took his "ticket," He had been selected to train for the position of assistant instructor, and could not otherwise have entered the school, as he was over the age (25 years) at that time the maximum allowed for entry in the Royal Flying Corps. For some months the progress of school work was slow, there were only two machines, and one or other was often under repair, thus only two "tickets" were taken in September, and the same number in October. After that time the numbers steadily increased, as more machines were provided and Mr. Mercer became fully qualified. A third instructor was also engaged, Mr. Dawson, who had learnt his flying at the Auckland school. Thus from November to January of the present year the certificates averaged seven per month, and from February to May, the average jumped to twelve per month. Eighty-two pupils had ticketed by May 31st, and the instructional staff began to hope that the hundredth pupil would pass by June 19th the first anniversary of the opening of the school. On the 6th of June six pupils were ready for their tests, and passed very creditably. Two days later four more tickets were recorded, and on June 12th three more were added to the school register, making a total of thirteen tickets within seven days. The remaining five pupils ticketed on Monday, the 17th of June giving a display of correct flying, with good landings.

In the original building accommodation for twelve pupils was provided, but this accommodation has been since increased to keep pace with the growing requirements of the school.

Actual Flying Time.—The records of the school show that the first hundred pupils made 14,791 distinct flights, both dual-control and solo, an average of nearly 150 flights per pupil.- There were 363 hours 46 minutes of dual-control instruction in the air, and 286 hours 26 minutes of solo flying. At the average speed of the machines this represented about 30,000 miles flown. These figures, it is understood, represent a liberal flying time for the pupil compared with the course at Hendon, but near Christchurch the weather is extremely favourable for flying, especially in autumn and winter, when there is a succession of frosty nights and clear sunny days; but even in the more windy summer weather, the high-powered training machines have enabled pupils to go up in fairly strong winds. It was estimated at first that the average time of tuition would he about two months, but as more machines and instructors were provided the time was steadily reduced, and now averages, probably, one month.

Canterbury School of Aviation and the Defence Department.—The primary object with which the Company was founded was to train airmen for service with the Royal Flying Corps, and everything else has been subordinated to that purpose.

The Company, so far, has not received one penny from exhibitions, and the only passenger flights have been given in recognition of assistance rendered to the school, Mr. Hill's time being fully taken up in attending to his pupils.

The Defence Department practically acts as agents in New Zealand for the Royal Flying Corps (now the Royal Air Service). The Directors have therefore endeavoured to carry on the school as if it were a branch of the Defence Department. In order to do so they have submitted drafts of any proposed regulations for the conduct of the school to the officers of the Department, and have accepted any amendments or alterations proposed. They have only received pupils approved by the Department as suitable, and made it a condition of admission that they should sign an undertaking to enlist in the R.F.C., as soon as they gained their pilot's certificate. (There has been one exception made, that of Mr. Mercer, who, as mentioned above, was specially trained as an assistant instructor).

The Defence Department, on its side, has given the Company valuable assistance, and Sir James Allen, Minister of Defence, has on several occasions invoked the help of the High Commissioner in London, notably in the engagement of Mr. Hill, and in the purchase of engines and in obtaining permits to ship. The Government as a whole have been friendly disposed towards the school, and has admitted its aeroplanes, etc., free of duty, and supplied power and lighting from Lake Coleridge on favourable terms.

Many members of the Cabinet have visited the school, and two of them (the Hon. W. D. S. MacDonald and the Hon. T. M. Wilford), have trusted themselves to Mr. Hill's guidance in the air.

Course of Instruction.—The primary object of the school being to teach flying, when the weather is suitable, everything has to give place to this. But when the wind is too strong for flying, the pupils are taken in hand in the workshop by Mr. Hill and Mr. Mackie, and taught the principles of construction and repair, and given practical instruction in the care and maintenance of aeroplanes and engines. The Defence Department has also arranged for a course of drill and of instruction in military subjects. It was originally hoped to arrange for courses of lectures on such kindred subjects as map reading, wireless telegraphy, signalling, observation, machine-gunnery, photography, etc., but the curtailment of the average length of the training has compelled a revision of the original programme. Moreover, all these subjects form part of the course that the pupils will have to undergo after their arrival in England. The position, as the Directors understand it, is that the Royal Air Service asks us to send certificated pilots, as many and as soon as possible; if they have some knowledge of the construction of the engines and planes they use, and of the elements of military drill, so much the better, but their departure ought not to be delayed for instruction in other subjects, which in any case they will have to take up at Home.

"The Waiting List."—Up to the present time, there have been more pupils offering than could be accommodated, and some of those who wished to enter could not afford time to wait, perhaps being called in the ballot, or for other reasons. The services of these intending pilots were lost to the Air Service. This was unavoidable; no time or expense was spared in obtaining tuition machines and instructors, but for reasons already given, the Directors had to be patient. But the school is now gradually overtaking its arrears, and when the aeroplanes now on the water arrive, and perhaps other instructors are appointed, it is hoped that pupils can be taken in as fast as they may offer themselves.

"After the War."—It is not intended here to attempt any forecast of the future of aviation, but merely to refer to the prospects which may reasonably be anticipated for the Company. Undoubtedly there will return to New Zealand scores, perhaps hundreds of young aviators who will be anxious to continue their calling. Some of them probably will continue in the Defence Forces, some will act as mailmen, some as chauffeur aviators for wealthy owners, some will own and drive their own 'buses. It is tolerably certain that an aerodrome will be needed in each centre, with a range of hangars and a repairing shop. There will still be young men eager to learn to fly, though for reasons given above they will not be so numerous as at present. It may be some time before aero-engines can be built locally, but, as has been demonstrated, we can build the planes, and we may be able to secure the agency of one of the first-class aero-engines. Probably for some time to come the public will be ready to support exhibitions of flying, and there will be a demand for joy rides. The Company claims that with a well-appointed aerodrome within twenty minutes' ride in an electric tramcar of the centre of the city, it should be well placed to supply these various demands, and also give occasional exhibitions at other centres. Already, and without interfering with the work of the school, the ground is being laid out and planted, with the view of its becoming one of the most attractive sports grounds within reach of the citizens of Christchurch.

The First Hundred.—The first brood of the school's airmen were taken for their maiden trip in the air on June 19, and passed their R.F.C. test on August 24, 1917. The hundredth pilot took his certificate on June 17, 1918, and by a curious coincidence, he happened to be the hundredth pupil to enter the school. Only one of the first hundred to enter failed to qualify. He was taken ill soon after entering, and had to give up, and as it was no fault of his own the greater part of his fees was refunded. The first certificate was taken by Edwin Wilding, a younger brother of the late Captain Anthony Wilding, an old Christ's College boy, and the hundredth by L. A. Stewart, who came from Wanganui College. The first hundred were not all " College " boys; many were skilled mechanics. One, who gave promise of becoming a daring airman, was a Maori, but taken as a whole, they will be found to represent a fine type of young New Zealand manhood. Many of the earlier pupils have written from England or Egypt, expressing their appreciation of the training they received at the Canterbury School, and in particular of Mr. Hill's method of instruction. These unsolicited testimonials, coming as they do from our boys after they have had experience of other schools and other instructors, are very gratifying to the executive officers of the Company. We, at this end, desire to keep track of the pupils who have passed through our hands, and to establish and maintain an "esprit de corps" amongst them, past, present and future; with that object we have established a school register, in which every pupil has his page, beginning with the date he entered the school and the date he took his pilot's certificate, to be followed by such records as his subsequent career may afford. Letters received from ex-pupils are typewritten and circulated amongst the present pupils, by whom they are much appreciated.

HENRY F. WIGRAM, Chairman.