Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Man Who Saved Smithy - Rick Searle


P.G. Taylor. It is a name that is ever-present when speaking of Australian aviation history. It rolls off the tongue easily and when it does everyone instinctively understands with reverence. This is a name, this is a man who can stand alongside Kingsford-Smith, Ulm, Hinkler and others as a great aviation pioneer. A prolific author, Taylor was an independent, insightful and analytical man always on the look out for his next adventure. His is a name that generates some measure of recognition in many Australians although less so than his great friend Kingsford-Smith. This, hopefully, may change with the release of a new book by Rick Searle. It is the first time in some years that a book about our greatest navigator has been available in the mainstream market.

Taylor was born in Sydney in 1896 and grew up in an innocent new country. His childhood was one of outdoor adventures and he spent a lot of time sailing on Pittwater, north of Sydney. It was an idyllic upbringing punctuated by an education that attempted to smother him and set him on the path to the family business.

With the world at war, the twenty-year old joined the Royal Flying Corps and eventually flew Sopwith Pups over the Western Front. His first instructor’s approach to training disturbed Taylor so much that he refused to fly with him. It proved a wise decision and is an example of one of the many occasions when his sense of order and gut-feeling saved his life.

A distinctly worn Taylor, now with a Military Cross to his name, returned to Australia in 1919 and decided his future lay in aviation. Commercial aviation at the time was in its infancy and there were long periods where he did not fly. It was during this time, when his chosen career was not guaranteed, that he applied himself to the study of engineering and, importantly, to that of navigation by air. It had occurred to Taylor that the pioneering flights like that of Alcock and Brown across the Atlantic, magnificent as they were, had not involved much navigation at all, particularly as there was little requirement to arrive at a pinpoint target. Taylor looked to the future and saw aircraft crossing the oceans. He set to mastering navigation from the air and even developed his own equipment, and bought a DH Moth on floats, to hone his skills with practical experience.

It was his love of the water, and the realisation of the joy of operating an aircraft from its surface, that set him on a path that would rule the next forty years of his life. In the meantime, however, he needed a flying job not just to further his desire for a career in aviation but to put his hard-won knowledge into practice. He applied for a position with Kingsford-Smith’s Australian National Airways (ANA) and was initially dismayed by the seat of the pants flying and dead-reckoning that was the norm. He questioned what he had been learning and his vision of the future but, being the man he was, recognised the current state of affairs as an opportunity. There began a decade-long friendship with the men behind ANA – Charles Ulm and Charles Kingsford-Smith.

At the time, ANA only just managed to keep its head above water. It was a familiar tune for Kingsford-Smith’s ventures. They all seemed to simply get by but even that was only after tireless lobbying of the authorities, corporate supporters and careful massaging of the public image. Taylor became one of the few men allowed to fly the famous ‘Southern Cross’, VH-USU, and his navigational expertise made him first choice for Kingsford-Smith’s forthcoming adventures.

Taylor was involved in separate attempts by Ulm and Kingsford-Smith to win airmail contracts but both were thwarted by their equipment and by the authorities that already had the major airlines in their ear. He proved his mettle when he flew the first west to east crossing of the Pacific with Kingsford-Smith in the Lockheed Altair ‘Lady Southern Cross’. Flying a single engine aircraft, albeit the most modern aircraft they were to fly together, across the Pacific was a remarkable feat but a year later, 1935, they were coaxing the ‘Southern Cross’ back to Australia during an aborted mail flight to New Zealand.

The exhaust manifold of the centre engine had fallen off and smashed into the starboard propeller. Now out of balance, the propeller caused a violent vibration. The men managed to find the ideal mix of power and attitude to fly the aircraft, now on two engines, as they turned back home. The port engine, working harder than it should have been, began to burn oil at a prodigious rate. The only solution, to keep this motor going, was to drain the starboard engine’s oil tank. Taylor climbed out of the aircraft, with Kingsford-Smith losing hard won height to lessen the airstream’s impact on his body, numerous times to collect the oil and transfer it, again by climbing out of the aircraft, to the hungry port engine. It is one of the great Australian aviation stories and the stuff of legend. Our hero received the Empire Gallantry Medal (later updated to the George Cross) for his actions.

With the loss of Ulm and Kingsford-Smith, Taylor’s reputation as an aviator grew. It was as almost as though he was the last man standing (barely at times as his health took a knock after the loss of Smithy), and to some extent he was, so the spotlight easily picked him out. In the late 1930s, however, the world was starting to look dangerous again. The flying boat was the last word in long-distance travel and Taylor, ever looking forward, noted the current route from England to Australia could easily be disrupted by enemy action. An alternative Indian Ocean route was needed and Taylor discovered an aircraft, one of the very few in the region at the time, that was perfect for the job. He had found a Catalina.

The flight from Port Hedland via the Cocos and Diego Garcia to Mombasa was not without its problems but the route was proven. It was perhaps the last great pre-war pioneering flight. With the outbreak of war, Taylor, who had seen it all before, applied the same logic to the Pacific and figured his best contribution to the war effort would be to survey the southern half of the great ocean for an alternative air route. The Australian government showed little interest and, after he had wangled a flight to the US to plead his case there, Taylor found the Americans had their own plans and were not about to let an Australian get in the way. England was the next port of call for his lobbying but he met the OC of RAF Ferry Command before he left Canada. He was attracted to the idea of flying the Atlantic ferry and, after failing to attract any further interest for his Pacific venture, did just that after settling his family in a mountain cottage in south-western Quebec. He flew Liberators across the Atlantic and returned to the Pacific to again deliver Catalinas to the RAAF (he had crewed on nine of the original PBY-5s to arrive in Australia early in the war). It was a most satisfying time for his career, state of mind and his family as his wife was recovering from revolutionary radiation treatment for breast cancer. He could at last concentrate and enjoy his flying without wondering whether it would even happen. The Pacific, however, still beckoned.

The RAF finally agreed on a South Pacific survey flight and provided Taylor with a Catalina that he named ‘Frigate Bird’. After much delay, the survey left Mexico for Clipperton Island and, after setting up a base there, continued on to Australia. Taylor returned to ferry work but this time flew the transport version of the Consolidated Privateer, the RY-3, for the British Commonwealth’s new trans-Pacific service.

With the war over, Taylor dabbled in several business ventures and returned to the life of an airline pilot when he joined Bryan Monkton’s Trans Oceanic Airways (TOA) flying converted Sunderlands around the South Pacific. It was like ANA all over again with the upstart airline butting heads with the larger operators and always, it seemed, sailing fairly close to the wind. The death of Taylor’s beloved Joan, however, had him seeking a new venture and, again, he heard the call of the Pacific. Even Taylor saw that the days of the flying boat were numbered and that land-based aircraft would fly the long legs across the oceans. A South Pacific survey, locating ideal places for combined flying boat operations and airstrips, to South America caught his attention and a former RAAF Catalina became, and remains, ‘Frigate Bird II’.

The successful completion of this survey, again not without drama, saw a brief return to TOA before Taylor struck out on his own and bought a Short Sandringham. He fell in love with the aircraft at first sight and ‘Frigate Bird III’ became the flagship, and only aircraft, of the airline Pacific Cruisebird. Now it was Taylor against the giants and despite some initial success as a luxury way of touring the islands, he sold up. Heart problems caused him to fail his medical in 1959 and would continue to dog him until the heart attack that claimed him in 1966.

I have not enjoyed a book as much as this one for quite some time. Rick Searle has managed to fit Taylor’s life in to a 380+ page softcover. The main text covers 349 pages while the rest of the book contains a glossary, good index and a superb notes section filled with eye-wateringly attractive tangents the reader may find themselves following. It is a condensed biography of sorts but that is only to make it manageable and attractive to the mainstream market. I have no doubt the author could easily have written something twice as long and made it just as entertaining.

Taylor’s life and achievements are fascinating and we are fortunate he published many books of his own. Passages from these books are regularly featured throughout The Man Who Saved Smithy and the author makes no apologies for this. Who better to describe something than the man who experienced it? Here, Mr. Searle also highlights Taylor’s talent for the written word. The smaller font appears on the page to signify a quote and you dive in and are instantly immersed in his world. The more romantic reader, or even the pragmatist who appreciates such wonderful creation, will want to find Taylor’s books and completely drown in his delightful writing. I think that is one of the things the author set out to achieve.

While I don’t think we will see Taylor’s works reprinted (someone please prove me wrong), this book will generate renewed interest in the man. To help this along, the author, like Taylor, doesn’t do anything fancy. He gets on with the job and delivers an inviting narrative that gives Taylor his voice when needed but also looks beyond the flying and gets to grips with how and why the way he was. I had a couple of minor issues with the timeline as it jumped about a little here and there but that was purely a function of, correctly, not wanting to interrupt the narrative of a particular event or evolution in Taylor’s life. Other than a niggle with a date during Taylor’s RFC service and the honours precedence error on the cover (to be changed with the next printing), the editing has been well-handled (I haven’t said that in a while!) and, given the amount of information available, due to the author’s access to the National Library’s Taylor papers and the Powerhouse Museum’s (where ‘Frigate Bird II’ resides) P.G. Taylor collection, it is clear the publisher and the author have worked together well. They really have created an excellent, easy to read and accessible book.

With luck, one of Qantas’ future aircraft will be named “P.G. Taylor”. While this is somewhat ironic, given the frosty relationship Taylor had with Hudson Fysh etc, it will bring, albeit briefly, the name of Australia’s greatest navigator back to the public domain. But for The Man Who Saved Smithy, this may have been the final tip of the hat to Taylor. Now we have a book that re-introduces and celebrates the great man in as fine a fashion as possible. It is as good as any adventure tale with the added bonus that the quiet, intelligent, unassuming hero of the story receives the modern-day attention his life deserves.

ISBN 978-1-76011-340-7

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