Friday, July 22, 2016

Taking Flight - Kristen Alexander


Aviation today doesn’t often make the headlines unless it’s bad news. Aircraft cross six of the seven continents hourly and usually do so to reach another continent on the other side of a vast ocean. Long distance flying is accepted if you want to see the world yet pilots of all ages still accept the challenge to tackle a route solo. Some do it in modern aircraft, some do it in vintage aircraft with or without a support crew. These flights remain remarkable achievements. If anything, today’s political and security landscape makes long-distance solo flights harder to plan let alone fly. This is especially so when trying to follow the flight path of a pioneer. Destinations have to be carefully picked and diversions assessed for their suitability and safety. Really, not a lot has changed since the early days of aviation. It is still an amazing effort to fly solo around Australia or fly to England in a Tiger Moth but, because of the airliners passing thousands of feet overhead, the mainstream don’t get it. It’s all been done before.

That’s the key point. Being the first to do something can’t be taken away. With the birth of aviation, everything was a challenge. That said, it still took something incredible to be lauded as a pioneer. There are two types of pioneer aviator. Those in the first group remain household names to some extent: Amelia Earhart, Amy Johnson, Jean Batten, Charles Kingsford Smith, Bert Hinkler, Charles Lindbergh, Wiley Post, Alcock and Brown etc. They have been extensively memorialised, their aircraft, or replicas thereof, reside in museums or attend airshows, books are still written about them and their likeness appears on currency. Then there’s the second lot. The unknowns. Those who have achieved just as much, perhaps more, but have been almost lost to history. Were they the less attention seeking perhaps? They might be remembered on a plaque somewhere or have had a book published, or written about them, that remains long out of print. To me, someone who inhabits the world of historic aviation, but who regularly wears blinkers out of necessity, Lores Bonney is one of the forgotten.

Well, with a bit of luck, and a good book, perhaps this will no longer be the case. One of Australia’s leading aviation biographers, Kristen Alexander, was asked by the National Library of Australia to write Bonney’s story using the library’s Lores Bonney Collection as the core. This collection, among various personal items, includes Bonney’s letters and diaries. Why is she significant? In a time when female pilots were regarded as somewhat of a novelty, Lores was determined to fly and, once she had achieved some semblance of proficiency, immediately started planning long distance flights. She first set a record for the longest one-day flight in Australia (more than 1,500 kilometres) and her second was a mere solo jaunt around the country. She was the first woman to achieve this. Mother England beckoned, as was its wont, so Lores set out to become the first aviatrix to fly there from Australia. Her trusty DH.60 Moth ‘My Little Ship’ was her companion on these first adventures and Lores, being the confident and driven type she was, trained as a mechanic and fitter so she was capable of maintaining the aircraft and effecting repairs. Husband Harry backed her flying financially but was always reluctant to let her go (although he did propose an idea that became her longest flight).

While she is credited with that first flight to England, a prang while landing to avoid weather in Burma’s very southern regions, led to Lores disassembling the Moth on the beach and having it transported, by barge and ship, to Rangoon and Calcutta respectively. It was a journey of more than 1,800 kilometres. Her timetable flew out the window as did her ability to get through the rest of the flight ahead of the known worsening weather en route. In typical Lores fashion, however, despite moments of self-doubt and frustration, she battled through and made it. It was 1933 and something no other woman had done before.

Lores followed the England flight up by becoming the first person to fly to South Africa, her country of birth, from Australia. This time she did it in a Klemm and the relative comfort of an enclosed cockpit. The destination was an inspired choice as, even by 1937, there were few aviation firsts to be conquered. The Klemm was falling apart and once again the weather played a big part in delays. Add in a little dysentery in India (and other health issues on the way) and bureaucratic bungling, and she didn’t arrive in the Union until mid-August, having left in April. What would be her final major achievement had been completed before her fortieth birthday.

Her plans for further adventures were scotched by, first, the loss of the Klemm, now fully rebuilt, in a hangar fire and, second, the outbreak of the Second World War. She continued to fly, but eventually gave it up in her early fifties, and kept travelling overseas exploring the world before her death in 1994.

To be honest, it is quite likely I would not have read this book if it were not for the author’s name on the front. It is outside what I like to think I specialise in (those blinkers again). That makes me a bit of an idiot as Lores Bonney was an unstoppable, albeit shy to a fault when out of the public eye, force of nature, her diminutive size belying an incredible fortitude that even managed to overcome her crises of confidence. With the resources available, I cannot think of a better author to tackle a new book (there is another, much older biography) on this pioneering aviatrix. The Alexander factor, as I like to call it, of teasing out personal minutiae, of tying together an inordinate number of threads, to sculpt an almost tangible image of a flyer long gone, is in full song here. Indeed, given it is a return to the individual biography for this author, after several years working on a collection of personalities, the Bonney work has captured a biographer at the top of her game. Having stepped away from wartime aviation and embracing the finicky, almost artisan, world of pre-war civil aviation, Kristen has got inside Lores’ persona and produced an insightful and revealing book.

A large format softcover of more than 270 pages, the endpapers include a very useful map of Lores’ travels in the Moth and the Klemm. The photos, at least one per two page spread, are reproduced well with the left-hand page being dedicated to either a full page photo (usually of Lores) or a smaller image accompanied by a detailed caption. Many of the better photos of Lores are well-selected, and enlarged, and often speak volumes particularly those featuring the aviatrix elbow deep in an engine or at large in one of her many destinations. The narrative, therefore, is limited to the right-hand pages and effortlessly combines excerpts from letters and diaries with details of Lores’ preparations, innermost thoughts, flying, failures, successes and adventures. It is an incredibly easy read and those personal photos of Lores really make an impression.

Will Lores Bonney’s history-making life emerge from the wilderness and into the mainstream because of this book? Probably not. Aviation enthusiasts will appreciate it and her name and achievements will continue to pop up because they will always maintain their sense of awe. She flew in the time of Johnson, Batten and Earhart, to name the obvious ones, two of whom were published authors, and remains overshadowed by these contemporaries. If, somehow, Lores Bonney does enter the public interest, it will be because of Taking Flight and, who knows, perhaps this book will be the genesis for the release of Bonney’s two unpublished (due to rejection!) manuscripts. Now that would be good news.

ISBN 978-0-642-27886-9

1 comment:

  1. Yes, a wonderfully well researched work and beautifully presented layout ...a visual feast for the eyes of anyone interested in 'between the wars' graphic art style.

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