Kurt Bayer

Kurt Bayer is an APNZ reporter based in Christchurch.

NZ's first military plane's fate unknown

One hundred years ago this month, New Zealand received its first military aeroplane. APNZ's Kurt Bayer looks back on the short, but colourful life, of the small and frail Bleriot XI-2.

Even the staunchest landlubbers couldn't but help marvel at the speed and power of the AC72 America's Cup yachts tearing across San Francisco Bay.

A century ago, the cutting edge of mankind's technology was brought to the skies above Auckland with the arrival of the New Zealand Government's first military aeroplane.

The Bleriot XI-2, a balsa wood-like and flimsy fabric contraption with a cruising speed of just 75km/h, arrived in Wellington on September 29, 1913.

Named, 'Britannia', it was a gift of the Imperial Air Fleet Committee - a group of prominent British businessmen who sought to promote aviation, and particularly military warbirds, through the Empire.

After its first hurdle was overcome (it arrived without its propeller), a crack pilot was enlisted to conduct demonstration flights for huge crowds at Epsom showgrounds.

Wanganui-born second lieutenant Joseph Joel Hammond had already achieved a number of aviation firsts in Australia.

And he was the perfect man to dazzle and enthral the thronging Auckland crowds.

"He was the Justin Bieber, the David Beckham of the day," said Simon Moody, research officer at Wigram Air Force Museum in Christchurch, which displays a replica Britannia aircraft.

"In really was pioneering stuff. To have one aircraft here in New Zealand, bearing in mind that it would be another 10 years before aviation really took off here, was quite a coup.

"It was all about the British Empire spreading the gospel of aviation and new ideas to the Dominions."

The first flight was on January 17, 1914.

Hammond, a dashing fly-boy with a cheeky glint in his black-and-white photographs, circled the Epsom showgrounds field before making a devilishly low pass overhead and landing safely.

Further flights followed, including one jaunt with a journalist as a passenger which nearly ended in tragedy.

Rudder control was lost after take-off, and so with no brakes to apply, Hammond leapt out of the aircraft to grab the tail in order to slow it down.

Having successfully demonstrated the aircraft, Hammond was ready to take another passenger.

"Unfortunately, he now made an error of judgement," Mr Moody said.

Rather than a politician or some other influential person, he chose an actress, Miss Esme McLellan, who was touring with the Royal Pantomime Company at the time.

Miss McLellan's "enthusiastic account" of her flight was published in several newspapers.

Hammond's employers were less than impressed with his choice of passenger and the resulting publicity," said Mr Moody.

He was promptly sacked and the Britannia was crated up and put into storage. The experiment to bring aviation to the masses was a short-lived flop.

But, as Mr Moody said, the story doesn't end there for the aircraft or its shame-faced pilot.

At the outbreak of World War One, the New Zealand Government sent it back to Britain, which had an acute shortage of aircraft.

A modern day replica at Wigram Air Force Museum.
A modern day replica at Wigram Air Force Museum.

It next appears in the records in January 1915 when it arrived at Brooklands in Britain, Mr Moody said.

Mystery then surrounds the Britannia's ultimate fate - whether it was a casualty of war or whether it was put out to pasture.

But its legend lives on as a trailblazer in New Zealand aviation history, with a replica aircraft hanging in the Wigram Air Force Museum's atrium, complete with mannequins of Hammond and Miss McLellan re-enacting the world's earliest flight scandal.

- APNZ

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