In this column, Michael Fowler looks back at one of his favourite topics to research over the past year.
One hundred and two years ago, Napierites were excited not only about the advent of Christmas, but also of the arrival in December 1917 of the 90-horse power Curtiss seaplane.
This seaplane or flying boat was first developed in 1912 by the American Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company. Its founder was Glenn Curtis (1878-1930), an American aviation pioneer.
Napier's fledgling 30,000 Club was instrumental in bringing the seaplane to Napier, after an approach was made to them by the New Zealand Flying School. They raised funds for their charitable causes by raffling off a flight in the seaplane.
Brothers Leo and Vivian Walsh, and Mr Dexter, who operated the New Zealand Flying School at Kohimarama, had brought the plane to New Zealand from Toronto, Canada, in May 1916.
It had cost £2500 (2019: $326,000), and its purchase was made possible from assistance from some wealthy Auckland citizens, who had followed the flying school with interest since its formation.
The seaplane travelled aboard the SS Monowai from Auckland, together with the Walsh Brothers, Dexter, a senior engineer and two mechanics.
Upon arrival at the Napier Port, the seaplane was re-assembled, to the delight of many onlookers.
A large marquee was put up outside the Masonic Hotel on Marine Parade and a charge of one shilling for adults and sixpence for children was made to see the plane on December 24 and 25.
One passenger could be seated alongside the pilot, and people were invited to write to the 30,000 Club to arrange a paid flight on the plane, which would begin on Boxing Day at 2pm from the breakwater port (Napier Port).
The first passenger was proprietor of the Masonic Hotel, Frank Moeller, who paid £20 ($2600) to be the first to fly. His flight didn't start well with some engine trouble, but when it took off, it reached a height of 1600 feet (487 metres) at a speed of 60mph (96km/h). Mr Moeller described the experience as "grand, it was grand".
He said he didn't feel any sea or air sickness and take off was "just the sensation of gliding lightly upward".
Crowds came from all over Hawke's Bay, and lined the Marine Parade and breakwater to hear the drone of the engine in the sky, and watch pilots "Vivian Walsh and Dexter put the plane through a series of graceful curves". The crowd was estimated at between 15,000 and 20,000 people. Napier's population was around 13,000 people.
Around 40 passengers had taken to the skies in the seaplane, including several women by December 28. In all, 58 passengers went up for a joy ride.
Disaster struck on January 1, 1918. Pilot Vivian Walsh was having the seaplane towed to safety from the breakwater during stormy weather to stop it being pushed into the wharf. When the tow rope on the pilot launch towing it slackened, the seaplane drifted back into the wharf. Another line was attached, but this too failed, and the seaplane came to grief by smashing into the breakwater.
A northwesterly gale and choppy sea pushed the seaplane into the breakwater with such force that when it was hauled onto the beach at the breakwater "there was nothing to indicate it had ever been a flying machine, save the propeller". The damage was estimated at £500 ($65,000).
An appeal was made at the Napier Municipal Theatre for funds to repair the seaplane, and several wealthy businessmen and farmers made considerable donations.
Pilot Vivian Walsh joked that at least the freight back to Auckland would be a lot cheaper on the return trip, with most of the plane in bits.
It wasn't the first time a plane had visited Napier and ended in disaster.
During a visit in 1913, American pilot Arthur Stone was landing his Bleriot monoplane at the Napier Park Racecourse (now Anderson Park) when he hit a distance post upon landing.
The airplane was reduced to "a tangle of wire and wooden splinters", and Arthur Stone fractured his collarbone.
Michael Fowler (email@example.com) is contract researcher and writer of Hawke's Bay's history.