“Wizard” of the Skies and Other Early Auckland Aviators

In 1913 the American aviator, Arthur Burr “Wizard” Stone arrived in Auckland as part of a New Zealand-wide “exhibition tour” and chose the Domain as the base for local flights using his Bleriot monoplane.

It was the first time such an aeroplane had been seen in New Zealand. There had been earlier experimental flights, short distances and low altitudes: this plane promised long duration ascents at altitudes of a hundred or more meters.

As one newspaper noted “Up to the present time, although in other parts of the world aerial navigation has become almost a commonplace spectacle in the last year or two, New Zealand is practically virgin ground.

No successful attempt to conquer the air has yet been effected in this country

and all that is about to be changed, however and we are shortly to have the honour of being the scene of a real aeroplane flight”.

“Wizard” Stone, Aviator

Stone had been flying in America since 1911, mainly with Queen Aircraft Company. He held a pilot’s licence issued by the International Aero Club numbered 15, so write-ups about the aviator impressed “it will be seen that he was one of the early aviators to secure a pilot’s certificate, having learnt the art of aviation at the Bleriot school in Paris”.

“Wizard” Stone had already clocked up more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kms). In USA he competed in air races, sometimes sponsored by newspapers. But his longest single flight was from Paris to Pau, 504 miles. Stone also enjoyed racing cars and motorcycles – he seemed to have a passion for speed with a touch of daring.

He had been on a series of barnstorming tours around Australia in 1912-13 showing off his plane: to most people it would be the first time they had seen an aircraft in flight and were pleased to pay money to do so.

“Wizard” Stone in Australia with his assistant Bert Hinkler,
Courier Mail

Not all his flights entirely succeeded. What was billed as the first ascent in Brisbane began well. A huge crowd was attracted to the exhibition. Stone took off, rose to about 100 meters and circled the racecourse. After a 10 minute flight the plane descended very quickly, hitting the ground. A wheel fell off, the craft somersaulted and broke into two. Airman “Wizard” Stone once again survived the crash… and, as happened previously and was to occur again, the spectators surged around to inspect the wreckage.

Spectators inspect the wreckage after Brisbane’s inaugural flight by the “Wizard”,
State Library of Queensland

His 50 horsepower Bleriot-Metz machine had a 7 cylindered French-made Gnome engine and was said to have cost more than £1,300. It had a wing-span of 25 feet (8 meters) and similar length. Its propellers were said to achieve 1,200 revs a minute.

The Wizard in Auckland

The aircraft arrived in New Zealand by sea in a dismantled state. Within an hour of arriving in Auckland it was assembled by engineers who accompanied Stone and it was ready for flight.

The exhibition was well advertised, the promotors showing their entrepreneurial and showmanship background by hyping up the spectacle that awaited those attending the Domain.

It now seems hardly necessary to have published advertisements in newspapers enticing the populous to witness such a landmark event in the city’s history – an aircraft (or airship as one reporter called it) making the first long-flight in New Zealand. It would be the first opportunity for the public to see a plane up close, then its take-off, flight, and landing.

There was no shortage of the curious on the day. Close to 12,000 spectators paid an entrance fee of 2 shillings or, for a seat in the grandstand, 3 shillings, to see the “the bird, the mechanical triumph of the age, take to the skies, soaring to great heights on a long flight”, as the advertising said. It also mentioned

It was the biggest crowd ever to assemble in the Domain

Many more thousands of Aucklanders, not prepared to pay the admission price of a shilling or two, took up vantage points around the Domain, Newmarket and Parnell hoping to view the spectacle for no outlay.

Arthur B. “Wizard” Stone in his Bleriot monoplane,
“Sun” newspaper

But there were several problems on the day. Crowds, keen to get a close inspection of an aeroplane, swarmed around the small craft and “Wizard” Stone had great difficulty clearing a pathway towards the take-off point. At last, helped by police and an escort car to help move the throng, a track was opened up and the plane taxied and prepared for take-off. The newspaper of the day said of the novelty “… it was quite noisy and a strong artificial wind was created by the rotating propeller”. At last pilot Stone was satisfied with the revs and on his hand signal the 5 men holding the tail let go their grasp and the plane raced along the grass “runway” and took off.

Arthur “Wizard” Stone’s Bleriot plane airborne over the Domain,
Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, Ministry of Culture and Heritage

It flew at low altitude right over the heads of those in the grandstand. It began to soar, the pilot corrected a few wobbles created by wind currents and then attempted to climb. The craft veered and lost what little altitude it had and more or less glided to earth in the outer Domain coming to rest against an embankment. Hundreds raced to get a good look at the plane and it was some time before it could be recovered. “Damage,” said the promoter, “is not serious but we can’t fly again today.” The flight had lasted some 35 seconds over a distance of 400 meters. The disappointed crowd dispersed, some patrons angry.

Aucklanders in a tail-spin

There were irate letters to the newspapers saying that despite “…all the theatrical promotion, the exhibition had not come off as promised” and that the paying public had been “denied the sight of a lifetime”. Stone said he came to grief while trying to clear a telegraph wire strung around the park boundary. Others blamed the enthusiastic onlookers who crowded the downed plane, swarming around and over it, preventing another take-off. One of the promoters of the flight, local showman Charles R. Bailey, blamed failure on the crowd: “… one of the vilest I have ever seen, cutting the tent-ropes, manhandling and damaging the aeroplane and using foulest language!” This did not go down well and there were further critical letters to the Press, one of which suggested that as a sign of goodwill the aviator should donate half the proceeds to the St John Ambulance. “The Observer” newspaper opined that Aucklanders had been well and truly taken for a ride, the impresarios had pocketed their money for such a short flight, it having been heavily promoted by newspapers and then carried out with assistance from the police. In addition, it was mentioned that the disappointing flight was accompanied by an escort car which had torn up the cricket pitches in the Domain while attempting to clear the crowds. It concluded “… one of the greatest authorities on the English language defines a wizard as ‘a conjuror, a cunning man’. The people who went to the Domain last Saturday quite believe it”.

Further Flights

But the “Wizard” and his promoters were not put off and advertised a long and “grand, guaranteed aviation flight” from Alexandra Park the following week, once the plane was repaired and proven.

It was soon reported that the machine was fixed and that in proving flights the “Wizard” had taken off from Alexandra Park and made “several long duration journeys” over Auckland suburbs.

Alexandra Park was thus the “airfield” for the first such flights in New Zealand

But having achieved that, worse was to come for the “Wizard” and his team .

“Wizard” Stone flying above Alexandra Park,
Weekly News – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19130501-16-4

Arthur “Wizard” Stone had been a crack motorcyclist before taking to the air, so the local motorcycle club arranged races at Alexandra Park to coincide with the aviation exhibition, adding to the attraction. There was another barrage of criticism when would-be spectators found the admission fee at Alexandra Park was going to be more than had been charged at the Domain.

Further Frustration

Come the day, few people turned out and paid to see the exhibition at Epsom. Track conditions, cut up by recent rain, were not suitable for motorcycle races: they were cancelled. Overcast and windy conditions were not safe for flying: “Wizard” Stone called off the exhibition flight. Money was refunded as, for the second time in Auckland, a dejected crowd left the venue without witnessing a long flight.

Stone and his aeroplane went to Hamilton where, flying from Claudelands, he achieved what he could not at Alexandra Park in public. He more than satisfied small crowds of about 200 enthusiasts with “an ascent” on two occasions.  The Waikato Argus newspaper reported “We quite endorse the general expression of the spectators that the flight was the most marvellous exhibition ever seen in Hamilton and the perfect control which Stone displayed over his aeroplane one thing –

clear proof  that the heavier than air machine has come to stay”.

Ascent at Napier

The newspaper’s certainty about the conquest of flight must have been shaken when “Wizard” Stone took his air show to Napier Racecourse a few days later, in early June 1913. It was the first time an aeroplane had been seen in Hawkes Bay. A large crowd attended, worried that gusty conditions may curtail flying. Notwithstanding, Stone the airman took off into the wind to make his “ascent” and was only 15 meters or so off the ground when the wind caught the aircraft, swinging it around, a manoeuvre the pilot seemingly could not counteract, nor correct. The plane lost height, just cleared a pond in the middle of the racecourse but smashed into a willow tree (some say a fence, others a distance marker) with a noise reported “as a gunshot”. The crowd rushed to the spot and found the aircraft smashed to pieces, the woodwork in smithereens, support wires broken and tangled. Only the plane’s engine appeared undamaged. It looked like no one could have survived. But there were three hearty cheers for Stone when he emerged from the wreckage “pale and injured”. He suffered severe shock and a broken collar bone.

“I attribute the accident solely to the tricky wind. After I turned I hardly got straight again, and the wind came downwards from behind me, forcing the machine towards the ground,” he told the Hastings Standard newspaper. “I’ve concluded New Zealand is not an ideal place for flying at this time of year”.

“Wizard” Stone’s Bleriot-Metz plane, “…a contraption of wood, wire and canvas…”
The Courier-Mail

Stone said it would take some time to repair the plane so he called off the rest of his New Zealand tour, planning to return in December, when he thought the weather would be more conducive for flying.

The Sun newspaper, reviewing aviation in New Zealand a year after Stone’s visit, summed it up – “Nothing remained for him but to return to Australia to have his machine repaired. Up to date, Stone’s flights had been by far the best made in New Zealand, as was, of course to be expected, since he was a thoroughly trained and experienced airman, with a standard machine”.

In Australia

The Wizard planned to be the first to fly from Melbourne to Sydney in mid-May 1914. He planned to do the outward trip in stages over 5 days and, if circumstances were favourable, he would fly the return trip non-stop: additional fuel tanks were installed in his new Bleriot plane for the purpose. Stone got special permission from the Post Office to be a postman, when it gave approval for him to carry airmail post cards on “Australia’s first aerial mail flight”.

But it all came to an end when, during trials for the flight at Maribyrnong, his plane plunged nose-first from about 100 meters into a paddock near the hangar. Press Association reports said the plane was “transmuted into a heap of useless wreckage”. “Wizard” Stone miraculously survived the crash, but with leg injuries and his teeth knocked out.  The Melbourne to Sydney flight was impossible: the postcards intended for the pioneering airmail service were taken to Sydney by rail, but nevertheless became valued souvenirs!

A postcard intended to inaugurate airmail in Australia, EA and VI Crome Collection, A8213-1/6.

The First World War excited interest in military use of aircraft and “Wizard” Stone stood ready to assist the New South Wales Government’s experimentation with wireless torpedoes launched from aeroplanes. Stone said he could “very materially assist the Allies in this”.

The Wizard’s Apprentice

Many years after “Wizard” Stone’s flights in New Zealand it was recalled that one of his assistants who had come from Australia with him was at the time a 21 year old named Herbert (Bert) Hinkler. Bert was remembered as Australia’s pre-eminent aviator after he went on to prove himself as a true pioneer. Based in Australia at first, he designed and built early aircraft. He grew with the industry… during the First World War he served with the Royal Naval Air Service as a gunner/observer and turned to his inventive skills to improve the planes, the guns and the method of warfare from these innovative weapons of war. He became a test pilot at A V Roe in England.

Herbert (Bert) Hinkler

Bert Hinkler attempted, sometimes coming to grief, numerous pioneering long-distance flights and was the first person to fly solo from England to Australia (1928), and the first person to fly solo across the Southern Atlantic Ocean, only the second aviator after Charles Lindbergh to cross the Atlantic solo. These flights earned him the nick-name “Lone Wolf”. He married in 1932 at the age of 39, and died less than a year later after crashing in remote countryside near Florence in Italy during a solo flight-record attempt from London to Australia. He is remembered with numerous statues, memorials and scholarships, in street names and by the Hinkler Hall of Aviation in his home-town, Bundaberg.

Arthur Burr “Wizard” Stone died in 1943.

Other Early Airman of Auckland

H. Stevenson

He was a young mechanic who copied various designs of parts of different makes of aeroplane and wedded his construction to a 30 horse power Alvaston engine. Whereas other attempts to fly in New Zealand had been on land, Stevenson chose the water so the Press called it a hydroplane. The craft was reluctantly shown to an Auckland Star reporter in January 1913 who found it extremely strong yet incredibly light. Stevenson said he would be ready trials on Auckland harbour within a fortnight, although he had been worried about how to go about piloting the plane.

Had he flown he might have made the record books for the first long-duration flight before “Wizard” Stone took the honour, but there are no reports that Stevenson’s plane ever took to the air.

 

J. J. Hammond

But just a month or so after the “Wizard” made several flights from Alexandra Park, flying returned to the old Potters Park – the Showgrounds – in Epsom, but without all the hype of a barnstormer, although it ended in drama.

This time it was the Government-owned Britannia plane, captained by pioneer aviator and air-ace, Lieutenant Joseph Joel Hammond. The plane had been gifted by the British Government, had taken some 5 months to arrive in Wellington, packed in its crates and, curiously, without its propeller or any spare parts. The propeller was sent from England and the packages were railed to Auckland.

J.J. Hammond with the Britannia monoplane,
W. B. Beattie, Weekly News – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19140122-39-2

Campbell Showgrounds adjacent to Alexandra Park, part of Potters Paddock, was chosen as the depot where eventually Hammond oversaw the plane’s assembly and then prepared it for flight.

The Britannia at the makeshift airfield in the Showgrounds
Free Lance, Volume XIV, Issue 707, 17 January 1914

During a 15 minute proving flight Hammond tested it exhaustively and then on Auckland’s Anniversary Weekend he took the monoplane out again. He flew for an hour above the harbour and surrounds,

 the first time that an aeroplane had flown over Auckland City.

Lieutenant Hammond almost crashed on one of these flights but without injury or serious damage.

The Britannia taking off from the Epsom Show Grounds
W. Beattie, Weekly News – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19140122-39-1

The next planned take-off was to be an official fly-past over the Auckland Exhibition on January 29th.  But on the 28th he went aloft with a passenger, Miss Esme McLennan, an Australian actress performing in the city at the time. It was a 20 minute flight and Miss McLennan’s subsequent written account conveys the thrill of flying in those times. This flight was, however, unauthorised and his superiors, out of jealousy (either because they had not been invited or just stiff-upper-lip discipline) banned him from flying, the plane was ordered to be crated up and returned to England.

Hammond was fired.

He returned to air services connected with the war and in September 1918 he crashed near Indianapolis, USA. The first man to pilot a plane in Australia, a pioneer of developing aircraft for war, survivor of may crashes and near-misses, and the first to fly a plane over Auckland city, was dead. Born in Gonville, Wanganui, Joseph Joel Hammond was aged 31.

 

The Walsh Brothers

The other prominent local pioneers were Auckland brothers, Leo and Vivian Walsh who as early as 1910 (so two years before the “Wizard” appeared in Auckland) took an interest in flying and formed the Aero Club of New Zealand.

Leo and Vivian Walsh,
MOTAT Collection

Determined to follow up on stories from abroad about “heavier than air” flying machines, they manufactured a plane, “Manurewa”, at their home in Remuera and it successfully took to the air during trials at Papakura in early February 1911. “Manurewa” flew for about 400 metres at 20 meters above the ground. On a successive flight, however, it crashed and was beyond repair.

Walsh Brothers’ “Manurewa” plane came to grief on several occasions,
MOTAT Collection

Had it survived, or been improved, it could well have been made airworthy enough to have beaten Arthur “Wizard” Stone to be the first to fly long-duration flights in New Zealand.

Undeterred by the accident, the Walsh brothers went on to build a seaplane. They set up a base near the present Bastion Point and Mission Bay. Once proven, their plane became…

the first seaplane to fly that had been built in Australia or New Zealand.

 

The Walsh Brothers “home-made” seaplane over Bean Rock, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections

So confident was Leo Walsh that from January 1914 he took paying passengers aloft for a 15 minute joy-ride, taking off from Mission  Bay (known as Flying School Bay), circling the harbour and environs and alighting back on the water in the bay.

Seaplanes at Mission Bay
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 7-A269

The Walsh Brothers, encouraged by Local and British Government officials, established The New Zealand Flying School on the waterfront using their own plane and another imported from America.   Pilots who gained their “wings” went abroad for First World War duties:

 they became pioneers in aerial warfare.

(For stories of Auckland seaplanes in the 1960s see “Recalling Captain Fred Ladd and his Amphibian  Planes” on this site)

Sandford and Miller

In December 1913 a further flying exhibition was planned at Alexandra Park by two young men, Frederick Esk Sanford and William Stanley Miller, to show off their “Sandford-Miller” biplane.

Sandford and Miller,
Weekly News – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19131106-48-4

The craft had been originally put together by Captain N. Jonassen and W. S. Miller both of whom had toured the world following their interest in aviation. Jonassen was described in the Press at the time as a “well-known aeronaut” (must have been a new word for those times!) who was an accomplished balloonist. Despite several accidents he persisted with his interest and in 1912 revealed he had built a plane in Christchurch.  But later in Auckland he dropped out of the venture with Miller and Australian engineer, Frederick Sandford joined the project, piloting their plane during various trials above Avondale, and a bit beyond. The time had come to give a public exhibition. The pair pointed out (in light of the Domain fiasco involving “Wizard” Stone) that if the plane did not fly for some reason, all money taken would be refunded at the gate. But this exhibition in December 1913 came to nothing when, on a flight from the pair’s headquarters at Avondale race course to Alexandra Park, Sandford had to make an emergency landing. This went smoothly enough. But the later take-off was flawed, the machine did not rise as expected, hitting a fence. Sandford was thrown 30 feet (10m) on impact, sustaining serious injuries and the plane was wrecked. Once recovered, he went to England via Australia where he joined the Army Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. He was decorated for his pioneering contributions in the air.

Frederick Esk Sandford, Aviator,
National Archives of Australia

After the war he served as Squadron Leader in the Royal Air Force and then returned to Australia to serve in Air Force Headquarters, office he held at the time of his death, December 1928, when he was killed in a motor accident.

Frederick Sandford married Gladys Henning in 1920. She had been an ambulance driver in various theatres during the First World War, her pre-war interest in cars and motor sparked by her husband William Henning’s motor car business in Auckland. Gladys moved back to Auckland without her new husband, Sandford, pursued motoring interests and, following a course at the Air Force Base in Christchurch, she obtained her wings in 1925. She was

the first woman in New Zealand to gain a pilot’s licence.

Between wars she undertook long-distance endurance motoring trips across Australia and returned to Army Transportation services during the Second World War.

William Miller pursued his mechanical and automotive interests as a garage proprietor in Auckland.

 

 

RCC April 2019