The much anticipated expansion of the Narromine Aviation Museum will help showcase the town’s involvement in pivotal moments in Australia’s aviation history.
While air flight is now something most of us mostly take for granted, just over 100 years ago it was still a rarity, inducing a sense of awe and possibility for those whose feet were firmly planted on the ground.
With a population nudging 4000, Narromine has a fascinating aviation history of which many remain unaware. The country town is highly regarded in flying and gliding circles as a much desired national and international destination.
The Narromine Aviation Museum is testimony to the town’s incredible past. Chairman of the museum’s committee (made up of members of the aero club, gliding club and museum) Bob Richardson, is deeply passionate about the museum, which is currently undergoing a massive upgrade thanks to grant funding and contributions of both cash and memorabilia.
A large state-of-the-art hangar to the right of the current premises will house new and old historical displays as well as aircraft. The museum will act as a solid reminder to visitors – as well as those who live in the region – of the town’s important contribution to aviation.
Richardson explains the reason Narromine became identified with aviation was that the town was used as a stopping station on the first England to Australia air race held in January, 1920.
The trip involved stop-overs in Darwin, Longreach, Charleville and Narromine.
The winners of the air flight were Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith, who were greeted at Narromine airport by an enthusiastic crowd of around 4000 spectators. The pair received a whopping $10,000 prize for their efforts; a massive sum in those days.
Their plane, a Vickers Vimy Bomber, landed in a 600 acre paddock belonging to local property Narromine Station and is said to have been only the third plane to land at the town. The visit put the little country town on the map in the aviation world, giving commercial and recreational flight a new destination in the central west of the state.
Richardson says that after the war, flying became a past time for those who had trained as pilots. Many former war pilots were purchasing their own planes with the intention of taking people for joy flights. According to Richardson, many of these pilots became increasingly familiar with the typography of inland NSW, namely Narromine, and spent time working in the area.
One of these pilots – who is a favourite at the museum, according to Richarson – is well known female pilot Nancy “Bird” Walton.
At 17 years of age Walton decided to learn to fly – a pursuit which, as Richardson points out, was “unheard of in those days”.
Walton, who didn’t let age or gender stop her from pursuing her love of flight, took flying lessons near Sydney at Sir Charles Kingsford Smith’s flying school. She apparently borrowed some money from a relative, purchased a plane and used Narromine as a base to conduct joy-flights, as other male pilots were doing.
Richardson says that when the Royal Flying Doctor Service commenced in Bourke, Walton was offered the job for three years as chief-pilot, based on her extensive knowledge of western NSW.
“Nancy has been back here many, many times and in later life she and her son owned a property just 10 miles from here,” he says.
The famed aviatrix was present to turn the first sod where the Aviation Museum now stands, as well as at the 2005 event when the club’s expansion began. Also present on that day was guest of honour astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon during the landing in 1969.
This occasion was marked as incredibly special for the museum. Guests, including Walton and Aldrin, were there to witness aviation history.
On this day the replica Wright Flyer VHSOF Spirit of Flight - built in Narromine and now displayed in the main hangar - took its inaugural flight.
The first “successful” plane built in 1903 by the Wright Brothers, after their glider in 1902, was the model for the replica. The Wright Brothers’ first powered aircraft changed the course of history and established the foundation of aviation.
Dr Aldrin was to say of his visit, “I’ve been to the Narromine Airshow and seen the Wright flyer take off; now that’s something to brag about.”
He dedicated the Wright flyer replica to the next 100 years of flight.
Richardson says the new museum hangar will house the Wright Flyer and be the standout exhibit.
“The replica Wright Flyer is the only one of its kind in the world that has flown and can still fly.”
Some of the other aviation highlights in the museum are a Saber jet fighter, a Tiger Moth trainer as well as the only Hawkridge Venture glider left in the world and the restored Corben Super Ace. The Super Ace was first flown in 1935 and is said to be the only remaining aircraft of its kind.
Richardson notes that there were only nine of those particular planes to come to Australia and the one the museum has on display was purchased in kit form in 1937 and put together by local man, Jack Comber, and some of his friends. It was flying above Narromine by 1938.
That particular Corben Super Ace would find its way back to Narromine more than 70 years later in what would be a massive effort by aviation devotees from the town.
“Comber was drafted for WWII and the plane was grounded. After the war the family had lost track of the plane after it had been leased out for mail deliveries in the north of the state,” Richardson says.
Incredibly, just a few years ago the plane was discovered in a shed at Mullaley, NSW. It was found in pieces and in poor condition, but Richardson says the family, which had “custody” of it at the time, recognised its historical value. They handed it over to the museum with the proviso that the Corben Super Ace was to be restored to its former glory and then never leave Narromine again.
Locating the plane was a coup for the Aero Club. Its members had hoped the plane was still out there somewhere and wanted to find it.
“Some of our members went to an open day at the Gunnedah Aero Club and in conversation and after a few drinks, they talked about the Super Ace and one chap mentioned there was a plane in pieces out in his grandfather’s shed, and maybe it was the one.”
With their interest piqued, the Narromine members went back two weeks later to check it out.
Sure enough, they discovered it was the plane.
“There was no cover on the fuselage, the two wings were hanging up at the back of the shed with nothing on them, the engine was gone, the propeller was gone.”
Richardson says the aero club was lucky because at the time there were several members from the Men’s Shed on board.
The Narromine Men’s Shed took on the whole project and about 15 months later with some original fabric tracked down and purchased, the plane was ready for assembly at the Narromine Aerodrome.
Richardson says it was one of the most exciting moments for the club when the projection came to fruition.
“It’s only through the adage of keep asking, somebody might know something, that it happened at all; when we rededicated it, the surviving family all came along to see it,” he said. “We are very proud of it.”
Unbeknown to many, Qantas also used Narromine airport as a night and day training area. In the 1950s Qantas would routinely fly to the town for a week at a time to train their pilots with the then popular Constellation airplanes, the first large long distance airplane and prerunner to the first Boeing 707 in 1963. A flight from Sydney to Narromine at this time took only about 40 minutes.
There is an exhibition case dedicated to the time Qantas spent frequenting Narromine.
The new extensions is scheduled to open to the public in March 2016.
The Narromine Aviation Museum is located at the Narromine Airport (QRM) on the Mitchell Hwy, Narromine, NSW. Click here for more information.