Australians love the story of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, the man whose name is immortalised at Sydney airport. To many, he was simply “Smithy”, a larrikin with a cheeky grin and a zest for living, famed for his 1928 crossing from California to Brisbane in his three-engined Fokker, the Southern Cross. It was an immense distance, and over water all the way, a huge feat for its day.
How many, though, know of Sir Patrick Gordon “call me Bill” Taylor? I mentioned him briefly in a previous post, at the end of my story on the Black Cats and Double Sunrise Service.
So my head snapped up when I saw that Rick Searle had written an entire biography on Taylor, and – for the first time in my life – I contacted the publisher for a review copy!
Searle’s biography, The Man Who Saved Smithy, starts a little slowly, with a forward, prologue and introductory chapter on Taylor’s start in life (although that last is necessary in providing character background), but we are soon into the thick of his flying experiences. Like Smithy, Taylor’s introduction to flying came with the British Royal Flying Corp in the skies over France in 1917. Battle weary, horror-stricken, and lucky to have survived both his training and the dog-fights, Taylor returned to Australia towards the end of 1918. Even though he resigned his commission in the RFC, he retained the rank of Captain, a title he would continue to use at different times in his future career.
Theoretically, that future career was either as a doctor, or with his father’s firm, P.T.Taylor Pty Ltd. In practice, though, Taylor spurned both of these options, and spread his wings – literally. In contrast to Smithy’s “derring-do” style though, Taylor was a “cautious, methodical and conscientious man“. Despite a disinterest in mathematics at school, he applies himself to learning how to navigate the skies. It is quite an eye-opener to be reminded how, even up to the outbreak of WWII, navigation still depended heavily on sextant, chronometer and sightings, and it was only these gadgets that allowed the budding aviators to leave the safety of land-based landmarks, and venture across vast distances of ocean. In reading the various navigation accounts – in Taylor’s own voice – (quoted from his several publications), I was reminded of the thorny problem of discovering longitude in the 18th century.
We follow Taylor’s development, from that 1917 trainee until his death in 1966, and through it we learn of the development of aircraft, navigation, exploration, establishment of fledgling airlines and flight routes. His tussles with the managing director of QANTAS, Hudson Fysh, are quoted verbatim from telegrams, and many other stories of frustrations with politicians, the military, and bureaucracies are recounted. There is no gilding the lily – some of these difficulties he did bring down on himself, despite his penchant for a civil and eloquent turn of phrase.
Taylor is quoted extensively in the book, and while that gives us a first-hand look into (his) “truth”, and his prose is elegant, it is in the wording of the day, so it is a relief to have it broken up by Searle’s insightful narrative and observations. Every chapter is annotated, which has its good and bad points. We know clearly the source of the material, but as I hate flicking to the back of a book when reading, I then missed out on the expanded material, which I would have preferred to read as a footnote.
The incident from which the book draws its title is only one small adventure in a book of adventures – but what an adventure! In 1935, striving to capture a market for airmail from Australia to New Zealand, a last minute change in plan sees Taylor board the Southern Cross as Smithy’s navigator, tasked with guiding them 2000 kilometres across open ocean. John Stannage is wireless operator. They suffer engine damage, but it is not until dawn they discover the true extent, and shortly after, the starboard motor is knocked completely out of use. There is nothing for it but to turn back to Australia and limp home. Except . . . oil pressure in the port engine is falling, and there is a distinct possibility they will ditch in the sea. A plan is hatched to recover oil from the starboard engine and transfer it to the port engine – achieved by Taylor crawling across the wing, Stannage handling the oil recovery, and Smith keeping the aircraft flying (Taylor considered Smithy’s “natural flying ability bordered on genius”).
Can such a tale be true? At the time, plenty doubted the story, but there is enough substantiating evidence, and we are provided both that and photos in this biography.
Ultimately, regular followers will know, I am here for the flying boats, and a good half of the book is given up to their story. After a search which included Sikorsky, Martin and Boeing, in 1938, Taylor found what he was looking for in the Consolidated PBY long-range patrol flying boat, and set about trying to convince authorities of the need to survey an Indian Ocean route from Australia to Africa, thence India, Ceylon and the Far East. This is the craft that became known as the Catalina, and within a few short years, men would be flying it on secret missions on very similar routes, but Taylor had his work cut out convince authorities of his plan. Eventually, though, the Guba set off from Sydney on 3 June 1939, and the subsequent report was submitted to the Prime Minister just in time. The next day, it was the PM’s “melancholy duty” to inform his fellow Australians that the country was at war.
Taylor goes on to own other flying boats, which he names the Frigate Bird, Frigate Bird II, (both Catalinas) and Frigate Bird III (a Sandringham). In the first, he undertakes a survey of the Pacific Ocean during WWII. In the second, he seeks to develop a commercial route across the islands of the Pacific, and with the third, he established his own business P.G. Taylor Pty Ltd, as a Pacific Cruisebird adventure for paying customers. By the mid-1950s though, the age of small capacity flight was already coming to an end, and the venture had a short life-span.
That is only the outline. If you wish to understand just what was involved in getting those flights into the air and back down safely, and, in the case of the flying boats, on and off the water, then you will have to read this fascinating book for yourself. My recommendation comes with one warning – make sure you have a clear head when settling down to read it. This is a well-researched book with a lot of detail and first hand quotations, and you need to have your thinking cap on to keep up with Sir P. G. Taylor!
The Frigate Bird II hangs at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney and you can see more at the below link.
(Extract: Aircraft, flying boat, Catalina, PB2B-2, “Frigate Bird II”, VH-ASA, metal / fabric / glass / bakelite, made by Boeing Aircraft of Canada Limited, Vancouver, Canada, 1944, flown on pioneering flight Australia-Chile, by P G Taylor, 1951)
Can not leave this post without including a picture from HARS – their Fokker Southern Cross Replica – with its wooden wing under restoration. Photo Courtesy Jim Thurstan June 2015