Bill Taylor: Wing man for
Six hours into a flight carrying mail from Australia to New Zealand on a King George jubilee anniversary trip on 15 May 1935, Sir Charles Kingsford Smith’s Southern Cross plane was in dire trouble.
The plane had taken off from Richmond, north-west of Sydney, around midnight, heading for New Plymouth, on New Zealand’s North Island, 2100km away.
But somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, a loud bang brought the flight into great peril. A piece of exhaust pipe fractured, smashed a blade of the starboard propeller on the Fokker tri-engine plane, knocking one engine out.
The strain on the remaining two engines was immense – the port engine began to run out of oil and the plane began to lose speed as it battled 160 km/h wind.
On board the Southern Cross with the legendary Smithy was Captain Patrick Gordon (Bill) Taylor.
There was one obvious option – turn back to Sydney. But could they make it?
Bill Taylor was the co-pilot and navigator. He turned out to be the man who saved the day.
Smith’s Weekly,15 April 1939, takes up the dramatic story:
“Taylor picked up a small suitcase and pushed into his pocket the Thermos flask in which they had brought some coffee.
“Opening the little window of the cockpit, he climbed out against a wind of 100 mph.
“The Southern Cross was a monoplane, with its side engines under the wing. The only way of reaching the dead starboard engine was by a slippery, narrow strut.
“Along this Taylor climbed in his socks. When he reached the engine, he held on to the strut with one hand, and with the Thermos in the other hand drained oil out of the sump into the suitcase.
“He crawled back into the cockpit, then out along the strut on the other side to pour the oil into the port engine.
“As the suitcase would carry only enough oil to keep the port engine going for a short time, Taylor made his climb along the struts again and again (six times in fact).
“(John) Stannage, the wireless-operator, threw overboard the fourteen bags of mall, while Kingsford-Smith masterfully handled the sick plane.
“Each time the port engine was being fed by Taylor it had to be switched off, and the plane lost height. As soon as the oil had been fed, Kingsford-Smith climbed to prepare for the next fall.
“The plane came once within 25 feet of the grey Tasman Sea. They got back to Sydney.”
Taylor’s heroics – reported so matter-of-factly – in Smith’s Weekly resulted in him being awarded the Medal of the Order of the British Empire for gallantry, converted later to the George Cross, the highest civilian bravery award and equivalent to the military Victoria Cross.
Bill Taylor made many more memorable flights, including the first trans-Indian ocean flight from Port Headland to Mombasa via Diego Garcia aboard a Catalina flying boat, the Frigate Bird II.
Frigate Bird II at the
Powerhouse Musuem, Sydney
He was the first to survey the central Pacific air route, from Acapulco to New Zealand via the Marquesses and he pioneered the Southern Pacific air route, from Australia to South America, leaving from Grafton and flying to Valparaiso, Chile, via Suva.
On the return leg of that trip, he had a narrow escape from disaster at Easter Island when the sea became extremely rough and the Catalina almost didn’t get airborne.
But his reputation remains as one of Australia’s great aviators – he was modest and shunned the word hero, believing it to be a short-lived reputation after seeing what had happened to others.
Writing his own book, VH-UXX, some years later he referred to his exploits on the New Zealand flight in one paragraph: “After considerable difficulty in working the machine she finally staggered in to reach the coast.”
Patrick Gordon Taylor was born on 21 October 1896 at Mosman, Sydney, third son of Patrick Thomson Taylor, manufacturer’s agent, and his wife Alice Maud(e), née Sayers.
As a child he disliked his christian names and called himself “Bill”.
He and his older brothers went to school at the prestigious Shore school in Sydney but Bill wasn’t happy there and he was sent to board at The Armidale School, in northern NSW.
There, he excelled at sports and joined the school choir, camera club, became an assistant librarian and editor of the school magazine. He did well at Latin and was elected a senior prefect.
When war came in 1914 Bill, and many of his school mates were keen to enlist.
He applied to join the Australian Flying Corps. Surprisingly, he was rejected so he went to England where in 1916, he successfully was commissioned as a pilot into the Royal Flying Corps.
He flew as a fighter pilot with 66 Squadron Royal Flying Corps, later with 94 and 88 squadrons. He was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in July 1917 and promoted to Captain. His citation read:
2nd Lt. Patrick Gordon Taylor RFC. Spec Res. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He has taken part in over forty offensive patrols at low altitudes and under heavy fire from the ground. He has always shown exceptional dash and gallantry in attacking large formations of hostile machines, setting a very fine example to all his comrades.
He was credited with shooting down five planes. He became and instructor at the end of the war.
Taylor returned to Australia in 1919. During the 1920s he flew as a private pilot, worked for the De Havilland Aircraft Co. in England, completed an engineering course and studied aerial navigation. He operated a Gipsy Moth seaplane from Sydney Harbour (1928-32) and also flew as a captain with Australian National Airlines Ltd (1930-31).
He served as second pilot or navigator on pioneering flights with Charles Kingsford Smith and others, setting records around the world. Kingsford Smith (Smithy) and Taylor completed the first Australia-US flight, via Suva and Hawaii (21 October – 4 November 1934) in the Lockheed Altair, Lady Southern Cross.
In 1943 he was commissioned as a flying officer in the Royal Australian Air Force, transferring to the Royal Air Force in 1944. During the Second World War Captain Taylor served as a ferry pilot with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA).
After the deaths of his friends Charles Ulm and Kingsford Smith in separate accidents, Taylor was recognised then as Australia’s greatest surviving aviator, pioneering vital new trans-oceanic air routes and receiving a knighthood in 1954 in honour of his services to flight.
The Man Who Saved Smithy (by Rick Searle) is the thorough account of Taylor’s life and achievements, and his role in saving Smithy and the Southern Cross.
His own records of his experiences were published: Pacific Flight (1935), VH-UXX (1937), Call to the Winds (1939), Forgotten Island (1948), Frigate Bird (1953), The Sky Beyond (1963) and Bird of the Island (1964).
Bill Taylor settled at Bayview on Pittwater, where he sailed a 35-ft (11 m) sloop and in 1947 established Loquat Valley School for his daughters. On 4 May 1951 he married Joyce Agnes Kennington.
He was chairman of the family firm, P. T. Taylor Pty Ltd, and a director of Trans Oceanic Airways Pty Ltd that operated the Sandringham 7 flying-boat Frigate Bird III from Sydney on Pacific island cruises from 1954-58.
Sir Gordon Taylor G.C. died after a heart attack at the age of 70 in Honolulu on 16 December 1966.
His daughter Gai Taylor, then living in Lismore NSW, told a newspaper: “He was cremated in Honolulu and his ashes were scattered over Lion Island at the entrance to Broken Bay and Pittwater (Sydney). This is the place he learnt to sail and fly float planes (the Moth on floats) and where his family had a holiday cottage. Probably the second most loved place for him after the South Pacific and particularly Honolulu.”
His wife, their son and two daughters survived him, as did the two daughters of his second marriage
Sources: Various newspaper reports via TROVE, Australian Dictionary of Biography.
Smithy and Ulm disappear
1934 and 1935
Two famous Australian aviators disappeared within a year.
Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm were a record-setting partnership in aviation feats, including the first crossing of the Pacific.
Kingsford Smith, knighted in 1932 for his pioneering aviation feats, set a number of daring flying records from the 1920s to the 1930s.
In 1928 with Charles Ulm he made the first flight across the Pacific Ocean, flying a 3-engine Fokker named the Southern Cross. They left Oakland, California, with two American crewmen on 31 May. They reached Brisbane via Hawaii and Fiji on 9 June, after 83 hours and 19 minutes flying time. The journey made Ulm and Kingsford Smith popular heroes and both were awarded the Air Force Cross and given honorary commissions in the Royal Australian Air Force.
Also in 1928 they took the Southern Cross on a non-stop flight from Victoria to Perth, the first transcontinental crossing, and made the first trans-Tasman crossing from New South Wales to New Zealand and back.
In 1929 Smithy, as he was affectionately known by then, flew from Australia to London in 12 days 18 hours and in 1930 flew from London via Ireland to New York and San Francisco. Later that year he brought the solo record for London to Australia down to less than 10 days. Three years later he had reduced it to 7 days 4 hours.
His record attempts were to promote the idea that planes had a future as airliners on major routes around the world.
With J. T. Pethybridge he took off from England on 6 November 1935, aiming to make one more record-breaking flight to Australia. The plane and both fliers were lost. It is assumed they crashed into the sea somewhere off the coast of Burma while flying at night towards Singapore.
Ulm was Kingsford Smith’s co-pilot on many adventurous flights and joined him in establishing Australian National Airways in December 1928 to operate unsubsidised passenger, mail and freight services.
Ulm also set records of his own. In 1933 he flew from Australia to England and on the return flight broke the record with a time of 6 days 17 hours and 45 minutes. In 1934 he carried the first airmail between New Zealand and Australia and then returned to New Zealand with the first official airmail to New Zealand.
Hoping to establish a trans-Pacific service between Australia, Canada and the United States, in September 1934 Ulm formed Great Pacific Airways Ltd and bought an Airspeed Envoy, Stella Australis (below), with long-range fuel tanks. On 3 December 1934, with a crew of 2, Ulm flew from Oakland for Hawaii. Stella Australis failed to arrive. Despite an extensive sea search no trace of the plane or crew was found.