Today, an odd hero of early aviation. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Bert Hinkler was the first Australian
aviator to gain international prominence. Born in
1892 in the East-Coast town of Bundaberg, he
fixated on flying from the start. When he was
fourteen he tried to make an ornithopter --
an airplane with flapping wings. It failed, but in
1911 he made a successful glider. Then an
American barnstormer, Wizard Stone, showed up in
Australia with his Bleriot airplane. Hinkler became
his mechanic and apprentice.
In 1914 Hinkler went to England to work in the
Sopwith Company. During
WW-I he flew bombers. He had little stomach for
bombing and strafing retreating troops. Still, he
shot down six planes and won medals. He also
married a nurse he'd met in France.
Next, he turned to long-distance flying. His
five-foot-four frame gave him an edge in a cramped
cockpit. He dreamt of flying home to Australia. He
was turned back at Rome when he started the flight
in 1920. A war had broken out around his next fuel
stop in Syria. Still, he did win a trophy for his
flight across Europe. He set other distance
records. He also served as a test pilot for the
radical new wingless forerunner of the helicopter
-- the autogyro.
Hinkler finally made the first solo flight to
Australia in 1928. It took fifteen days and, once
there, he enjoyed his greatest hour of glory --
parades, speeches, and a popular song that began,
Hustling Hinkler, up in the sky ...
Back in England, he tried to set up an airplane
company, but the depression killed it. He moved to
Canada to see what his prospects might be for
building airplanes there. But he was soon back to
setting distance records. And darker overtones
begin to color Bert Hinkler's driven life. In 1932,
he married again. This time his wife was an
American woman whom he'd known for some time.
Was he divorced by then? His biographies conflict.
One mentions one wife, one mentions the other. A TV
documentary suggests bigamy. That year he went back
to Europe. His American wife made her home in
Paris. Then, in January, 1933, he set out on a
flight all the way from England to Canada by way of
But he vanished over Italy's Apennine mountains.
Three months later a charcoal gatherer found his
crashed plane with his frozen body nearby. The
investigation showed he'd thrown a propeller blade.
It also suggested sabotage. Then we learn that his
home was rifled a week before the flight --
documents stolen and all the pictures of his mother
smashed. Was there a conspiracy here? Did it
involve a wife or an angry colleague? We're left to
Bert Hinkler's story may leave us unsatisfied, but
it nevertheless reveals the raw, driving compulsion
that brought flight into being. Hinkler didn't do
so well with the parts of his life outside the
hangar and the cockpit. But in the cockpit
he was clearly one of the many driven geniuses who
really did shape our reality of flight -- from the
stuff of his own childhood dreams.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Wixted, E. P., Hinkler, Herbert John Louis.
Australian Dictionary of Biography (gen'l.
eds. Bede Nairn and Goeffrey Serle). Melbourne:
Melbourne University Press, 1981.
Anon, Hinkler, Herbert, John Louis. The
Australian Encyclopaedia (editor-in-chief Alec
H. Chisholm). Sydney: Halstead Press, 1958.
For more on Hinkler see the Wikipedia article on Bert Hinkler.
This is a greatly revised version of Episode 172.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H.