Monday, 29 February 2016

"Billy Stutt and the Richmond Flyboys" by Neville F. Hayes.

This year will mark the centenary of a 1916 Richmond event that was hailed, at the time, as: "historically as memorable as the date of initiation of railway construction in NSW, away back in the early 1850s."

So what was this momentous happening?  - It was the foundation of the 'NSW State Aviation School' at Richmond, in the middle of the First World War. 

While this organisation has largely been forgotten today, its centenary is indeed worth commemorating.  This was the key moment when large amounts of Government funding began to be poured into the site of the future Richmond RAAF Base, which is today so important to the Hawkesbury economy and to the national operations of the RAAF.  It was also an opportunity for local boys to acquire undreamed-of skills, which would take them around the world in the wonderful new aviation industry.

On the 28th of August 1916, four hundred guests were invited to a lavish reception inside the State Aviation School's large, newly-constructed hangar on Richmond's "Ham Common" (right in the heart of today's RAAF Base).   The guests were there to celebrate the official opening of the School and to welcome the first intake of student-pilots.  It was indeed a big event.  The Premier, Mr. Holman, had taken a personal interest in "kick-starting" the aviation industry in NSW.  The State Governor and many other VIPs were also present. 

The months of preparations leading up to the School's opening had been well-covered by the (then) Richmond and Windsor Gazette.  However, in stark contrast, the Gazette gave the opening celebrations a rather sour review.  - It turns out that the the Government invitation-list for the nosh-up had not included the Gazette Editor!  

We now have access to such delightful historical insights thanks to the publication of a marvelously comprehensive book on the turbulent three-year tenure of the State Aviation School at Richmond, "Billy Stutt and the Richmond Flyboys" by Neville F. Hayes. 
There are many other fascinating quotes from the Gazette in this book, plus a cornucopia of other research from official sources and the family collections of the various "Flyboys". 

As with modern-day Government infrastructure projects, there was a heady mix of State Politics involved in the establishment of the School.  The Richmond hangar building was rather large for the needs of the School and suffered substantial cost over-runs.  (Nothing changes!)  - However this big hangar was to prove most useful when the RAAF took over the site in 1925.   It was the main reason that the RAAF selected Richmond for the first step of their national expansion.) 

Premier Holman had also been miffed by the fact that all of the Commonwealth's flight-training expenditure was focussed on Point Cook in Victoria.  Even worse, there was suspicion that NSW applicants for the Australian Flying Corps were not being accepted in the glorious numbers that the Premier would have anticipated!  (In fact, Point Cook was beset my many intractable problems with obtaining training aeroplanes, so its throughput of graduates from all states was tiny.)   The Richmond Aviation School was very obviously a 'Pet Project' for the Premier.  Equally obviously it caused great annoyance to Australian Military Authorities, and the Federal Government, in its clear attempt to barge-in on the centralised war-training efforts of the Commonwealth.

"Federal versus State" disputes figure continuously in the story of the Richmond School.  While the first Richmond graduates were able to gain commissions as officers in the Australian Flying Corps, this career path became increasingly closed to later graduates and many farcical situations resulted.  (This was a sad outcome, considering that there was a war on and that the training of war pilots was the sole priority of the School.) 

In total, 58 flying certificates were issued by the Richmond School before the cessation of hostilities and quite a few of the earliest graduates made it into action in France and Palestine. 

Nigel Love, a Kurrajong boy who graduated from the 1st Course, piloted RE8 two-seater aircraft over the Western Front, with the 3rd Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps.  His biggest impact on the war was made in the missions where he used Morse Code to guide Allied gunfire in destroying key targets, such as German artillery batteries.  Flying low and dodging bullets during major battles, Nigel also carefully mapped the progress of the infantry and dropped his reports directly at General Monash's headquarters.  After the Armistice, Nigel returned to Australia with big plans to establish the country's first commercial aeroplane manufacturing company.  This he did, although Government interference created many headwinds for him.  Nigel's factory was at a little airfield near Sydney that he had founded - called "Mascot"!

Wallace McDougall was a graduate of the 2nd Richmond course; he also flew with 3AFC in battle, but as a back-seat "Observer", manning the RE8's defensive machine-gun.  (Wallace had been unable to qualify as a combat pilot after being sent to England, due to the worsening bureaucratic constraints on the Richmond graduates.  He fell foul of a revised 'age limit'.)  Wallace wrote the following diary entry in the closing days of World War One:

Monday 4th November 1918.  Went up at 6am with Lt. McGilvery.  Got to the line in about 15 minutes.  Great sight with all the guns firing.  Big barrage going up, hundreds of guns taking part.  Just about daylight, a heavy ground-mist lit up by gun-flashes looked magnificent.  Could even notice the mist cut aside by the big shells.  We were flying at 2,200 feet.  Let go our bombs, the smoke helping to screen the infantry advance.  The opening stages of this 'stunt' was a sight from the air.  One never to be forgotten.

Sadly, seven of the graduates were killed in action in the war, or in European training accidents.  Remarkably for the time though, the Richmond School actually had no fatal crashes during any of its six courses.  This is a testament to the skill and personality of its Chief Instructor, Billy Stutt (a highly-experienced aviator who had been recruited from a test-pilot position in England) and the provision of a modern and reliable training aircraft, the Curtis 'Jenny'.  The book gives much interesting detail on the 'Jenny' and also on Stutt's life and his mysterious loss in a crash in North-Eastern Tasmania in 1920 whilst he was flying a search-and rescue mission.  His body has never been found.

Review by James Oglethorpe, 3 Squadron RAAF Association. 
This book is available from the publisher
Pacific Downunder for $34.50, including postage within Australia.
[Tragically, Neville Hayes did not live to see his 25 years of research make it into print.  He died of cancer in 2005 and his brother Barry finalised the publication in memory of Neville.]

Photo attached: 
Line-up of student pilots from the First Course of Richmond State Aviation School, during the Opening Day celebrations, 28 August 1916. 

Nigel Love, who flew 200 hours over the front with the 3rd Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps, is at the far left of the back row. 
Right of Nigel, along the back row, are students Garnsey Potts [briefly in 3AFC, invalided out due to sickness, thence instructing in England]; William L. King [joined 3AFC but crashed on a ferry flight with serious injuries, invalided to Australia]; Irving Sutherland [Royal Naval Air Service 10SQN, wounded in action]; Alan Weaver [joined 4AFC but soon seriously injured in a training accident]; Centre - Chief Instructor Billy Stutt [in profile, without cap]; then students Augustus Woodward-Gregory [flew with 52SQN RAF, wounded in action, French Croix de Guerre]; John Weingarth [flew 151 missions over the lines in 4AFC Sopwith Camels, thence instructing duties in England, died on a training flight 4 Feb 1919]; Jack Faviell [training and administration duties in England]; Edgar Coleman [joined RNAS, but dogged by illness and did not fly in combat]; Robert L Clark [two months' combat with 2AFC, injured in an SE5A landing accident, thence instructing in England];  Leslie Sampson [4AFC but suffered several accidents flying Camels and was grounded]; Roy Smallwood [combat with 4AFC for four months, shot down by German anti-aircraft fire, but survived]; Leonard Webber [left Richmond course but later saw action in Belgium]; and Charles Dagg [RNAS seaplane pilot, awarded Air Force Cross after he survived a wreck in the Mediterranean, died in WW2 serving in the RAF.]
The front row has students [l to r] Norman Clark [with 3AFC for 9 months, pilot and Signals Officer, thence instructor in England, promoted to Captain and Flight Commander]; Cecil R Burton [4AFC for two months, but invalided to England with illness]; Vernon Burgess [9SQN RFC and Flight Commander 7SQN RFC on RE8s, shot down and wounded after six months in action, thence instruction duties]; Michael Cleary [served with 62SQN RFC, killed in action flying a Bristol Fighter, 28 March 1918 near Villers-Bretonneaux, France]; Hector K Tiddy [killed on a practice flight in France, 1917, 7SQN RFC]; and D Reginald Williams [retained as an instructor at Richmond, then joined the AFC in England, but only employed ferrying new aircraft to France, due to medical restrictions.]
The 24 student-pilots in the 1st Course were selected from amongst 413 applicants. 
The roof of the Richmond hangar, bedecked with flags, can be seen behind the Curtis 'Jenny' two-seat training aircraft.
Photo credit:, Nigel Love Collection.


  1. Very informative and fascinating article.

  2. Hawkesbury Library holds copies of this book if anyone is interested.