ARTHUR LEONARD LONG
On 17th December, 2019 we celebrate the 100 years anniversary of the first flight across Bass Strait from Tasmania to Victoria, achieved by Arthur Leonard Long.
How many times have you walked past this structure on Torquay’s foreshore. But do you realise that it recognises a very significant moment in the history of Australian aviation?
When we jump on a jet to make a quick trip to Tassie in around the hour, it is sobering to reflect on the fact that it is just under 100 years since the first aeroplane flight from the Apple Isle to Oz, and touchdown was irrevocably on Torquay soil.
The story of the journey is just one chapter in the remarkable life story of the pilot Arthur Leonard Long, a WW1 veteran who was born in 1896 in southern Tasmania. He served for 3 years in the AIF in France and Egypt before joining the Australian Flying Corps to fly many precariously low bombing missions over France and Belgium, even sustaining a shrapnel wound in his leg from his own bomb!
After the war, Arthur purchased surplus aero engines from the RAF, had his own plane built by Boulton and Paul in Norwich, and had it shipped home to Tasmania where he thrilled the locals with aerobatic displays, pioneered aerial photography and commenced the first passenger flights between Hobart and Launceston, one passenger at a time! He also delivered newspapers to remote parts of Tasmania, but the lack of space in his little plane seriously hampered his capacity to grow his novel business. He even survived a mishap in the Tasmanian high country that required him and his mechanic to put the plane back together in Launceston.
By late 1919, a distant horizon beckoned for 23 years old Arthur L Long. He was dreaming of flying to Melbourne, and he was challenged by news that a Victorian pilot was preparing for a Bass Strait crossing! But there were a few clouds on Arthur’s horizon. His trusty kite, made of fabric over a wooden frame, only about 18 feet long with a wingspan of 24 feet was not the most robust of vehicles, and most critically could not carry sufficient petrol and lubricating oil for the anticipated journey.
Not to be deterred, Arthur had an improvised petrol tank fitted, beside the pilot, in the front seat, with a hand pump to top up the main tank along the way! Also, an extra oil container was fitted in the cockpit that could be tapped by a rope operated by the pilot. These innovations however meant that there was no room for the mechanic, so Arthur had to wing it alone and he set out from Launceston for Stanley, the closest spot to Victoria and waited there for more favourable weather.
The intrepid Arthur took off from Highfield in the early hours of 17 December 1919 flying at about 500 feet due to a heavy wind and clouds. He did not see land for nearly 3 hours and about halfway across the strait, the rope connected to the oil reservoir broke and things looked grim, so the sight of land at Torquay was a godsend. Arthur landed “in a small field about a mile southwest of the township” and with the engine still running, he managed to get the spare oil into the sump, jumped aboard and took off without delay eventually to land at Careys Aerodrome, Port Melbourne, 4 hours and 10 minutes after leaving Stanley. His average speed was about 112kph.
Torquay’s role in this momentous event may have been fleeting and accidental, but it is nevertheless inscribed indelibly in the annals of Australian aviation history. So much so that in 1926, the Royal Historical Society of Victoria, at the instigation of Mr. W Russell Grimwade, decided to erect a memorial at Torquay “..to mark the notable achievement..” As it was deemed impractical to erect a memorial at the actual landing site, the trustees of the Torquay Public Reserve were approached to allow it on the Torquay foreshore where is stands today. The memorial was constructed by Messrs. J C Taylor and Sons of Geelong. There was an unveiling ceremony in November 1926 in the presence of an assemblage of residents and some visitors from Melbourne and Geelong” which included Arthur Long himself, who by then had forsaken aviation for arguably the less hazardous enterprise of stockbroking,
At the gathering, Mr Chas. Daley the Hon. Sec. of the ROYAL HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF VICTORIA (HSV) referred to “….the growing sense in the community for honouring the pioneers of settlement and enterprise, and of the desirability, in a country devoid of those objects and historic associations which through centuries in older lands have so deeply impressed the memory and preserved traditions , of leaving visible records of great deeds and notable men.” May we ponder his words as we pass by this monument recording an incredible deed by an exceptional man.
(The author is indebted to RHSV and ABC Tasmania publications in the preparation of this article) Compiled by Frank Vagg