JJ Hammond flying at Ascot Racecourse in April 1911: Courtesy Mitchell Library NSW

It was 100 years ago today, on April 18, 1911,  that powered flight came to the site of the future Sydney Airport.

Captain Joseph Joel Hammond, a New Zealander, flew a Bristol box-kite biplane on a flight that lasted less than 10 minutes.  Thousands of paying spectators crowded what was then the Ascot Racecourse to see one man in a flying contraption  fly a course of about 10 kilometres.

These were times when engined powered road vehicles were beginning to gain traction over horse drawn transport, with history recording that horse drawn buses were overtaken by electric and motor driven public transport around the end of 1910 in Sydney, a year after mass produced private automobiles began to proliferate in Australia.  Thus a proportion of those who went to the race course near Botany Bay to see Hammond fly 100 years ago this Monday would have arrived by horse drawn carriages, spectators in a world where internal combustion engines were an object of interest at street level, never mind in something that could be flown rapidly for long distances above ground by the measures of the times.

The flight was the opening Sydney event on a national tour by Hammond, during which his wife, Ethelwyn, had already become the first female passenger on an aircraft in Australia.

The public appetite for manned flight had been raised by a Harry Houndini tour the previous year, which began with the American escapologist extraordinaire making Australia’s first powered aircraft flight at Diggers Rest, near Melbourne, on March 18, 1910.

But the Hammond tour was even more remarkable for the capabilities of the flying machine, which demonstrated that aviation was undergoing rapid advancement, including carrying up to two passengers as well as the pilot.

Today the Ascot Racecourse has vanished without trace, its site forming part of  the eastern end of Sydney Airport’s east-west runway and the current long term car park.

The CEO of Sydney Airport, Russell Balding, said that Captain Hammond’s achievement 100 years ago was an important milestone in the history of Sydney Airport.

“Captain Hammond was one of the early pioneers of aviation.  His flights attracted great public interest with thousands of Sydneysiders buying tickets to witness the spectacle of a man flying.  Media reports variously described Captain Hammond as “The Flying Man”, “The Bird-man” and an “aeronaut”.

“Captain Hammond was obviously a man with an adventurous spirit, but I doubt that he could have foreseen how Australia’s aviation industry would develop over the next 100 years.  His biplane weighed about 500 kilograms and the first flight attained a height of only 40 metres and travelled around 10 kilometres.”

Captain Hammond flew in the Great War, became a test pilot and died on active duty in the United States when an aircraft he was flying on a war bonds promotional tour in 1918 crashed into a tree.  He was buried in the Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

A commemorative plaque in his honor was unveiled at Hammond Place at the airport last Friday, attended by “Captain Hammond and Ethelwyn”.

Whatever will they, or our descendants, see when they return for the bicentenary in 2111?

The New Zealand Consul General Martin Welsh, "JJ and Ethelwyn Hammond", and Russell Balding, CEO of Sydney Airport, and the daring aviation couple and their commemorative plaque, photographed by James Morgan

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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