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Taking it to the edge: did you know? The use of aircraft in exploration of Australia

'Here then was an interesting bit of exploration to be done, to find out what lay behind the forbidding borders of this unknown area, and the aeroplane was the obvious means of solving the problem.'
CT Madigan Crossing the Dead Heart Adelaide, Rigby, 1974 page 1

Aircraft were not widely used in exploration until the 1920s and then they were largely used in surveys for mineral and other resources. Francis Birtles proposed aerial surveys of country to the north west of Alice Springs and searched for pastoral lands, water and minerals. He later surveyed a possible route for the Alice Springs/Darwin railway. Regrettably the completed survey records were destroyed in a fire following an accident in May 1921. Later that year he completed an aerial survey in central Australia. Some coastal surveys were also done along the south eastern Australian coast. Lester Brain flew American mining engineer LJ Stark over the Tanami Desert in 1925/6 looking for a gold reef. This aerial search was unsuccessful. The RAAF and RAN together conducted aerial surveys of the Great Barrier Reef in 1924, and in 1922 a survey of Lake Eyre was completed. The pilot for this was Ernest Mustar, the scientist GH Halligan. The aerial survey was to establish whether water remained in the centre of lake even when it was dry around the margins, and whether there was sufficient water to support a further expedition by boat.

Two men however are particularly noteworthy for their achievements in aerial exploration of Australia: CT Madigan and Donald Mackay. In 1929 Madigan conducted an aerial survey of nine flights over the Simpson Desert and adjacent areas, some 28,000 square miles, and in 1939 followed it up with a land-based expedition. Between 1930-1937 Donald Mackay conducted four aerial surveys over a huge area bounded by the Overland Telegraph Line in the east and the Transcontinental railway in the south, the Victoria River in the north and Meekatharra in the west, some one million square miles. From this time forward aerial surveys became increasingly common, being taken up principally by mining companies in the search for minerals and oil.

Aircraft were also used in the exploration of New Guinea, notably by Frank Hurley in 1922 and Eric Brandes in 1928. 

It was in Antarctica that the use of aircraft was pioneered extensively. Douglas Mawson planned to take a plane south for his expedition of 1911/12; unfortunately it crashed on a demonstration fund-raising flight in Adelaide. The fuselage was still taken south where it did some duty as a tractor. Its remains were discovered late in 2009. In late 1928 Hubert Wilkins conducted aerial surveys in Graham Land (Antarctic Peninsula), and in 1929/31 Douglas Mawson used a plane on the BANZARE for aerial surveys of the Antarctic coast. In 1934/7 John Rymill used aircraft in support of his land explorations in Graham Land, disproving much of Wilkins' earlier aerial surveys.

Further reading:

Burke, David Moments of terror: the story of Antarctic aviation Kensington, N.S.W.: NSW University Press, [1993]

McLaren, Ian Australian explorers by sea land and air 1788-1988 Parkville, Vic.: University of Melbourne Library, 1988-1991 See espeically indexes in volume 9 which provide a list of aviators

Parnell, N. M. Flypast, a record of aviation in Australia by Neville Parnell and Trevor Boughton. Canberra: AGPS Press, c1988

Gunn, John, The defeat of distance: Qantas 1919-1939 St. Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland Press, 1985


L J Stark

Aerial views of Central Australia
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Aerial views of the Mulligan and Simpson Desert
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Wilkins' Lockheed Vega monoplane
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