The inspiring life of Bill Taylor: the man who saved Smithy

AUSTRALIAN aviation pioneer Bill Taylor passed away nearly 49 years ago, at the age of 70, but his legacy is alive and well, including here in Lismore.

The man who risked his life to save Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith on an aborted passage across the Tasman was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame at Wagga at ceremony in August.

A month earlier his biography was released. Written by Rick Searle, The Man Who Saved Smithy details Bill's extraordinary life.

Pioneer aviator Bill Taylor emerges from a Catalina flying boat which was among his favourite craft.
Pioneer aviator Bill Taylor emerges from a Catalina flying boat which was among his favourite craft.

His exploits and achievements were among the topics of discussion earlier this month at an annual reunion of those who devoted their war years to the Evans Head Bombing and Gunnery School.

At the reunion Lismore resident Gai Taylor addressed the crowd of elderly men and women who would have looked up to Bill as a pioneer.

With great clarity and detail Gai, better known for her role in organising the annual Great Eastern fly-In, recalled some of the tales of skill, endurance and bravery generated by her father.

Officially known as Sir Patrick Gordon Taylor after being knighted in 1954 for services to aviation, Bill was a devoted dad.

"I had a close relationship with Dad," Gai said.

"He was just away a lot. We spent much of our time together teaching me to fish, use an outboard and dingy, sail and a lot of bush walking. He gave me a wonderful sense of connection to the natural environment."

Gai was born late in her father's life at a time when he was busy exploring the Pacific as well as flying Catalinas commercially for Bryan Monkton's Trans Oceanic Airways.

Bill was a regular visitor to Lismore as a pilot with New England Airways and on many occasions landed at Grafton with Trans Oceanic Airways, splashing the Catalina down on the Clarence before offloading passengers and mail. But his domestic duties paled into insignificance when compared to his daring overseas adventures.

Born in 1896 into a successful Sydney merchant family, Bill cut his aviation teeth in World War One flying Sopwith Scouts with the Royal Flying Corp, precursor to the RAF.

Based in England he flew 77 sorties, navigating by the seat of his pants and receiving a military cross for his efforts.

Like a lot of pioneer war pilots - Hudson Fysh, Ross and Keith Smith, Charles Kingsford-Smith - Bill came home with a burning passion to spend his life in the air.

While he had seen the horrors of war, he predicted that one day aircraft could join the continents, bringing people together and perhaps helping to avoid future war.

This inspiration became Bill's life's purpose but the reality of finding work as a commercial pilot proved daunting with only sporadic opportunities available at the time.

Patrick Gordon ‘Bill’ Taylor and Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith are swamped by the crowd after arriving in America.
Patrick Gordon ‘Bill’ Taylor and Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith are swamped by the crowd after arriving in America.

He was however determined and spent time learning more about flight. In between odd piloting jobs he undertook an engineering course at Mascot, volunteering at deHavilland and learned the complexities of celestial navigation.

Trouble was, marine sextants proved useless above clouds, where no horizon was visible for a reading so Bill developed his own, incorporating a re-designed bubble chamber attached to the sextant to act as an artificial horizon. He also developed a 'drift sight' to accurately read sideways movement of the aircraft due to wind.

With these early tools Bill was later able to navigate the world's largest oceans.

Bill connected with Kingsford-Smith when the pair were involved with the short-lived Australian National Airways, and after that fledgling enterprise crashed - quite literally - Bill and 'Smithy' turned to barnstorming as a way to make a quid from flight.

Together they flew the famous Southern Cross to New Zealand and back, fanning the flame of adventure that continued until Kingsford-Smith perished - as the flying ace had always feared - drowning after crashing off the west coast of Thailand.

Daring act of heroism

One of Bill and Smithy's more famous exploits took place over the Tasman during a commemorative 'jubilee' flight in May 1935.

Nearly 1000 kilometres after taking off they experienced trouble in one of the plane's three engines.

The exhaust manifold cracked free and smashed the propeller which created such a terrible shaking sensation that Smithy shut the engine down to save the plane.

Flying over America after completing the first east to west crossing from Australia to America by air.
Flying over America after completing the first east to west crossing from Australia to America by air.

It was difficult flying the unbalanced plane, and with reduced power it began to lose altitude.

Smithy ordered Bill and radio operator John Stannage to throw most of their precious jubilee mail cargo out the window in a bid to lighten the load but, fortunately, they accidentally overlooked a shifting spanner, which later proved very useful.

When the engine on the other side of the plane began to burn oil things became serious. The trail of grey-blue smoke indicated the extent of that drama even before its oil pressure gauge indicated alarm.

With little thought for his own life Bill decided to get oil from the dead engine and transfer it to the one requiring help.

Pushing panic back he climbed out the cockpit window and crawled along a horizontal strut, connecting the engine to the fuselage, bracing his neck and shoulders against the wing.

With winds exceeding 130km/h it is a wonder he was not blown away but he managed to unscrew the oil drain plug, using that critical spanner, and filled a thermos with the precious liquid before getting it back to the cockpit where Stannage poured it into a leather suitcase.

Aviation pioneer Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith.
Aviation pioneer Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith. NATIONAL LIBRARY OF AUSTRALIA

This act was repeated several times before they had enough to attempt a re-fill of the stricken engine, and then the whole process was repeated in reverse another five times.

It was a heroic act that saved them and for that Bill was awarded the Empire Gallantry Medal, later converted to the George Cross, the highest civilian bravery award, equivalent to the military Victoria Cross.

Amazing life

Bill Taylor went on to record many more memorable flights, including the first trans-Indian ocean flight from Port Headland to Mombasa via Diego Garcia aboard a Catalina flying boat.

He was the first to survey the central Pacific air route, from Acapulco to New Zealand via the Marquesses and he was the first to pioneer the southern pacific air route, from Australia to South America, leaving from Grafton and flying to Valparaiso via Suva.

On the return leg of that trip, again in a Catalina, he landed offshore from Easter Island to refuel and very nearly failed to get air-borne when the wind piped up and the seas became rough.

Read all about him in The Man Who Saved Smithy, published by Allen & Unwin.

Topics:  history

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