17 November, 2021
Ninety years on, and Arthur Butler still holds the record for flying solo in a baby monoplane from England to Australia in just nine days, one hour, and 42 minutes.
The flight should have only taken eight days; however, Mr Butler was held by Italian police for a day. The original hanger still remains at the Gilgandra Shire depot, and the Tooraweenah aerodrome is soon to become a museum dedicated to Mr Butler.
The story of Mr Butler may not be one known to many, but he was a humble man who didn’t like to boast. On November 9, 1931 at 4.22pm, Mr Butler touched down in Darwin, making aviation history.
“He was a person of amazing determination,” said Mr Butler’s grandson and Tooraweenah local, Mark Pitts.
“He used to live in Lithgow, and his love of flying came from when he rode up into the mountains and he sat under a pine tree. He said he heard a loud explosion and saw this seed, and he said he just watched its perfect aerodynamic float. He said from that point on all he wanted to do was fly.”
Mr Butler trained as a flight mechanic, and eventually saved up enough money to buy an old broken-down plane which he restored, got his pilot’s license at 17, and he became a barnstormer.
“That’s how he met my grandmother,” said Mr Pitts.
“By coming to Tooraweenah and taking my grandmother up for a joy flight. That’s where their relationship started.
Mr Butler would tell his children and grandchildren stories from all of his flying years, but the most impressive is that of his record-breaking flight.
“He went to take this position in England, and then he was staying up with at his aunties in the Wirral, which is not far from Liverpool. In those days, you only had mail by sea, so a letter sent by his friend took five to six weeks to get to him.
“This letter said, if you stay over there, you’re going to lose your girl. And he just felt so hopeless that he jumped on this pushbike and rode through the countryside,” said Mr Pitts/
While riding, without a clear destination in mind, Mr Butler saw his first plane in England. So, he chased it.
“He had no idea that that was going to be the answer to get back to his girl,” said Mr Pitts.
“He watched where it landed and he rode over to the plane, and the guy was trying to fob him off because he just thought he was a colonial, and thought – what is he doing coming up asking us questions for? But the pilot was very happy to talk to him.”
When the pilot found out that Mr Butler had aviation experience, he was happy to let him have a fly. That’s when they realised, he was the real deal.
“They offered him a job to help promote the pilot’s little plane,” said Mr Pitts.
“My grandfather said, no I’ve got to get back to Australia. And he said, well I’ve got a better idea. You get back to your girl for free - because he had no money - and you make my little plane famous and break the world record.”
The little copper-swift plane was then redesigned for expansive distances.
“He is the only one in the world who, one, was the fastest solo flight in history, and two, he was the only open cockpit and smallest plane to do it,” said Mr Pitts.
Mr Butler went through some terrible tropical thunderstorms, spending five of the nine days in terrible weather. But getting there for his girl was what kept him going.
“He said that because Tooraweenah’s given me a wife, I’m going to put Tooraweenah on the map. And that’s why Tooraweenah became the first genuine regional aviation in Australia,” said Mr Pitts.
“I’ve just been told by someone from the Ansett airline museum that was at Toora recently, he said that it was probably the first regional hub in the world.”
Mr Pitts said that his grandfather pioneered just about every air service in NSW. You may be familiar with the name ‘Butler Air Transport.’
“Tooraweenah was an operational airport before Dubbo, then he started Dubbo, Warren, Bourke, Walgett, Moree, Cobar, Hay, lots and lots of places.”
Mr Butler wanted to provide services for everyone right across Australia. He wanted to allow people in remote areas to access travel by air, to get to the big cities. According to Mr Pitts, a Tooraweenah farmer could order a part in the morning and have it that afternoon.
“There’s no way that could happen today.”
Mr Pitts said that Tooraweenah aerodrome was the only privately owned airport in the world, because Mr Butler bought the land.
“The whole property was his, and he could extend the runway and do whatever he wanted without having to go through all the government protocol.
“It was the only privately owned aerodrome in the world that services a town of less than 200, and more than 300 passengers a week. It was a thriving town during the Arthur butler air transport days,” said Mr Pitts.
Mr Pitts has high regard for his grandfather, and wants to see more recognition for his hard work.
“I just think it’s a really good opportunity, the way that COVID-19, and the way that domestic travels going to change, that we promote the aviation histories significance in the Gilgandra shire.
“My grandfather was always had people around at his place coming to see him. He was a bit of an enigma of a personality. But he was really highly regarded by people.
“Nancy Bird Walton would be coming over all the time, she just regarded him as the most understated aviator in the history of Australia. She said it was a disgrace that he hasn’t had more recognition that he did. But he was a humble man, he wasn’t out there blowing his trumpet.”
The original passenger terminal still stands in Tooraweenah and is set to become an aviation museum in the near future.