Imagine a young, 19 year old boy, 6 feet tall, unruly blond hair, freckled face – lived in his family home on the Esplanade at Glenelg. His name was Jimmy Melrose. This is an entry from his diary on Friday 9 June 1933:
“For the first time in my life I went for a flight all alone. Mr Stevens came with me and we made five good circuits and he was satisfied. So at 2.10pm I made my first solo flight which was the most marvellous experience I have ever had. I shall never forget that wonderful feeling as the plane climbed. I did several left hand turns and then closed the throttle, glided in and made a correct landing.”
That first flight was the beginning of a remarkable but short aviation career that only three years later, ended in tragedy.
Fourteen months later on Tuesday 7 August 1934 Jimmy set out from Parafield to break the round Australia record. Mrs Melrose, who was staying at North Adelaide, was on the lookout for her flying son and Jimmy swooped low and flashed his torch on her window. Mrs Melrose said,
“I saw it distinctly, Jim told me he was going to flash his torch and I was watching for it. He went off in very good spirits and was confident that he would finish the flight this time”.
Five and a half days later, in record-breaking time, Jimmy arrived back at Parafield. He beat the previous record for round Australia by 45 hours.
Jimmy was surprised to see an endless procession of cars wending their way to the aerodrome. He could not remember whether it was Saturday or Sunday. Thinking all those people were heading for the Gawler Races, he decided it must be Saturday. On landing, he asked a newspaperman what day it was.
“It’s Sunday, why?” the newspaperman replied.
“Well, what are those cars doing out here today?” Jimmy asked.
“Why, they’ve come to see you!” was the reply.
After the flight his diary recorded,
“Five days, 11 hours, a record for the flight around 7,000 miles of Australia. My record. Today I spent the rest of the morning being photographed as well as being interviewed. Tomorrow I am to visit the Governor and many other people. I am now supposed to be famous.”
Then, 2 months later, just after his 21st birthday, he flew his little Puss Moth aircraft to England to compete in the Centenary Air Race between London and Melbourne. The Race promised to be the greatest air race the world had ever seen. Jimmy Melrose was determined not to miss it.
He arrived in London and was surprised that he had just broken the record for the fastest flight between Australia and England – and the race hadn’t yet begun! London newspapers were full of praise for Jimmy’s flight. The Daily Telegraph wrote,
“He says the light of the moon helped him. All the same, it must be conceded he is a stout pilot and needless to say an accomplished navigator. He modestly remarked in reply to a question, ‘well I must say I found the places just about where I calculated them to be’”.
“This young fellow of the ready smile, the easy witticism and cultured voice and accent, has just made aviation history and is to be ranked among the famous pilots of the day.”
On the day the Race began, bearing in mind this is only 16 months after his first solo flight, he wrote,
“Saturday 20 October 1934, the start of the greatest air race the world had ever seen. 60,000 people came around the aerodrome at Mildenhall at dawn. Thrilling is not the word; we raced across the countryside east of London, the Thames, the Channel off Dove. I shall never forget it!”
The race was not without incident. Between Rome and Athens he flew into a storm. He had a weather forecast but it was written in Italian and he “couldn’t make head nor tail of it”.
“Never have I felt so scared in all my life, as when I flew up this valley 5,000 feet above sea level, with the mountains going up to 10,000 feet and more, all covered in snow.”
He only just made it into Darwin. Winds had forced him off course over the Timor Sea and 20 miles from Darwin, his fuel gauge showed “empty”. His engines still operated until 4 miles from landing, then sputtered to a stop.
“at 5.30pm the excited crowd at the Darwin aerodrome sighted him gliding up high in the sky with the propeller just turning over in the wind. Jimmy glided down in a wide swoop, and without any assistance from his engine, he made a perfect landing over half a mile from the official check point. Without wasting time he sprang out with his log book and sprinted the half mile, while a cheering crowd of 200 people ran towards him”.
Further on, 20 miles out of Charleville, mailman Mr Sands was driving along the road when,
“this plane swooped over the car and landed ahead of me in a clear patch of scrub country. This young fellow, Melrose, wearing shorts and a sun helmet got out and asked his way to Charleville. Apparently he thought he was off his course. He thanked me and made a perfect take-off. He’s a casual customer all right.”
Jimmy arrived in Melbourne on 31 October 1934.
“Tell them I’ll be there at 9 o’clock”.
And he was. Mrs Melrose was the first to greet her son. He flung open the cabin door and embraced her.
“Are you tired dear?” she asked.
”Not a bit. I’m sorry it’s all over!”
As well as winning third place in the Handicap section he was also the only Australian to complete the Race, the youngest aviator and the only pilot to fly the world’s greatest Race unaccompanied.
Thousands turned out to greet the winners of the Race in Melbourne. They were heroes, including Glenelg’s own Jimmy Melrose.
Charles James Melrose was now the golden boy of Australian aviation in 1934 following his achievements in the London to Melbourne Centenary Air Race. Pitting his meagre qualifications, amazing skill and unbounded confidence against the elements, and against the experience of veterans twice his age, he seized upon the public’s imagination more than any other competitor and flew into the pages of history.
He captured the hearts of the Australian public with a further series of record-breaking flights. A Melbourne Herald reporter described him in 1935 as “one of the most romantic figures in the flying world of Australia".
Jimmy Melrose’s Aviation Feats
1930: Jimmy’s first flight was on 13 May, when he was just 16 years old.
1933: 13 May, during flying lessons, Jimmy took the controls for the first time.
9 June, when he was 19 years old, Jimmy made his first solo flight.
His Pilot’s Certificate Licence No 1108 was issued soon after he passed his ‘A’ Licence examination.
7 August, Jimmy set off in his Puss Moth to break the Round Australia Record, which he flew in 5½ days, beating the former record by 45 hours.
16 September, 3 days after Jimmy’s 21 birthday, he set off for England to compete in the England – Australia Centenary Air Race. His journey between Australia and England broke the record time for the flight reaching England in 8 days 9 hours.
20 October: England – Australia Centenary Air Race.
Arrived Melbourne 31 October in 79 hours, 17 minutes and 50 seconds
The only Australian to finish the Race
The youngest Aviator
The only pilot in the Race who flew unaccompanied
Handicap prize money £1,000
20 November: South Australian altitude record of 20,000 feet, beating the old record of 16,000 feet.
13 December: first non-stop flight from Adelaide to Tasmania.
20 December: first non-stop flight from Tasmania to Sydney, arriving 2 hours before expected.
The adventures in Jimmy’s life did not stop with his own achievements. In November 1935, while returning to Australia from England after purchasing a new aircraft, he was flying over the Bay of Bengal when he recorded sighting Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and Tommy Pethybridge in the “Lady Southern Cross”. History has since shown it was the last sighting of Smithy’s plane before he vanished. On Jimmy’s arrival into Singapore when he discovered Smithy had not arrived, Jimmy joined the search for his hero’s aircraft and spent several days recording and filming what proved to be a fruitless search.
In his brief colourful life, Jimmy Melrose, who became a global figure before he was old enough to vote, created a legend.
Death of a Hero
In 1936 Jimmy began an air taxi service with a brand new plane, a 5-seater, Heston Phoenix. But shortly after breakfast on Sunday 5 July 1936, South Australians heard a dramatic radio news flash that their young flying idol, Jimmy Melrose had been killed that morning while flying from Melbourne to Adelaide.
South Australians found it hard to believe that the flaxen-haired youngster from Glenelg was dead. He was 22 years old. Only a little while before they had given him a hero’s welcome as shy and self-conscious, he stood before them – one of the victors in the greatest air race of all time.
100,000 people gathered for Jimmy’s funeral in Melbourne on 7 July 1936, and a simultaneous Memorial Service was held in St Peter’s Cathedral, Adelaide. Australians everywhere joined Prime Minister Joseph Lyons in mourning their “chivalrous young knight of the air”. South Australian Parliament was suspended in his honour.
Yet today the name Jimmy Melrose is but a faded memory. It would be fitting for South Australia to acknowledge the aviation feats of this young man as well as his spirit of adventure and strength of character by commemorating his name in the Adelaide Airport to remember this true South Australian hero.
Article contributed by Helen Gitsham - email: