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Douglas, Gilbert Eric (1902–1970)

by David Wilson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Gilbert Eric Douglas (1902-1970), by Frank Hurley, 1929-31

Gilbert Eric Douglas (1902-1970), by Frank Hurley, 1929-31

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an10932811-124

Gilbert Eric Douglas (1902-1970), air force officer, was born on 6 December 1902 at Parkville, Melbourne, second son of Gilbert Douglas, watchman, and his wife Bessie, née Thompson, both Victorian born. Educated at Swinburne Technical College, Eric served three years in the senior cadets before joining the Australian Air Corps in November 1920. He enlisted in the (Royal) Australian Air Force on 31 March 1921 as an aircraftman class 2, fitter aero, and gave his religion as Methodist. Douglas's early postings were to No.1 Flying Training School, Point Cook (1921 and 1922-29), and No.1 Aircraft Depot, Laverton (1921-22). He graduated as airman pilot on 1 December 1927 and was promoted substantive sergeant in October next year. 

On 22 November 1922 Douglas had been front-seat passenger in an Avro 504K which attempted to land at Mascot, Sydney. Realizing that the aircraft was about to hit a fence, he stood up: the crash 'propelled him forward' and he was found 'squatted astride the crankshaft, unconscious and bleeding', when the plane came to rest. His quick reaction had saved his life. In 1928, while he was passenger in a test-flight of the Warrigal I, the pilot was unable to recover from a spin. Ordered to abandon the aircraft, Douglas got to his feet: his tall, spare frame 'apparently varied the air flow over the tail', enabling the pilot to regain control and Douglas to resume his seat.

In April 1929 he flew a D.H.9A to the Northern Territory to join Charles Eaton's team in the search for the ill-fated crew of the Kookaburra, Keith Anderson and Bob Hitchcock. Douglas was one of the ground party which left Wave Hill on the 24th and reached the Kookaburra's forced-landing site in the Tanami Desert. He helped to bury Anderson and Hitchcock, and was recommended for the Air Force Medal for his part in the mission. On 1 August he was promoted pilot officer.

Following the decision to equip the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition with a Gipsy Moth seaplane, Douglas and Flying Officer Stuart Campbell were selected to accompany the explorers on their polar voyage in the summer of 1929-30. The pilots made reconnaissance flights and guided the ship, Discovery, through the ice. Because of his mechanical knowledge, Douglas had prime responsibility for maintenance of the aircraft. The expedition's leader Sir Douglas Mawson also took the Moth and its pilots on the second B.A.N.Z.A.R.E. (1930-31). A flight by Douglas and Mawson on 27 January 1931 almost ended fatally due to a mishap when the plane was being hoisted on board Discovery. In 1934 Douglas was awarded the Polar Medal in bronze with clasp 'Antarctic 1929-31'.

From May 1931 Douglas performed instructional duties at No.1 Flying Training School. On 6 January 1934 he married Ella Sevior at Christ Church, South Yarra, with Anglican rites. Promoted flight lieutenant in July, he commanded the R.A.A.F. contingent in Discovery II which sailed in December 1935 for the Bay of Wales, Antarctica, to search for the American explorer Lincoln Ellsworth and his pilot Herbert Hollick-Kenyon. On 15 January 1936 Douglas flew over the United States' base, Little America, and sighted Hollick-Kenyon. Both men were safe and Ellsworth made the return trip to Melbourne in Discovery II. He and Douglas became close friends; Douglas named his son Ian Ellsworth.

Transferring to engineering duties in June 1937, Douglas returned to No.1 Aircraft Depot in command of the Technical Squadron's aircraft repair section. By July next year he was back at No.1 F.T.S. as engineer officer. He introduced sailing as a recreational activity for cadets and test-flew aircraft when required. Promoted temporary wing commander, in June 1940 he assumed command of No.1 A.D. In June 1942 he moved to Queensland to command No.3 A.D. at Amberley where he was responsible for servicing aircraft of the Australian and U.S. air forces. On 1 December 1943 he was promoted temporary group captain and in August 1947 became commanding officer of R.A.A.F. Station, Amberley. He retired on 1 July 1948 and was granted the rank of group captain.

In 1949-60 Douglas was a civilian technician with the navy's Aircraft Maintenance and Repair Division, Melbourne. Survived by his wife, son and two daughters, he died of cardiac disease on 4 August 1970 at Heidelberg and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • C. D. Coulthard-Clark, The Third Brother (Syd, 1991)
  • D. Wilson, Alfresco Flight (Melb, 1991)
  • Age (Melbourne), 8 Aug 1970
  • unit history records of No 1 Flying Training School, Point Cook, Victoria, No 1 Aircraft Depot, Laverton, Victoria, No 3 Aircraft Depot, Amberley, Queensland, and RAAF Base, Amberley, Queensland (all held by Department of Defence (Air Force Office), Canberra).

Citation details

David Wilson, 'Douglas, Gilbert Eric (1902–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/douglas-gilbert-eric-10038/text17699, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 18 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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