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Gatty, Harold Charles (1903–1957)

by Alan Warden

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Harold Charles Gatty (1903-1957), air navigator, naturalist, adventurer and writer, was born on 5 January 1903 at Campbell Town, Tasmania, son of James Gatty, schoolteacher, and his wife Lucy Fitzjohn, née Hall. With his three brothers and two sisters, Harold attended the state primary school at Zeehan where his father was headmaster. In 1916 with a bursary he attended St Virgil's College, Hobart, and next year won a place as cadet-midshipman at the Royal Australian Naval College, Jervis Bay, Federal Capital Territory. He withdrew from the college in May 1920 to serve for three years as an apprenticed ship's officer with the Patrick steamship company of Sydney.

After gaining his certificate of competency in 1923, he joined the Union Steamship Co. of New Zealand. Dissatisfied with conditions he returned to Tasmania, then went to Lakes Entrance in Victoria to earn a meagre living from fishing, interspersed with rabbiting in the Gippsland hills. Later in Sydney, he acquired a small launch carrying goods to the Garden Island Naval Dockyard and to ships at anchor in Sydney Harbour, but his launch sank and he returned to Patrick's. On 3 June 1925 at Mosman, with Presbyterian forms, he married a divorcee Elsie Louise Boyd, née Limmex (known as Vera McCulloch), a pianist.

In October 1927 Gatty took his family to California where for a short time he was chief mate on a schooner, the Goodwill, owned by sporting-goods millionaire, Keith Spalding. Next year, keenly aware of the limitations of existing methods and instruments for aerial navigation, he opened a laboratory repairing navigation instruments, including aircraft compasses, and making air-route maps for the Pioneer Instrument Co. in Los Angeles; this developed into a small navigation school. His work attracted the attention of P. V. H. Weems, inventor of a system of air navigation. To work in conjunction with the 'Weems curves', Gatty devised his ground-speed and drift indicator. This instrument formed the basis of the automatic pilot which later came to be standard equipment on most aircraft.

In 1929 Gatty flew as navigator with Roscoe Turner in a record nineteen-hour non-stop flight from Los Angeles to New York. He followed this with two demonstrations of navigational skill which brought him universal acclaim. In September 1930 he accompanied the Canadian airman, Harold Bromley, in an attempt on the first flight across the Pacific, from Honshu in Japan to Tacoma in Washington State. After flying 1200 miles (1900 km) the plane was forced to return because of fuel tank trouble. With fog all the way, with no radio and using only his dead reckoning techniques, Gatty navigated Bromley back to their starting point on Honshu Island—perhaps one of the greatest air navigational feats.

In an immediate sequel, Gatty's assistance was sought by the one-eyed stuntman, oil rigger and air adventurer, Wiley Post, to fly around the world. They set off from Roosevelt airfield, New York, on 23 June 1931 in the Winnie Mae, a Lockheed Vega monoplane powered by a single Pratt and Whitney Wasp engine, and re-landed there on 1 July. They had covered 15,000 miles (24,900 km) in eight days, fifteen hours and fifty-one minutes, with actual flying time of one hundred and six hours, eight minutes. The easterly route across the North Atlantic, Siberia, the Bering Sea and Alaska called for pin-point navigational accuracy. The airmen were accorded a tumultuous ticker-tape reception in New York City. Next year he was co-author with Post of Around the world in eight days.

Despite his refusal of American citizenship, Gatty in 1931-34 served in the United States Army Air Corps as senior air navigation engineer. His plans to engage in the 1934 Melbourne Centenary air race fell through, as did a brief try at passion-fruit farming in Alabama. In 1935 he joined Pan American World Airways and was sent to Australia and New Zealand to obtain support from both governments for a trans-Pacific passenger service. Because of British opposition he had no success in Australia, but in New Zealand agreement was reached, and in 1937 he surveyed a route from San Francisco to Auckland. However, plans for a regular flying-boat service were interrupted by World War II. In 1936 Harold and Vera Gatty were divorced, and in July 1937 in New York, Gatty married Allerdina Fenna Bolderhey. From 1942 he served in Java, Australia and New Guinea as director of air transport for the United States Army Air Corps in the South West Pacific and was honorary group captain with the Royal Australian Air Force until May 1943 when he began work on polar navigation with the United States Navy. That year he published, privately, a safety manual, The raft book, which explained the zenith star navigation methods of the ancient Polynesians. The book, an immediate best-seller, was standard equipment in U.S. Army Air Force life rafts. Soon after the end of the war Gatty returned to Pan American Airways as South Pacific regional manager. He bought the beautiful Fiji island of Katafanga, where he worked a copra plantation. In 1948 he started a tuna fishing industry, South Sea Marine Products Ltd, at Suva, but losses forced its closure. On 1 September 1951 he founded Fiji Airways Ltd, a successful three-plane airline operating out of Nadi among the inhabited islands.

Gatty served two terms in the Legislative Council of Fiji. A fellow of the Institute of Navigation, England, he was writing of ocean currents and the migratory habits of birds when he died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 30 August 1957, survived by his wife and the three sons of his first marriage. Nature is your guide was published posthumously in 1958; the foreword referred to him as the 'foremost navigator of his time'. A monument commemorating Gatty's round the world flight was erected at his birthplace in 1961.

Select Bibliography

  • P. V. H. Weems, Air Navigation (Annapolis, US, 1955)
  • B. Hilder, Gatty Memorial Lecture (Syd, 1958)
  • Air Legion Weekly (Washington), 4 Dec 1931
  • Pacific lslands Monthly, Nov 1948, Sept 1957, Feb 1961
  • Sun (Sydney), 8 Feb 1947
  • Herald (Melbourne), 31 Mar 1937, 22 June 1958
  • family papers (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

Alan Warden, 'Gatty, Harold Charles (1903–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gatty-harold-charles-6288/text10841, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 20 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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