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Hinkler, Herbert John (Bert) (1892–1933)

by E. P. Wixted

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Herbert John Louis (Bert) Hinkler (1892-1933), aviator, was born on 8 December 1892 at Bundaberg, Queensland, son of John William Hinkler, German-born stockman, and his wife Frances Atkins, née Bonney. Educated at North Bundaberg State School in 1898-1906, he found work with a photographer at Gympie and soon became interested in aviation. He worked in sugar-mills and the foundry at Bundaberg; then briefly visited Brisbane seeking other aviation enthusiasts. There he joined the Queensland Aero Club of 1910 and the Aerial League of Australia. Learning mechanics by correspondence in 1911, he built two gliders in 1911-12; the second design was based on his own observation and analysis, including photographs, of ibises in flight. An application to join the new aviation section of the Australian army was rejected. When the American airman Arthur Burr Stone brought his Bleriot monoplane to Bundaberg in 1912, Hinkler became his mechanic on a tour of southern Australia and New Zealand. Coping with the numerous mishaps to Stone's plane confirmed Hinkler's grasp of construction fundamentals.

Hinkler sailed for England at the end of 1913 and found work in the Sopwith aircraft factory. On 7 September 1914 he enlisted in the Royal Naval Air Service. After training at the Central Flying School, Upavon, he was posted to Newcastle-upon-Tyne and, early in 1915, to Whitley Bay, Northumberland. An excellent rifle-shot, he was chosen as the commanding officer's observer and by the end of 1915 was a petty officer.

Having invented an improved dual-control system which enabled the gunner to relieve a disabled pilot, Hinkler completed an aerial gunlayer's course in 1916 and was posted to No.3 Wing, R.N.A.S., escorting bombers in Sopwith '1½ Strutters' from Luxeuil and Ochey near Nancy, France. When the wing was disbanded in June 1917 the crews went to other units and for several months Hinkler flew on night raids in Handley-Page bombers. Flying in D.H.4s on day bombings for No.5 Squadron, R.N.A.S., Canadian pilot Charles B. Sproatt gave him his first chance to fly a plane. Awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, he was promoted to warrant rank and recommended for a commission and pilot training. As a gunner, Hinkler privately claimed destruction of six enemy planes. On 30 December he began training at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, moving later to Eastbourne and to No.2 Fighting School at Marske, Yorkshire. After graduation in July 1918 he was posted to No.28 Squadron, Royal Air Force, stationed in Italy. There he was repelled by one of his duties, the work of 'ground strafing' Austrian troops.

Failing in his application to fly a Sopwith Dove in the 1919 air race to Australia, Hinkler undertook rehabilitation training with A. V. Roe & Co. at Hamble, near Southampton. He bought a 35-horsepower Avro Baby and, on 31 May 1920, flew from Croydon to Turin, Italy, over the Alps in 9½ hours. Because of mechanical problems he abandoned the idea of flying on to Australia when he reached Rome; the flight won him the Britannia Trophy. Shipping the plane to Australia in 1921, he made a series of flights including one from Sydney to Bundaberg, non-stop. After an emergency landing due to bad weather on the return flight, strong winds overturned the plane.

Hinkler returned to England via Canada and until 1926 was chief test pilot for the Avro company at Hamble. In December 1922 he tested the Avro Aldershot, the first plane powered by a 1000-horsepower engine. He won the light aircraft trials at Lympne in 1923 in a monoplane motor-glider and in 1924 the Grosvenor Challenge Cup. In 1925 he was reserve pilot for the British Schneider Trophy team at Baltimore, United States of America, and in 1927 he flew his Avro Avian G-EBOV non-stop from London to Riga, Latvia, receiving a Latvian decoration. He also tested autogiros for the Spanish designer, Juan de La Cierva, in 1927 and, to secure funds for a flight to Australia, made an unsuccessful attempt with R. McIntosh on the London to India air record.

In February 1928 Hinkler made the first solo flight to Australia in G-EBOV and won fame; he took slightly over fifteen days. Hinkler's flight proved an unexpected financial success when the Australian government gave him £2000. He was made an honorary squadron leader in the Royal Australian Air Force Reserve and was awarded the Air Force Cross.

Returning to England by sea in October, he began building an amphibian aircraft of his own design called the 'Ibis'. On 11 January 1930 he and an Avro engineer, Rowland Bound, registered the Ibis Aircraft Co. The prototype, G-AAIS, was successfully flown but the potential market vanished in the Depression. Hinkler went to Canada in September 1930 to survey American prospects and in April 1931 he acquired a Puss Moth, CF-APK, which later the same year he flew from Canada to New York, then via the West Indies, Venezuela, Guiana, Brazil and the south Atlantic to Great Britain. Informed people declared him Britain's leading aviator. He was awarded the Segrave trophy, the Britannia challenge trophy, the gold medal of the Royal Aero Club and the Johnston memorial air navigation trophy. For the flights in 1920 and 1928 he had already won two Britannia trophies and the gold medal of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

Failing to secure aerial employment in Britain, Hinkler returned to America early in 1932 contemplating a global circumnavigation by light plane. He went back to England and prepared for another flight to Australia, intending later to cross the Pacific to Canada. He began the flight from Heathrow on 7 January 1933 in his Puss Moth and disappeared. The crashed plane and Hinkler's body were found on the northern slopes of Pratomagno in the Apennines between Florence and Arezzo, Italy, on 27 April. He had survived the crash and died outside the wreckage. On Mussolini's orders he was buried in Florence with full military honours.

An Italian enquiry was held into Hinkler's death; a separate enquiry by an air force officer sought to establish the causes of the crash. His finding that the crash was caused by the loss of a wing in flight was contradicted by eye-witnesses who found the wing against the tree which had knocked it from the plane. Independent investigation establishes that Hinkler attempted an emergency landing after the loss of a propeller blade in flight.

His closest associates described Hinkler as a man without fear, an ideal aerial companion, a man without pretensions who achieved without fuss, and a flying genius. He was 5 ft 4 ins (163 cm) tall. The prominent Queensland flyer Maude Rose Bonney, who married his cousin, is said to have been inspired by a flight with him. Enrolled for school in 1898 as Bertie Hinkler, he remained Bert Hinkler for the rest of his life. On 21 May 1932 in Connecticut, U.S.A., he married Katherine Rome; they had no children. His name is commemorated by parks and streets in Queensland and elsewhere and in an occasional air race centred in Queensland. A monument stands on Pratomagno. Two of his aircraft are displayed in the Queensland Museum.

Select Bibliography

  • H. A. Jones, The War in the Air (Oxford, 1922)
  • J. A. Mollison (ed), The Book of Famous Flyers (Lond, 1934)
  • R. D. Mackenzie, Solo: The Bert Hinkler Story (Brisb, 1963)
  • British Australasian, 23 Sept 1915
  • Aircraft (Melbourne), 20 May 1921
  • Sea, Land, and Air, July 1920, Apr, May 1921
  • Flight (London), 11 Dec 1931, 1 Jan, 15 Dec 1932, 16 Feb 1933
  • Aeroplane, 1 Feb 1933
  • Australian Flying, Feb 1974
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 31 July 1920, 16, 23 Apr 1921
  • Queenslander, 9 Oct 1920, 1 Mar 1928, 17 Jan 1929, 7 May 1931, 30 Apr, 28 May 1936
  • Brisbane Courier, 3 Mar 1928
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 8 Feb 1934
  • A 458.AB, AC, BS., CF 314/4 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Hinkler papers (National Library of Australia and State Library of Queensland).

Citation details

E. P. Wixted, 'Hinkler, Herbert John (Bert) (1892–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hinkler-herbert-john-bert-6680/text11519, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 19 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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