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Sir Norman Brearley (1890–1989)

by Bill Bunbury

This article was published:

Sir Norman Brearley (1890-1989), pioneer aviator, was born on 22 December 1890 at Geelong, Victoria, fourth of five children of Victorian-born parents Robert Hilliard Brearley, tanner, and his wife Mary Karen, née Petersen. Norman attended local schools before moving with his family to Western Australia in 1906. He studied mechanical and electrical engineering at Perth Technical College and at 18 acquired an apprenticeship at Hoskins & Co. Ltd’s foundry. Having developed an interest in the new technology of flight, he realised in World War I his ambition to fly. He took passage to England in April 1915 and was commissioned in the British Army on 12 October. Immediately joining the Royal Flying Corps, he began flying training at Thetford, Norfolk, later recalling inexperienced and nervous instructors, and aircraft ill-designed for training pilots. He was in action over the Western Front by June next year, and was awarded the Military Cross for destroying a German observation balloon in September. Two months later he attacked, with another pilot, seven enemy aircraft. Shot down in no man’s land, he crawled back to the British trenches with bullet wounds that perforated both lungs. For his `courage and determination’ he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (1917).

Back in Perth on sick leave, Lieutenant Brearley married with Anglican rites Violet Claremont Stubbs at Christ Church, Claremont, on 5 July 1917. He was determined to fly again and swam in the Swan River baths to improve his lung capacity. On his return to England, he was declared fit for light duties but `no stunts’. Captain Brearley became a staff instructor at the School of Special Flying, Gosport. In June 1918 he was given command of the Midland Area Flying Instructors’ School at Lilbourne, near Rugby. Among those he trained at Gosport and Lilbourne were (Sir) Keith and (Sir) Ross Smith and Arthur Cobby. Promoted to major, Royal Air Force, in August, he was transferred to the Unemployed List on 26 June 1919. He was mentioned in despatches (1917) and awarded the Air Force Cross (1919). His brother Stanley George (1894-1979) won the Distinguished Flying Cross while serving with the Australian Flying Corps.

Already planning a peacetime career in aviation in Australia, Brearley brought back two war-surplus Avro 504 aircraft. Beginning with a series of demonstration and `joyride’ flights over Perth, he secured the support of Michael Durack, who represented Kimberley in the Legislative Assembly. He erected a hangar below Durack’s house in Adelaide Terrace, and used the Esplanade, on the banks of the Swan River, as a runway. When, in 1921, he was awarded the contract to provide an airmail service between Geraldton and Derby, he imported six Bristol Tourer biplanes and formed Western (West from 1926) Australian Airways Ltd. Despite difficulties securing logistic support, he and his team of four pilots, including (Sir) Charles Kingsford Smith, began operating on 5 December 1921. The inaugural flight ended in tragedy when one plane crashed near the Murchison River, killing the pilot and his mechanic. Brearley blamed the accident on lack of suitable emergency landing strips. Urged on by Durack, he persuaded the director of the civil aviation branch, Department of Defence, Horace Brinsmead, to organise upgrading of the airstrips, and then resumed flights.

With the north-west route established, in 1924 Brearley extended the service south to Perth. Three years later he set up the Perth Flying School at Maylands aerodrome. In 1928 WAA won the contract to carry mail between Perth and Adelaide. On this route, opened in June 1929, the airline used De Havilland 66 Hercules, which carried fourteen passengers, and Vickers Viastras. To ensure accurate navigation over the long distance, which pilots often flew at night, Brearley installed the American-designed Sperry rotating beacon system along the flight path. In 1934 WAA lost the north-west airmail contract to MacRobertson-Miller Aviation Co. Ltd. Two years later Brearley sold the company and the rights to the Perth-Adelaide route to Australian National Airways Pty Ltd.

On 19 February 1940 Brearley was appointed temporary flight lieutenant, Royal Australian Air Force. Posted to various training schools as commanding officer, he rose to acting group captain in January 1942. He commanded No.4 Service Flying Training School, Geraldton, from October and RAAF Station, Tocumwal, New South Wales, from March 1944. His appointment terminated on 12 June. After the war Brearley served as a director of Sydney Atkinson Motors Ltd, Perth, played golf, and travelled overseas. He patented several inventions and published an autobiography, Australian Aviator (1971). Appointed CBE in 1965 and knighted in 1971, he was awarded the Oswald Watt gold medal in 1974. He was founding president of the (Royal) Aero Club of Western Australia and a member (1926-89) of the Rotary Club of Perth. Predeceased by his wife, he died on 9 June 1989 at Nedlands and was cremated. His son and daughter survived him. A bust of Sir Norman by Gerard Darwin is displayed at the Perth International Airport.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Parnell and T. Boughton, Flypast (1988)
  • B. Bunbury, Rag Sticks & Wire (1993)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 5 Dec 1981, p 30
  • Australian, 5-6 Dec 1981, `Weekend Magazine’, p 9
  • Far Horizons, Jan/Feb 1990, p 12
  • Brearley papers (State Library of Western Australia)
  • personal information.

Citation details

Bill Bunbury, 'Brearley, Sir Norman (1890–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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