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Raymond John Paul (Ray) Parer (1894–1967)

by Keith Isaacs

This article was published:

Raymond John Paul Parer (1894-1967), airman and adventurer, was born on 18 February 1894 at South Melbourne, second of nine children of Spanish-born Michael Parer, caterer, and his Victorian wife Myria, née Carolin. Ray was educated at St Stanislaus College, Bathurst, New South Wales, and Xavier College, Melbourne. As a teenager he developed a keen interest in mechanics and aviation and attempted unsuccessfully to fly a home-made glider. He served an apprenticeship with Broadribb Bros, Melbourne, and became a motor mechanic.

On 2 November 1916 Parer enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, having previously been rejected as being under standard height. His objective was to join the Australian Flying Corps and in February-May 1917 Acting Sergeant Parer completed No.7 Aviation Course at the Central Flying School, Point Cook, Victoria, flying Grahame-White Box-kites.

Parer was commissioned on 1 June as second lieutenant and three weeks later embarked for Britain. He attended various A.F.C. and Royal Flying Corps instructional units and qualified as a pilot on 15 February 1918 with the rank of lieutenant. Subsequently posted to the Central Despatch Pool, Royal Air Force, he tested and ferried many types of aircraft to units in Britain and France. For his professionalism at C.D.P. he was recommended twice for an Air Force Cross.

On 24 June 1919 Parer declared his intention to enter the Australian government's £10,000 air race from England to Australia. Finance was not forthcoming, however, until late in the year when Lieutenant John Cowe McIntosh—with whom Parer had joined forces (although McIntosh could not fly an aircraft)—approached the Scottish whisky magnate Peter Dawson, who agreed to back the venture. Parer purchased a single-engine de Havilland D.H.9 biplane, G-EAQM, and painted P.D. on the fuselage in deference to his sponsor. By this time the air race had been won by (Sir) Ross and (Sir) Keith Smith who reached Darwin in December. Undaunted, Parer and McIntosh continued with their preparations.

The fliers left Hounslow on 8 January 1920, and 208 days later arrived in Darwin on 2 August. They were officially welcomed at Flemington racecourse, Melbourne, on 31 August, but what happened during the preceding 237 days is all but incomprehensible. They had made the first of their innumerable forced landings soon after leaving England, and their last at Culcairn, New South Wales. As they struggled from one disaster to another they left a trail of broken propellers, smashed undercarriages, damaged tail-skids, ruined radiators, crumpled wings, and bent fuselages. Their engine had twice caught fire, a vicious down-draught had almost forced the aircraft into the smouldering crater of Mount Vesuvius in Italy, and they had had to fight off Arabs in the Syrian desert. Finance was such a problem that Parer and McIntosh undertook advertising flights in Calcutta, and embellished their aircraft with slogans ranging from tea to whisky.

In spite of their astounding vicissitudes, Parer and McIntosh completed the first single-engine aircraft flight from England to Australia—and the first symbolic freight flight in the form of a bottle of PD Whisky delivered to Prime Minister W. M. Hughes. The aviators were each presented with a £500 cheque and an Air Force Cross. Their D.H.9 aircraft was eventually presented by the government to the Australian War Memorial. C. Day Lewis commemorated their achievement in an epic poem, 'Flight to Australia', and Parer recorded their experiences in Flight and Adventures of Parer and McIntosh, by Air from England to Australia (Melbourne, 1921, 1986).

They soon parted; McIntosh was killed in an aircraft accident in Perth in March 1921. Meanwhile, Ray formed Parer's Commercial Aviation Service, Melbourne. On 27 December 1920 he won the first Victorian Aerial Derby in a D.H.4 at an average speed of 142 miles (228.5 km) per hour, a record which stood for a decade. He next attempted the first flight around Australia to raise funds to enter a $50,000 trans-Pacific flight competition. The event was cancelled. Nevertheless, Parer set out from Melbourne on 7 October 1921 to encircle the continent in the Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2b, G-AUCX. He got as far as Boulder, Western Australia, where he finished up in Kalgoorlie hospital with his cousin Mark Parer, after crashing on take off on 7 February 1922.

Disillusioned with postwar prospects in aviation Parer bought a garage on King Island, Bass Strait, where he had been the first to land an aircraft on 25 January 1921. Some four years passed before he returned to aviation—this time to New Guinea during a gold rush. In November 1926 Parer formed The Bulolo Goldfields Aeroplane Service Ltd and subsequently purchased the D.H.4, G-AUCM, intending to operate the first air service in New Guinea. However, he was beaten into New Guinea by E. A. Mustar who flew from Rabaul to Lae on 30 March 1927; Parer followed on 23 June. For the next fifteen years Parer staggered from one crisis to another. His determination to fight back, however, was not lost on many Territorians who called him 'Battling Parer'.

During his years in New Guinea Parer flew aircraft types including the D.H.4, D.H.9/9c, D.H.60G Moth, D.H.83 Fox Moth, Bristol Fighter, Junkers W.33, Fokker FIII and FVII, Fokker Universal, Fairey Fox and Fairey IIIF, and Boeing 40H-4. He was also associated with Morlae Airways and Pacific Aerial Transport. He made several first flights including the first over the Owen Stanley Range, set records and established new landing grounds, particularly in the Sepik River district. From 1936 his flying activities diminished as he devoted increasing time to searching for gold.

A typical 'Battling Parer' interlude was his participation in the 1934 MacRobertson England-Australia Air Race. It was almost a repeat of 1920. Backed by The New Guinea Centenary Flight Syndicate, Parer purchased an ex-R.A.F. Fairey Fox biplane, G-ACXO, and accompanied by G. E. Hemsworth left Mildenhall on 20 October 1934. The aircraft was less than half way across the English Channel when the engine began misfiring and Parer was forced to land in a French field. He had flown for less than an hour and was already out of the race. Being Parer, however, he decided to complete the flight to Australia and arrived in Melbourne on 13 February 1935. The flight had taken 117 days; C. W. A. Scott and T. Campbell Black had won the race in 70 hours, 59 minutes flying time.

With New Guinea under threat of invasion in 1942, Parer joined the Royal Australian Air Force. However, because of his health he was transferred to the reserve in October. As so often happened to Parer, this opened a new chapter in his life. With his flying days behind him he turned to the sea to regain access to his beloved New Guinea.

He signed up as an engineer aboard the Melanesia, one of the fleet of small boats used by the United States forces for supply and reconnaissance along the northern coast of New Guinea. When the war ended he purchased an ex-Royal Australian Navy ketch in Darwin and proceeded to Torres Strait to search for pearls; in 1949-51 he skippered a barge around the Papua-New Guinea coast for the Department of Works. He was then employed as an engineer aboard tourist vessels on the Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, but returned to Papua New Guinea in 1956-58, to operate small boats searching for oil. He spent the last years of his life managing two small farms at Mount Nebo, Queensland.

Parer's private life partially paralleled the misfortunes of his professional career. His first marriage to Ethel Blanche Jones, née Williams, a divorcee, on 30 December 1941 at Townsville, Queensland, was dissolved on 8 May 1950. His second, to Mary Patricia Ross in Sydney also ended in divorce. Survived by a son, Parer died at the Repatriation General Hospital, Greenslopes, Brisbane, on 5 July 1967 and was buried after a requiem Mass in Pinaroo lawn cemetery, Aspley.

Parer was a small, wiry man who never gave up in the face of adversity. He was a colourful contributor to the history of Australian aviation and left a rich legacy of memories. The writer Norman Ellison recalled: 'In cold aeronautical assessment, I don't suppose you could say that Ray Parer made a great contribution to Australian aviation, but with the wider lens the colour and spirit which he contributed made it certain he won't be forgotten'. Damien Parer, the World War II combat photographer, was a cousin.

Select Bibliography

  • W. M. Cairncross (ed), The Record Flight from London to Calcutta (Calcutta, 1920)
  • I. Idriess, Golddust and Ashes (Syd, 1933)
  • L. Rhys, High Lights and Flights in New Guinea (Lond, 1942)
  • A. H. Affleck, The Wandering Years (Melb, 1964)
  • W. Joy, The Aviators (Syd, 1965)
  • J. Godwin, Battling Parer (Adel, 1968)
  • A. Swinson, The Great Air Race (Lond, 1968)
  • N. Eustis, The Greatest Air Race: England-Australia 1919 (Adel, 1969)
  • J. Sinclair, Wings of Gold (Syd, 1978)
  • E. P. Wixted, The North-West Aerial Frontier 1919-1934 (Brisb, 1985)
  • Sea, Land and Air (Sydney), 1918-23
  • Aircraft (Melbourne), 1919
  • Pacific Islands Monthly, Feb 1956, Aug 1967
  • Truth (Sydney), 6 Nov 1949
  • private information.

Citation details

Keith Isaacs, 'Parer, Raymond John Paul (Ray) (1894–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 27 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Ray Parer, 1920

Ray Parer, 1920

Australian War Memorial, P00281.002

Life Summary [details]


18 February, 1894
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


5 July, 1967 (aged 73)
Greenslopes, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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