DARING pioneer aviator Geoffrey Wikner was so exhausted from piloting his plane across the world he vowed to never fly an aircraft again.
The scene was Sydney’s Mascot Airport on a beautiful winter afternoon in mid-June 1946.
He and his co-pilot and their similarly relieved fellow travellers, comprising men, women and children, had just ‘humped their bluey’ about 13,000 air miles across continents and vast oceans. It had involved long hops between airstrips in an extraordinary 22-day flight from England.
Transport was scarce and the bold journey was the first by a civilian aircraft flying to Australia after World War II. It was at a time when facilities for international passengers at civil airports were non-existent.
“There was a guardian angel flying with us,” the tired airman said after landing safely in his veteran World War II Halifax bomber, cheekily christened ‘Waltzing Matilda’.
And what a grand adventure. Thousands had initially wanted to come and Wikner and wife Trudy eventually culled the “cargo” list down to 19 people, including crew, all crammed into the 30-ton aeroplane, now stripped of its armour to save weight.
It was a journey fraught with danger with no route maps available, the danger of snipers over Asia, jungle storms, shocking heat, a radio burn-out, a mini-mutiny and a mysterious hydraulic leak. All luggage was stowed in the bomb bay and the passengers in the converted 15-seater aircraft either sat in canvas seats or were spread around the aircraft in various crew positions.
Wikner’s son, the late Ken Wikner of New Lambton, though, had great memories of the epic flight. As a nine-year-old coming to Australia, he remembered riding in a bomber gun turret and waving at natives as the aircraft skimmed across Borneo at tree-top level in poor visibility to dodge black monsoonal storms.
He also recalled sitting in the nose cone bomber’s seat while ‘Waltzing Matilda’ did a victory circuit over Sydney’s harbour bridge before landing.
Little did he know, however, that by then the aircraft’s navigation system was kaput. The directional gyro malfunctioned during a stopover. Karachi engineers rectified it, but unfortunately it now worked in reverse – showing that if they wanted to fly east, they headed west.
Today the memory of the famous Halifax bomber lives on in the name of Nelson Bay’s Halifax Holiday Park
Approaching Sydney then in June 1946 was confusing. There was no sign of the coast until Captain Wikner searching for landmarks luckily recognised the Hydro Majestic Hotel in the Blue Mountains instead, so promptly turned around.
In safely landing at last, the heavily-laden, four-engine bomber had well and truly repaid the trust Captain Wikner had placed in it.
Still painted in its night camouflage colours at Mascot, the Halifax bomber had once been flown by Australian crews from No. 466 Squadron on WWII raids over Germany with RAF Bomber Command.
“Matilda" even retained its wartime nose cone indicating it had survived 51 raids.
It was an endurance trip of a lifetime, but one that almost didn’t take place. That was because of “nine frustrating months of seemingly endless red tape and maddening bureaucratic delays”, according to Wikner.
Almost everyone in authority, it seemed, didn’t want Wikner to succeed in immigrating to Australia with his family because of his highly unorthodox mode of transport.
Wikner had originally thought of sailing to Australia by yacht, but soon dismissed the idea. Instead, he bought to Australia a Handley Page Halifax wartime bomber (then a rarity here) with the idea of staging exhibition flights and fund-raising for RAF benevolent groups.
Unable to get support for his idea, Wikner then tried to sell the historic aircraft. British authorities told him this was OK, as long as it was not to a foreign country.
Captain Wikner then tried to sell the bomber to the RAAF for training purposes without success. It was even offered to the Canberra War Museum as a gift, but alas, was not accepted.
It did make one final flight to Singapore though after being bought by some aviation enthusiasts. The commercial venture failed and the Halifax Bomber was finally sold at auction and cut up for scrap in 1948.
“It was a sad ending for such a wonderful aeroplane,” Wikner said.
The Halifax bomber’s actual flying time across the globe from Britain to Australia was 73 hours and 27 minutes spread over three weeks. Not bad for a wartime aircraft good for 11 hours in the air in one long hop before landing to refuel.
The passenger bomber flew at an altitude of 5000ft wherever possible. That was the most economical cruising speed and enabled Wikner to avoid cloud cover to take map readings and visually navigate.
Geoff Wikner and his wife then bought an army truck and converted it into a makeshift caravan for a trip to Queensland. En-route, they stopped off at Port Stephens and settled here instead.
They leased eight acres of virgin land at Little Beach, Nelson Bay, from Port Stephens Council and decided to open a camping and caravan park.
Here, the couple carved out the Halifax Holiday Park, naming it after their “great bomber” that made it all possible. They lived in tents for three years while building cottages to develop the prime site.
The Wikners owned the park for 19 years. In 1978, the council took over the site. Geoff Wikner died in Cooma in 1990, aged 86.
Son Ken Wikner, a shipwright, also became a Hunter legend in his own right before dying in 2004. He acquired the nickname of ‘Biggles’ early in his career at the old State Dockyard because he wore his dad’s old flying jacket.
Ken Wikner became the driving force behind the building of the replica ocean-going steamer William The Fourth launched in 1987. Recently refurbished by volunteers, many inspired by Ken Wikner, the craft is berthed again down at Honeysuckle.
Earlier, in 1993, Ken Wikner published the Norman Mitchell biography of his father entitled Flight of the Halifax.
For Captain Geoffrey Neville Wikner was a true Australian aviation expert. He designed, built and flew aircraft of every sort. His own aircraft, the Wicko Sports Monoplane, had its maiden flight in 1931.
During WWII Wikner was in England in his own business, then started ferrying much needed aircraft to RAF aerodromes. By 1945 he had delivered more than 1000 aircraft and had flown in 67 different aircraft types.
Today the memory of the famous Halifax bomber lives on in the name of Nelson Bay’s Halifax Holiday Park and in places like Geoff Goodall’s engaging aviation history site.
But there’s also a fascinating but odd sequel to the ‘Waltzing Matilda’ saga, although it’s probably a myth. That intriguing story, however, is a tale for another day.