[Albert 'Bung' Parson recalls training at Wigram flying school during World War I]
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Rodney Bryant interviews Albert "Bung" Parson about Sir Henry Wigram's flying school which trained pilots for World War I.
Parson: I was a pupil in Wigram. I joined at the end of 1917. I qualified about March or April, I think.
Bryant: Could you tell me a little first of all about Sir Henry Wigram and the part he played in founding the original Canterbury Aviation Company?
Parson: Mr Henry tried very hard to get the government of the day to do something about flying in Canterbury. The government dilly-dallied for some considerable time and eventually it appeared that they were going to do nothing, so he decided the only thing he could do was form a company and start flying training on his own. He did this sometime in 1917 and by June 1917 they got going. The first seven pupils qualified towards the end of August 1917. I don't think you want their names in particular, but there's only one that perhaps I will mention, and that's Bert Mercer. I understand that Bert had been trained to be an instructor because he was really too old to go overseas in a flying capacity.
Bryant: What was involved in joining the school in the first place?
Parson: For a pupil who wanted to learn flying, when he was accepted he had to pay a cash deposit of one hundred pounds, which was the fee for teaching a pilot to fly under normal circumstances - assuming of course that the pilot didn't 'boob'. The company supplied a bed, mattress, dining room and kitchen equipment and that was about all. The pupil had to find his own blankets and linen, arrange for the hiring and pay of a cook, pay for food and fuel and replace all breakages. This usually entailed a fee of approximately one pound per week, per pupil.
At the end of the training the government, acting on behalf of the R.F.C., paid our passage to England second class, usually in a troop ship. The government also refunded seventy-five pounds on behalf of the Imperial government, as part of our flying training fee.
I forgot to mention of course, that no pupil was taken home to England until he had passed his Royal Aero Club certificate. There was no pay of course, and in actual fact, it was possibly six months between the time a pupil registered with the aviation company and the time he arrived in the R.F.C. or the R.N.A.S. In the meantime of course, he had to keep himself.
Bryant: I wonder if you can give us some indication of how long the course lasted and what was involved in the training?
Parson: Well, the course used to last between four and six weeks, weather and/or crashes taken into consideration. Sometimes, of course, we'd have four or five days, sometimes a week, without any flying at all, because, I must insist here, that if there was the slightest breeze, these aircraft with their very small motors couldn't cope and usually we didn't fly after breakfast time, Quite often, of course, we'd be lucky to get five minutes flying a day.
I'm not quite sure of the length of flying time we did during our course at Wigram. In fact, I don't think records were ever taken. A list was taken by the instructor. He'd have a list of the pupils doing a particular job. For instance, Bert Mercer, doing his initial flying, he had a list of six or eight, perhaps even a dozen boys, and as they got into his aircraft and did straight and back again, he ticked them off and so on. But I think, put it down at five hours, that would be a fair guess.
Bryant: Well, what sort of test was involved once you'd done your training and what was the passing out test?
Parson: Well of course, it's fifty years ago since this took place, but I think it amounted to this. The first thing that happened was that Colonel Chaffey was sent for and he was the examining officer. The practice as I remember was we climbed to five hundred feet and then had to land. Then we took off again and climbed to five hundred feet again, did a series of figures of eight and then had to land in a circle. The circle would be approximately one hundred yards across. The third time we took off, climbed to five hundred feet and we had to cut the engine and come in with a dead stick and land again. On occasions if a pupil didn't manage to land in the circle with his second test, usually I suppose, through shock and stage fright, he was given the opportunity of landing in the circle with his dead motor. If he could do that it was a much better test than the one in which he could use his motor. I think from memory that is what the test consisted of.
Bryant: What sort of aircraft were you using at this time?
Parson: All the aircraft in the company in those days were Caudrons. the one they used for solo work was a 45-horsepower. The one that was used by Bert Mercer - the dual-control one - was a 60 horse-power motor. then later on they got another Caudron and this had a 100 horsepower motor. Now all these motors were Anzani engines. They were biplanes and the wing warped. That is rather important. The modern aircraft has ailerons but with these, the whole wing warped just as your hand would warp at the end of your wrist and they were made of struts and millions of wires.
The cockpit equipment consisted of a rudder and a joystick, technically called the control column. For this of course, if you wanted to turn to the left you used left rudder and left joystick and the right was vice versa. It had a throttle just as you have in a motorcar and it had a pulsator. Now this pulsator glass was most important. It was really an inverted glass dome about two inches high and if the oil pump was working you could see the oil pulsating in this glass. It was usually mounted on the strut in front of the pilot. If the oil stopped pulsating in this pulsator glass, you came down mighty quick because if you didn't the engine would very soon blow up.
Then the next thing was a switch, just an ordinary electric light switch you or I would have in your own home. There was no air speed indicator - I don't know what the aircraft speed would be. I would think perhaps about 45 miles an hour or slow, dead slow and stop.
Bryant: Well let's look at a typical day in the life of one of those early trainee pilots.
Parson: Well, just before dawn Bert Mercer would arrive in his old single cylinder De Dion. About six horsepower it was. He'd stripped it down and it had no silencer. the throttle consisted of a piece of string. When he arrived just before dawn, he'd drive round and round the cubicles to waken everybody up. If the old cook had had a bad night before, he came out and produced a string of oaths I've never heard before or since. I might add he had been a cook in a shearing shed.
We got up and had a cup of tea. Then the junior pupils went over to Bert Mercer and they did 'straights' which consisted of taking off from the bottom end of the airfield, climbing perhaps to twenty, thirty or forty feet, and at a signal from Mercer, we'd land. As soon as we'd landed, he'd give the signal to take off again and we'd repeat the process and we'd do this three times on the way down the aerodrome. All in about half a mile.
We'd then turn around and come back and repeat the procedure. After landing we had a good look round and if there were too many broken wires, someone had to taxi into the hangars and renew them. Possibly half a dozen wires could be renewed in five minutes, because we broke so many we had all the correct lengths tied up together. If there were only two or three broken we tied those round the nearest strut to keep them from flapping in the breeze until another two or three had broken and then we would have to go and replace them.
The senior pupils went to Mr Hill for advanced dual and solo, doing figures of eight and general landing practice.
Transcript by Sound Archives/Ngā Taonga Kōrero
Reference number 27740
Media type AUDIO
Collection Sound Collection
Interviews (Sound recordings)
Parson, Bung, Interviewee
BRYANT, Rodney, Interviewer
Radio New Zealand. National Programme (estab. 1964, closed 1986), Broadcaster