It is possibly my enduring interest in aviation that first led me to take an interest in Wilkins in the first place. I knew of Wilkins in the 1950s during my primary school and early high schools years. Certainly, Australian aviation pioneers were more well known then than perhaps today, Charles Kingsford Smith, Charles Ulm, P.G.Taylor are examples. How many school kids would know of ‘Smithy’ today?
Wilkins was an explorer, adventurer, a person who pursued knowledge with an unquenchable thirst. He came into adulthood at the very dawn of (powered) aviation. It was therefore inevitable that he would be attracted to flight for the sheer adventure of it. However it was more than just adventure for Wilkins. He saw the possibilities it opened up for many other fields of science and human endeavour. Photography, meteorology, geography were his early and passionate interests, all of which could be furthered by aviation. He immediately grasped the possibilities of airborne photography and was a pioneer in that field. Taking aerial photos and moving pictures of the battlefields provided a whole new perspective on understanding and controlling battlefields at both tactical and strategic levels.
In the early twentieth century and between the wars the World still had many blank spaces, vast areas of land and sea that covered the globe and awaited discovery. Covering this was the envelope of air we call the atmosphere, its worldwide systems still little understood. To Wilkins the air represented a medium for travel to conquer vast distances in little time, at the same time gaining an understanding of the meteorological systems which govern the worlds weather.
He also saw the possibility of travel between widely separated continents of the world and embarked on the ill-fated participation in the England – Australia Air Race of 1919. Even back then such was Wilkins reputation that it was not until he was engaged as a navigator and crew leader that the Blackburn Kangaroo team were allowed to participate in the race. Unfortunately its forced landing at Crete was due to mechanical reasons of a suspect nature and not any failure on the part of the crew and its leadership. The whereabouts of the ‘Kangaroo’, or parts thereof remain a mystery awaiting discovery in the caves and catacombs of Crete.
I commenced flying in an age before GPS and so still dependant of instruments and map reading techniques that would have been familiar to Wilkins. Much of my flying was over remote areas of Australia, often with airfields and refuelling facilities spaced well apart, and over the course of hundreds of miles frequently changing weather. Fortunately I had access to weather information that was much more comprehensive than Wilkins ever enjoyed. Nevertheless sound flight planning was always required for the reasons given above. Here Wilkins provided inspiration with his meticulous attention to detail that often saw him and his companions through dire situations.
There is the spiritual wonder of drifting along far above the clouds with a feeling of detachment from the rest of the world, I suspect aviation was more than just a tool or a means to an end for Wilkins, it was also that sense of isolation that compelled him to venture into unknown regions.