Wilkins and Aviation

By Warwick Archer.

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.

Searching for the Blackburn Kangaroo

by Warwick Archer.

Read the full article Where in Crete is the Blackburn Kangaroo?

The following is an excerpt from the 1970 (approx) article “Who sabotaged the Blackburn Kangaroo?”

“The original Blackburn Kangaroo sat for several years on the airfield at Suda Bay until it was housed in a temporary museum in the town. When the Germans invaded Crete, a small group of locals dismantled the ageing bomber and hid it in one of the countless caves in the nearby hills. The story goes that at the war’s end none of the group survived to relocate the aircraft. It has never been found.”

In September 2019, while such trips were still possible, I visited and spent a week on the island of Crete to study the ‘Battle of Crete 1941’.  A personal bucket list item was to find out “What happened to the Blackburn Kangaroo?”  Alas I could shed no further light on the information above. There was a military museum in Chania but that was burnt down in 2015 and its artefacts were removed for storage to an unknown location.  Unfortunately our program was very tight and left little time for independent inquiry.

The crashed Balckburn Kangaroo at Suda Bay, Crete which Reg Williams of Windston Hills flew in the great air race of 1919. May 05, 1981. (Photo by Barry James Gilmour/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).

 

The photos above show the Blackburn Kangaroo after its forced landing and a photo taken from what appears to be a similar position across Suda Bay.  The only reference to the mental asylum is in a German combat report. It doesn’t appear to exist now or has been put to other use.  There are numerous caves in the area where families are known to store personal property, and since Crete is a land described as being ‘run by (family) vendetta’ locations are jealously guarded.  The description above as to the fate of the remains is highly plausible. Nothing short of a dedicated effort and lots of legwork is likely to produce any worthwhile results.  That is clearly not possible under the current circumstances. It is very unlikely that any first-hand witnesses exist.  Most would have perished during the war or died since.

There is a private collector who I know would be keen to help, his name is Stelios Tripalitakis, an ex-member of the Greek armed forces, and has built up a remarkable collection of recovered WW2 artifacts from around the Chania area.  I have previously emailed but the address must have been wrong or changed as there has been no reply.  We toured his private collection, he is a passionate student of history and I will make further attempts at contact.

While much of the airframe probably no longer exists the hardware, ie the Rolls Royce engines almost certainly do.  It would be a historic find if the they could be uncovered.

The Blackburn Kangaroo, was so named not after the Australian macropod, but the location of the observer in the forward ‘pouch’.  Despite its ungainly appearance it was not an unsuccessful machine.  They were used for long range anti-submarine patrols in WW1 and played a part in the sinking of two submarines.  After the war they continued to be used for civil flying in the 1920s.