The aviation feats of a farmer’s son from South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula are being celebrated there, 100 years later.

Story John Dunn

About the same time Keith and Ross Smith made history by flying to Australia from England in 1919 and launching our country into the aviation era with their epic flight (issue 125, p104), a much lesser known (but no less skilled) flier, Henry John Butler, was playing a significant role in establishing this revolutionary mode of transport in Australia. Butler, better known as Harry, was the kid from Koolywurtie, SA, who couldn’t harness the horses or plough straight furrows on his father’s grain and sheep farm 8km from Minlaton in the heart of the Yorke Peninsula, but could, astonishingly, help build an aeroplane and then fly it.

Butler became one of this country’s earliest pilots. As a senior instructor and captain with England’s Royal Flying Corps, he taught 2700 others during World War I. He also flew over the battlefields of France as an aerial tactician and was awarded the Air Force Cross. Then he returned to Australia to become a pioneer in introducing civil aviation to this country and, in doing so, became the first person to fly over a significant stretch of water. On August 6, 1919, he piloted his crimson Bristol monoplane the 108km from Adelaide across the Gulf of St Vincent to Edward Correll’s barley paddock just outside Minlaton. He delivered an 18kg bag of 4000 letters and postcards, simultaneously providing a huge boost to the introduction of airmail, swift travel and fast communications in a country that suffered from the tyranny of distance.

In August this year, 3000 people swelled Minlaton’s usual population of 1100 as they gathered to celebrate Butler’s 1919 journey and honour his contribution to Australian aviation. The weekend of festivities ranged from book launches and a plaque unveiling to aerobatic displays and a commemorative dinner. “Harry Butler was truly a local hero and I join enthusiastically with the community in celebrating the centenary of his historic flight,” said Darren Braund, mayor of Yorke Peninsula Council.

This story excerpt is from Issue #127

Outback Magazine: Oct/Nov 2019