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FOR THE WALSH siblings of Auckland, New Zealand, early aviation was very much a family affair. Unlike fellow Kiwi Richard Pearse, they didn’t have to devise everything (including spark plugs!) from scratch. On the other hand, their aviation efforts came to more than a few tentative hops, even to training other New Zealand aviators for World War I service.
Leo and his sister, Veronica Agnes, were English-born, though the family moved to New Zealand not long after her birth. Brother Vivian and their younger sister, Doreen Monica, were New Zealand-born.
The two brothers took an interest in things mechanical and, with their father’s help, formed an Auckland mechanical engineering/automobile importing business. An interest in aviation soon followed, with the Walsh brothers and other enthusiasts forming the Aero Club of New Zealand in 1910.
That year, the brothers bought a biplane kit from Britisher Howard Wright (no relation to the U.S. Wrights). They paid a sum equivalent to $3750 U.S. at the time, perhaps $90,000 U.S. in today’s dollar.
As recounted in R.T. Alexander’s High Adventure… From Balloons to Boeings in New Zealand, the kit “consisted mainly of rolls of wire and cloth, along with an engine, roughly cut spars and struts, with drawings supplied.”
It took until late 1910 for Leo and Vivian to fabricate the airframe and install the Anzani engine. Veronica and Doreen contributed their skills in machine-sewing yards of fabric covering.
The name Manurewa was appropriate; it’s the Maori word for “floating bird.” The brothers finished their aeroplane in early 1911 at Glenora Park, a private racecourse in Papakura, a southeast suburb of Auckland. The craft bore an inscription “The Walsh Aeroplane Co. Aeronautical Engineers Constructors Auckland.” Beneath this was a crest and the words “Aero Club New Zealand.”
On February 5, 1911, Vivian experimented taxiing the craft, then made his first flight, a modest one reaching an altitude of 60 feet for about 400 yards. For the first time, controlled sustained flight was demonstrated in New Zealand.
Vivian was a prudent test pilot. Leo chose not to try, judging that his reflexes were less capable than Vivian’s. The Encyclopedia of New Zealand writes, “The brothers’ different talents made them a formidable team.”
However, their syndicate of investors grew impatient, took possession of the Manurewa No. 1–and promptly crashed it beyond repair.
This might have ended the tale, but for Walsh perseverance. Leo responded by designing a flying boat along the lines of the Curtiss Model F.
The prototype took more than a year to build. It first flew on January 1, 1915, from Bastion Point, Waitemata Harbour, across the bay north of Auckland. By March 1915, Vivian was taking passengers on 5-mile flights.
In October 1915, the brothers formed the New Zealand Flying School, with Leo as managing director and Vivian as chief instructor. Veronica and Doreen helped in running the school.
With WWI taking place on the other side of the globe, in 1916 the New Zealand Defence Department got around to making the school an official facility. According to High Adventure, “Pupils were to pay £100 for training and on the successful completion of their course £75 was refunded by the British Government, together with an appointment to a commission in one of the British flying services.” By war’s end, more than 100 pilots completed the program.
After WWI, the Walsh brothers tried promoting flights for passengers and mail. By 1923, school funding ran short, and they asked the New Zealand government to take over the facility. It did so in October 1924, albeit leaving insufficient return for shareholders of the venture.
Leo and Vivian Walsh, more than a little embittered, gave up the aviation side of their engineering business. Vivian died, age 62, in 1950; Leo died, age 70, in 1951.
In 1952, the New Zealand Division of the Royal Aero Society initiated a Walsh Memorial Air Pageant Organisation to honor these two aviation pioneers. It has evolved into the New Zealand Aeronautical Trust. Purpose of the Trust is “assisting young New Zealanders to improve their skills in their chosen field of civil aviation and in ways to perpetuate the names of the Walsh brothers.”
The Trust’s philanthropic endeavors include an international apprentice program training young New Zealanders in overseas aviation factories and an annual Walsh Memorial Flying School at which more than 800 Kiwis have gained their wings.
Leo, Veronica, Vivian and Doreen would be proud. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016