Harry Butler South Australian Aviation History

Harry Butler

Harry Butler 1928 (SLSA)

Although Butler was not the first South Australian to take to the air, he did make a lasting impression both in Australia and England. The first South Australian to get a plane off the ground was twenty year old Frederic Custance. On 17 March 1910 he got his Bleriot monoplane airborne and stayed aloft for five minutes and twenty-five seconds. Custance then found out that 'what goes up must come down' was a fact of life and science. The plane nose-dived back into the paddock at Bolivar, near Adelaide, but Custance lived to tell his story!

Henry John Butler, son of John Butler and Sara Anne Cook, was born on 9 November 1889 at Yorketown but spent most of his early years on a farm and primary school at Koolywurtie near Minlaton. It was during his boyhood that motorbikes, cars, planes and many other machines and devices were invented and developed.

After having read the story of the Wright brothers' first powered flight, Harry became obsessed with flying. He had also heard about Custance's flight and for most Saturdays he now travelled from the farm to Smithfield on a motorbike, made by himself with the help of Cecil Crawford. At Smithfield Carl W. Wittber was building a plane. Wittber, a brilliant engineer, and Fred Jones were the two team members who had made Custance's flight possible.

For the next few years it was farming by day and reading and studying aviation by night. Finally he got his chance to do some flying when he was accepted in the Air Force at Point Cook. Disappointed with the slow progress, Butler used his own money to enlist in England and join the Royal Flying Corps.

His lack of formal education excluded him from the pilots' course and he became a mechanic. It did not take long before his experience and knowledge were recognised and by July 1916, Second Lieutenant Butler was flying in France. Although wounded and twice awarded the Air Force Cross he remained in the Royal Flying Corps until the end of the war in 1918.

While in Europe Butler was able to solve the lack of communication which was at times experienced at the front by dropping messages from the air. This gave rise to the concept of Air Mail. His first real Air Mail flight was undertaken in 1917 when he took letters from Glasgow to Turnberry.

After his return to Australia in July 1919, Butler, together with H.A. Kauper formed the Butler & Kauper Aviation Company which operated from a hanger at Northfield. Within a month Butler gave displays of flying and stunting. His greatest thrill came on 6 August 1919 when he became the first to fly across the Gulf to Yorke Peninsula, carrying with him a full mailbag to be delivered at Minlaton where more than 6000 people were waiting for his arrival.

Butler was officially welcomed by the Chairman of the Minlaton District Council, Edward Correll who took delivery of a special letter from the Governor of South Australia, Sir Henry Galway. He returned to Adelaide with two bags of mail on 11 August, flying over his old school at Koolywurtie, and dropping a special message which read, 'To my old school and scholars. I sincerely hope that this little message from the air will bring to you all the very best of luck'.

Soon Harry Butler notched up another number of 'firsts' by taking the first aerial photograph of Adelaide, bringing Father Christmas and taking people, including the Governor on flights over the city. He also dropped, by parachute, a tree into the Wattle Grove in the Parklands, to be planted in memory of the War Deed.

It was also during this time that South Australia and Australia as a whole were extremely interested in flying and particularly in those South Australians who were preparing for an air race between England and Australia. Among them were Ross Mcpherson Smith, Keith Smith, W.H. Shiers and George Hubert Wilkins, originally from Mount Bryan East. Wilkins unfortunately crashed his plane in Crete but went on to even bigger and better achievements. The race was won by Ross and Keith Smith when they landed in Darwin on 10 December 1919.

In 1920 Butler took part in the New Year's Day festivities at Victor Harbor. In March the Smith brothers came to Adelaide in their Vickers-Vimy escorted by Butler's little Red Devil. Later that year Butler took part in, and won, Australia's first Aerial Derby, held in Adelaide on 8 September. He also made a special aerial mail flight to Jamestown. During 1920 Harry still had time to marry Elsa Gibson, born on her parents' farm at Bool Lagoon. She became a teacher and her first appointment was near Minlaton, where she first met Harry.

Harry Butler's wrecked plain 1922 (SLSA)

On 11 January 1922, Butler crashed his plane near Minlaton. Although badly wounded he survived and after many hospital visits was able to restart his flying carreer and new business ventures.
On 30 July 1924 the effects of the Minlaton crash finally caught up with him when he died from an unsuspected cerebral abscess.

Butler may have died young but he had managed to cramp a lot of hard work and pioneering into his thirty-four years.
His funeral was attended by a large number of people and thousands lined King William Street to say farewell to their hero whose coffin was carried on a gun carriage on his way to the North Road Cemetery.
His Red Devil plane was later restored in every detail at Parafield by Aviation Services SA Ltd.


After her husband's death Elsa changed from teaching to a nursing career. After gaining her qualifications she became charge nurse at the Adelaide Hospital for several years before going to England in 1934. In England she trained as a midwife. On returning to South Australia after the war she worked as Matron at St Margaret's Convalescent Hospital, Semaphore until her retirement and re-marriage.

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