Monday, March 12, 2012

A history of aviation in Roma

(Photo: Unknown man prepares to give parachute demonstration at Campbell Park, Roma in the 1920s or early 1930s).
On Saturday, a new $12m Roma Airport will officially open, following in 92 years of aviation history, as well as three airfields, two terminal buildings and one famous custodian.

In America, the Wright Brothers first took to the air in 1903 and Harry Houdini made the first Australian flight at Diggers Rest, Victoria in 1910. After the end of World War I, Roma was as keen as any town in Australia to want to see the new craze of air fliers. In September 1919 the Western Star reported a plane landing in Roma would be an important occasion “as few residents apart from returned soldiers have seen aerial machines other than illustrations and moving pictures.” It would be another year before Captain Roy King landed in Roma (see attached story). King was followed by a succession of pilots all eagerly reported by the Star, with one complaining the Keiseker’s Flat landing site was too small.

The first proper airport was on the other side of the railway at Campbell’s Park.
The most famous early aviator in town was English Major Geoffrey de Havilland who arrived in October 1927 in own-designed de Havilland Moth. Roma was in the middle of a sudden oil boom and de Havilland was taken on a tour of the bore which he said would become “a national asset”.

On April 16 1929, the nine-year-old business known as QANTAS inaugurated the weekly Brisbane-Roma-Charleville route catering for seven passengers. The plane left Roma for Brisbane every Monday and took three hours and 20 minutes with a stopover in Toowoomba, all for a fee of £8.

In July 1929, the Star reported the arrival of the Astor radio plane from Surat. The Astor was a Gypsy Moth piloted by Captain Roberts and stayed two days offering joyflights. Astor was an Australian radio manufacturer of the 1920s and the plane was on an advertising tour of the west. The Star said the plane cost between £700 and £800 which was the price of a good motor car.

On Saturday 2 July, 1932 the Western Star announced the world famous Air Commodore Charles Kinsgford Smith Kt. M.C. A.F.C. would arrive tomorrow in Roma with his "world-renowened 3-engined aeroplane", the Southern Cross. Flights of 25 miles were available throughout the day and entry was 20/ for adults and 10/ for children.

On May 12, 1939 there was a fatal crash at the airport when pilot died though a passenger had a remarkable escape. RJ Ross was in charge of the training plane Gypsy Moth VH-UPY giving a lesson to a pupil when the plane suddenly nose-dived as Ross went through a forced landing routine. He died in hospital that evening but his pupil and passenger John Crawford, 17, the son of the owners of the Queens Arms, somehow survived the mangled wreckage.
In 1949, the airport moved to its current site on the Northern Road with the first plane landing on Friday, June 10. The following Tuesday’s Western Star said a Douglas aircraft inaugurated the new Monday to Friday Brisbane service which for the first time allowed locals to have a weekend in Brisbane, leaving Friday evening and return home on Monday morning.
A young Alan Berry had started at Roma Airport two years earlier in 1947 and he saw it grow from the site at the meatworks where there was no terminal, just an old shed. Berry was easily identifiable with his tash, shorts and white socks and quickly made himself indispensible at the airport. He did everything from loading and unloading planes, to do the bookings and running the airport. He was renowned in the Roma community, as was his famous old blue Falcon ute, which doubled as a check-in centre.

The current AT Berry terminal named in his honour was formally opened on April 27, 1996. Then-Roma Mayor Barry Braithwaite thanked Flight West Airlines for their support of the airport and congratulated Alan Berry for 40 years of service to air travellers in Roma. “The new centre is modern, giving staff and passengers a degree of comfort and efficiency Mr Berry did not have the opportunity to use,” Mayor Braithwaite said. “Roma Airport has gone from the back of the ‘old Falcon ute’ to a modern check-in area.”

On Saturday, the next chapter in Roma aviation history is about to be written with the opening of the second AT Berry terminal.

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