Historic seaplane survey landed in Launceston

When Captain Andrew Lang landed his Curtiss Seagull seaplane on Home Reach in Launceston on May 21, 1921, he was taking part in the first aerial photographic reconnaissance flight along the Australian coast.

It had taken Captain Lang and his crew of two in their aircraft more than 10 weeks to reach the Tamar River from Sydney with bad weather causing numerous delays.

The Examiner said Launceston could count itself honoured that those responsible for the seaplane expedition had selected the broad and placid waters of the Tamar for their first landing in this part of Australia.

“The arrival yesterday of the first seaplane to descend in Tasmanian waters is another important demonstration of what can be accomplished by aviation,” the newspaper said.

Captain Lang had taken off from Sydney Harbour on Sunday March 13 and was engaged on an expedition to photograph the Australian east coast from Tasmania to New Guinea.

The 20 metre motor yacht Acielle, fitted with a photographic darkroom and carrying the expedition’s supplies, was accompanying the Seagull and had arrived in Launceston a day before the intrepid aircraft.

The Curtiss Seagull was an American-built aircraft with a 119 kw (160 hp) six-cylinder engine mounted above the open cockpit. There was accommodation for the pilot and two crew.

The Seagull had a wingspan of 15 metres and was nearly 9 metres long. Captain Lang told The Examiner the plane weighed two tons and had a maximum speed of 76 miles per hour with a range of 280 miles.

On the way down the Australian coast they had made stops at Moraya, Twofold Bay (Eden), the Gippsland Lakes, Lady Barron on Flinders Island and Launceston.

Flying over Deal Island in the Kent Group they had dropped long overdue letters for the lighthouse keeper with the Acielle later collecting replying letters.

The single-engined Curtiss Seagull and yacht Acielle belonged to the Aerial Company Limited of Sydney owned by businessman Lebbeus Hordern.

Lebbeus Hordern, whose family owned the famous Sydney department shore Anthony Hordern and Sons, had developed a keen interest in aviation before World War I.

He was concerned at the possibility of aerial attacks on Australian ports after the European conflict and said he was sponsoring the expedition in the national interest.

The pilot he chose for the aerial reconnaissance flight, Andrew Lang, was an experienced wartime aviator who was also an automotive engineer, journalist and motoring enthusiast.

He was accompanied by former Flying Corps mechanic Alexander James Hill who was responsible for operating the camera and aircraft maintenance.

The Seagull spent a month moored in the North Esk River, near the newly arrived river dredge Ponrabbel II, and made several flights over Launceston before heading back to Sydney on June 19.

The round trip covered just short of 2700 kilometres with a flight time of approximately 36.5 hours at an average speed of 46.5 mph or 75 kmh.


Top image: The Seagull in the North Esk River in May 1921 with the wharves and dredge Ponrabbel II in the background. H. J. King photo courtesy of the Tasmanian Aviation Historical Society. Bottom image: Captain Andrew Lang. Photo courtesy of the Tasmanian Aviation Historical Society.


(Written for the Launceston Historical Society and published in the Sunday Examiner on 25 July 2021)

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