GEORGE ROBERTS, OAM

1909 - 2009

 

George Roberts at the Queensland Air Museum on 1 July 2007.

George was born in Ipswich on 27 December 1909. At age eight he saw his first aeroplane land in a paddock near his home. Two years later he made his first flight in a flying boat at Sandgate on Moreton Bay. George's father owned a Ford dealership in Ipswich so it is hardly surprising that George developed an interest in all things mechanical. George's first job was in a blacksmith's shop which was followed by apprenticeships in his grandfather's coach building business and his father's motor business. Although George had learned to drive at age seven, he was already building cars long before he was old enough to hold a driver's licence.

George and his brother Norm rode their motor cycles to Brisbane's Eagle Farm aerodrome where they witnessed the arrival of pioneer aviators like Charles Kingsford Smith, Bert Hinkler and Amy Johnson. When Amy Johnson crashed her Gipsy Moth at Eagle Farm in 1930, George was amongst the first on the scene to help her from the wreckage.

George's interest in aviation led to a friendship with Geoff Wikner who was designing and building gliders and aeroplanes in a warehouse in Parbury Lane, Eagle Street. George assisted Wikner with the construction of one of his designs which he called the Wicko Cabin Sports. This aircraft flew for the first time from Archerfield Aerodrome on 25 January 1931. The Wicko Cabin Sports was the first aircraft designed and flown in Queensland. The aircraft was flown by Charles Kingsford Smith who publicly pronounced it to be "a very fine little machine". Geoff Wikner piloted the Cabin Sports to an Australian altitude record of 17,300 feet (5,273 m) in May 1931. A replica of this aeroplane was unveiled at the Queensland Air Museum on 1 July 2007 with George Roberts as an honoured guest.

George Roberts joined Qantas on 1 November 1936 as an engineer, having been employed by Arthur Baird himself. At this time, Qantas were having all their aircraft instruments overhauled outside the company. George's experience with automotive instruments endeared him to Arthur Baird and much of this work was brought in-house.

It was a logical progression for George and Norm to build their own aircraft and in 1936 their Flying Flea took to the air at Archerfield with Norm at the controls. By this time, George and Norm both held pilot's licences.

When the first Empire flying boat arrived in Brisbane in 1937, George successfully repaired its autopilot even though he had never previously seen such a device. With the outbreak of war in 1939, George attempted to enlist but was refused because his work was vital to the war effort. Indeed, all the allied air forces came to rely heavily on George's expertise in the repair and overhaul of aircraft instruments. By war's end, the facility set up by George had overhauled an estimated 143,000 aircraft instruments.

After sixteen years running the instrument overhaul section, George moved on to new challenges within Qantas. One of his proudest achievements was the design of mobile aircraft stairs for the newly ordered Boeing 707. These stairs were produced by the Hastings Deering company and an example is currently displayed in the Queensland Air Museum where it is used as an observation platform.

George Roberts retired from Qantas in November 1970 after 34 years service.

Although revered as a brilliant engineer, it is not widely known that George was involved in the preservation of our aviation history long before it became fashionable. As early as 1947, George attempted to save the last remaining Short Empire flying boat. Until recently, George regularly helped out as a volunteer at the Qantas Heritage Collection in Sydney.

George Roberts passed away peacefully with his family at his side in Sydney on 24 August 2009 aged 99.



This document was prepared by the Queensland Air Museum in June 2007 and updated in November 2009 after George's death. It is based on George Roberts' biography Qantas By George! by Paul Byrnes (The Watermark Press, Sydney, 2000)


 

Compiled by Ron Cuskelly