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Qantas pilot Arthur Vigers

Arthur Whitehair Vigers, nicknamed ‘Wiggy’ or ‘Wedge’, depending on whose story you believe was only a part of QANTAS for a few months but he rated two mentions in Sir Hudson Fysh’s book, ‘QANTAS Rising’ – and neither was for a particularly good reason. He broke the Bristol Fighter the first time he flew it and he possibly did a loop during a passenger flight because he was bored and the passengers appeared to be asleep.

Vigers was an interesting character. He was born the third son of a Middlesex family on 20th January 1890. His mother was Australian which may help explain why, as a young man, he travelled several times between Australia and Guernsey where his parents were living by the time World War One started.

He enlisted in the Royal Engineers in 1908, was awarded the Military Cross in January 1916 then transferred to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) as an observer in May 1917. After training as a pilot, in April 1918, he joined No. 87 Sqn, Royal Air Force (RAF) flying the Sopwith Dolphin scout (fighter). Australians Jerry Pentland and Jimmy Larkin were Flight Commanders and may have helped Vigers’ decision to go to Australia after the war.

He finished the war with a personal score of 14 enemy aircraft, of which 12 had been single-seat scouts and added the Distinguished Flying Cross to his medals in November 1918.

Vigers sailed to Melbourne in June 1919 and obtained a job with the Larkin-Sopwith Aviation Company. During December, he was involved in an air display at Epsom Racecourse. He and Captain Roy King staged a mock combat which other pilots told the ‘Daily Telegraph’ was ‘“tame” in the absence of the life and death element’ but civilians were impressed. The paper continued, ‘It was so realistic, however, that women screamed and men exclaimed.’

A week later, the Sopwith Gnu in which Vigers was flying newspapers to the Mornington Peninsula had an engine problem and hit power lines during the forced landing. Passenger, Phillip Nunn was killed. Vigers’ left leg and a rib were fractured. That caused some internal injuries but he recovered and continued flying.

Larkin replaced the 100 horsepower (hp) rotary engine on one Gnu with a 230 hp radial and, in June 1920, Vigers flew 3 passengers to an altitude of 15 200 feet over Melbourne. It was an Australian height record for an aeroplane carrying more than 1 passenger.

After a trip to visit his parents in late 1921, Vigers joined the new Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). In March 1923, he and mechanic Fred Holbrook collected the last Avro 504K manufactured by Sydney’s Australian Aircraft and Engineering Company which went into liquidation that month.

Two months later, the Department of Defence sent Vigers and mechanic J Reid to survey the Sydney to Adelaide route where Larkin’s Australian Aerial Services would operate from June 1924. However, life in the RAAF was not good. Former RFC/RAF pilots believed they were overlooked for key positions in favour of former Australian Flying Corps (AFC) pilots. Wing Commanders Richard Williams and Stanley Goble who were in charge were both ex-AFC. The flying was boring. Pilots were sent out in pairs in a DH-9 to practice artillery observation which was flying a figure-8 pattern between a gun and its target to help the artillery aim properly. In peace-time, there was no artillery so they were simply practicing figure-8s. After an hour, they were supposed to land, change places so the observer became the pilot & vice versa and do it all over again.

Vigers and former No. 87 Sqn colleague Jerry Pentland decided to dispense with the landing and clamber around to change cockpits in the air – before RAAF crews were issued with parachutes. Another crew saw what they were doing and reported them to Williams who gave them a stern lecture.

Flying hours were cut and cut again and Williams was perceived as becoming too officious. He berated Pentland one day because the badge on his cap wasn’t straight enough. Pentland and other pilots wrote to the RAF asking if there might be places for them there. On receiving positive replies, they resigned from the RAAF and returned to England for the next few years.

Bristol crashed by Arthur Vigers

Vigers moved to Longreach to replace Fred Haig at QANTAS in December 1923. When he arrived, Fysh asked Haig, as the most-current pilot on the Bristol, to brief Vigers on its peculiarities. It had a complex fuel system and, while it was an effective fighter, it was much heavier than the single-seaters Vigers had flown during the war. One thing Haig tried to emphasise was the need to push the nose down promptly to maintain speed when he pulled the throttle back on the approach to land. Test pilot Cecil Lewis said of the Bristol in his book ‘Farewell to Wings’, ‘You had to put the nose right down to maintain speed. She dropped like a brick.’ When Haig tried to tell Vigers about that characteristic, the response was, ‘Do you think a young feller like you can tell me anything about flying?’

As Haig was catching the train to Rockhampton, he saw Vigers take off on his first flight in the Bristol. He flew a circuit and when he was on final approach, he pulled the throttle back but didn’t push the nose down. The aircraft stopped flying and fell to the ground. Fortunately, he was then at low level so he was able to climb out of the wreckage and ran beside the train yelling, ‘You were right, Fred, you were right!’

Fysh said Vigers liked flying low to chase kangaroos when he had no passengers but one day, while flying the DH-9 from Longreach to Cloncurry, he grew bored. He glanced back into the cabin, saw his two lady passengers were asleep and decided to do a loop. The unaccustomed gravitational forces woke the ladies who saw the earth up and the sky down and screamed through the back of the loop. They refused to see a funny side and reported Vigers who was asked to resign from 31st May 1924.

The next time he appeared in newspapers was in January 1925 when he was flying with West Australian Airways (WAA).

Bristol with coffin attached in 1925

In November, a story about Vigers in several newspapers was headlined ‘A Gruesome Flight’.

A jockey was killed in a racing accident at Fitzroy Crossing. He was buried but his family in Perth wanted the body to be interred in their family plot. WAA quoted £250 ($500) which they thought would discourage the family but they were adamant so Vigers flew a Bristol Tourer to Fitzroy Crossing.

The jockey’s body was dug up and put in the back seat. On the return trip, Vigers had an engine problem and was forced to land at Quanbun where there were no telegram facilities. Two days later, Captain Neale flew from Perth to try to find the missing pilot and aircraft. He passed over Quanbun just as Vigers was taking off.

They both went to Broome where the body was soldered into an iron coffin which was strapped to the undercarriage of Vigers’ Bristol to complete the flight. ‘A Gruesome Flight’ seems to have been an appropriate title. Vigers had been with the body from Friday to Wednesday. The distance he covered increased as the story travelled. Early reports said the round trip had been 2 000 miles (3 220 km) but by the time the story appeared in Brisbane’s ‘The Telegraph’ a week later, the distance had grown to 3 000 miles (4 830 km).

Vigers moved to South Africa to grow tobacco. In April 1929, he returned to England to marry his cousin, Marjorie at Sevenoaks, Kent, where George Gorham had been born in July 1876. George was the driver when McGinness and Fysh did the trip across northern Queensland and the Northern Territory in the Ford Model ‘T’ in 1919 which led to the creation of QANTAS.

In January 1952, Arthur and Marjorie Vigers sailed on the ‘R M S Otranto’ from Cornwall as 2 of the 1 381 emigrants (10-pound Poms) to Fremantle, Western Australia. They settled at Australia, in a suburb of Bunbury – another unwitting or prophetic connection because the Boeing 747 at the Qantas Founders Museum is named ‘City of Bunbury’.

Arthur died in September 1968. Marjorie lived until December 1993 – 70 years to the month after her husband had begun his brief stint as a pilot for QANTAS.

Tom Harwood

Curator, Qantas Founders Museum


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