Monday, September 29, 2008

Those Daring Young Men in their Flying Machine: Sandford-Miller biplane flights at Avondale, 1913

An image taken by A N Breckon in 1913 and published in the Auckland Weekly News in December that year of the Sandford-Miller biplane on Avondale Racecourse. 1370-8-3, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries 

(Updated and added to 27 November 2016.)

December 4th 2003 marked the 90th anniversary of the flight of the Sandford-Miller biplane from Avondale Racecourse to New Lynn. As can happen in Avondale, the late spring weather had turned to heavy rain, soaking the plane and making movements in the air heavy and hard to control. Nevertheless, they landed in a paddock, and planned to return to Avondale later that day …

In 1913, Auckland was in a state of “aeroplane fever”. The novelty of heavier-than-air flight had caught the public’s imagination, fuelled by the 25 July 1909 first cross-English Channel flight by Louis Bleriot, after which planes where the engine was in front of the pilot were dubbed “Bleriots”. (At the 16 April 1913 meeting of the Avondale Jockey Club the principal race, the Avondale Handicap, was won by “Mr. T Hall’s filly Bleriot”.) In April of that year exhibition flights of a Bleriot-style plane were conducted at the Auckland Domain by “Wizard” Stone at which “nearly 30,000” crammed the area to watch a brief, unsuccessful, and in fact comedic flight.

All the while, Frederick Esk Sandford and William Stanley Miller worked at perfecting their flying machine on the Avondale Racecourse. Over much of 1913, they staged practice flights and tinkered with the 60 horsepower ENV engine of their “Farman” biplane (a “pusher” craft, named after Henri Farman’s design from 1907). According to Athol J McD Miller, in his book The Gardners of “Mataia” Glorit and New Lynn, John Owen Gardner (1973-1931) “… was renowned for his knowledge of engineering … [William] Miller … and his partner [Frederick] Sandford assembled a plane at the Avondale Racecourse, but could not get the engine to function satisfactorily. Someone referred him to Uncle Jack who spent some time disassembling parts and adjusting the timing of the engine and on the day that he thought he had mastered the engine I went to Avondale with him on the back of his motor cycle. He was standing astride across the plane and still tinkering with the engine which was running sweetly … Sandford who was at the controls took off, and they flew around the racecourse at a height of about 50ft and landed again. Uncle Jack had not altered his position during the whole flight and was still there sometime after it landed.”

Their biplane started out as a kitset “Howard Wright” biplane imported into New Zealand by a syndicate which comprised brothers Leo and Vivian Walsh, brothers Alfred and Charles Lester, and Alfred Powley. Such machines were meant for the then money-generating exhibition flights business of the day. Dubbed the Manurewa, the Howard Wright was used for a number of experimental flights from Glenora Park, Papakura, including a "first flight" on 9 February 1911, but later met with several accidents and was wrecked.

The Lesters and Powley took over the Manurewa from the Walshes and disassembled it, storing it for a time at a property on Dominion Road. Then, in late 1912 or early 1913, William Miller took it over.

Born in Otago in 1888, according to air historian Errol W Martyn, Miller was a tinkerer from an early age. He experimented and built things like a gas meter and toy balloons, and got swept up in the popular enthusiasm of the day for powered flight. In 1912, he tried his luck over in Australia, but wasn't able to secure a plane. Returning to New Zealand, he found out that the Manurewa was for sale, and agreed to purchase a half interest and lease the other half from the Lesters.

Frederick Sandford wasn't his first partner in the project out at the Avondale Racecourse, as many think -- that was engineer Noah Jonassen, sharing a room at an Avondale boardinghouse with Miller. The two didn't get on too well with each other, though. When Jonassen damaged the biplane during a ground run on 28 February 1913, colliding with the racecourse railing and damaging the propeller and one of the wings while Miller was away in the city, he was given his marching orders. And so, enter Sandford.

Sandford apparently had been in correspondence with the Lesters himself. He came over to Auckland, met up with Miller, and struck up the famous partnership. Martyn believes that Sandford invested in the proprietorship of the Manurewa himself. Between the two of them, they reconfigured the Manurewa, transforming it into the Sandford-Miller plane. The two men had a trial flight together on Saturday 8 March.

On Sunday 13 April 1913, Sandford flew solo for the first time in his career (in Australia, he’d flown a well-known Australian exhibition aviator named Hart), taking off from Avondale Racecourse before several hundred people, rising to an altitude of about 50 feet, flying the length of the course, before making a “few more modest flights as far as the space available would allow.”

Leonard Pauling (whose sons George and Percy sold goods and fish in Avondale) kept a diary and made several references to the biplane and experiments out on the racecourse. One unfortunate incident that same April was reported as “Last Thursday the flying machine at Avondale cut a dog to pieces …” According to Peter Buffett, this happened during an attempt at takeoff, smashing the propeller and, of course, killing the dog. Short flights were reported in May. Buffett surmised that it was during this period that a Miss Lester was a passenger, and became the first woman in New Zealand to fly.

From Auckland Weekly News, 18 September 1913, AWNS-19130918-54-3, 
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

The Sandford-Miller plane also achieved the first cross-country flight in New Zealand on 31 August, taking off with Sandford at the controls from Avondale, leveling out at 250 feet and heading west. Possibly approaching West Coast Road, along Great North Road, Sandford turned back to make for the racecourse again, but the engine failed, and he made a forced landing on a glide in a paddock “against Binsted’s slaughterhouse” beside the Rewa Rewa creek in New Lynn. The flight was one of 3 miles, at more than 70 km per hour. Two weeks later, after repairs by Miller, the plane returned across the Whau creek to Avondale. In October, they made a five-mile flight to and from the racecourse.

Come December and the promise of summer months to come, Sandford and Miller, Sandford decided to test the flying capacity of the plane under the conditions of the recent heavy rains. At about 8.30 on 4 December 1913, Sandford took off, circled the racecourse, and then tried to head for Epsom. The plane’s movements were too heavy to control, however, and he decided to force a landing in what was then known as “Clark’s paddocks” in New Lynn. The Auckland Star was advised of Sandford’s great confidence that the plane would later be able to exhibit itself at Alexandra Park.

Unfortunately, his optimism was for nought. The paddock was only half-an-acre, not allowing the plane enough of a runway for lift. Sandford had the plane wheeled back, however, trying to gain maximum distance and then started the engine, racing for a gap in the paddock’s fence. The plane, however, failed to rise, and crashed into a corner post. “The pilot,” the Star reported the next day, “was thrown many feet into the air, falling on his head, and the forepart of the machine was reduced to splinters and tangled wires.”

Taken back by motor car to his boardinghouse room at Avondale, Sandford remained unconscious for some time, with a badly damaged shoulder and wrist. Miller remained optimistic, saying “we will not give in”, but had to face the facts that the plane would have required to be completely rebuilt again, along with a new engine (in those days, this would have cost at least £800).

Arthur Morrish, then the editor/publisher of The News from Avondale, made an impassioned plea for the two men and their project in a letter to the Herald. “These two men are the first local men to build a machine and make successful flights with it,” he wrote. “Aviation is recognised the world over now as the foremost science, destined to materially alter the standing of any country possessing the best-equipped and most modern machines. Would it not once more redound to the credit of New Zealand, which has led the world in so many ways, to show that in the field of science also she has men with the brains to keep not only abreast of other countries, but possibly outstrip them?” The Avondale Road Board raised a petition to Parliament asking that a grant be made to Sandford and Miller to rebuild the plane, but this, and Morrish’s plea, was unsuccessful.

Frederick Sandford recovered and later went on to fly in action in World War 1 with the RNAS and RFC, rising to the rank of Major. According to Martyn: "On his return to Australia he represented the Blackburn Aeroplane Company, but was tragically killed on 15 December 1928 when his car skidded and crashed into a fence at Glenrowan near Wangaratta while driving to Sydney to visit his mother.

William Miller is said to have later owned the Royal Garage at Khyber Pass (update, 3 May 2011: while the site, between the ASB building and Burleigh Ave is confirmed, the name of the garage isn't), farmed at Kelston-Glendene (Span Farm, named after a brand of petrol), and died in 1977. And because of both of these young men, Avondale has yet another legend to be part of.

1370-8-1, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

A Passion for Flight: New Zealand Aviation before the Great War, Vol 2, Errol W Martyn, 2013, pp. 231-243
"The Sandford-Miller Biplane, 1913", by Peter Buffett, published in West Auckland Remembers, edited by James Northcote-Bade, West Auckland Historical Society 1990, pp. 103-109.
The Gardners of “Mataia” Glorit and New Lynn, by Athol J. McD Miller, 1983, pp. 25-26.
New Zealand Herald, 1913: 15 April, 17 April, 21 April, 8 December.
Auckland Star, 1913: 4 and 5 December.


  1. Great stuff,

    I've been unearthing some interesting stuff on Miller. He owned Miller's garage on the corner of Khyber Pass and Burleigh, and I've seen his name connected with the Royal garage as well but I'm not sure about that. I think the Royal garage was on Park Road.

  2. That's the thing about going by the essays written by folks belonging to West Auckland Historical Society in the old days -- a lot of it was from hearsay, not documented evidence. When I have a chance, I'll revisit the valuation fieldsheets to see if there's more details there. Meanwhile, here's his large premises on Khyber Pass. That looks like a Texaco petrol truck in front. Miller is said to have named his Span Farm at Glendene-Kelston after a brand of petrol. I'm still to find any sign of Span petrol -- it would appear, by the photograph, that he was using established big players.

    I'll do a bit of update editing above, though.

  3. Ailsa Perkins (nee Miller)March 21, 2016 at 11:22 PM

    Span was the brand of his petrol. His first garage was in Pitt St, then to Khyber Pass. He lived in a 2 storey double bay villa in Burleigh Street. I remember visiting him as a child in the 1970's at the Soan Farm farmhouse, and wandering over the farm.

  4. marilyn.a watts@gmail.comApril 10, 2016 at 3:39 PM

    Hi Ailisa,Re Bill Miller of Khyber pass garage ,Bill sent David Watts and Kieth Mould up to Puipui to form a mercury mine using equipment taken from the defunct Napha mine ,during the war years ,I was there as a baby ,I would like to contribute to your knowledge ,your faithfully John Watts 09 4787292

  5. Hummm, I'm pretty sure it's not Sandford, but Sanford.I checked some old New Zealand newspapers and saw it there. Unless the papers were wrong?

    1. I'm going to be editing and adding to this article shortly -- so where I've made muck-ups, they'll be ironed out then.

    2. Errol W Martyn does use "Sandford" throughout his piece in his book on the partnership.