1909 - 2009
George Roberts at
the Queensland Air Museum on 1 July 2007.
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
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
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.
his visit to QAM in 2007, George confided in the author his plans
for his forthcoming 100th birthday. George was still driving on
an unlimited licence at the time and he was hatching a plan to
drive through the Sydney Harbour Tunnel on his 100th birthday
- at 100 miles per hour! George's only concern was that he might
not get caught, thus denying him the speeding ticket to prove
it. At his age, the loss of his licence was not a concern. Sadly,
George never got to implement his plan, passing away four months
short of his centenary. Perhaps his maker had decided that it
wasn't such a good idea after all.
George Roberts passed away peacefully with his family at his side
in Sydney on 24 August 2009 aged 99.
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)