After starting off across the Tasman by aeroplane with such a flourish, the idea of creeping in to Sydney in a miserable steamer was humiliating. I felt that I would rather sail the rest of the way in a dinghy; it would not matter how long it took, or how I finished the passage, if only I could finish it as I had started – solo. In the middle of the night I was suddenly woken up by the thought, ‘Why not rebuild the seaplane here?’
It seemed impossible but in the morning, on my way to the cargo shed, I thought, ‘Some people say that there is no such thing as an impossibility. I started to inspect the relics afresh.
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There had not been room in the shed for the fuselage, and it stood forlornly on the grass with the rudder occasionally flapping in the wind. It looked naked, stripped of its wings, motor and fittings. I went over it carefully. The plywood covering the fuselage was tacked and glued to the framework. This plywood was thin enough to break in your fingers, and the strength of the whole depended on the plywood keeping the framework rigid. If salt water had destroyed the glue, the plane might as well be made of cardboard. As far as I could tell, by pricking it with the point of my knife, the glue was unweakened. Perhaps the careful varnishing and enamelling of the fuselage at Auckland had kept the water out of the wood. The plywood was somewhat cracked where I had climbed up it to the tail, but otherwise it seemed all right.
Then I turned to the fuselage itself. It was built like a latticed tower, and the four corner pieces, the longerons, were only inch square lengths of spruce. These were all-important, because both the lower wings and all the float struts were secured to the bottom longerons, and as two of the middle fittings joining the float struts to them were torn in half, I feared that the frail wood must certainly be smashed. I climbed into the cockpit, and scraped away the silt. To my amazement I could find no sign of a break, though they were bruised – no doubt badly enough for an AID inspector to condemn them, but fortunately I would be acting for him on Lord Howe Island, and would be able to pass the longerons on his behalf. I decided that the fuselage could be used again, if every bolt, wire, fitting and tube were removed, cleaned of rust and salt and repainted.
Looking at the motor from a different viewpoint, I thought that we had got at it in time, and that it might be made to work again. That night I said to Phil Dignam, ‘I believe I could make that seaplane fly again. It’s a big job, and I should need some new gear.’
‘What sort of gear?’
‘I should need a new revolution indicator, an oil gauge, an air-speed indicator, a clock and the two magnetos. I should want four new wings and a pair of ailerons, and some new struts, bracing wires and fittings.’
‘What about the money?’
‘That is a hurdle; I haven’t thought out that one yet. During the night I was woken up by an idea. Why not extract the spars from the broken wings, and send them to the mainland? The new wings could be built on to them and that should mean a big saving. It seemed a stupid idea, not worth waking up for, because the spars were sure to be fractured at the roots. But when I went up to the boat shed in the morning, I found every spar intact.
On the way back I met Kirby. He was about twenty-nine, my own age, and had been on the mainland for a time as a salesman. When I was selling land, I remembered that I could never sell to anyone with reddish hair. He asked me what I was going to do, and I told him I was going to try to rebuild the seaplane on the island, sending the spars to Sydney for the wings to be rebuilt there.
‘Don’t be feeble, man! Why not rebuild the wings yourself? He had a rather throaty, slightly nasal voice.
‘Hopeless, I said. ‘Obviously you can have no idea how intricate the inside of a wing is. There must be 4,000 different pieces of wood in those wings, a lot of them only half as thick as a pencil, and they all have to be tacked and glued in exactly the right place. There’s the fabric covering to be sewn on, not to mention half a dozen coats of dope. There are no tools here, and no place to work in. I walked off. The truth was that I myself knew nothing of wing building. Presently I was back in the boat shed, where I stripped each wing and re-examined it. I studied those wings for hours. Coming away I met another man, called Gower Wilson.
‘What are you going to do with the plane?’
‘Rebuild it here.’
‘And get new wings, I suppose?’
‘Oh, no. Rebuild the wings here, too.’
‘Why, what do you know about wing construction? It looked to me pretty intricate and besides there are no tools here, and there’s no place to work in. It seems impossible to me.’
‘Oh, that’s nothing, I’ll just watch how they come apart, and rebuild them the same way.’
‘Well, I must congratulate you on the idea, at any rate.’
‘It’s not my idea, damn it, it’s Kirby’s.’