Every generation has its heroes. These days, they tend to be sporting greats and music stars, but in the early decades of the 20th century, the populous idolized the champions of the skies. It was the early days of aviation, records for speed and distance were constantly being set and broken, and the young pilots of these early machines were seen as superheroes – which indeed they were. They risked their lives to set a new speed record or a new endurance record, which earned them the adulation of the crowds. People would flock to the streets in their thousands to see their idols’ planes fly overhead.

Inevitably, many of these pilots were destined to die at a young age, often due to the failure of their early aircraft. North Road Cemetery is the final resting place of many of these famous early airmen.

The first powered aerial flight in Australia can be claimed by South Australia’s own Frederic Cyril Custance. At 5am on 17 March 1910, at Bolivar, he flew his Bleriot monoplane for 5 minutes and 25 seconds. The aircraft was owned by Fred Jones, who together with several neighbours, were the only witnesses to the flight. As the flight was made before daylight, and due to the lack of further witnesses to the event, the claim was considered suspect by some. The following day, 17 March, the famous Harry Houdini made a powered flight in Melbourne, and perhaps his attempt to claim the “First Flight” record had some influence over the doubt associated to Custance’s claim. In WW1, Custance joined the Royal Air Corps where he flew with the No. 1 Squadron in Palestine, setting a flight record from Cairo to Romani in 40 hours.

On his return to Australia after the war, Custance obtained the “Caterpillar” tractor agency. He died alone in the South Australian desert whilst walking for help after his car broke down in extreme heat near Olary on 3 June 1923. He was 33 years old. He is buried in Plot 5148, Path 33 South.

Probably the most famous of these airmen were brothers Sir Ross Macpherson Smith and Sir Keith Macpherson Smith. After serving at Gallipoli, Ross had flown with the Australian Flying Corps during the First World War. He was involved in many air attacks on the Turkish Armies, earning the Military Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Air Force Cross. During this time he also passengered Lawrence of Arabia. Keith joined the Royal Flying Corps in England, and spent the War in the training of pilots. In 1919 Ross and Keith Smith together with mechanics Wally Shiers and Jim Bennett won the £10,000 prize money offered by the Australian government to the first aviator/s to fly from England to Australia within 30 days. They achieved his feat in just under 28 days in a Vickers Vimy aircraft, which was supplied by the Vickers corporation for the event. This plane is still on display at the Adelaide Airport. Ross Smith was killed in an aircraft accident in England while test-flying a Vickers Viking amphibian plane in preparation for his next record attempt from England to America. His body was brought back to Australia, where Adelaide was brought to a standstill for his State Funeral in 1922. His brother Keith died of cancer at the age of sixty four in 1955. They are buried with their parents in Plot 6089, Path 23 South.     

Henry John (Harry) Butler was born in Yorketown on 9 November, 1889, and growing up in Minlaton on Yorke Peninsula. His interest in aircraft began after Fred Custance’s first flight in 1910, and he began building aircraft models while still at school. He was commissioned in the Royal Flying Corps in 1916, earning an Air Force Cross during his distinguished war service. After the war he returned to Australia with two planes, an Avro 504K and a red Bristol Monoplane aptly named the “Red Devil”. Together with Harry Kauper, they established the airfields at Northfield and Albert Park. He converted his Avro 504K plane to seat two passengers and with this they operated as the Captain Harry J. Butler & Kauper Co. Ltd. The Northfield aerodrome was used by the Smith brothers on their triumphant return to Adelaide in their Vickers Vimy in 1910, as the runway at Albert Park site was considered too short for such a large plane.

Butler’s “Red Devil” was a well-known sight in the skies over Adelaide, his most famous flight being the first Australian mail service flight over water on 6 August 1919, when he flew from Adelaide to his home town of Minlaton in 27 minutes. He was a notable stunt-flyer, and provided a low-flying escort for Prime Minister W.M. Hughes’ train from Salisbury to Adelaide in 1919.

On 10 February 1922, Butler’s flying career came to an abrupt halt after his Avro 504K aircraft crashed in a field at Minlaton. He suffered head injuries from which he never truly recovered, and died suddenly on 30 July 1924 from a cerebral abscess. He was only 34 years old.

He is buried in Plot 6077, Path 23 South. A bronze replica of his “Red Devil” was mounted on his memorial, but this was stolen in the early 1980’s and only thewheels remain embedded in the top of the monument.

His Red Devil monoplane was restored and is proudly displayed in a hangar at Minlaton, and the Minlaton Museum has a section devoted to his memory, containing many of his possessions. 

The youngest of the famous South Australian pilots is Charles James (Jimmy) Melrose. Born into one of Adelaide’s wealthiest families on 13 September 1913, with his blonde boyish good looks, he was the heartthrob of the skies. His father died when he was only 9, and he and his mother Hildergarde had an unusually close relationship, with Jimmy naming all of his planes after her. He was fascinated by the number 13, never regarding it as unlucky. It was twice mentioned in his birthdate, the number on his imposing home on the Esplanade at Glenelg, and the number of letters in the name that he most commonly used – C. James Melrose.

He commenced flying lessons while still attending St Peter’s College, and gained his pilot’s licence at the age of 19. His mother bought him his first plane, a DeHavilland Puss Moth, which he named “My Hildergarde” (once again, 13 letters). In 1934, he established a new record for a solo flight around Australia, smashing the previous record by almost two days. Other records he held were Adelaide to Hobart in 5 hours, and Hobart to Sydney in 5 hours. He also held the altitude record on 20,000 feet.

In 1934, he flew his Puss Moth to England in record time to compete in the MacRobertson’s London to Melbourne Centenary Air Race. He became a global sensation as the youngest entrant and only solo competitor in this race, finishing overall third, and first in the handicap section. After sailing to England in 1936 he flew back to Australia in a Heston Phoenix 5-seater plane which he intended to use as Australia’s first flying taxi service.

He was killed on 5 July 1936 at the young age of 22, when his Heston Phoenix plane broke up in bad weather over Melton in Victoria. His mother travelled to Melbourne where his funeral service was attended by over 10,000 people who lined the streets. He was cremated and his mother returned to Adelaide with his ashes. She placed the urn with his ashes on her mantelpiece, and chatted to him every day. When Hildergarde died in 1968, it is said she was buried cradling her son’s ashes in her arms. They lie together in Plot 3356, Path 22 South.