A journey of discovery
Sundowner of the Skies: The Story of Oscar Garden, The Forgotten Aviator
By Mary Garden. New Holland, 192pp, $29.95
review by ROSS FITZGERALD
They arrived out of nowhere at sundown and were gone by morning. They called them “sundowners”, these swaggies who once wandered our wide brown land with the green bits around the edge. Their life was hard but there was a certain romance to the notion.
With that in mind The Sun newspaper called aviator Oscar Garden the “Sundowner of the Skies” after he landed on November 4, 1930, at Wyndham aerodrome in Western Australia on the last leg of his solo flight from England.
In the early morning of October 16, 1930, Mary Garden’s father, a 27-year-old Scottish-born New Zealander, had taxied his second-hand de Havilland DH60 Gipsy Moth Kia Ora across South London’s Croydon aerodrome on a planned flight to Australia. Only one person saw him off: a representative of the Vacuum Oil Company, which provided fuel supplies for the arduous journey. On the face of it, Oscar Garden’s endeavour seemed sheer madness as he had only 39 flying hours under his belt.
During his remarkable flight from England to Australia, Garden survived several forced landings and near-death accidents. When he landed his tiny plane at Wyndham not one person met him. His arrival was utterly unexpected.
Having heard a roar overhead, a pilot from Western Australian Airways who was in town headed for the aerodrome to find Garden standing alone on a drum doing engine maintenance.
However, his 18-day flight, the third fastest after veteran aviators Bert Hinkler and Charles Kingsford Smith, soon captured Australia’s and the world’s imagination.
Garden broke other records. Indeed, the day after he arrived at Wyndham, he became the first person to fly over the Great Sandy Desert to Alice Springs. By the time he arrived at Mascot aerodrome in Sydney on November 7 hundreds of people were there to greet him. Later that month, huge crowds welcomed him in New Zealand.
His daughter’s book, Sundowner of the Skies, is a highly personal, extended family history that takes readers on an exploration of the life and times of a once famous giant of long-distance aviation.
As journalist and author Trent Dalton points out in a back cover blurb, Mary Garden approaches her authorial task “with the same disregard for self-preservation that saw her deeply flawed father fly to Australia from London in 1930”.
The result is also a movingly intimate study of the author’s own journey of discovery. “Whenever I hear a small plane droning overhead,” she writes, “I think of my father. Sometimes I imagine him sitting up there, perched in the cockpit. It has been like this for as long as I remember.”
But until recently she knew little about her father’s life. She reveals he seldom spoke to her about anything, “except to bark orders”. When he died in 1997, aged 94, his daughter had left it too late to talk to him about his life.
However, with the aid of the Kia Ora’s logbooks, Mary Garden presents a tantalising account of her father’s most remarkable flying adventure.
This is a warts-and-all account, however. She reveals details of his tumultuous and damaged childhood in north Scotland. She uncovers the ghosts of his past, especially the deleterious influence of his alcoholic father and his troubled mother.
She also deals sensitively with Oscar Garden’s mental illness, his gambling on horse racing, his insomnia, extreme restlessness and his propensity to physical violence and mental cruelty and abuse. These characteristics help explain his many failures as a father and a husband. And Mary Garden shines a blinding light on “the intergenerational trauma” that has affected her own life.
Unlike most of his contemporaries who died in crashes, the Sundowner of the Skies survived and forged a career in commercial aviation. In the early 1930s he even spent time with John Tranum’s South African Flying Circus.
In 1943 Oscar Garden ended up as chief pilot and operations manager of Tasman Empire Airways, the forerunner of Air New Zealand. By all accounts he was a fine instructor of pilots. But in 1947, three years before Mary was born, he suddenly resigned and became a tomato grower in Tauranga, in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty.
For reasons that the author reveals in often-painful detail, Oscar Garden never flew a plane again. Mary Garden has done us all a great service by bringing to public gaze this fascinating tale about her highly talented but hugely troubled father and the impact he had on her. The Sundowner came and went but his story now remains.
Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 40 books.
The Weekend Australian, August 24-25, 2019, review, Books p 19.