Capt. Jimmy Woods & Lockheed DL-1A Vega Special VH-UVK
of the most colourful aviation identities in Australia was Capt. Jimmy Woods.|
Jimmy Woods was a fascinating character, born in Udny, Scotland, in 1893, he spent his early years in Dundee, where he was educated.
He served as a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps, in Egypt during the Great War, and after the conflict became a commercial pilot in New Zealand. In 1924, he joined Major Norman Brearley's West Australian Airways, flying initially on the north-west service, and then in 1929, switching to the Perth-Adelaide route. One of the highlights of his service with the airline was the search for Charles Kingsford-Smith, who was forced down in the Southern Cross in the remote Kimberley region , in 1929, whilst en-route to England. This incident became the notorious "Coffee Royal" affair.
In 1933 Jimmy made an unsuccessful attempt to break Jimmy Mollison's 8 day 22 hour record flight time from Australia to England. He departed from Broome on the north west coast of Western Australia, in his appropriately named Gipsy Moth Spirit of Western Australia, but unfortunately bad luck dogged his flight and he was grounded in India for several weeks. His hoped-for flight of 6 days actually dragged on for 6 weeks!
The following year was Melbourne's centenary and chocolate magnate Sir MacPherson Robertson sponsored the London-Melbourne Centenary Air Race. This was arguably the world's greatest air race, and attracted entrants from all over the world. Australian aviation pioneer Horrie Miller had proposed entering the race, but October 1934 saw him setting up his Western Australian operation (he had recently won the tender for the north-west air service from Norman Brearley) and he could found he could not spare the time for the race. He then asked Jimmy Woods, who had just joined his company, to fly his Lockheed Vega in the race. To navigate the machine, Horrie Miller chose Don Bennett, who would later achieve fame as the head of the R.A.F.'s pathfinder force in World War Two. With a fast plane, and a top crew, it seemed that Horrie Miller had a winning combination. Unfortunately through bad luck, the Vega struck some soft ground on landing at Aleppo, flipped over on it's back, and Woods was forced to withdraw from the race.
The photo below shows the Lockheed DL-1A Vega Special VH-UVK (c/n 155) at Perth/Maylands on 22 August 1935, after the race but still carrying its race number 36. The aircraft was named Puck after Miller's friend, the late Hugh Grosvenor.
Jimmy Woods continued to fly the north-west coastal route for MacRobertson Miller Aviation Co., and was a familiar and popular figure at towns along the W.A. coast.
On 3rd March 1942, Jimmy narrowly escaped with his life. He had just taken off from Wyndham in his Lockheed Electra airliner, only minutes before a flight of Japanese Zero fighters attacked the town. He was equally lucky to arrive over Broome only a short time after another squadron of Japanese fighters had caused havoc at that old pearling town. The attack had destroyed some two dozen Allied aircraft and killed between 70 and 100 people. Jimmy immediately offered his services to help evacuate the wounded to the safety of the south, loaded 22 wounded Dutch refugees into his tiny ten seat airliner and flew them to Port Hedland. He then spent the day operating shuttle services between Broome and Port Hedland, carrying more refugees to safety in his overloaded aircraft.
On one of these mercy flights, he taxied towards the Broome terminal in the darkness and the propeller of his Electra struck part of the burnt out wreckage of an American B.17 Flying Fortress. This buckled the propeller blade tips but rather than ground his aircraft, and cease his mercy flights, Jimmy showed his resourcefulness by using a hacksaw to remove the 75mm bent blade tips. He then continued his mercy flights.
For this incident he was severely reprimanded by the Australian civil aviation authorities, but the Dutch took a much more enlightened view. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands decorated Jimmy as a Knight of the Order of Orange Nassau - the equivalent of a British Knighthood!
In 1947, at the age of 53 years, when many men in this day and age would be thinking of retirement, Jimmy resigned from MacRobertson Miller Aviation Co. and announced that he was going to set up his own company - Woods Airways. He proposed to operate newspaper dropping flights to the southern part of the State, and a service to Rottnest Island - a holiday resort 16 km off the coast from Fremantle.
Woods then purchased a couple of war-surplus R.A.A.F. Avro Ansons from South Australia, flew them to Perth, and had them overhauled and brought up to civil standards.
After attending to mountains of paperwork, Jimmy finally got his Rottnest service underway with his Anson, appropriately named Islander, flying the inaugural service on Saturday 6th March 1948. His was a "one-man airline" in the true sense of the word. Jimmy drove the airport bus, sold the tickets, handled the luggage, and flew the aircraft. The service was advertised as "The shortest scheduled air route in the world", and this was the case until many years later when a service even shorter that the 35 km Rottnest route was established between two islands off the coast of Scotland.
While Jimmy's service was popular and operated without mishap or injury to passengers, the Anson was not the most reliable of aircraft. The machine had a poor single-engine performance (a factor that would later see the Department of Civil Aviation ban overwater flights by Ansons), but more importantly Wood's Ansons seemed to be plagued with undercarriage problems. On a number of occasions Jimmy attracted newspaper publicity when he had problems lowering his undercarriage and airport emergency services had to be put on full alert - fortunately the problems could be rectified in flight and he always landed safely.
In 1953 Jimmy purchased another war-surplus R.A.A.F. aircraft, this time a Mosquito fighter bomber - the "wooden wonder " of World War Two fame. He intended to fly the aircraft in the 1953 London to Christchurch air race - his third record attempt linking the U.K. and Australasia. It was not to be a case of "third time lucky", as several sponsors he was relying on dropped out and he was forced to abandon the flight. After a series of misfortunes, the Mosquito was sold to an American in the 1970s, but was later repossessed and purchased by the Australian War Memorial.
In 1961, the Department of Civil Aviation announced that passenger operations with Anson aircraft must cease due to concern about the safety of these aircraft. This decision sounded the death knell to Woods Airways, but Jimmy's supporters would not take the decision laying down. They lobbied the State Government for finance to purchase new more modern aircraft to continue the service, but these approaches were to no avail. Jimmy's last flight to Rottnest Island was made on New Year's Eve 1961.
The esteem in which Jimmy Woods was held was evidenced by his farewell ceremony at Rottnest. Before a crowd of over 1,000 people, the wife of the Island's Manager placed a garland of flowers around Jimmy's neck and the State Premier, Sir David Brand, gave a stirring farewell speech. Jimmy then climbed aboard his Anson, opened the throttles, and thundered down the Rottnest runway for the last time.
In 14 years of operations, Jimmy's Ansons made more than 13,000 crossings between Perth and the island and, in the last 5 years of the operation alone, carried nearly 22,000 passengers.
After such a full life Jimmy should have settled back into a well-earned retirement, but the "flying bug" was still in his blood. At the age of 70 years he set up a new company, "Woods Helicopters", and before long had three choppers operating throughout the State, mainly on oil exploration work. He sold this company to another helicopter organisation eight years later and then at the age of 78 finally decided to take his retirement.
Jimmy died in 1975 at the age of 82 years and, as a final gesture for his years of service on the route, his ashes were scattered from the air into the Indian Ocean, near Rottnest Is. In a further tribute to his service to aviation, the new $300,000 Rottnest air terminal was renamed "The Jimmy Woods Air Terminal", by State Tourism Minister Pam Beggs in 1987.
Jimmy Woods made his mark on Australian aviation over a period of nearly half a century. His name is not all that well known outside the aviation fraternity, but by his exploits his should have been a household name!
(Photos: Upper - via CAHS(WA); Lower - Geoff Goodall collection)
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