‘Excuse me sir, would you like a cup of tea’. Brian Edwards glanced over his shoulder, to see a ruddy faced, beanie clad farmer in a duffle coat. ‘Yes, I suppose I would’ replied Brian, as he clambered out of his wrecked Tiger Moth. It was an ignominious start to his England-Australia flight. He hadn’t even reached the English Channel. After meticulous planning and preparation, and fanfare, he had been brought down by a broken crankshaft.
On 2 March 1990, after some fifteen years of planning, Brian Edwards left RAF Binbrook Airfield in England bound for Australia. Flying solo in his 1943 De Havilland DH82A Tiger Moth ‘Matilda’, he set off to achieve his goal to fly the route of the great aviation pioneers, such as Bert Hinkler.
A major reason prompting Brian’s flight was to honour the memory of his late father, who went missing in action in World War II. Pilot Officer Clifford Edwards was the pilot of a 460 Squadron Lancaster based at Binbrook, Lincolnshire. He and his crew failed to return from operations over Cologne on 3 July 1943. His aircraft was probably shot down by a night fighter, but no trace of the Lancaster or crew was found, and they are commemorated at Runnymede Memorial, England.
Brian also wanted to give something back to Legacy, the Australian organisation which supports the children of ex-service men and women. They supported Brian through his school and university days and he saw this flight, the attendant publicity and the donations, as a way of thanking them.
Brian Clifford Edwards was born in Perth, Western Australia in January 1941. He was educated at Wesley College, South Perth, and joined Air Training Corps No 1 Flight (Wesley College) on 24 January 1955. He rose to the rank of Cadet Under Officer and later gained his Private Pilot Licence at the Royal Aero Club of WA.
He would make his mark both as a pilot, and a highly successful physiotherapist. He completed a diploma in physiotherapy in 1963, set up a private practice in Perth, and gained a BSc (Anatomy) in 1975. He was also part of the medical team for the West Coast Eagles during their 1992 and 1994 AFL Premierships.
Meanwhile, Brian was flying Cessnas at the Royal Aero Club WA, and with the England-Australia flight in mind, he learned to fly the ‘tail dragger’ Tiger Moth. His next step was to buy a Tiger Moth, fly it over from New South Wales, and have it modified with extra fuel and oil tanks.
Sponsorship was soon forthcoming, and ‘Mission Matilda’ was ‘launched’ at Langley Park by Sir Fred Chaney, a WWII Tiger Moth pilot. The aircraft was then shipped to the UK, with Brian flying over on British Airways.
There was still much preparation to be done. The aircraft had to be reassembled and test flown, flight planning organised, and permits obtained. Inevitably, there was much media attention from TV and the Daily Mail, and his many supporters. Finally Brian’s wife Jenny flew to England to farewell him on his departure from Binbrook.
So it was a huge anti-climax when Brian was forced down by the broken crankshaft on 2 March. Yet the aircraft was repairable, and three weeks later, on 23 March 1990, Brian set off again for Australia.
His route of thirty-three sectors, included stopovers at Rome, Athens, Alexandria, Dubai, Karachi, Calcutta, Rangoon, Bangkok, Singapore, Djakarta, and Kupang. Navigation was by dead reckoning, with just a compass, and along the way he encountered storms, mechanical problems, and delayed clearances.
The final test for pilot and machine was the long overwater flight from Kupang across the Timor Sea to Kalumburu. After skirting a few squalls, Brian and ‘Matilda’ made landfall off the north-west coast of Western Australia and were soon circling Kalumburu Mission. He was met in the circuit by a twin engine Piper Chieftain, with his proud wife Jenny waving from a window.
However, Brian’s engine was losing power, and with a last minute disaster looming, he pulled off a perfect forced landing at the airstrip. After rolling to a stop, Sister Scholastica rocked up on a motorbike, with her veil almost blown off, and shouting, ‘Welcome home Brian. It’s good to see you’. Soon a truck arrived with Jenny, and after an emotional reunion they were treated to a corroboree on the airstrip. After more Kalumburu hospitality, Brian set off the next morning with a repaired throttle cable.
More welcomes awaited at Broome, and Newman, where he was met by hundreds of schoolchildren. The flight continued via Meekatharra to Cunderdin, where he was greeted by Dori Davies who had once welcomed Charles Kingsford Smith on one of his flights.
Finally, on 13 May 1990, Brian and ‘Matilda’ flew the last leg to Langley Park, Perth’s original airfield. It was a magical moment for Brian: ‘As I flew over the Darling Range, the tall buildings of Perth came into view. It was a magnificent sight’.
Brian and ‘Matilda’ were escorted in by four Tiger Moths. They flew in formation along the Canning River, over the Narrows Bridge, and into the circuit for Langley Park. Brian landed ‘Matilda’ in front of some 16,000 people, after an epic of 47 days and many adventures. He was welcomed by the 5th Military District Band playing Waltzing Matilda.
The Premier of Western Australia, Dr Carmen Lawrence, gave a welcome address, and there were telegrams from Prime Minister Bob Hawke, and many others. More than $40,000 was raised for Legacy as a result of his flight, and Brian was made a Life Member of Torchbearers for Legacy.
On 4 June 1990, Governor Sir Francis Burt presented Brian with the Epic Achievement Award. Then on 26 January 1991, Brian was presented with the Australian Achiever Award by Bob Hawke. The honours flowed and in 1992 Brian was awarded the Order of Australia Medal (OAM) for his services to Legacy and to Physiotherapy.
Yet, Brian and Jenny were looking for a ‘tree change’ and purchased some land in Western Australia’s wine region of Margaret River. Two years later, the first vines were planted at Edwards, and the vineyard rapidly developed and grew to sixty acres.
However, ‘Matilda’ was not to be denied, and in 1993, Brian published ‘The Matilda Mission’, an engaging record of his epic flight. Proceeds from the book were donated to Legacy. Brian then conceived another fund raising flight for Legacy – this time an anti-clockwise circumnavigation of Australia. And so on Sunday 26 September 1993, Brian flew the first leg of ‘Mission Matilda II’ to Cunderdin, with Sir Francis Burt as passenger. Sir Francis had trained on Tiger Moths in WWII and served with 10 Squadron Coastal Command in the UK.
Brian and ‘Matilda’ flew on via Adelaide, Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney, Brisbane, Darwin, Broome, Carnarvon and Geraldton, with many stops in between. There were meaningful highlights, including Swan Hill, where Brian was greeted by an RAAF officer, dressed in full ceremonial uniform, holding an umbrella. Air Commodore Keith Parsons splashed his way to ‘Matilda’ and saluted Brian, ‘Welcome to Swan Hill, Brian. Sorry about the weather.’ Keith Parsons had been the Commanding Officer of No 460 Squadron at the time Brian’s father had gone missing.
The ‘rest’ days were just as busy as the flying, and in Melbourne, Brian appeared on the Bert Newton Show, met the Governor, attended a Legacy lunch, and a cocktail party hosted by Premier Geoff Kennett. Brian also had a full schedule in Canberra, where he was hosted by Governor General Bill Hayden, met the federal Western Australian politicians, and honoured as guest speaker at the National Press Club.
Then at Sydney, Brian landed ‘Matilda’ at Randwick Racecourse which had been the site of Sydney’s first airfield. This was the first time in 50 years that an aircraft had landed at the race course.
There was another special moment when Brian flew over the historic Eagle Farm airfield in Brisbane. Then about 15 miles south of Townsville, Brian was intercepted by two Blackhawk helicopters from the Australian Army’s 5 Aviation Regiment. On arriving at Townsville Airport the two Blackhawks took up a position on either side of the runway, and as ‘Matilda’ touched down the two helicopters gave a ‘bow’ to Brian.
The stopover at Mt Isa was also significant, as Brian’s parents were married there more than 50 years before, when his father had worked at Mount Isa Mines. Then after flying into Katherine, Brian was amazed to meet Legacy widow Bonnie Stephens, who as a ten-year-old girl, had flown with Charles Kingsford Smith in 1928.
After landing at Darwin, Brian met with the Chief Minister of the NT, and Legacy members, and at Broome he was escorted in by a Cessna 172 and given a warm welcome by the townspeople.
The flight continued southward and by Sunday 31 October 1993 Brian was homeward bound. At 11am ‘Matilda’ made her appearance over Perth, and Brian took her over the Narrows Bridge and along the Swan River for a landing at Langley Park. A huge welcome had been prepared, with spectators, media, Air Training Corps, Navy, and Army cadets. Jenny Edwards was the first to greet her husband, and in the midst of the media interviews a formation of four PC9s from No 2 Flying Training School flew overhead at 500 ft.
Sir Francis Burt commended Brian on his magnificent effort for Legacy and stated that the flight was an important event in the history of Australian Aviation. Brian responded, saying that the greatest reward for the trip was the raising of $70,000 for Legacy. The flight covered 12,949 kms (7,000 nautical miles) in 97 flying hours, with 71 take-offs and landings. This broke the previous biplane record of 44 days around Australia set in 1924 by a RAAF Fairey III-D seaplane.
After a well earned rest, Brian returned to physiotherapy, and running the Edwards Winery. However, his health declined, and he was diagnosed with leukaemia. He battled the disease with great courage and strength, but passed away at the age of 62 on 20 November 2003. His ashes were taken for a last flight in a Tiger Moth, and scattered over his vineyard airfield. His Tiger Moth ‘Matilda’ rests nearby in her own hangar, her waltzing days over.
On 25 November 2006, nine Tiger Moths flew down to the Edwards Vineyard for a Leukemia Foundation Fundraiser. One of the Tigers was flown by Barry Markham who had flown his Tiger Moth from Australia to England in 1998.
The Tiger Moths gave some inspired aerobatics over the vineyard, and in the evening an art auction was held, with proceeds going to the Leukaemia Foundation. The Tigers departed the next morning, after more joy flights and low passes over ‘Matilda’s’ hangar, in a final salute to Brian Edwards.
Brian Edwards and ‘The Matilda Mission’
Edwards family, Peter Heaney, Lance Twomey, Paul Falconer-West
Main Picture Brian Edwards and Tiger Moth ‘Matilda’ Edwards family