On the wintry overcast morning of 8 January 1920, Ray Parer and John McIntosh took off from Hounslow, bound for the warmer climes of Australia. They were entering the Australian Government’s £10,000 England to Australia air race, even though the race had already been won by Ross and Keith Smith in their Vickers Vimy in December 1919. McIntosh and Parer were undeterred, and continued with their flight.
John Cowe McIntosh was born in Lumsden, Scotland in 1892, and in 1909 migrated to Western Australia, where he worked in the forestry industry. Then in 1914 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). He served in the 4th Field Ambulance, Australian Army Medical Corps at Gallipoli and in France, survived the snipers and shelling and was promoted Corporal. Just before the end of WWI he transferred to the Australian Flying Corps for flying training and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in April 1919.
Raymond Parer was born in Melbourne in 1894 and enlisted in the Australian Flying Corps in 1916. He trained on Box Kites at Point Cook, and after embarking for England, he served as a test and ferry pilot. After war’s end, he met with John (Mac) McIntosh, who was also looking to fly back to Australia. Although Mac’s flying course had been terminated at the end of WWI, Parer needed a ‘front’ man who could seek sponsorship and deal with the press.
The two of them sought a suitable aircraft and sponsor, and finally settled on an Airco DH.9, built by a furniture company. They were financed by whiskey distiller Peter Dawson, provided they delivered a bottle of his finest whiskey to Billy Hughes, the Prime Minister of Australia. The aircraft was registered G-EAQM, but a prominent ‘PD’ was painted on the fuselage.
The flight encountered many obstacles, which the airmen overcame with resilience and innovation. After crossing the English Channel heavy cloud forced them down, and they damaged the right wheel in a field near Conteville. While the wheel was being repaired they headed for Paris and the Folies Bergere. Soon they were on their way, via Lyons and Marseilles, but as they neared Pisa, a carburettor fire forced them down. After that excitement, they stopped over in Rome, where they heard news of other competitors crashing.
They then headed for Naples, where Mac took the opportunity to photograph Mt Vesuvius. Mac had bought a Kodak camera for the trip, as there was an extra prize for the best photos. Ray banked over the crater edge, and across the molten centre. Suddenly, the aircraft lurched down towards the steaming molten lava, at which point the engine cut out. Ray desperately brought the aircraft up, and they staggered over the crater edge, narrowly averting disaster.
Mac later lost the maps overboard, and bought a school atlas in Athens. They crossed the Mediterranean via Crete and Mersa Matruh, and stopped over in Cairo. Then flying from Ramleh to Baghdad, they were forced down in the desert, where a band of Arabs took a menacing interest until Mac scared them off with a hand grenade.
Their adventure continued via Karachi and Delhi, where Ray put on an aerobatic display. After circling the Taj Mahal at Agra they flew on to Calcutta, where they had an extended stay. Then, flying on to Rangoon, they had an engine failure over Arakan. Ray pulled off a miraculous landing on a tiny sandbank in the middle of the Irrawaddy River. After fixing the engine problem, they cleared a takeoff path and continued to Rangoon.
However, worse was to come, and while flying to Bangkok they had another engine failure and crash landed at Moulmein, Burma. This time the undercarriage was wrecked, and the propeller smashed. Yet again, repairs were made, and the intrepid pair carried on to Penang, where the engine seized up and had to be replaced. There was another crash landing in Sourabaya, before they reached Timor for the 420 mile crossing to Australia.
Finally, on 2 August 1920, they sighted Melville Island. ‘It’s land, it’s bloody beautiful land’ exclaimed Mac. Soon, Darwin came into view, where Hudson Fysh and a large crowd had gathered. Ray followed the cars to the landing strip at Fanny Bay, and after seven hours of flying, made a perfect three point landing. The engine then stopped dead, as they had run out of fuel.
They were the first airmen to fly a single-engine aircraft from England to Australia and the only other aircraft of the six competing that reached Australia. The epic journey took 208 days from Hounslow to Darwin.
After the celebrations in Darwin, Ray and Mac flew on through Katherine, Anthony’s Lagoon, Cloncurry, Longreach, Rockhampton and Brisbane. On 22 August they were welcomed by a crowd of 15,000 at Mascot, Sydney.
After more celebrations, they continued towards Melbourne, but when the engine failed, Ray made a forced landing in a Culcairn paddock. This time, the aircraft was beyond repair, and the two flew on to Melbourne in a borrowed aircraft. They were met by Billy Hughes, who graciously accepted the bottle of whiskey. He also rewarded McIntosh and Parer with £500 each, and King George V awarded each of them with the Air Force Cross.
In December 1920, McIntosh became the first person to ride a motorcycle across the Nullarbor to Perth. He then completed his flying training under Norman Brearley, and bought an Avro 504J, which he used for joy flights. The aircraft was converted to take two passengers in the rear cockpit, with the pilot in the front. However, on Easter Monday, 28 March 1921, John McIntosh was killed at Pithara, when he took two passengers for a joy ride. Eyewitnesses reported that one of the passengers, who was inebriated, stood up and pulled Mac away from the controls, causing the plane to crash. This was the first fatal air crash in Western Australia.
Mac’s funeral was followed by a gun carriage procession to Karrakatta cemetery. Thousands of mourners attended and the people of WA set up a trust fund to bring his wife Amelia and son Jack to Perth. In 1921, the balance of the fund was paid into the McIntosh Memorial Scholarship Trust, to assist the tertiary education of veteran’s children. The Trust was transferred to RAAFA (WA) in 1983.
Ray Parer’s flying adventures continued and he later became a pioneer of aviation in New Guinea. He died in Queensland in 1967. Both Ray Parer AFC and John McIntosh AFC were inducted into the Australian Aviation Hall of Fame on 21 October 2023. Their ‘PD’ has been restored and displayed at the Australian War Memorial.
by Charles Page
Sources: John Harper-Nelson, Christine Williamson, Australian Aviation Hall of Fame, AWM, David Parer