On Wings of Steel: the story of CTP Ulm

John Ulm, son of the pioneer Australian aviator CTP (Charles) Ulm

It is exactly a year since I first discussed the possibility of writing a biographical fiction based on the life of the pioneer Australian airman, Charles Ulm. This week I sent off the manuscript to be read for the first time by eyes other than my own. There is still work to do, of course, but the story now has a shape that I can work within. Instead of being a collection of jigsaw pieces scattered across the floor, a picture has emerged. It may still need some adjustments. Some pieces of the puzzle may need to be reshaped to make a clearer picture. Other pieces may not even belong in this story, but at least there is now a cohesive feel to it. As usual, I have become too close, too involved with the fascinating lives of these characters. My objectivity has become skewed by the fact that I now care so deeply about them, so it’s time to let go. This letting go is always a wrench for me, but I know it has to be done and will make for a much better book in the end. It is time send the manuscript off on its inaugural flight and to take the advice of people I trust, people who can look at it with fresh eyes.

Writing this story has been a unique experience for me, mainly because CTP Ulm’s son, John, is still alive. I have had the privilege of interviewing him in person, then keeping in touch with him by phone throughout the development phase of the manuscript. As a boy John Ulm flew with his father. He sat in the back cabin while paying passengers were taken on joy-rides and, after his father’s death, was invited by Charles Kingsford Smith to sit in his father’s seat in the cockpit of the Southern Cross during her final flight. John has had an illustrious career of his own, both as a military  and a commercial pilot, then as Chief of PR for Qantas. This in itself gives him some very personal insights into his father’s thoughts and feelings. However, throughout his long life John has added another dimension to this knowledge of his father. He has meticulously kept and collated everything to do with CTP Ulm’s personal and professional life. In this priceless collection, now held in the National Library of Australia, are the papers, log books, newspaper cuttings, photographs and memorabilia relating to every aspect of the remarkable achievements of Charles Ulm.

Apart from being a living treasure himself, John Ulm has collected a treasure trove of material for future generations, documenting the formative years of the Australian aviation industry of which his father was a vital part.

This one is for you, John.

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