My contact with Charles Ulm’s son, John, has always been absolutely essential to the quality of On Wings of Steel, but this week it turned up pure gold.
Although I had read Ellen Rogers’ book, Faith in Australia: Charles Ulm and Australian Aviation, in the National Library during my initial research, and taken copious notes, it is often not until further down the track that I can really tell which details will be vital to the actual story I am telling. Naturally, since the book was published privately in 1987, copies are very rare and precious. But John Ulm has generously loaned me his own personal copy. This week I have had the luxury of poring over it, adding to my notes, mining it for the tiniest snippet that may turn out to be a major breakthrough, a vital detail that adds to the understanding of a character, the clarifying of a picture.
Ellen Rogers was appointed secretary to Charles Ulm and Charles Kingsford Smith after they had successfully made the first ever trans-Pacific flight from California to Brisbane. She was just twenty one years old, but remained loyal to Smithy and Ulm through all the ups and downs of their business and personal lives. In those days there were very few females venturing off the ground, but Ellen Rogers loved flying. When Smithy claimed he could make her airsick she accepted the challenge. Smithy tried everything – loop-the-loops, buzzing buildings, even flying upside down, but he could never make Rog (as she was known) sick. She became one of the first two women to fly across the Tasman, acting as air hostess while Ulm’s wife, Jo, provided the food on the first passenger flight from Australia to New Zealand. The flight was made in Faith in Australia, the plane that Ulm bought when Australian National Airways, the company jointly owned by Smithy and Ulm, folded during the depression. John Ulm, who had known her since he was a child, but lost contact after his father’s death, met her again while she was campaigning, vigerously, to have Ulm’s name added to Smithy’s, on the plaque attached to the Southern Cross when it was being prepared to go on permanent display in it’s specially built hanger on the outskirts of Brisbane. John was also involved in this campaign and subsequently in the development of Rog’s book for which he wrote a Foreword and supplied some of the photographs.
I have not quite finished my microscopic examination of Rog’s text. I am looking forward to getting back to it tomorrow – but not looking forward to having to part with it. John has said I should keep it as long as I need to, but I am conscious of just how precious it is to him and will return it ASAP – once I am confident I have recorded every detail.