Being There

Challis House, Martin Place, Sydney

The internet is a wonderful tool for researchers like me. But no matter how detailed the description or how close-up the photographs, they can not show the atmosphere of a place. Although I write mostly realistic fiction, atmosphere is very important. There are always elements of magic, mystery and imagination even in the most historically accurate stories and it is essential to capture this. In order to transport my readers back in time and to places where they have never been I must be able to describe the unique atmosphere of the places where my stories are set.

In the case of On Wings of Steel, descriptions of Challis House in Martin Place, Sydney, and the house of Charles and Jo Ulm in Dover Heights are crucial to the authenticity of the story. Growing up in Western Australia, as I did, I have so far had to rely on the descriptions of these places given to me by others. In Sydney this week I took the opportunity to walk down Elizabeth Street, find Martin Place and visit Challis House where the pioneer aviators, Charles Ulm and Charles Kingsford Smith, had an office on the 3rd floor.

It was a long walk, even for me, and I imagined that I was 6 year-old Johnny Ulm, hurrying to keep up with the long-legged Miss Ellen Rogers, his father’s secretary, while gazing in wonder at the enormous buildings, the crowds of people, and the roads cluttered with a mix of horses, carts and the occasional motor car. When I arrived at number 4 Martin Place,  the fully-restored Challis House towered over me. It was built in the 1890s of bricks and local stone, and sits among the most prestigious buildings of its time. Its name and number are ornately carved above the entrance with elegant pillars and large display windows at ground level. Up above, row on row of smaller rectangular windows look out over Martin Place. I counted the rows and located the windows that my research indicated would be Ulm and Smithy’s office. This was where they planned their ambitious and dangerous missions to conquer the world and to make air travel safe and convenient for everyone, whether travelling for business or pleasure.

Just as these two pioneer aviators predicted, we now give no more thought to catching a plane than people in 1927 did to catching a train. I flew from Perth to Sydney in a Qantas Airbus 330 in three and a half hours. In 1929 Ulm and Smithy halved the record time for a flight from Melbourne to Perth. It still took them two days. When my plane touched down at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport I left the pressurised cabin with its plush seats, seat belts and individual TV screens and walked through the concertinaed umbilical cord into the air-conditioned Terminal that bears Smithy’s name. I thought of the Southern Cross with its open cockpit, canvas body and wooden wings, in which Charles Ulm and Charles Kingsford Smith flew around the world.

Just as they predicted, the airline industry has taken off. It has come a long way in 89 years, but it needed visionary men with nerves of steel to take those first steps. Ulm and Smithy were those men.

Lobby, Challis House, showing original wood panelling and circular mirror

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