Aussie Icons #3 – The Red Devil
According to my train buddy* G, the longest ever recorded chicken flight lasted for 13 seconds. Ironic then, that one of Australia’s most unsung aviators drew his early inspiration from experiments with measuring chook** wingspan relative to their flight!
A world exclusive wasn’t what I expected when I visited Minlaton on South Australia’s York Peninsula. But the Red Devil, a Bristol M.1C Military Monoplane from a limited 1918 run of only 125 fast fighter planes designed to assist the Allies during World War I is believed to be the only one left of its kind. In the WORLD!
Even more amazing, however, is that Henry ‘Harry’ John Butler, a Koolywurtie*** lad born in 1889, became a prominent Australian aviation pioneer in an environment where the chooks were virtually his only aviatory (? is that a word??) influence!
Until his 20’s, that is, when a regular 400km weekend round trip to Adelaide where he learned to fly with Carl William ‘Bill’ Wittber, another Aussie aviation pioneer. How? Well, after making the first Australian powered flight, Bill built his own plane from scratch. As you do. And this was the aircraft in which Harry first experienced the joys of flight!
Young Harry flew to England at his own expense to join the Royal Flying Corps following the outbreak of World War I, and was soon regularly flying air raids to France before becoming Captain, Flight Commander then instructor and decorated war hero****.
So I reckon Captain Harry’s reported 1919 statement that the Red Devil was one of the three fastest in the world is made on pretty good authority!
Captain Butler’s triumphant – and now legendary – return to Minlaton in the Red Devil on 6th August 1919 in a 110 kmh gale wearing an inflated tyre tube in lieu of life-jacket is also believed to be the first airmail delivery over water in the Southern Hemisphere.
Harry and the Red Devil, cornerstone of his Aviation company, continued to entertain, amuse and educate Australians over the next few years – aeronautical displays, joy flights, airmail deliveries (including a mail drop to his childhood school at Koolywurtie), promotional stunts and winning the inaugural Aerial Derby.
A complete change of pace for this little aircraft, whose logbook contains entries for ‘Fighting Practice’ – but the speed (209 kph/130 mph) that made it an invaluable addition to the Allied cause, also made it the perfect plane to showcase Captain Butler’s considerable aviation expertise.
Harry wasn’t in his beloved Red Devil on 11th January 1922 when engine failure at low altitude and the ensuing crash into a field just outside Minlaton left him critically injured and unable to continue to fly professionally. An undiagnosed cerebral abscess finally caused his death on 29 July 1924.
After languishing in an Adelaide shed for a number of years, the Red Devil was sold by Mrs Butler to Mr C Miller – who, after extensive restoration, attended a number of races and exhibitions. Only one other pilot – a Mr C Kleinig – ever flew the Red Devil, which was never involved in an accident.
The fully restored Red Devil is housed on Minlaton’s main street in a protective hangar – a must-see for those, who like me, find this forgotten chapter of Australia’s aviation history fascinating.
And just up the road, if you can tear yourself away from exhibits such as the Rocking Bath and Magic Flute (fit over the nose to play) a whole room at the Minlaton National Trust Museum is dedicated to Captain Harry Butler. A small booklet – ‘The Harry Butler Story’- to which I am indebted for much of the information in this story, is available for purchase.
But the Red Devil remains a tangible link to another time and place – a place where aviation was in its infancy, a war changed the world forever, and a boy from Koolywurtie became a hero.
*train buddy – best friend fellow commuter
**chook = chicken. Is it just us Aussies who call them chooks??
***Koolywurtie – a small Yorke Peninsula farming locality near Minlaton