Boeing and Bolt: "Bluebill' frontiers
BY EVE DUMOVICH
Bluebill, the first airplane William Boeing built and which he took on its maiden flight June 15, 1916, also helped bring commercial flying to New Zealand. In 1918, Boeing and his partner G. Conrad Westervelt shipped both B&Ws they had built to the New Zealand Flying School, making them the company's first international sale.
Bluebill was the first B&W the school reassembled. They repainted the airplane and marked its tail with the letter "F" (they also called it the Boeing "F").
The school named George Bolt, its pioneer aviator and an instructor, Bluebill's pilot. Aviation historian and author Edgar Francis Harvie quotes Bolt's flight records, which provide intriguing glimpses into Bluebill's adventures half a world away.
"As soon as the first Boeing was erected, we commenced carrying passengers, and one of the first things of any note that I did with it was to take it up to 6,500 feet, a record height for New Zealand," Bolt wrote.
Bolt used the B&W to break and set several distance and time records, despite some of its eccentricities.
"The main floats were rounded off downward at their aft ends, and if you stopped the engine in a wind of more than 20 mph, the aircraft would drift backward, water would run up over the top of the floats and the machine would start to go over onto its back," Bolt wrote. "It was a case of getting quickly out of the seat and making a wild rush to the forward end of the floats to restore the balance, a procedure which often had the passengers wondering what it was all about."
On Dec. 19, 1919, Bluebill became the first mail plane in New Zealand. Two thousand Auckland residents watched the airplane take off; the words "Royal Mail" were painted on its side. When it landed 112 miles away at Dargaville, the town rang its fire bell and sounded its factory whistles and sirens.
For some mail deliveries, Bolt dropped the mailbags overboard, aiming for a sheet spread on the ground by post office staff.
"It became a regular bombing exercise to see how close we could place the mail," Bolt noted. "Sometimes, we would get within 10 feet."
One of Bolt's passengers was the Right Rev. H.W. Creary, Roman Catholic Bishop of Auckland. His Maori parishioners met him in their dugouts.
"The Maoris gave me a real native welcome as Captain of the Big Bird," Bolt recalled. "The Maoris treated us as though we had come from another world. In some places, these people had never seen a car, let alone an aeroplane."
During his first landing at the Maori settlement at Whatakane, Bolt noticed several rocks in the harbor. One had a buoy tied to it. Since this was the same rock the original Chief Toroa, leading the first Maori settlers, had used to anchor their dugout, his descendants called Bolt "Toroa the Second."
Another passenger was journalist Col. Allen Bell.
"There is no finer pick-me-up in the world than flying," Bell enthused. "In the immediate future, our medical men will, in certain cases, be prescribing trips by aeroplane."
The final days of the Bluebill are shrouded in mystery. The New Zealand government took over the New Zealand Flying School fleet and apparently burned the airplanes in 1926. Many people hoped that the B&W had somehow escaped destruction and that its remains were sealed in a cave under Auckland's North Head.
In 1961, two years before he died, George Bolt was still looking for Bluebill. Newspaper articles of the time, however, said that although he may have found some remnants, nobody knows for sure.
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