By any standard, Oscar Garden was a remarkable aviator, but remarkably little is known about him.
His daughter, Mary Garden, has sought to correct the record with her book, Sundowner of the Skies: The Story of Oscar Garden – The Forgotten Aviator. The title is a reference to Garden’s self-effacing persona and habit of turning up unannounced, like the itinerant “sundowner” swagmen of Australian folklore.
Garden was only the fifth flier to complete a solo flight from England to Australia and, at the time, the third fastest after Charles Kingsford Smith and Bert Hinkler. This was despite taking off from Croydon Aerodrome in South London with only 39 flying hours to his name, including only 27 with a licence to fly solo.
That the feat was achieved in a virtually unmodified de Havilland DH.60M, bought second-hand from Selfridges department store, makes it all the more impressive.
And, while he was not the first to make it from England to Australia, and never achieved his initial aim of being the first to fly solo from England to New Zealand, he could lay claim to be first to make an aerial traverse of the Great Sandy Desert. He made the perilous 12-hour flight across to Alice Springs after making landfall at Wyndham, Western Australia, on November 5, 1930, before flying on to Sydney via Broken Hill.
Garden attempted, with patchy success, to build barnstorming and joyriding businesses on the back of his ephemeral fame, and later carved out a career in commercial aviation. He was one of the first pilots recruited by Tasman Empire Airways Limited (TEAL), later to grow into Air New Zealand. He captained the first of TEAL’s Short S.30 flying boats on its delivery trip from London in 1940 and flew the regular Auckland-Sydney route before quitting TEAL in 1947.
After his epic flight in 1930 he was feted in Scotland, where he was born, as well as the Isle of Man, Australia and New Zealand, where he spent parts of his life but has since – apparently by his own choice – virtually vanished from the public.
Between his departure from TEAL and his death 50 years later at the age of 93, little was heard of Garden, which was apparently the way he wanted it. He never piloted a plane again, and flew only twice more, as a passenger. His main occupation after aviation was as a tomato farmer in New Zealand.
Sundowner of the Skies goes some way toward explaining this enigmatic behaviour. Its detailed research goes back into Garden’s family tree, mapping out a cascade of acrimonious family dysfunction, religious zealotry, bitterness over unequal inheritance, alcoholism, and grudges nurtured for generations.
To the outside world Garden was a maverick, carefree adventurer, but he was a different man to his family. To his daughter he is an embittered loner, an “emotionally devoid Scotsman” scarred by intergenerational trauma.
Mary Garden quotes her mother, Garden’s wife, as saying “He was a bastard of a father. And a bastard of a husband.” She speculates that he may have suffered an undiagnosed mental condition.
We expect our heroes to be paragons, but they rarely are. Even so, Oscar Garden’s achievements were noteworthy and, as the author concludes, he deserves to be remembered.
Sundowner of the Skies is published by New Holland Publishers.
VIDEO: A look at Oscar Garden’s journey from England to Australia from the British Pathé YouTube channel.