Bishop Cleary’s first flight commemorated

18 Cleary flight modern

A commemorative flight marking the centenary of the first flight of pioneering New Zealand aviator George Bolt and Auckland Bishop Henry William Cleary went off without a hitch on March 12. 

Classic Flyers’ Aviation Museum archivist Peter Layne told NZ Catholic that the re-enactment went “very well” and was “much appreciated” by those in attendance. 

“The weather for the occasion was perfect. Two Boeing Stearman aircraft were used for the occasion, with Peter Bolt (George Bolt’s grandson) and Willy Kay (pilot) in one, while the other served as an escort aircraft,” Mr Layne said. 

“After establishing their flightpath north of Katikati, which they circled, as did George Bolt and Bishop Cleary (Catholic Bishop of Auckland) in 1920, they flew over the area on Tauranga Harbour where George had landed his Boeing and Westervelt seaplane.” 

Mr Layne said that the planes then landed at Tauranga airport at 11.05am.  

“Allowing for daylight saving adjustments throughout the years, that time matched the actual time of the 1920 landing,” he noted. 

Aviation historian Hugh Whitehead shared some anecdotes that he had gathered – from various sources – about the first flight. 

“I have an amusing piece of the bishop’s first flight when he was ’testing’ himself to see if flying agreed with him, as a way to visit his far-flung diocese,” he said. 

A portion of Mr (George) Bolt’s letter which Mr Whitehead shared told of the crankshaft of the plane breaking while he was in the air with Bishop Cleary. 

The plane used for the 1920 flight. (Photo supplied by Hugh Whitehead)

“There was a bang and a puff of smoke, and the big bus just about shook herself to pieces. The whole front half of the engine burst through the radiator and, with the propellor still on it, flew into the sea. Things were only middling for a few seconds, I can tell you, but I made a good landing and we were towed back to shore,” wrote Mr (George) Bolt. 

“The bishop got down on one float, had a look at the damage, and then said simply: ‘Well, well! That is a pity.’ But he didn’t seem at all frightened.” 

Mr Whitehead said that one of the things that intrigued him was the fact that the first thing Bishop Cleary did from the plane was to photograph the welcoming crowd. 

Mr Layne said that the commemorative flight was delayed by three years due to Covid. The planes later flew to Whakatane and then back to Tauranga. 


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Rowena Orejana

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