Backyard aircraft engineer

A young man who built a “bi-plane” in his Wollongong backyard in the first half of the 1920s, gained national attention. His fame as an early aircraft engineer was shortlived, and by 1926 he had faded into history.

Wollongong’s mystery aircraft builder was more than likely Alfred Adolphus Woolfrey, who died on October 21 1977 and is buried in the Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park, Matraville.

Known as “Bob”, he was in his mid 20s when he built the aircraft. Doing the maths, he would have been born in the 1890s. I was unable to find a birth record for him in NSW. However, there’s a chance he may have been born in Tasmania.

Woolfrey lived in a cottage at what was then number 20 Smith Street Wollongong, until he moved to Sydney in 1926 after “receiving a permanent (job) position”.

In a short note, without attribution, in Trove, is posted the following message beside one of the newspaper articles on his aircraft construction:  “This man was my grandfather! As a child, I had been told that he had built or had begun to build an aircraft and was going to compete in an air race (?), but the aircraft was never finished and was dismantled.”

There are newspaper stories about “Bob” the aviation engineer during the early 1920s from Perth to Hobart, and Brisbane to Sydney. The following story appeared in the Illawarra Mercury on Friday 21 1921 with this image (from the National Archives of Australia).

The Enterprise of a Wollongong Resident

experimental plane wollongong

Experimental aircraft built by R. Woolfrey Wollongong NSW. Picture: National Archives of Australia

IN a trim little workshop at the rear of No. 20 Smith-street, Wollongong, there is housed a biplane nearing completion, wholly designed and built by Mr. A. A. Woolfrey, a local resident for several years.

‘Bob,’ as he is familiarly called by his confreres in the building trade, and who, by the way, is a young man still in his twenties, has cherished, his secret for quite a long time; — in fact, since he first conceived the idea and began to carry it into effect some three months ago.

The necessity, however, of assembling the several parts of the plane in the yard of his residence for construction purposes, has aroused the curiosity of passers-by, with the result that the secret can no longer be withheld from the eyes of the public. It was with reluctance born of modesty that Mr. Woolfrey gave permission for the ‘plane to be photographed for publication, while the following particulars were also gleaned with difficulty: — The ‘plane at the present stage is complete as far as the framework, stays and body are concerned, and this week will probably see the completion of the covering of the wings which have an overerall-span of 20 feet.

Colonial pine has been mostly used for the frame, and it is the builder’s intention to use only Australian timbers throughout. Three-ply cotton-wood is largely used in the body, while Australian maple and rosewood are being requisitioned for the two-blade propeller. It is proposed to instal a 20-h.p. Humber engine, which should give a velocity of 60 miles, with a tate-off speed of 35 to 40 miles per hour.

The weight of the machine complete will be approximately 260 lb., and will be a single-seater, though slight alterations to the body should enable the carriage to seat two per sons. The estimated cost is £200.

Another month should elapse before the finishing touches have enabled preliminary tests to be carried out, when Mr. Woolfrey is securing the services of a thoroughly competent air-pilot. Whilst it must be conceded that the great barrier — final success — has yet to be surmounted, there is every likelihood of this being achieved, judging from the criticisms of first-class mechanics who have examined the machine, together with the unwavering confidence of the builder himself.

The achievement of this success, which is earnestly wished, will undoubtedly redound to the glory of Wollongong, while the possibilities of the machine in colonial aviation will also be far-reaching.



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