Book talk: On A Wing And A Prayer


Jeff Popple reviews a fascinating true story about a 1930s air race. More of Jeff’s reviews can be found on his blog:

On A Wing And A Prayer by Di Websdale-Morrissey

Text, $32.99.

In 1934, the Lord Mayor of Melbourne announced the audacious plan of holding an international air race from London to Melbourne to celebrate the city’s centenary.

The MacRobertson Air Race, named after the businessman sponsor MacPherson Robertson, attracted worldwide attention and on 20 October 1934, 20 planes took off from Mildenhall airstrip, watched by 60,000 spectators. News of the race spread along the route, ensuring at each stop there were crowds of eager welcomers.

Despite the considerable enthusiasm, the race took off in terrible conditions causing havoc with some of the crews. By the end of the second day of racing, 11 of the planes were spread across the globe from Nicosia to somewhere between Singapore and Darwin. The other nine planes were either grounded in various locations or had withdrawn. Twelve planes eventually finished the race, although some were outside the prescribed time limit. Tragically, one of the planes crashed in Italy killing the two-member crew.

As Di Websdale-Morrissey sets out in her marvellous book, On A Wing And A Prayer, the first plane arrived in Melbourne on 23 October, but the last did not make it until 20 November due to repeated engine problems and several forced landings. The final stages of the race were quite exciting, with engine problems dogging the winners to the end, and Websdale-Morrissey does a good job of keeping the reader interested in the outcome.

Websdale-Morrissey has a very easy style; she brings the race and its participants alive and has a good eye for the telling detail. She also devotes a fascinating chapter to people of Albury who helped to rescue one of the planes, which had become lost and was running low on fuel over southern New South Wales following a fierce thunderstorm.

This engaging account of a largely forgotten event is full of interest and will make the ideal read for this long weekend.

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