F. Douglas Mill aerial photograph collection

The majority of the F. Douglas Mill Collection contains images which represent some of the first civil aerial photographic surveys in New Zealand, the images range from the late 1920s to the middle of the 1930s and document the country at that time from the Bay of Islands down to Waimate and Dunedin.

Details of the collection can be found here in Local History Online. The photographs include an early aerial survey of Auckland containing images such as this one of the Auckland War Memorial Museum under construction:

In addition to the image collection, the West Auckland Research Centre also have an interview from 1974 with Douglas Mill in the oral history collection held there. The sections in italics below are taken from a transcription of this interview and allow Douglas Mill to explain his motivation for buying the plane and how he went about it.

Douglas Mill was a New Zealand pioneer in the field of aerial-survey photography and indeed civil aviation. In the History of New Zealand Aviation Ewing & Macpherson state that, “when F. Douglas Mill imported a new DH 60 Cirrus Moth from England in February 1928 and formed the Air Survey and Transport Company at Hobsonville, civil aviation began again in New Zealand. (p.84)” 

 “The Air Survey Company was doing aerial surveys and that looked like a good bread and butter thing so instead of it being just joy riding or intercity transport which could call on government subsidy, there seemed to be a chance for an individual, private enterprise to get into it, and this got me going.”

According to Ewing & Macpherson the Moths were priced at less than £1000 and this made them affordable for private buyers. This was still a substantial investment, according to the Measuring Worth website £1000 in 1927 is worth around £70 000 today. Indeed as Mill says, “Bought a Moth – it was a hole in my capital down…. I couldn’t afford to insure it – it was 15% I think it was, so I had to take the risk, therefore be very careful whatever I did.” 

“Douglas Mill completed a refresher course in England and, in August 1927, purchased his own DH 60 Moth, G-EBTI. A Williamson ‘Eagle’ aerial camera was fitted by de Havilland, and preparations were made to ship the Moth to New Zealand. De Havilland, which was looking to the export market, offered Mill the New Zealand agency, taking back G-EBTI and providing a brand-new DH 60X Moth, G-NZAT, at a discount. (p.84)”

Doug Mill explains the refresher course: “I had to go through a conversion course because I had been trained on flying boats at Kohi [Kohimarama] ...just after the war. I had to be converted to land planes and I also had to get my commercial pilot licence.”

The purchase of the aeroplane was newsworthy back home in New Zealand.

The arrival of the Moth aboard the Mataroa at Auckland on 24 February 1928 marked the start of a new era for New Zealand civil aviation. …the biplane caused some excitement in Auckland – being displayed in Milne and Choyce’s Queen Street store in early March (Ewing & Macpherson, p.84).

“We sailed out in the Mataroa and the next thing was, the number one aircraft which had been, you might say, bought as a straight out commercial proposition, for commercial work and a person involved entirely on aviation for a living, was taken up to the Auckland Motor Company where Bay Farrell very kindly allowed me enough space to assemble it and on a Sunday morning it was trailed behind mother's Austin Coupe over Grafton Bridge and out to Mount Wellington to the Court's farm where a decent sized paddock was available.”

G-NZAT – New Zealand’s most modern aircraft- made its first flight from a paddock bordering the Tamaki River on Sunday 11 March.

“[The] Herald had sent out Williams to go with on the first flight and so - I think it was a Sunday, yes, up we go and I lent Williams the camera which had been the source of all the trouble and he shot some pictures for me and that was the first cash, you might say, that I earned, selling the Herald the first pictures, selling commercially for the company. Very soon after that clubs throughout New Zealand, or rather they weren't clubs as yet, they were all fellows who had been in the air force, and they were all terribly keen; they had been watching the publicity that the press had given me through flying to Venice and what not and bringing a plane back.”

Whilst over in England Mill had entered the famous Schneider Trophy with Leonard Isitt and there was a lot of press coverage of it back home.  

They all were dead keen on getting back into a bit of flying and each place was forming little committees with a view to forming clubs and so on. Of course, I was pretty much in demand and invited by all these people to be questioned and grilled about everything else, which I was only too happy to do and at the same time, of course, putting the hard word in that they must buy a Moth eventually.” 

Mr and Mrs Mill made three flying tours to the South Island during 1928, making newspaper headlines regularly and attracting hundreds of New Zealanders outside to watch the progress of the Moth overhead. As we can see from this photograph, the excitement continued throughout the year.

“[Mill] shifted operations to the site of the new NZPAF base at Hobsonville. He built a hangar and workshops across the road from the airfield. The Air Survey and Transport Company was formed, and Bob Johnson, former works manager for the New Zealand Flying School, came out of retirement to be chief engineer.

As well as representing de Havilland in New Zealand until 1939, Mill’s Air Survey and Transport Company conducted the first civil aerial-photography surveys in his Gipsy Moth, ZK-AAD. This aircraft was used extensively by Mill, notably for an aerial survey of an area bounded by Edgecombe, Tarawera, Rotorua and Cambridge in May 1929 – the first civil aerial-survey photography (Ewing & Macpherson, p.85).”

On the 15 March 1928 the New Zealand Herald prominently featured an image of central Auckland taken from Doug Mill’s Moth.

Douglas Mill’s Air Survey and Transport Company continued to import Moths and chalk up historic flights until war interrupted.  

"[The] war came along and stopped all that. I was immediately posted to Hobsonville. The air force wanted more land at Hobsonville so they bought me out – they wanted the hangar and where it was but I managed to persuade them that if they took the hangar away they had taken my livelihood away so they had better take the house and everything else."

For more information about the area see our previous posts about Mill’s house at Hobsonville and Hobsonville Point and read a summary of the heritage walk around Hobsonville Point.

Further reading: 

On early aviation in New Zealand Douglas Mill’s recommendations are, “In actual fact you’ll probably find a good account as any in Ted Harvie’s two books. His one about George Bolt is particularly well documented and illustrated.”

The background information that informs this blog post is taken from The history of New Zealand aviation: by Ross Ewing and Ross Macpherson.   

Douglas Mill features in a couple of resources available through Ancestry.com. He is in the Who’s who in New Zealand and the Western Pacific, 1938. On account of his time spent on the refresher course in the United Kingdom, Mill also features in the Great Britain, Royal Aero Club Aviators’ Certificates, which contains index cards and photographs that are in the care of the Royal Air Force Museum, London. You can access Ancestry from any of Auckland Libraries’ 55 branches.

Author: Andrew Henry


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