Captain Harry Butler and his Red Devil


Henry John Butler, son of John Butler and Sara Anne Cook, was born on 9 November 1889 at Yorketown but spent most of his early years on a farm and primary school at Koolywurtie near Minlaton. It was during his boyhood that motorbikes, cars, planes and many other machines and devices were invented and developed. After having read the story of the Wright brothers' first powered flight, Harry became obsessed with flying, and for most Saturdays he travelled from the farm to Smithfield on a motorbike, made by himself with the help of Cecil Crawford.

For the next few years it was farming by day and reading and studying aviation by night. Finally he got his chance to do some flying when he was accepted in the Air Force at Point Cook. Disappointed with the slow progress, Butler used his own money to enlist in England and join the Royal Flying Corps. His lack of formal education excluded him from the pilots' course and he became a mechanic. It did not take long before his experience and knowledge were recognised and by July 1916, Second Lieutenant Butler was flying in France. Although wounded and twice awarded the Air Force Cross he remained in the Royal Flying Corps until the end of the war in 1918.CaptainHarryButler

While in Europe Butler was able to solve the lack of communication which was at times experienced at the front by dropping messages from the air. This gave rise to the concept of Air Mail. His first real Air Mail flight was undertaken in 1917 when he took letters from Glasgow to Turnberry.

After his return to Australia in July 1919, Butler, together with H.A. Kauper formed the Butler & Kauper Aviation Company which operated from a hanger at Northfield. Within a month Butler gave displays of flying and stunting. His greatest thrill came on 6 August 1919 when he became the first to fly across the Gulf to Yorke Peninsula, carrying with him a full mailbag to be delivered at Minlaton where more than 6,000 people were waiting for his arrival.

It was no easy flight. He had taken off into the teeth of a 70 mph gale. He had to vary his flying height considerably to try to deal with the wind, from 15 000 ft to 1700 ft. There was quite some concern for his safety because of the weather conditions and that no-one had ever flown over the Gulf of St Vincent to the Yorke Peninsula before. Harry decided to treat them to a display of aerobatics. From 8 000 ft he came down in a screaming nose dive and flattened out only just above the heads of the crowd. He skimmed along the ground and then roared up into the sky and gave a dazzling display of aerobatics. He landed at 11.45 am - just in time for lunch, which was advertised for 12 pm!

Butler was officially welcomed by the Chairman of the Minlaton District Council, Edward Correll who took delivery of a special letter from the Governor of South Australia, Sir Henry Galway. He returned to Adelaide with two bags of mail on 11 August, flying over his old school at Koolywurtie, and dropping a special message which read, 'To my old school and scholars. I sincerely hope that this little message from the air will bring to you all the very best of luck'.

Soon Harry Butler notched up another number of 'firsts' by taking the first aerial photograph of Adelaide, bringing Father Christmas and taking people, including the Governor on flights over the city. He also dropped, by parachute, a tree into the Wattle Grove in the Parklands, to be planted in memory of the War Deed.

In 1920 Butler took part in the New Year's Day festivities at Victor Harbor. In March the Smith brothers came to Adelaide in their Vickers-Vimy escorted by Butler's little Red Devil. Later that year Butler took part in, and won, Australia's first Aerial Derby, held in Adelaide on 8 September. He also made a special aerial mail flight to Jamestown. During 1920 Harry still had time to marry Elsa Gibson, born on her parents' farm at Bool Lagoon. She became a teacher and her first appointment was near Minlaton, where she first met Harry.

On 11 January 1922, Butler crashed his plane near Minlaton. Harry was badly wounded but survived and after many hospital visits was able to restart his flying career and new business ventures. On 30 July 1924 the effects of the Minlaton crash finally caught up with him when he died from an unsuspected cerebral abscess.

His funeral was attended by a large number of people and thousands lined King William Street to say farewell to their hero whose coffin was carried on a gun carriage on his way to the North Road Cemetery.

His Red Devil plane was later restored in every detail at Parafield by Aviation Services SA Ltd. A glass hangar on the edge of Minlaton houses a static display of the famous little monoplane and celebrates the life and achievements of Captain Harry Butler.



Visitor Information

Yorke Peninsula Council acknowledges the Narungga (traditionally spelled Nharangga) people, the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Yorke Peninsula and recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and culture. We pay our respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.
Yorke Peninsula Visitor Information
8 Elizabeth Street, Maitland, South Australia 5573
T: 1800 202 445   E:


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