Elaine Forrestal

Not an untold story

Charles Ulm (right) was Charles Kingsford Smith’s co-pilot, business partner and loyal friend

I have just finished reading Charles Ulm by Rick Searle, which is described in its cover copy line as ‘The untold story of one of Australia’s greatest aviation pioneers’.

This statement is, of course, patently incorrect. Charles Ulm’s story was told in 1987 by Ellen Rogers, his long time secretary and friend, in her book, Faith in Australia. And again in 2012 by Michael Molkentin after John Ulm had donated his family archives and memorabilia to the National Library of Australia. While all three published versions of this fascinating story give the facts, figures and historical details, there is so much more to tell. Where is the sense of who Charles Ulm was, as a person? Where are the details of how he felt, the descriptions of what he saw? It is not as if we have no way of knowing these things. The log books he meticulously kept, scribbled in pencil as he sat in the cabin of the bucking, vibrating  Southern Cross throughout the first ever crossing of the Pacific Ocean, give us this sense of Ulm as a human being. Sometimes terrified, sometimes elated, cold, hungry, exhausted. Thanks to John Ulm we can simply go to the National Library and read these unique documents for ourselves. But the National Library is in Canberra and for those of us who don’t live there it is a long and expensive trip to make. We need someone who has made the trip, read the log books, listened to the family stories to do this for us.

‘Somebody has to come along and spin a story around science, so that we can take it into our lives.’ (Richard Powers in The Paris Review)

This quote also applies to history. Books, films, plays can take history to places that empiricism can’t get to. Somebody has to spin a yarn about historical events for the academics, historians, scientists and others to understand the full impact of these events. On Wings of Steel is still, painfully, on ice at the National Library. And the essential vitality is still missing from the story of Charles Ulm.