Horace “Horrie” Clive Miller is recognised as one of the founding fathers of aviation in Australia, with a career spanning from air force officer, aviator and barnstormer, to airline owner and company managing director.
Horrie Miller was born in Creswick, Victoria on 30 April 1893, the only son of John Pettigrew Miller, a clerk, and his wife, Mary Ann, who died that same year. His interest in aviation began while he was an apprentice at Sunshine Harvester Works in Melbourne. It was during his two years at the company that he built his first model aircraft.
After completing his apprenticeship, Miller joined the Tarrant Motor Co. where he met three young men who also later made their names in aviation – Harry Hawker, Harry Kauper and Harry Busteed.
In 1913, Miller and a friend, Bob Cousins, went to England, where they joined ‘the three Harrys’ at Sopwith Aviation Company’s works. While working as a mechanic with the company, Miller learned to fly and began earning a reputation for his knowledge of aerodynamics. He was involved with The Tabloid biplane used by Sopwith to win the Schneider Seaplane Trophy in Monaco in April 1914.
Following the outbreak of World War I, Miller returned to Australia, where he enlisted in the Central Flying School. However, there was a delay before the School was ready to start training, so Miller used the time to manufacture an aircraft of his own design. It was built around a French Gnome engine using parts from a smashed Bleriot.
Under war-time regulations, all private aircraft had to be registered with the Defence Department. When his aircraft was finished, Miller received a certificate from the Department – dated 8 June 1916 – and became the owner of the first officially registered civil machine in Australia. He test-flew the aircraft himself.
Miller finally trained as a fighter pilot and was posted to No 2 (68) Squadron, Australian Flying Corps (AFC), where he obtained his Commission. He was transferred to No 3 (69) Squadron and embarked in October 1916, selling the engine of his aircraft before he left. He flew several brief operational sorties in France in 1917 before contracting the Spanish Flu. After convalescing in South Africa, he returned to Australia where he tested planes at Point Cook, Victoria.
After the war, Miller took a job with a South Australian aviation company, run by ex-AFC men. The company provided joy flights and other commercial based activities. In early 1920, the company acquired a DH-6 biplane from the AFC, which Miller would fly to regional towns.
Miller had ordered an Armstrong Whitworth FK.8 war disposal aircraft in 1919. When it arrived from England in mid-1920, he formed the Commercial Aviation Co with Arthur Kennedy. Based out of Rochester, Miller and Kennedy barnstormed over much of eastern Australia. The partnership dissolved in 1922 and the FK.8 was sold to QANTAS.
Miller spent the next two years on charter work and joy flights in Queensland and won the speed and handicap sections of the 1924 Aerial Derby in Sydney (handicap section). He had ordered a DH-9 with a 240hp Puma engine from the UK. It finally arrived in May 1925 and 12 months later he returned to barnstorming. This helped him earn the money to return to Adelaide, where he operated under the name Commercial Aviation Company from a hangar at Albert Park.
Via a friend, Miller approached confectionery magnate (Sir) Macpherson Robertson, who agreed to finance the purchase of an 8-seat DH-61 Giant Moth at a cost of £5,000. The first flight of Old Gold was carrying chocolates from Melbourne to Adelaide. The MacRobertson Miller Aviation Company (MMA) was registered in May 1928, and three new planes purchased – a Fokker and two Moths – and two pilots were employed. Miller held the positions of Managing Director, Chief Pilot and Chief Engineer.
The company commenced flying throughout South Australia, doing all types of work, including charters, medical evacuations and aerial photography.
In 1929 he entered and won what was then the longest air race in the world, The Sydney to Perth Centenary Air Race with its prize of 1000 pounds.
In 1934, MMA’s operations in the West began when it successfully tendered for an air service from Perth to Daly Waters, Northern Territory, to connect with the QANTAS airmail service to Singapore.
By 1939, its main coastal route had been extended to Darwin. The company used a Lockheed Electra aircraft for the lengthy 2,000-mile route, which connected most of the main towns along the coastline between Perth and Darwin. This service remained in operation during World War II.
Following the war, MMA supported the Flying Doctor Service and the Air Beef Scheme, flying beef out of the remote Kimberley abattoirs. In 1955, at the request of the state government, the company amalgamated with Airlines of Western Australia and Miller became regional director at Broome.
In 1963, the airline became a subsidiary of Ansett. Both Miller and the MacRobertson family sold their shares in the company, although Miller remained involved as an employee. He retired in 1972 to live in Perth.
His book Early Birds, published in 1976, covered his pioneering aviation experiences.
Miller remained a pilot right until he became incapable of flying. After a stroke in 1977 his health gradually declined.
In 1978 he received the highest aviation award, the Oswald Watt Medal, and was appointed an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE).
He died at Dalkeith on 27 September 1980.
Miller had seven children, the first being Auburn from his first marriage to Jean Auburn Knox. He had six children with his second wife, Mary Durack, the well known historian and novelist. They included Robin Miller (d.1975), who became known in her own right as an aviatrix and nurse fighting polio in remote communities and was referred to as “The Sugar Bird Lady”. His other children are Patsy, Julianna (dec), Andrew (dec) Marie Rose and John .