Page 1: Biography
Bolt, George Bruce
Aviator, aeronautical engineer, military leader
This biography, written by R. L. Williams, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
George Bruce Bolt was born on 24 May 1893 at Dunedin, the son of Frederick William Bolt, a salesman, and his wife, Mary Inkster Tait. His interest in aviation began as a nine-year-old when he watched early hot-air ballooning in Dunedin; after the family moved to Christchurch in 1908 he became an accomplished aircraft modeller. With limited resources but with great determination, George designed and built a glider, which he first flew in December 1911 above the Cashmere Hills. In 1912 he built another, and designed a third craft which he planned to fit with a 12-horsepower two- stroke engine. In March the following year Bolt won the Distance Challenge Cup at Hagley Park with a record glider flight of 1,224 feet.
With the outbreak of the First World War Bolt was determined to continue flying, and in June 1916 he began work as an apprentice mechanic at Leo and Vivian Walsh's New Zealand Flying School at Mission Bay, Auckland. He displayed considerable skill at overhauling the engines of the school's floatplanes, worked on propeller design, and developed the school's first air-speed indicator. He quickly achieved his ambition of flying powered aircraft, making his first solo flight in July 1916. The following year, on his 24th birthday, Bolt passed the tests for the aviator's certificate, and became one of the school's four flight instructors. In July 1919 he became its chief pilot.
At the end of the war the school's future appeared uncertain. Together with the Walshes, Bolt increasingly turned his attention to the promotion of commercial aviation, particularly the development of regular airmail and passenger services. He also set a number of New Zealand flying records. In January 1919 he reached a record altitude of 6,500 feet, and in May he completed a record long-distance flight from Auckland to Russell. On 16 December that year Bolt made the first experimental airmail flight from Auckland to Dargaville. In early 1920 he completed further mail flights to Thames and Whangārei, and set a new one-day long-distance record from Auckland to Ōpōtiki.
Bolt was issued with a provisional commercial pilot's licence and a ground engineer's licence in March 1921. On 9 May he and the Walsh brothers initiated an airmail service from Auckland to Whangārei flying six days a week; it proved uneconomic, however, and was soon discontinued. In October Bolt made the first one-day flight from Auckland to Wellington. To help finance the struggling flying school he took passengers on popular joyrides, and in March 1923 he dropped a display parachutist over Ellerslie Race Course. On 14 February 1922 Bolt married Mary Best at Merivale, Christchurch; they were to have a son and a daughter.
In 1923 George Bolt was an instructor at refresher courses for ex-service pilots who were to form the nucleus of the New Zealand Air Force (Territorial), and in December that year he was appointed a lieutenant. Meanwhile, civil aviation was stagnating, and in late 1923 the New Zealand Flying School ceased operations. Bolt remained a strong advocate of the potential of passenger services, and in 1924 was selected to command a flying boat on a demonstration flight from Sydney to Auckland. The plan was abandoned due to insufficient financial backing.
In 1930 Bolt was appointed chief pilot for Dominion Airlines, which planned to operate air services across Cook Strait and to other parts of New Zealand. He visited Britain to purchase a Saunders-Roe Windhover flying boat and a Desoutter II land-plane. He gained experience handling large aircraft and was seconded to the Dutch airline KLM. On his return to New Zealand in late 1930 Bolt flew the Desoutter in a regular passenger service between Gisborne and Hastings. Dominion Airlines, however, soon went into liquidation. He was then appointed commercial pilot, chief engineer and advanced flying instructor for the Wellington Aero Club. Mary Bolt had died in 1928, leaving George with two young children. On 3 March 1933 he married Dora Irene Frankland Bell at Khandallah, Wellington.
Bolt was appointed technical adviser to the newly formed Cook Strait Airways in 1935 and later that year became its chief pilot. He visited Britain to select suitable aircraft and was responsible for establishing its operations at Nelson aerodrome. On the outbreak of the Second World War the company's aircraft were requisitioned for air training, and in November 1939 Bolt was appointed chief engineer at the Royal New Zealand Air Force's Ohakea station. The following March he became chief engineer at its repair and assembly facility at Hobsonville, Auckland. He attained the rank of wing commander in 1943, and was appointed director of aeronautical production.
In 1944 Bolt returned to civil aviation when Tasman Empire Airways Limited appointed him its chief engineer. Over the next 16 years he supervised the introduction and operation of the company's Short flying boats, Douglas DC-6's and Lockheed Electras, and developed its engineering base at Mechanics Bay, Auckland. He provided valuable technical advice to both the Short Brothers and Lockheed companies.
George Bolt was made an OBE in 1953 and retired in 1960. The following year the New Zealand Division of the Royal Aeronautical Society gave him its Wigram Award for a paper on the early flights of Richard Pearse. As well as an interest in aviation history, his hobbies included aircraft and boat modelling, and clock collecting. He died in Auckland on 27 July 1963, survived by his second wife and the children of his first marriage.
In 1965 the Auckland branch of the Royal Aeronautical Society instituted a memorial lecture in Bolt's honour. He is also commemorated by the George Bolt Memorial Drive at Auckland International Airport. He was one of the outstanding figures in the development of commercial aviation in New Zealand, from its earliest origins to its successful expansion after the Second World War.