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Val St. L

 Norman Valentine St. Leon enlisted in the RAAF in 1939 as an engineer, serving with No.3 Squadron in the Middle East before returning to Australia to duties with No.2 OTU based at Mildura.  He then set up and ran the Allison engine overhaul department at Oakey, leaving the Air Force in 1946 to join Qantas.  With the introduction of Lockheed Constellations in 1947, he became Qantas's first Chief Flight Engineer.  In 1952 he re-mustered as a pilot, becoming a Captain on the Douglas DC-3, Lockheed Electra, Boeing 707 and Boeing 747.

Val St. Leon was decorated with the Middle East campaign Stars, both Vietnam medals, and the rare Air Efficiency Award (AE), and served in the RAAF Reserve until 1965 as a Flight Lieutenant.  During his career he became a Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society (FRMetS), a Member of the Royal Aeronautical Society (MRAeS), and a Member of the Royal Institute of Navigation (MRIN).  At the age of 82, Val was studying for a Master of Literature Degree.

He recorded the following information with Greg Banfield on 6th August 2003.  Predominantly, this article is the story of 3 Squadron’s early days in the Western Desert.  It represents a rare and authentic oral history spoken by this extraordinary man-on-the-spot who witnessed it all. 

This is followed by an outline of Val’s unique flying career after the war; in itself exceptional and certainly an example to all who may aspire to a career in aviation. 

Val was born in Sydney on 6th November 1921, into a theatrical family.  His great-grandfather started the first circus in Australia in 1842, after arriving in this country.  The circus was still operating in the early 1850s, but by then he had changed his name four times for theatrical reasons.  The whole of his family otherwise was connected with show business in general.  Both his mother and father were on the Tivoli, Clay's, J. C. Williamson and J. & N. Tait circuits, so he grew up in that atmosphere.

Two young children holding hands, men unloading a cart in background, during the St. Leon and Sole Brothers Circus and Zoo tour of Australia, circa 1923
Mark St. Leon comments: "The kids in the photo are Philip St. Leon on the left and Peggy St. Leon on the right. 
Both aged about 2 years.  Photo would date from 1921-22."
  [National Library of Australia pic-vn4996159. ]

His mother taught him with the aid of Blackfriars Correspondence Schools during their constant travelling, but his formal education did not start until he was ten.  His secondary education completed, he attended Sydney Technical College whilst being apprenticed at Coote & Jorgensen (now Borg Warner) as a fitter and turner at the age of sixteen.

 Into the RAAF

There he served alongside Charlie Gray, a senior apprentice who was learning to fly and was building up his hours to get his B Licence, which was what the Commercial Pilot Licence was then called.  Val caught the aviation bug too.  At only 17 and a few months, he decided he would try out for the tradesman's entrance examinations to join the RAAF, irrespective that the minimum age required was 18.  He passed oral and practical trade test examinations very successfully and was accepted for enlistment for a period of six years, but then informed the Air Force that a ‘mistake’ had been made in his age.  Nevertheless, the Air Force allowed him to complete the medical examinations, have two teeth filled, and said that they would then think about allowing him to enlist before the specified age.

The following year, when war broke out in September 1939, he was called-up.  He enlisted in the Permanent Air Force on 16th October, before he had turned 18.  He hadn't completed his apprenticeship at that stage but when he came out of the RAAF seven years later he was given his papers because the engineering work he had been doing was the equivalent standard, so he was thus a recognised tradesman.

He completed his training at Laverton and graduated as a Fitter 2E, before being posted to Richmond.  When the officers and men of 3 Squadron left this base for service in the Middle East in July 1940, he had great hopes of joining them.  However it was not until three months later, when the first reinforcements were sent, that he was posted to the Squadron.  

[Two fitters who had been on his Engineering course at Laverton did march out with the Squadron in July and their names, with all the others, are enscribed on a brass plate at the entrance on the old gate at Richmond.  They all proudly marched out in full uniform complete with leggings to the tune of Roll Out The Barrel.  It appears that this was the only time a RAAF squadron departed for overseas service as a complete unit during World War Two and, at the time, it created great interest and local support.  To this very day, this march-out is still regularly commemorated by many ex 3 Squadron members and their families.]

To the Middle East

In October 1940, with a total of fourteen commissioned officers and airmen, Val sailed on the Aquitania for Bombay.  From Bombay they joined a British troopship which landed them at Ismailia in Egypt.  They then travelled by road to Ikingi Maryut near Alexandria, where one part of 3 Squadron was located, equipped with Westland Lysanders and training with the AIF's Sixth Division on Army Co-operation work.  The other part of the Squadron was operating from an advanced landing ground called Sollum.

3 Squadron was then transitioning to become a Fighter squadron.  The aircraft were provided by the RAF and 3SQN were equipped with two flights of Gloster Gladiators, as well as the one flight of Lysanders.  Four Gloster Gauntlets were also allotted to the Squadron.  The Gauntlet was the RAF's last two-bay fighter biplane with an open cockpit, but 3SQN were using them for bombing, carrying four bombs under the wings.  The Gladiators, also fighter biplanes but with an enclosed cockpit, were protecting the Gauntlets, which were withdrawn on 12th December.  The Lysanders were spotting for the Sixth Division artillery.

Towards the end of December 1940, after about a month at Ikingi Maryut, the new arrivals joined the rest of the Squadron at Salum.  At the time they were operating just outside Badia, on the border between Libya and Egypt, and were very close to the Italian Fort Capuzzo.

When the Sixth Division took Bardia on 4th January 1941, the Squadron then moved up to Gambut, which was an Italian aerodrome, to support the next engagement, Tobruk.  They were a completely mobile squadron and well known for "acquiring" additional equipment that was needed to keep operating.  Val had his own Italian "Moto Guzzi" motor bike and the Squadron had over a hundred vehicles and a mobile workshop that we were not supposed to have on issue.  No.3 Squadron’s nicknames were "Clifty" and the "Hydraulic Squadron", well known for their 'lifting' capabilities.

The Lysander flight was re-equipped with Gladiators by 11th January 1941.  It was very difficult to maintain the aeroplanes due to the conditions.  They had to strain the petrol through chamois filters to try to keep the dirt and dust out of the fuel but it was still an uphill battle.

[AWM SUK14908]

After Tobruk fell to General Wavell's forces on 22nd January, they moved from Gambut through Tobruk to El Gazala, another Italian aerodrome.   While they stayed at Gazala, Val was badly burned by an exploding drum of captured Italian petrol.  Many soon acquired the ulcers called "desert sores" on their arms and legs, due to very poor quality food.  However, on one occasion, Val shot a gazelle and, while it was a bit "gamey", all enjoyed fresh meat which was a welcome change from the "bully beef" and "burgoo".

All then started to realise that something big was happening in Greece, because the Australian Sixth Division was withdrawn from the Benghazi area and sent there.  Being attached to the Sixth Division, 3 Squadron were expecting to go with them.  However, on 29th January 1941 they began to be re-equipped with Hawker Hurricane Mk.Is, which had seen service in the Battle of Britain and weren't in very good shape.

Benghazi fell on 7th February and three days later the Squadron occupied a nearby aerodrome called Benina, and lived in the bombed-out quarters of the Italian Regia Aeronautica.  They had some difficulty in converting to the Hurricanes, and they were also finding great trouble in getting decent food, with the result that most were poorly nourished and there was a lot of illness.

Val’s number nearly came up at Benina when a Heinkel 111K came in with gear and flaps down, as if it were going to land, but then the pilot realised that he had made a mistake and dropped a stick of bombs where Val was lying prone.  Val said:

"The explosion went over my body and I was unscathed.  This episode I recorded, as I was carrying a small Kodak Retina camera and I still have these photographs today.  We were targeted regularly at this aerodrome."

It was also very difficult to get petrol for the aeroplanes as it was almost impossible to get a full load from a convoy.  The fuel used to come up in four-gallon tins along the coast road, and by the time it reached them, at the various places they were operating from, about 90% of the tins would be empty due to their developing leaks from rattling around on the trucks.  The Afrika Korps was much better equipped with "jerrycans".

About this time, they had a very big scare one night at Benina when the gas rattles went off and everyone thought they were being gassed.  Clad only in pyjamas, or whatever they were sleeping in, the men made their way to shelter, crouched under gas capes with gas masks on, only to discover that they had not emptied out the dirt and dust that had collected coming across the desert up from Sollum.  While they did believe that there were gas cannisters located close to Benina, in actual fact it was not gas but advection-type fog which had blown in from the sea and was billowing around, making the gas rattles operate.

From Benina, part of the Squadron went to Agedabia, but the Germans had then entered the conflict and the Afrika Korps soon pushed them back.  No.3 Squadron were thought to be the last to leave Benghazi, on 3rd April, and they blew up a good number of the installations (that could be useful to the Germans and Italians) as they departed.  They retreated a lot more hurriedly than they had advanced.

The Allied forces were under the command of General Wavell and this was the first retreat that had occurred in the Western Desert operations.  3 Squadron suffered a number of very serious attacks on their convoy by the Germans in Messerschmitt Me 110s.  At one part of their departure from Benina, they were stuck on the road at Derna Pass and couldn't move.  Val recalls:

"Messerschmitt 110s flew backwards and forwards across Derna Pass raking us with gunfire as we were trying to get out.  I jumped from the top of a Crosley truck and sustained some injuries but, along with two or three of my mates, I found a culvert underneath the road and we had some success in covering ourselves there.  When the attack passed, the convoy moved on.  I think one airmen was killed at Derna in this engagement."

Barce, Libya. The wreckage of one of many German Stuka aircraft shot down by Allied air forces in the area between Derna
and Benghazi. The road in the background leads through the Barce pass. 
[AWM 022709]

The convoy, incidentally, was comprised solely of 3 Squadron vehicles.  There were no tanks or Bren Gun Carriers to support them.  In fact, when the Sixth Division was sent to Greece, they had to hand in all their rifles; and so they didn't even have small arms to protect themselves with.  At one aerodrome where the Hurricanes landed for the night during the retreat, the men were surrounded by the crack Italian Ariete Armoured Division.  As they had nothing else to protect themselves with, and they certainly couldn't fly the aeroplanes at night time, they propped-up ten of their Hurricanes' tails, to allow the guns to point down slightly and give enfilading fire around the perimeter of their camp.  The pilots sat in the aeroplanes ready to fire if they detected any movement around the camp.  Fortunately a Scottish Regiment came in and saved them from capture.

After leaving Derna, they went along the coast to Cyrene, which was formerly a Greek City-State.  Val remembers Cyrene...

"...as a miniature Greek city, complete with a small theatre (similar to Epidauris in Greece) and beautiful temples, which had been utilised by the Italians.  We stayed there a day or so regrouping, and then finally moved down to a more-or-less safe haven at El Adem, and then into Egypt itself.  There we started to lick our wounds and try to recover the Squadron, because we certainly weren't operative at that stage.  The Squadron had retreated more than 500 miles in ten days and operated from nine different airfields."

Early in May 1941, they moved by train to Palestine, to Aqir and then to Lydda and re-equipped with Curtiss Tomahawk fighter aeroplanes, which were just becoming available.  The Hurricanes were certainly worn-out by then: their engines had no compression and they weren't at all useful for fighting purposes.  There was a lot of difficulty with pilots transferring to Tomahawks and various photographs Val has kept illustrate some of the 16 aeroplanes that were lost in training accidents, firstly at Aqir and then Lydda, where they were based for the re-equipment program.  The Tomahawks had a tendency to swing on take-off if the torque of the engine wasn't corrected smartly; as the aircraft took off abreast in pairs, such swings caused a number of collisions.  Another problem was that some pilots had not flown retractable undercarriage aircraft before, and therefore experienced some gear-up landings.

Then the war, as far as they were concerned, moved up to Syria, and they went through Haifa, then Nazareth, to an aerodrome near Rosh Pinna, which was close to Lake Tiberius (the Sea of Galilee).  From there they operated against the Vichy French, losing a few aeroplanes and pilots.

In July they moved up through Damascus to an aerodrome named Rayak, outside of Zahle, very close to the ruins of Baalbek.  The Vichy French forces in Syria had surrendered after a bloody battle which lasted from 7th June to 12th July 1941, in which Australia alone suffered more than 400 troops killed and 1,200 wounded.  Allied prisoners of war, including a number of Australians, had covertly been shipped to Vichy France, from where they would have been handed over to the Germans.  When this was discovered, the Vichy French commander, General Dentz, and some of his senior officers were taken into custody as hostages by the Allies.  This had the desired effect and all prisoners were returned to Syria.

However, the plans to arrest General Dentz were almost thwarted at the last minute when, taking advantage of the prevailing confusion, he attempted to flee from Rayak to France in his Potez transport.  Unhappily for him, souvenir hunters from 3 Squadron had discovered his aircraft (which even had a toilet with a gilded seat in it) and various items were quickly removed, rendering the aircraft completely unserviceable.  - The boys were in serious trouble for having looted the aircraft, but were pardoned, with no questions asked, provided everything was returned.  A 3 Squadron song celebrates this episode.

Rayak was a fully-equipped French aerodrome complete with hangars.  The French barracks were very dirty and completely lousey & flea-ridden.  3SQN operated from there for some time, more or less in pacification exercises.  It was a much better climate than the desert of Egypt and Libya, and some leave was granted there, enabling many to visit Beirut.  Generally speaking, it was a much more pleasant experience, but it didn't last very long.

Three Australian ground crew members from No.3 Squadron RAAF, standing on the starboard wing of
a damaged Vichy French Air Force Liore et Olivier 451 twin-engined light bomber, at the Rayak airfield, Syria.  
The remains of three other Dewoitine D520 fighters can be seen in the background (left).  
Rows of abandoned French trucks and other vehicles are parked in the background behind the three
Australians and there is a camouflaged hangar (right) which appears to be relatively undamaged.  
Rayak aerodrome was first attacked by British Blenheim bombers on 18-19 May 1941 and again  on 8 June 1941
(the morning of the Invasion of Syria) by P40 Tomahawks of No 3 Squadron, RAAF, where
six Vichy French aircraft were damaged on the ground.  
[AWM P02541.001]

The Squadron was called back again into Egypt on 3rd September 1941 and moved up in the next push against Rommel's forces.  However, they didn't get very far - and they came back again very quickly.  They were forced to retreat to Gambut, from where they operated for almost four months, before moving back to El Daba and later to Amariya.

At one stage, at LG138 (a landing ground just over the Libyan border) on 8th December 1941, Val witnessed an Australian De Havilland D.H.86 air ambulance shot down.  It was from the RAAF's No.1 Air Ambulance Unit and was flown by Ron Duffield, who was waiting to land when he was twice attacked by Messerschmitt Me 110s.  With his controls shot away and the rear fuselage and the port petrol tank on fire, he skillfully managed to land the aircraft with no loss of life, although the D.H.86 was destroyed.  Ron later became a Captain in Qantas.

Assistance is rendered while Ron's crashed D.H.86 Air Ambulance burns on the ground.  [AWM 021889]

The Squadron then regrouped back in Egypt on 16th December, where they were re-equipped with Curtiss Kittyhawks, which were much better aeroplanes than the Tomahawks.  The Model H81 Tomahawk had two .303 machine guns in each wing and two synchronised .50 inch guns mounted on the nose and firing through the arc of the propeller.  It had a bad habit of having a bullet 'hang' in one of the nose-mounted guns, with the result of either shooting a blade off or at least putting a hole through a blade and unbalancing the propeller.  The Model H87 Kittyhawk, on the other hand, had six .50 inch guns, three on each wing, which didn't have to fire through the arc of the propeller.  The Kittyhawk could handle the Messerschmitt 110 but it was considered by all except the most experienced pilots to be no match for the Messerschmitt 109F and 109G.  Its service ceiling was only 29,000 feet so it was really a low-altitude aeroplane that was not particularly adaptable to the close fighting that occurred with the Messerschmitt 109. Consequently it was often used for ground-strafing.

[AWM 023031]

Return to Australia

By this time, Japan had come into the war and there was a move afoot within the RAF Command that all personnel who were members of the Australian Permanent Air Force would be returned home, as they were needed for instructional duties for the formation of squadrons which would take place in Australia once Lend-Lease aircraft became available.  This was just before the battle for El Alamein in July 1942 and all 3 Squadron men wanted to see it through, but those were the orders so 66 men, officers and airmen, including Val, were sent home.

They sailed to Bombay, where they trans-shipped for the voyage to Australia.  Val was in a fairly weakened state from the poor conditions in the desert and from having lived on bad food for an extended period.  After reaching Bombay the men moved up to Dololi near Poona but, unfortunately, Val managed to catch pneumonia and pleurisy.  As a result, he spent the entire voyage from Bombay to Melbourne in the ship's hospital.  When he landed at Melbourne, it was a 7 stone 6 pound (47.2 kg) Val that dragged himself ashore.

After leave he’d recovered somewhat.  Next came a posting to No.2 Operational Training Unit at Mildura to set up Kittyhawk maintenance for the operational training program.  As Val said:

"All the 3 Squadron fellows who had been sent home came to Mildura on instructional duties, and we had five Kittyhawks to train all the pilots who went to 75, 76 and 77 Squadrons.  Wing Commander Peter Jeffrey had been the C.O. of 3 Squadron and he came along with us to Mildura for a while as C.O. of 2 OTU after he had formed 75 and 76 Squadrons on the east coast."


The facilities for maintenance weren't good at Mildura and there were a number of occasions where Val took over the local garage to do some work.  Val’s get-it-done philosophy was:

"If Kittyhawks were being handled incorrectly, they were rather prone to nosing-over and we would find a lot of bent propeller tips.  Quite illegally of course, I was straightening propeller blades at the garage, but we managed to maintain the aircraft in some way and push a few pilots through into the squadrons that were being formed.  After our time in the desert, working out the best way to get the best result quickly, we were all inclined to cut corners."

After 15 months at Mildura, Val was posted to Amberley in Queensland, and from there to Oakey, on 2nd June 1943, to form the Allison Overhaul Division.

He recalled this critical time of his career:

"I went there as a Sergeant with nothing but 20 airmen - no officers - and we had our first engine ready and running after a complete overhaul, even though it was unpainted, on a test-stand we had built, in six weeks.  To me that was a remarkable operation.  I was just a 21-year-old Sergeant, but I was in charge of the complete Allison Overhaul Department and I soon had 400 men working for me.  And those airmen worked so well.  I have no hesitation in saying that they gave me the greatest support and help, and without them the operation could not have progressed in the manner it did.  Eventually we were producing two to three engines per day, which is remarkable for the Air Force when you consider that we had all sorts of things disrupting the production, such as airmen going on 'shearing leave' or 'harvesting leave' and so on.

About this time, I had some illusions that I was needed in aircrew and volunteered as such.  Had I been accepted, it would have meant that I would lose my rank and go back to Initial Training, but the authorities wouldn't allow me to take flying training.  They maintained that I was doing my bit and that there were plenty of aircrew available at that stage.  However, I still wanted to fly and I started to become somewhat disenchanted with the Air Force, as I was being kept at Oakey for longer than I expected.  As the war was starting to draw to a close, I sat for the Department of Civil Aviation's engineering examinations.  This was permitted, even though the Department wouldn't issue you with a licence because you were still serving in the RAAF, but my idea was to leave the Air Force and go into civil aviation in some form or other.

I was then posted at the end of October 1945 to No.87 (Photographic Reconnaissance) Squadron which was in the process of moving to Parkes, and was equipped with De Havilland Mosquitoes.  Occasionally we used to service the Qantas Lancastrians when they would come in to Parkes either for training or refuelling, and I had the germ of an idea.

In February 1946, preparations were made to close Parkes as an Air Force base and aircraft, equipment and some personnel were transferred from No.87 Squadron to Survey Flight at Canberra.  I was among those transferred.  I didn't like Canberra, and I decided that the Air Force was no longer my cup of tea.  I was then a Flight Sergeant and I couldn't be promoted any further because you had to be 26 years of age to be a Warrant Officer or to be commissioned.  I requested leave and went in full regalia to visit Qantas at Rose Bay to see whether they could offer me some sort of job.  I was interviewed by Fred Caterson, who was the Timekeeper there , and I showed him that I had sat for my engineer's licences even though I hadn't been granted them yet by the Department of Civil Aviation.  He gave me a letter offering me a job, provided I could get out of the Air Force.

Armed with this document, I then applied for release, but there was one thing I had forgotten - that I had signed on as a Permanent airman for another six years and the Air Force didn't want to release me.  In those days, if you wanted early release you were supposed to buy your way out, but they wouldn't even grant me that facility.  Nevertheless, I persevered and finally I was discharged on 14th August 1946.  My papers read, "At the cessation of hostilities."  - The war had been over for a year at that stage and I always wondered whether they were referring to their hostilities or mine!"


After the War

Val joined Qantas on 15th August 1946 as an Engine Fitter but shortly afterwards sat for the Ground Engineer's C and D licences which were available at Rose Bay, namely on the Short Hythe flying boats with their Bristol Pegasus engines, plus the Pratt & Whitney engines of TEAL's Sandringham flying boats.  Occasionally he flew as a Flight Engineer on test flights of flying boats.

He became a Technical Instructor and set up a school at Rose Bay to give some engineering training to the apprentices and to conduct courses for pilots, flight engineers and cabin staff on the Hythe flying boats.

With the advent of Qantas’s Lockheed Constellations in early 1947, Val went to Burbank, USA in his new role as Senior Flight Engineer, with 13 other Flight Engineers on a four month training course.

They returned in their new blue aircrew uniforms with white caps. Most of the engineers who had been in Burbank overseeing the construction came back on VH-EAD, as did Captain "Scotty" Allan, and they were greeted in Sydney with something of a fanfare...

Mascot Airport circa. 1950Charles Kingsford Smith's Fokker (FVIIB-3m) 'Southern Cross' (VH-USU) in front of the Qantas
Empire Airways
Lockheed Constellation named 'Charles Kingsford Smith' (VH-EAD)
[National Library of Australia pic-vn3723487]

The Constellation's crew consisted of three pilots, a navigator, a radio operator, two flight engineers, three stewards and, after March 1948, a flight hostess.  Always quick off the mark, Val married Patricia Burke, who was one of the first nine hostesses employed by Qantas, [and personally selected by Lady Hudson Fysh, wife of the Qantas founder] in 1950.

Val had been approved by the Department of Civil Aviation as a Senior Check Flight Engineer and, as such, was an Examiner for the Department, helping to select, train and check flight engineers on Constellations and sometimes on flying boats.

However, in December 1953, Qantas invited Val to re-muster as a pilot, having discovered that he had already learned to fly at Kingsford Smith Aerial Services at Bankstown, and, after gaining his Private Pilot Licence had gradually built up his hours to obtain a Commercial Pilot Licence.

He began his conversion on the Douglas DC-3 and at the end of his training period was posted as Second Officer to the Lockheed 749 Constellation.

In May 1955 he was promoted to First Officer and two months later transferred to the L.1049 Super Constellation.  He passed his training on the L.1049 as both a pilot and as a flight engineer

He began studying for his Flight Navigator Licence and in July 1956, about two and a half years after transferring as a pilot, he gained that licence (Number 263), in itself a rare qualification.  He was now in the unique position of holding all licences, that is: a Commercial Pilot Licence, an Airline Transport Pilot Licence, a Flight Navigator Licence, a Flight Engineer Licence, a Ground Engineer C and D Licence, and a Flight Radio Licence with 20 words per minute Morse endorsement.

In August 1959 he transferred to the Boeing 707 and in May of the following year was promoted to Senior First Officer (with rank insignia of 2½ gold bars).  At the time he had been based in the United States for three years but returned to Sydney to start his command training, from which he graduated in December 1963, moving to the Lockheed Electra and later became a Route Training Captain on the Electra.

After over a year on the Electra, he was posted for Boeing 707 training.  He became a 707 Captain on 20th March 1968, and subsequently a Promotional Training Captain in October 1969, then a Check Captain (August 1970) and later (May 1973) a Senior Check Captain.

After some time as a Senior Check Captain, he applied for Boeing 747 training, and on 21st March 1974 became a 747 Captain.

He retired on 30th June 1978, finishing up on the Boeing 747 as a Senior Captain and Number 6 on the seniority list.  His flying career embraced almost 40 years, during which time he had amassed about 21,000 hours flying as a pilot and about 5,000 hours as a flight engineer.  He didn't kept track of his flight navigator time, because that was always grouped with the pilot time.


Some Career Highlights

bulletDuring his career, Val St. Leon flew all the aircraft types that Qantas operated to South Africa, mostly as a captain.  He had operated as a flight engineer on the initial L.749 Constellation proving flight and subsequently flew as a pilot on all types from the L.749 to the L.749A, the L.1049 Super Constellation, the L.1049G and L.1049H, the L.188 Electra, the Boeing 707-338, and finally the Boeing 747-200 series.  Conceivably he is the only pilot to have these achievements on his record.

bulletBy 1971, Val had already survived two pilots’ strikes, but on 22 April of that year, a further incident occurred when 138 pilots and 17 flight engineers were retrenched when an economic downturn reflected on Qantas’s profitability.  He had been elected Vice-Chairman of the Overseas Branch of the Australian Federation of Air Pilots in 1967.  When the Chairman was posted to London on a short-term basing, he had taken over from him for about a year.  Following that, he became Industrial Chairman for three years.  Thus, in 1971 he participated in the action to represent the 138 pilots who had been retrenched.  It was a very painful experience because most were young fellows who had been either Cadets or very junior pilots just appointed, but under the seniority system, if there was any need for redundancies, it was always the most junior who would depart first.  However, agreed contracts guaranteed their re-employment in order of seniority when vacancies next occurred, and when the Company returned to profitability, the first 39 were re-employed in June 1973, with the rest following over time.

bulletHe claims his most pleasant task, however, was taking an empty Boeing 747, VH-EBG, to RAAF Butterworth in Malaya and on 9th December 1976 bring the whole of the RAAF's 3 Squadron back home at the end of their tour of duty there.  

VH-EBG "City of Hobart"

Val recounts the story:

"Imagine the uproar when I announced to my passengers:,

How do you fellows like being flown home by an original 3 Squadron Flight Sergeant Fitter 2E???  

Such things dreams are made of … with apologies to The Maltese Falcon!"


In conclusion, Val says:

"I have never regretted one minute of my time with Qantas.  My story is but one of many.  There were some very great airmen in Qantas and they built a small bush airline into the seventh-ranked airline in the world with panache.  I always considered myself an Engineer and it was my privilege to have been associated with them as a Pilot, and along the way to acquire a wonderful wife (hand-picked for Qantas by Lady Hudson-Fysh) and three children (to die for), none of whom I encouraged into the aviation world."

On many occasions Val has been asked about unusual situations that have occurred in his flying career in the same way that every pilot can lay claim to have experienced various adventures.  For those who are interested, many of Val’s more memorable incidents have been recorded on 60 hours of tape, now in the National Library.



 Eulogy by his son Mark.

On behalf of my sister, Jane, and my brother, Anthony, our children and our absent mother, Patricia, I welcome you today to this celebration of the life lived by Norman Valentine St Leon, our father, our childrens’ grandfather and husband of Patricia. My name is Mark Valentine St Leon.  I am the eldest child of Norman Valentine and Patricia.

In the flicker of time available today, I can do no more than outline some of Dad’s life and extraordinary achievements – his seven years’ service in the Royal Australian Air Force; his active service with the RAAF in North Africa during World War II; his contribution to the development and expansion of a small airline he joined just after the war, named Qantas; his construction of two family homes in suburban Sydney, the first at Chatswood in the 1950s, just over the the other side of the valley from here, and the second at Wahroonga in the 1960s; his recovery and development of Panatana, a 2500-acre New England cattle station; and his raising of three children in a level of material comfort well beyond what he had known in his own youth.  Many of these achievements of course were made possible by the unerring support of his dedicated wife of over 65 years, Patricia, who regretfully cannot join us today.

Norman Valentine St Leon was born at Erskineville, at Nurse Fox’s Hospital, on 6 November 1921.  His parents were Norman St Leon and Vera St Leon, formerly Lee.  Earlier generations of the St Leon family were among Australia’s earliest entertainers, having formed a circus on the goldfields at Sofala in 1851.  In 1854, on the goldfields of Ballarat, the St Leon family played a small part in one of the defining events in Australia’s history - the Eureka Stockade - when the rebellious diggers commandeered the circus tent for their protest meeting. 

Norman Valentine St Leon was the fourth generation of the St Leon family and the only child of his parents’ marriage.  Norman Valentine was named Norman after his father but given the middle name of ‘Valentine’, a romantic link to his mother’s birthday, St Valentine’s Day, 14 February.  In a short time, the baby boy named Norman Valentine became known to one and all - and many of you here today - as simply ‘Val’.

In the year Val was born, 1921, there was only a hint of how the world – and Val’s life and career - would unfold over the course of the remainder of 20th Century.  Aviation was in its infancy.  Only 18 years earlier, in 1903, the Wright brothers had flown the world’s first ‘flying machine’, on the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the grand distance of 117 yards.  The Great War – the war to end all wars – concluded in 1918, had seen pilots flying primitive biplanes fight their duels in the skies above the trenches of France. 

And then, two years after the end of the Great War, in outback Queensland in November 1920, and the year before Val was born, two airmen who had served in the Australian Flying Corps during the Great War, named Hudson Fysh and Paddy McGuiness, started a regular air service with a war-era bi-plane, an Avro 504K, flying between the towns of Winton and Longreach, carrying mail and a single passenger who had to sit, heavily rugged up, in an open cockpit.  Fysh and McGuinness named their airline “Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service Ltd”, soon abbreviated to the acronym of Q.A.N.T.A.S.  Qantas grew, slowly but surely, and by 1934 had joined with Britian’s Imperial Airways – today’s British Airways – to operate the Empire Route – today’s QF1 - between Australia and Britain.

While aviation – in Australia as elsewhere – was taking its first steps, the little boy named Val was taking his own first steps: constantly travelling provincial Australia and New Zealand - with his parents in the family circus, in horse-drawn covered wagons and later motorized transport from town to town, along outback “roads” that today would be regarded as no more than rough tracks.  Val’s mother gave him a rudimentary education with correspondence lessons, forwarded by the NSW Department of Education for collection at each post office along the expected circus route.  If the circus changed route, Val missed his lessons for a few weeks.  At circus camps, Val sat on a stool and patiently copied, with chalk and slate, the florid signage on the sides of the parked circus vehicles, a habit that laid the foundation of his exquisite handwriting with which many of you may be familiar.  It was a tough life, the onset of the Great Depression and the break-up of the family circus, made things even tougher. 

Val and his mother returned to Sydney to settle down and at the age of ten, for the first time in his life, Val began attending school regularly.  When the Sydney Harbour Bridge was opened in March 1932, Val joined thousands of other NSW school children who proudly marched over the new Bridge.  In those days, the minimum school leaving age was 14 years and 8 months and the vast majority of children left school at or near that age, to join the workforce.  Val had just turned 15 when he completed his secondary schooling at Bondi Commercial School.  He was awarded on his departure with prizes for English, Science and Athletics.  He then began his seven-year apprenticeship as a Fitter and Turner while attending night classes at Sydney Technical College.  But before he had even completed his apprenticeship, war broke out in Europe when Hitler invaded Poland.  On 16 October 1939, six weeks after the outbreak of war, and just a few weeks short of his 18th birthday, Val enlisted – as a permanent airman No. 4285 – in the Royal Australian Air Force.  Dad’s reasoning in joining the air force at that tender age, he later confessed, was that he would “see fewer bullets” in the air force than he would in the army.  Nevertheless, this step proved to be the momentous step that launched the career in aviation he would pursue until retirement from Qantas, 39 years later. 

In October 1940, Val, along with a small detachment 13 other airmen, boarded the Aquitania, one of a troopship convoy, that carried 7,000 soldiers bound for the Middle East.  Somewhere in the Indian Ocean, he celebrated his 19th birthday.  There followed 15 months service with No.3 Squadron of the RAAF as they supported Australian and Allied forces battling Mussolini’s legions and later Hitler’s Afrika Korps across North Africa. 

By late 1941, Japan had entered the war and permanent members of the RAAF, including Val, were recalled for the formation of squadrons for the defense of Australia.  Val had survived the war in North Africa war on a diet of poor quality food – tinned bully beef and biscuits - for an extended period.  The return voyage to Australia, between Bombay and Melbourne, was spent in the ship’s hospital.  Landed at Melbourne, a 47-kg Val had to be helped down the gangplank.  Val spent the remainder of the war at Mildura and then Oakey, where he was responsible for establishing and commanding engine overhaul shops to service the growing number of sophisticated aircraft employed supplied to the RAAF from the United States under Lend Lease.

As a member of the permanent air force, Val was not demobilised at the end of the war as were most wartime volunteers and conscripts.  But, by then a Flight Sergeant (and a well-qualified and experienced aircraft engineer) Val had already decided to seek a role in civil aviation in one form or other.  Requesting a few days leave, he visited the offices of a little airline called “Qantas”, based on the shores of Sydney Harbour at Rose Bay with its flying boats, hoping they could offer him “some sort of job”.  As Val later described it, compared to the RAAF, the fifth largest air force in the world at war’s end, the Qantas outfit looked to be a “mickey mouse” affair.  But, nevertheless, in Qantas, Val saw his future.  He was discharged from the RAAF on 14 August 1946 and joined Qantas the following day.  He was later assigned the rank of Flight Lieutenant in the RAAF Reserve.

The following year - 1947 - Val was sent to the United States in his new role with Qantas as Senior Flight Engineer, along with other Qantas flight crewmen to train for and then collect the four new aircraft Qantas acquired from the Lockheed Corporation of Burbank, California.  Although, the crewmen went over by [war bride!] ship, they came home by air, flying their brand-new Lockheed Constellation 749s, Qantas’s first aircraft of the post-war era.  The arrival of the four Constellations – after a 33-hour flight by way of Honolulu, Canton Island and Nadi - was greeted by thousands of Sydney-siders who swarmed over Mascot Airport.  Val and the rest of the Qantas crewmen were proudly dressed in their new blue uniforms and white peaked caps. 

But international air travel in those days was an expensive business and remained beyond the pockets of most Australians for many years to come.  Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, most young Australians – the backpackers of their day – reached London or San Francisco by passenger ship.  The early Qantas passengers were mostly Australian government officials and corporate executives, wealthy squatters and retirees.

In contrast to the super-efficient aircraft we see in the skies today, the crew of a Constellation consisted of three pilots, a navigator, a radio operator and two flight engineers.  When the Constellations entered regular service on the Qantas overseas routes, three stewards and a flight hostess looked after the 60-odd passengers it carried.  One flight hostess who caught Val’s eye was Patricia Burke, from Innisfail, North Queensland.  Val and Patricia married on 2 August 1950 at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney.  Patricia was one of the first nine hostesses employed by Qantas and, as Val liked to joke, she was ‘hand-picked by Lady Fysh’, the wife of Hudson Fysh, one the founders of Qantas.

I was born 18 months later and – as luck would have it – on St Valentine’s Day, so naturally, but in my case quite legitimately, I was also given the middle name of Valentine.  My sister Jane was born in Sydney, three years  later and our brother, Anthony Norman St Leon was born in Redwood City, California in 1960, during the time Val – accompanied by the family - served an extended posting for Qantas in San Francisco. 

If my sister and my brother belong to the so-called ‘baby boomer’ generation and our children to the so-called ‘Generation X’ and ‘Generation Y’, Val belonged to the ‘builder’ generation, the men and women born in the aftermath of the First World War who had known the poverty and hardship of the Great Depression and the horror of war, who typically finished a basic education by the age of 15, but who were determined to lay the foundations of Australia’s post-1945 peace and prosperity.

During his Qantas career, Val served at first as a flight engineer and then navigator before transferring to his first pilot duties as a Second Officer on the Lockeed Super Constellation, in 1956.  From that point, Val mastered and captained the increasingly sophisticated aircraft acquired by Qantas: the Lockheed Electra, the Boeing 707 and then, finally the jumbo-sized Boeing 747, the aircraft that truly opened up the possibility of overseas air travel to the vast majority of Australians.  On 21 March 1974, Val was promoted to 747 captain.  He retired on 30th June 1978, as a senior 747 captain and No.6 on the seniority list of Qantas pilots.

During and after his illustrious career in aviation, Dad was honoured with several medals and awards: five medals that recognised his service during World War II and later the Air Efficiency Medal of the RAAF; he was admitted as a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society, the Royal Metrological Society, and the Royal Institute of Navigators.  In 2005, he was conferred with the degree of Master of Letters by Central Queensland University, Rockhampton, for his dissertation describing the struggle of Australia’s airline pilots for professional status and recognition.  In 2014, he was awarded an Order of Australia Medal.

Val passed away at his home in Birriga Road, Bellevue Hill, the weekend before last, only five months short of his 95th birthday.  I had taken him shopping a few days earlier.  He wheeled his shopping trolley around the Aldi supermarket at Bondi Junction, picked out what he wanted to buy and paid his way through the checkout.  I drove him home.  We had a coffee followed by one of his famous liqueurs, a crème de menthe.  We talked a bit – as we often did over the years – about his wartime service and experiences.  I then bid him farewell and said I would be down to visit the following week.  It was not to be.  My brother Anthony took the call on the morning of Monday before last.  Val had passed away during an afternoon nap, on his bed, as far as we know, suddenly and without undue pain or discomfort.  Lying close by were two books representative of two of his favourite subjects outside of aviation, one, a history of jazz music, the other, a two volume study of Greek mythology.

One of our most eloquent national historians has written of the ‘tyranny of distance’ that continues to shape and define Australia’s history and place in the world.  It is a tyranny that is gradually being eroded.  When our original St Leon ancestor – Val’s great-grandfather - was landed in Hobart Town at Her Majesty’s pleasure in 1843, it was the end of a sea voyage from Southampton of 109 days, quite a good passage for the time.  Four generations and 135 years later, in 1978, when Val flew his last QF1 service from London to Sydney – the flight was completed in less than 28 hours.   

We may never know precisely how many thousands of people, not to mention thousands of tonnes of cargo and thousands of sacks of mail, Captain Val St Leon flew into and out of Australia but we do know that they were all – people, cargo and mail – landed safely and on schedule in the course of a flawless flying career. 

As they say in show business, it’s a hard act to follow.

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