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'Aerial Queen' crash-lands in Hamilton East

24 March 1894

American balloonist Leila Adair
American balloonist Leila Adair (Palmerston North City Library)

‘One of the most courageous feats ever performed in Waikato’ almost ended in tragedy when the fabric of Leila Adair’s (her real name was Lilian Hawker) hot-air balloon began to split several hundred feet above Hamilton East. Too close to the ground to deploy the parachute with which she usually descended, the ‘Aerial Queen’ had no choice but to stay with the rapidly deflating balloon.

The intrepid young ‘American’ acrobat (she was actually from New South Wales), who performed a trapeze routine while aloft, jumped off the balloon a moment before it landed in a large mudhole – ‘the only bit of water … anywhere near Hamilton’ – in which she would have drowned. ‘Considerably excited by her adventure’, the ‘only living lady aeronaut’ walked back to the pavilion at Sydney Square (now Steele Park) and addressed the crowd before offering up ‘a short prayer to a merciful Providence’.

The balloon was quickly repaired, but Adair’s next ascent in Cambridge three days later also went wrong. This time, her parachute snagged on the top of a tall poplar tree. ‘She was … rescued from her perilous position without sustaining any damage.’

Disgusted by the number of Hamiltonians who had watched the drama for free from vantage points outside the area roped off for paying spectators, Adair cancelled a scheduled second attempt in the town and moved on to New Plymouth, where the balloon caught fire while it was being inflated.

At the start of her year-long tour of the colony, Adair had landed in the Rangitoto Channel and been hauled aboard a Devonport ferry. She was later hospitalised after being knocked out while making a landing on the West Coast. Her eventful New Zealand tour ended in Christchurch, where she narrowly avoided decapitation in a collision with a clothesline.

Some spectators were excited by ‘the prospect of witnessing death’, others by Adair’s daringly short hair and skimpy costume – ‘a short-sleeved blouse, tiny bloomers, and pink silk tights’.

More sober New Zealanders viewed Adair, like her balloonist predecessor ‘Professor’ Thomas Baldwin (see 21 January), as an overly brash representative of the rising power across the Pacific Ocean, the United States of America.

Despite the many risks they took, both Adair and Baldwin died of natural causes at a respectable age.

How to cite this page

'Aerial Queen' crash-lands in Hamilton East, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated