Oscar Garden was born at Tongue, on the north coast of Scotland, on 21 August 1903, the second son and fourth child of Robert Garden, a merchant from Orkney, and his wife, Rebecca Jane Ward, a Salvationist and later British-Israelite, from the Isle of Man. He attended the local school, but on the break-up of his parents’ marriage was sent to Dollar Academy, near Stirling, and then to Douglas High School for Boys on the Isle of Man, where his mother and one of his sisters were living.
After the departure of his father and two of his sisters to New Zealand in 1914, Oscar, his mother and his third sister moved to Manchester. When he was 12 he was forced to leave school to help support them doing odd jobs and clerical work. In 1920 they sailed to Sydney, and then on to New Zealand. For four years Garden worked for his father, who had established a cordial and bottling business in Timaru, and then went rabbiting in North Canterbury. He opened a cycle shop in Spreydon and then a garage at Southbridge. In 1928 he and his mother moved to Sydney, where he operated a hire-car business.
In 1930 a directionless Garden was sailing back to Britain when a chance remark from a fellow passenger – ‘Why don’t you learn to fly?’ – led him into aviation. He gained his ‘A’ licence at the Norwich flying school in July that year and traded his car to buy a second-hand de Havilland DH60 Gipsy Moth, which he named Kia Ora. On 16 October 1930 he set off from Croydon for Australia with the sole purpose of accumulating flying hours for a commercial licence.
The casual nature of the flight was captured in newspaper accounts such as ‘ “Mystery” flyer’s Australian flight’, which reported that ‘Oscar Garden’s mother made an eleventh-hour unsuccessful attempt to dissuade her son from flying to Australia. He was not carrying a hat and has only a dozen sandwiches. He has no fixed schedule’. During the flight Garden had several forced landings and near accidents. On his unexpected arrival in Wyndham, Western Australia, 18 days later, he became known as the ‘Sundowner of the Skies’; he was the fourth person to fly solo from England to Australia.
Garden embarked on joy-riding tours of Australia and New Zealand. In April 1931 he returned to Britain and attended Air Service Training Limited’s school at Hamble, Hampshire, winning its blind-flying trophy later that year. (He subsequently gave the trophy to the Royal New Zealand Aero Club in 1973, and it has been competed for annually since 1975 as the Oscar Garden Trophy.)
In the early 1930s Garden spent time with John Tranum’s flying circus, followed by joy-riding and courier work in Sudan and Palestine. From 1934 he was employed by various small air operators in England, including United Airways, with whom he graduated as a first-class navigator in 1938. Further training resulted in Garden making several inaugural night-mail flights throughout Europe and Scandinavia. During this period he met Greta Norlén, a Swedish woman, whom he married at Epsom, Surrey, on 11 December 1937; a daughter was born in Sweden in 1940.
Following his transfer to Imperial Airways (later British Overseas Airways Corporation) in September 1938, Garden converted to the recently introduced Short S-23 Empire-class flying boats, operating mainly to South Africa and Asia. As a result of this experience Tasman Empire Airways Limited (TEAL) chose him to deliver its second Short S-30 flying boat, the Awarua , to New Zealand. Leaving Southampton on 15 March 1940, Garden arrived in Auckland on 3 April to take up full employment with TEAL; Greta and their daughter came to New Zealand the following year. The company’s weekly Auckland–Sydney return service was inaugurated on 30 April 1940 by Captain John Burgess in the Aotearoa, with Garden operating the second flight aboard the Awarua on 5 May. Within two months the service had been extended to three flights a fortnight, and in 1944 it was increased to three a week.
Throughout the Second World War TEAL continued to operate the two flying boats on the Auckland–Sydney route. By 1944 they had made 1,000 Tasman crossings as well as a number of reconnaissance and government flights to Noumea, Samoa and Honolulu. Garden received a temporary Royal New Zealand Air Force commission as a flight lieutenant to carry out searches for German raiders in the Pacific.
In January 1943 he was appointed TEAL’s chief pilot and later that year he became operations manager, a position he retained until 1947. That year he resigned after a major disagreement with management over its decision to purchase additional flying boats rather than more efficient Douglas DC-4 airliners. At the time of his resignation he had accrued 9,653 flying hours. During the 1940s Garden served on two air accident inquiries: one into a fatal crash on Mt Richmond, Nelson, on 7 May 1942, the other into the near loss of the TEAL flying boat New Zealand over the Tasman Sea on 3 December 1947.
Oscar and Greta Garden were divorced in 1948, and on 6 August that year he married Helen Varie Aroha Lovell in Russell, Bay of Islands; they were to have two daughters and a son. After 20 years working as a horticulturist at Kerikeri, Whakatāne and Tauranga, Oscar retired in 1967, eventually settling in Papakura. He died at Middlemore Hospital, Auckland, on 2 June 1997, survived by his wife and children. At his request his remains were donated to the University of Auckland School of Medicine.
A modest man of broad interests, Garden believed in God and also thought there were civilisations in the universe far more advanced than ours. He was frugal, but had an intense interest in horse-racing all his life. Politically he was a socialist, in spite of having been self-employed for many years. He recognised early the possibilities of the burgeoning aviation industry and explored every opportunity to further his skills and experience. Although less well known than other New Zealand airline pioneers, Oscar Garden made an outstanding contribution to the success of TEAL during the flying-boat era.