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Record Setting Flights to Australia


Charles Kingford-Smith and his co-pilot George R. Pond (left) perished in 1935 trying to set an England-to-Australia flight record.

At the end of World War I, Australia remained an isolated continent, at least from an aviation standpoint. Although the country had a few pilots and planes within its interior, no one had flown to Australia from outside the country. In 1919, however, matters changed. That year, the Australian government, which was interested in expanding aviation in its country, sponsored a race from England to Australia that set off a series of contests between several Aussie pilots. Australian aviators competed to see who could be the first to fly to Australia via European-Asian and transpacific routes. These flights profoundly affected Australia by opening up the continent to international air travel and commerce soon after.

The 1919 England-to-Australia race offered a prize of 10,000 to the first aviator and crew who could fly the approximate 8,400 miles in 30 days or less. Even though two logical routes to Australia existed--one that left from Europe and crossed much of Asia in a south-eastern direction, and one that travelled from North America across the Pacific, Australian officials believed that the European-Asian route was much safer because it crossed land most of the way and pilots could make an emergency landing if necessary. Nevertheless, even though land would be in sight most of the time, a pilot would still have to navigate well enough to find some very remote airfields in distant parts of the world.

Several Aussie aviators entered the England-to-Australia race including Bert Hinkler, Charles Kingsford-Smith, and two brothers, Ross and Keith Smith. Hinkler, who had served as a lieutenant in Britain's Royal Naval Air Service during World War I, wanted to fly the trip solo, but race officials believed that the journey would be too dangerous for a lone aviator and forced him to withdraw. Charles Kingsford-Smith, a former lieutenant in the Royal Air Force during the war, had no desire to make the flight alone. He planned to take a crew of three with him. However, "Smithy," as most people called him, had a different problem. Neither he nor his crew could navigate very well, and race officials consequently barred them from the competition. With only a few contestants left, the Smith Brothers were the most likely frontrunners.

Ross Smith had been a member of the Australian Flying Corps during the war and had served as T.E. Lawrence's (also known as Lawrence of Arabia) personal pilot. He had also been among the first group of aviators to fly from Cairo to Calcutta in 1919. His brother Keith, who had taught flying for the Australian Flying Corps, agreed to be Ross's navigator. Two of the brothers' wartime comrades joined their crew as mechanics.

Despite the fact that only Aussies were eligible to win the race's prize money, two Frenchmen, pilot Etienne Poulet, and his mechanic Jean Benoist, were determined to prove that they could be the first to Australia. On October 14, 1919, Poulet and Benoist took off in their Caudron G 4 from a field near Paris en route to Darwin, Australia. Although they were ineligible for the prize, they pursued their goal with great determination and were the first crew to take off.

On November 12, more than three weeks after Poulet and Benoist had left, the Smiths got underway in a Vickers Vimy Bomber. Fortunately for them, Poulet had been grounded in Persia with engine trouble for a while and the Smiths stood a chance of catching up. Despite serious rainstorms that plagued them throughout Europe, the Smiths reached Delhi, India, on November 25 and pulled within a few hours of the Frenchmen. Soon after, they overtook Poulet and led for the rest of the race. On December 10, a little more than 27 days after they had started, the Smiths landed in Darwin and claimed the 10,000 prize. Several months later, Poulet and Benoist, who had been having mechanical problems for months, crash-landed and finally abandoned their attempt to fly down under.

Bert Hinkler, who was still smarting from being barred from the race, remained determined to fly to Australia alone. For several years after the contest, he worked to save enough money to purchase his own aircraft. He subsequently bought an Avro Avian biplane to replace the Sopwith that his sponsors had withdrawn when he was barred from the 1919 race.

On February 7, 1928, Hinkler left England en route to Australia. Following the same path that the Smiths had flown in 1919, Hinkler made good time. On February 22, he landed in Darwin after 15-1/2 days, a little more than half the time of the Smiths' flight. An instant national hero, Hinkler received a special 2,000 prize from the Australian government, and his fellow countrymen named the "Hinkler Quickstep," "Consomme a l'Hinkler," and a woman's hat that looked like his helmet after him.

Like Hinkler, Charles Kingsford-Smith was also upset about being banned from the 1919 contest and he wanted to blaze his own flight path to Australia. His dream was to fly the transpacific route. After pursuing a variety of piloting jobs in England and the United States after the war, Smithy returned home to Australia. There, he found work barnstorming and flying mail for Western Australian Airways.


Charles Kingford-Smith and Charles Ulm flew the Southern Cross on their transpacific flight.

During his various piloting jobs, Smithy met a fellow Australian aviator named Charles T.P. Ulm, who also dreamed of flying across the Pacific. Together, the two men began searching for an Australian sponsor for their endeavour. In an effort to entice a backer, Smithy and Ulm decided to prove their skills by flying the entire Australian coastline, a journey of some 7,500 miles. The previous record was 22 days, 11 hours. In June 1927, they cut it in half by making the flight in 10 days, 5-1/2 hours. Impressed by the journey, the premier of New South Wales promised them 3,500 toward a transpacific trip. With a sponsorship in hand, the two men left for America.

When they reached the United States, Smithy and Ulm selected a Fokker trimotor plane for their flight. But because of political upheaval back home, the two men had to return their sponsorship money to the Australian government. Fortunately, they met a U.S. steamship line owner who was intrigued by their idea of a transpacific flight. He purchased the Fokker and gave it to them. They named the plane the Southern Cross after the constellation in the Southern Hemisphere that would help them navigate at night. To round out their crew, Smith and Ulm selected Harry Lyon, a ship captain, as the navigator, and James Warner, a Kansan, as the radioman.

On May 31, 1928, Smith and his crew took off from Oakland, California. Their trip would consist of three legs. The first would be approximately 2,400 miles to Honolulu. From there, they would journey to Suva Island in Fiji, roughly 3,200 miles; this second leg was the most difficult because of its length and the fact that Suva was a small island and therefore difficult to find. The final leg extended about 1,800 miles to Brisbane, Australia.

Throughout the flight, Smithy and his crew watched their fuel consumption very closely; it was a major concern because of the long distances of the individual legs. They also had to navigate very carefully for fear that if they got off course by more than a few degrees, they would run out of fuel and plummet into the ocean. Although they encountered some dangerous squalls on their final leg, they pushed through the storms and landed in Brisbane on June 10, 1928, to the cheers of more than 15,000 spectators. The actual in-air flight time for the journey was a little more than 83 hours.

After making his transpacific flight, Smithy went on to set several other aviation records. In October 1930, he soloed from London to Australia in 9 days 22 hours, bettering Hinkler's record by more than 5-1/2 days. Then, in 1934, he and fellow Aussie P.G. Taylor flew the same transpacific route that Smithy had flown in 1928, only in the reverse direction, from Australia to San Francisco. They consequently became the first men to fly from Australia to the United States via the Pacific.

On November 10, 1935, Kingsford-Smith and his co-pilot died trying to set another England-to-Australia flight record. While cruising over the Bay of Bengal during a monsoon, Smithy lost control of his plane and spun into the water. Although rescue parties recovered pieces of the plane, they never found any trace of Smithy or his co-pilot.

Kingsford-Smith, Hinkler, the Smith Brothers, and their crews, made the world notice Australian aviation. They not only proved that Aussie pilots were among the best in the world, but they also opened up Australia to international air travel and commerce.