Record Setting Flights
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.
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.
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
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
Kingford-Smith and Charles Ulm flew the Southern Cross on their
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.
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.