One hundred years ago Australia had the world’s attention on 10 December 1919 as the winners of the Great Air Race from England to Australia finally touched down in Fannie Bay, Northern Territory.
The victorious pilots, Ross and Keith Smith in their Vickers Vimy G-EAOU twin engine plane, won the £10,000 prize when they landed in Darwin to enormous local, national and international acclaim. This extraordinary event was the forerunner to the international air travel that is so commonplace today and opened new trade channels for international mail and freight – in 1919, with aviation in its infancy, excitement gripped the world and encapsulated the imagination of the Australian people.
From that time, Darwin and the Northern Territory became the Northern gateway to Australia and for many years Australia led the world in long distance pioneering aviation. The race was the catalyst to develop domestic air routes across northern Australia and ultimately led to the establishment of QANTAS airways.
The Great Air Race was embraced by all Australians as the first major international feat of significance following the dark days of World War 1.
The Impossible Dream: In January, 1919, en-route to the post WW1 Versailles Peace Conference in Paris, the then Australian Prime Minister, (Premier) William “Billy” Hughes, experienced flying for the first time – and he fell in love with it. Over the next four months, Hughes flew the short distance between London and Paris on three occasions and with this newfound travel experience raising endless new possibilities, his always active mind was now “in overdrive”. What benefits, he imagined, could be derived from regular flights from the Mother country, Great Britain, to Australia and back. Carrying passengers? Goods? Air Mail?
The idea had started to ferment two months earlier, when he motored to Cobham Hall, just out of Central London, on Christmas day in 1918, to address wounded WW1 Australian servicemen. There, he met airmen who were anxious to fly back home to Australia, rather than endure up to the seven-week sea journey. This, together with his newfound thrill of flying, culminated in the cable he sent to his government officials in Melbourne, dated February 18, 1919: “Several Australian aviators are desirous of attempting flight London to Australia they are all first-class men and very keen your thoughts”
Only four weeks later, an official statement was released. “With a view to stimulating aerial activity the Commonwealth Government has decided to offer £10,000 for the first successful flight to Australia from Great Britain in a machine manned by Australians”. Then followed the rules, including, that the flight had to be achieved in a maximum of 30 days and be completed by December 31, 1919.
This announcement of the “Great Air Race”, to the Australian press, created an avalanche of negativity – “A Circus Flight”, “Billy Hughes has another terrible idea”, “A complete waste of money” and “Bad News for All”, were just a few of the critical articles that appeared on a regular basis. Overall, it was the opinion of most scribes that no aircraft was capable of a flight half way across the globe in less than 30 days and over a distance of 18,000 kilometres when the world record was a mere 5,000 kilometres.
Impossible! Impossible! Impossible!
Within five months of the announcement, six groups of Australian airmen, all WW1 veterans, had paid the £100 entry fee to be eligible. However, obtaining a suitable plane and financing such a flight was the greatest hurdle they all faced.
During the last year of the WW1, British Aircraft builders had developed several revolutionary, for their time, aircraft. Included were heavy bombers, which were utilised in the last four months of the war.
When the details of the six entrants were made public, it was the entry of Captain Ross Smith that appeared to have the best chance of success to win the Great Air Race prize. Captain Ross Smith, who had served throughout the duration of the four-year war, was a highly decorated pilot – one of only 29 Australians designated as a “War Ace” and his exploits had gained him hero status back in his home town of Adelaide. Flying in combat, during 1917 and 1918, he was also the regular pilot for T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) on numerous occasions.
With recommendations from the British Air Minister, Winston Churchill and others, the Vickers Aircraft Company made available to Captain Ross Smith their newly developed “Vimy” heavy bomber aircraft. They further assisted by quickly establishing landing fields and fuel depots along the route to Australia. Petroleum products from Shell and Wakefield were subsequently made available to the team.
The other five entrants were also eventually able to obtain the aircraft required for their participation in the Great Air Race. Sponsors were somehow found from amongst the various wealthy aviation enthusiasts and other likeminded individuals. Unfortunately, these aircraft were simply not equipped to sustain the arduous 18,000-kilometre distance. Only the Vickers “Vimy”, Ross Smith’s plane, was up to the task – the latest in aviation technology from all aspects. Sadly, it turned out that the other five entrants were to fly in machines that were to prove to be totally unsuitable.
But as the press had predicted, the Great Air Race was simply too great a task for man and plane alike. What they hadn’t reckoned on, was Captain Ross Smith and his “Vimy”.
The official starting place for the competitive flight was the Hounslow aerodrome (West London). Hounslow was then the main ‘civilian’ aerodrome of London, and all commercial machines, inward and outward bound, started from or landed there.
At 9.05 a.m., on November 12, 1919, Captain Ross Smith’s Vickers “Vimy” rose into the air and departed the snow-covered Hounslow Airfield en-route to their first designated stop in Lyon, France. On board were his brother Lieutenant Keith Smith as navigator and Sergeants Wally Shiers and James Bennett as co-mechanics.
Prior to take off, their WW1 bi-plane had been painted on the wings and fuselage, with the registered letterings, G.E.A.O.U., which was a recent requirement for all international aircraft. Ross Smith had quipped that these five letters really stood for “God ‘Elp All Of Us”.
As it turned out, they didn’t need God. The aircraft itself and the giant twin Rolls Royce Eagle Mark VIII engines were to be their saviours, along with their enormous courage and skill.
Flying the aircraft in an open cockpit, Ross Smith struggled with the constant changing weather elements. To stabilise the necessary weight, a decision had been made not to carry any radio equipment, and so with no way of anticipating weather conditions ahead of them and using only a handheld compass to guide them, they were often flying blind. Constant heavy cloud, rain squalls, snow storms and blinding unbearable heat were to be their constant companions throughout the duration of the journey.
Their thoughts were directed to their concern to reach Darwin, hopefully in one piece, within the 30 days’ time frame to make them eligible for the £10,000 prize.
Landing at the various airfields, racecourses and open fields along the route presented a few problems, but taking off with sufficient thrust was even a bigger challenge. On several occasions, the ground was so heavy that they and the plane were saturated in mud and slush as the aircraft ascended.
Utilising the navigational skills of his brother, Keith, together with his two mechanics, Shiers and Bennett, who were constantly” patching up” the aircraft, they remained on schedule throughout their journey.
Their intended route took them through Lyon, Rome, Cairo, Damascus, Basra, Karachi, Delhi, Calcutta, Akyab, Rangoon, Singora, Singapore, Batavia and Surabaya with nine additional unscheduled stops before they finally reached Darwin.
On the final and most dangerous leg of the record-breaking flight, 180 miles off the coast of Port Darwin on 10 December 1919, they sighted the HMAS Sydney, a tiny speck in the Timor Sea below them. The ship was positioned to guide their course onto Port Darwin in case of need. However the men were perfectly on course – “proof of wonderfully accurate navigation on the part of the aviators” according to Captain H. Hayley, HMAS Sydney.
The brothers, who had no radio on board, decided to drop a ‘message in a bottle’ to the captain of the ship below, letting him know all was going well. Using string and a hastily made parachute they dropped the bottle which landed in the sea near the ship. The pencil message read: “The Air, 10/12/19, Vickers Vimy, The Commander, H.M.A.S., Very glad to see you. Many thanks for looking after us. Going strong. Keith Smith, Ross Smith, Sgt. J. Bennett, Sgt. W. H. Shiers”
Most of their epic flight had been over land. The final leg was the first time they had done such a long haul over sea. They were glad to see the ship below because they realised that if there was a problem, they at least had a chance of survival.
As detailed flight maps of the route from England to Australia were not available at the time, Ross and Keith Smith used whatever they could find – basic hydrographical maps which were more suited to ocean navigation than flight.
Smith and his team landed at Fannie Bay Airfield in Darwin at 4.12 p.m. on December 10, 1919 and were instantly mobbed by almost the entire population of just under 1,500. Lieutenant Hudson Fysh, soon to be co-founder of the newly formed Qantas, was the first to greet the four airmen. Fysh had been sent by the Australian Government to survey flying fields from Darwin to Longreach (Queensland) to aid the Vimy’s flight through to the eastern coast cities. This he did, driving a T model Ford from Brisbane.
Also at Fannie Bay, in the welcoming throng, was the Northern Territory Administrator, Staniforth Smith and the mayor of Darwin. Thrust into Ross Smith’s frostbitten hands were dozens of telegrams and cables, including one from King George V reading “delighted at your safe arrival your success will bring Australia nearer to the mother country”.
The welcoming telegram from Prime Minister Hughes was so wordy that later, Ross Smith stated, “we would have had to stay in Darwin for a whole week just to get through it”.
Hughes was overjoyed at the success of the flight as he now had the ultimate victory over the pessimistic Australian press that had criticised him for months for his “crazy Great Air Race folly of an idea”.
Smith and his crew had flown half way across the world – a distance of 17,911 kilometres, to set a new record for a long-distance flight by an aircraft, smashing the previous record of 5,140 kilometres from Cairo to Delhi in 1918. They had averaged a speed of 137 kilometres an hour with an actual flying time of 135 hours.
Newspaper articles and headlines blazed around the world lauding the Great Air Race and the world record flight. The New York Times editorial of December 12 gushed “Captain Ross Smith has done a wonderful thing for the prestige of the British Empire. He must be hailed as the foremost living aviator”. The Melbourne Age wrote “This is one of the greatest flights, if not the greatest, in the history of aviation”.
There are simply no previous comparisons and it could be said that the impact was akin to man flying to the moon, exactly 50 years later. On January 1, 1920, it was announced that both Ross and Keith Smith had been awarded knighthoods by King George V and Shiers and Bennett were awarded bars to their existing air force medals and were made honorary Lieutenants.
On February 24, at Parliament House, Melbourne, Prime Minister Hughes presented the £10,000 cheque to Sir Ross Smith.
With one flight, the planet had effectively become significantly smaller and aviation was heralded as the wonder of the 20th century. Sir Ross Smith had led the way in a plane constructed of wood, fabric and wire. For Australia, well, we were no longer this distant and mostly unreachable island at the bottom of the globe, known for its multitude of sheep and little else. We were Australians and we were bloody good!!
In 1984, the head of Washington’s Smithsonian Institutes’ Air and Space Museum was visiting Sydney and made the following statement for the local press: “In the first fifty years of manned flight (1903-1953), there were ground breaking achievements from the likes of Louis Bleriot, John Alcock, Charles Kingsford-Smith, Charles Lindberg and others but it could be said, and should be said, that Ross Smith’s flight of 1919 was the greatest of them all”.
The Smith brothers’ flight was not without problems. The plane got bogged to the axles in Surabaya, but far worse awaited them in Australia. The trip from Darwin to Sydney took almost twice as long as the flight to Australia. The Vimy was forced down at Cobbs Creek, NT, with a split propeller. In 52 degree heat, the mechanics toiled for three days to make repairs, gluing wood splinters into the shattered end and reshaping it using glass from a broken bottle. They made another unscheduled landing near Charleville, Qld, when their out-of-balance port engine exploded at 900 metres altitude. This repair alone took 50 days.
On 14 February 1920, the Vickers Vimy flew across NSW from Narromine to Sydney. When the plane was spotted over Katoomba, a message was wired to the GPO in Sydney, where a flag was raised on the Martin Place tower to signal the Vimy’s imminent arrival. Spectators flocked to the city and Mascot airfield to see the plane, which landed at 11.12am.