Charles Thomas Philippe Ulm was a soldier, aviator, company manager and airline owner best known for his partnership with Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, but who also set a number of his own flight records over a short career. He has been described as a practical visionary with a keen sense of humour, who displayed “… extraordinary precision in thought and courage in adversity”.
Charles Ulm was born on 18 October 1898 at Middle Park, Melbourne, and was educated at state schools initially in Melbourne and later in Sydney after his family moved interstate. He was working as a clerk in a stockbroking office when World War I broke out. Despite being only 16, he enlisted in the 1st Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, on 16 September 1914, claiming to be 20 years of age. Charles was among the first troops to land at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. His stay was short-lived; wounded in action within days he returned to Australia where he was discharged for being a minor. He re-enlisted in January 1917 and served on the Western Front until being badly wounded in July 1918.
After being demobilised in March 1919, Charles returned to Australia with some £3,000 proceeds of an investment and a vision of becoming involved in commercial aviation. This interest led him to support a number of fledgling aviation companies which did not prosper. In November 1919, he married Isabel Amy Winter whom he later divorced before marrying Mary Josephine “Jo” Callaghan in 1927.
Charles Thomas Philippe Ulm AFC
That year, Charles became a partner in Interstate Flying Services with Keith Anderson and Charles Kingsford Smith; their goal being to fly across the Pacific Ocean. Charles‘s role was to arrange the financial and administrative aspects of the ventures. Before embarking on the US journey, Ulm and Kingsford Smith circumnavigated Australia in 10 days, five hours and 30 minutes. It was less than half the time of the record set by Captain Edgar Charles Johnston Jones and Colonel Horace Brinsmead in 1924.
In August 1927, Ulm, Kingsford Smith and Anderson travelled to California to look for an aircraft and additional sponsorship for the trans-Pacific journey. They found a Fokker aircraft and the Boeing Aircraft Factory assisted with alterations, including installing three Wright Whirlwind engines and extra fuel tanks.
On 31 May 1928, the aircraft, renamed Southern Cross, took off from Oakland, California, with Kingsford Smith as pilot, Charles as co-pilot and two American crew members, Harry Lyon and James Warner, on board. Ten days later, on 9 June 1928, the Southern Cross and crew arrived in Brisbane, completing the 11,585 kilometre crossing in 83 hours, 38 minutes of flying time. Several days later, the Prime Minister, Stanley Bruce, presented the crew with a £5000 cheque “from the people of Australia”. Charles and Kingsford Smith were awarded honorary commissions in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF): Kingsford Smith as an honorary Squadron Leader and Charles as Flight Lieutenant. Both were awarded the Air Force Cross.
In August 1928, they made the first non-stop flight across Australia, from Melbourne to Perth, and the following month, in extreme weather conditions, made the first trans-Tasman flight from Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand, in 14 hours.
After the New Zealand flight, Charles finally received his pilot’s licence and in December 1928 he and Kingsford Smith formed Australian National Airways Limited (ANA) with the aim of operating unsubsidized passenger, mail and freight services. In March 1929 on a flight to Britain to acquire aircraft, Charles, Charles Kingsford Smith and two crew members, low on fuel, were forced to land the Southern Cross in a desolate area of the West Australian coast and were lost for thirteen days. After being found, they resumed the flight to Britain.
Charles focused on managing ANA until it went into liquidation in early 1933, hit by the Depression and aircraft losses including the famous “Southern Cloud” which went missing on a flight from Sydney to Melbourne on 31 March 1931. He bought one of the remaining Avro X aircraft, registered it VH-UXX and renamed it Faith in Australia, had it fitted with a new wing, Wright Whirlwind engines and long-range fuel tanks and strengthened the fuselage to enable it to do route proving flights. In June of that year, Charles set off in Faith in Australia, with Scotty Allan and P G “Bill” Taylor as crew. It was planned to be a round-the-world flight, but was cancelled after the aircraft was damaged in Ireland. On the return flight to Australia, they set a new record of 6 days, 17 hours and 56 minutes – Britain to Australia.
In April 1934, Charles flew the first official mail from Australia to New Zealand in Faith in Australia. In August he carried the first official airmail from Australia to New Guinea and back. The following month, he formed Great Pacific Airways Ltd and purchased an Airspeed Envoy, Stella Australis, with the hopes of establishing a trans-Pacific service between Australia, Canada and the United States. On 3 December 1934, Ulm with a crew of two, George Littlejohn and J Leon Skilling, departed Oakland, California, for Hawaii, but Stella Australis failed to arrive. An extensive sea search by aircraft and 23 naval ships failed to find any trace of the aircraft or its crew.
In a farewell salute to Charles Ulm and his lost crew in February 1935, almost 20 planes flying in formation and led by Kingsford Smith in Southern Cross, flew out from Mascot over the Sydney Heads, dipped their wings above the Pacific Ocean in salute and then dropped floral tributes.
Charles was survived by his wife, Jo and son John.
The Australian Aviation Hall of Fame is proud to induct Charles Thomas Philippe Ulm AFC.