Dick Smith goes by many titles: businessman, entrepreneur, environmentalist, activist and, of course, aviator and adventurer. Yes, he is all these things, but perhaps above all he is a passionate advocate for Australia and all things Australian. He is proud of the country that has given him so many opportunities and benefits. As he often says, the greatest advantage he was given in life was to be born in Australia and he’s spent every day of his life making the most of that great head start.
An annual poll of Australia’s 100 most trusted individuals conducted by Reader’s Digest consistently puts Dick in the top ten. Perhaps it’s because of his willingness to be a polite but outspoken advocate for the things he believes in. Whether it’s his campaign for aviation reform or his stance on supporting Australian farmers or protecting and nurturing a free press, Dick’s ability to generate publicity means he’s listened to.
Dick was, by his own description, hopeless at school. Suffering from a speech defect, he found it difficult to pronounce the letter “S” so he was forced to call himself ‘Dick Miff’ . ‘MIF” has been the call sign for many of his aeroplanes ever since.
Dick’s father was a salesman, his mum a housewife. Born Richard Harold Smith on 18 March 1944, he grew up in a very typical home in a very typical Aussie street in Sydney’s north. The only family “flashiness” was provided by Dick’s maternal grandfather, the famous photographer Harold Cazneaux, who lived across the road. Harold’s son had sadly been killed in the War and his room was locked up for years, but inside was radio equipment that Dick was eventually able to play with, and from then on he was fascinated by radio and electronics.
Not too long after starting his business with his wife Pip, and $610, Dick learnt to fly in 1972 at Bankstown and Hoxton Park. Shortly after, he purchased his first aircraft, a Twin Comanche, and later a Beech Baron.
Usually Dick gets to places around Australia by flying there himself. His love affair with the skies is certainly well known. One day Dick was stranded in bad weather — and anyone who knows Dick knows he doesn’t much like waiting around. When he heard the sound of an approaching helicopter, Dick walked across in the rain and began chatting to the pilot and asked “is this helicopter instrument rated?” “No,” said the pilot, “you just fly below the clouds, and if they ever get too low, you just land and have a cup of tea with someone.”
To Dick, that sounded like his type of flying and within months he owned his own JetRanger and he has hardly stopped flying ever since. So much so that earlier this year he clocked up 10,000 hours in fixed and rotary winged aircraft – plus a few hundred more in long distance balloon flights and microlights.
Since gaining his Command Instrument Rating in 1983, Dick has added the specialised single-pilot jet rating to his skills – a rating that even very few commercial pilots achieve.
Dick has made five flights around the world as pilot in command and each of these flights has succeeded on time and as scheduled because of meticulous planning and risk management. His other achievements include piloting the first helicopter flight to the North Pole in 1987 and the first across Australia, and trans-Tasman balloon flights in 1993 and 2000.
Recently, Dick celebrated the 30th anniversary of perhaps his most extraordinary flight, the first solo circumnavigation of the world by helicopter completed on 22 July 1983. This 55,000 km journey took more than 260 flying hours and was an astounding feat of endurance and skill. It included the first solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by a rotary wing aircraft.
For those who don’t know much about that flight, ask Dick some time about having to land his Bell JetRanger III on the heaving deck of a container ship in the mid Pacific Ocean to refuel. It’s a hair-raising story. This was well before the days of GPS and all Dick had to guide him was a home-made radio beacon and hope that neither the weather, nor his fast-dwindling fuel supply would see him end up in the drink.
Dick also performed the first Pole to Pole flight across the world, landing at both the South and North Poles in a ski equipped Twin-Otter aircraft. This was only possible because Perestroika and Glasnost opened up Russia to world flights, having been closed since the onset of the Cold War.
Since then, Dick has been active in many aspects of the aviation industry in Australia. He was appointed to the CAA Board in 1988 and was chairman in 1990. Under his leadership, Australia made the move to an international airspace system. A major review of resources was also undertaken resulting in substantial staff reductions and saving the industry over $100 million a year in charges.
Dick’s world flights opened his eyes to the freedom of the skies in other countries, and he became an avid campaigner against the over-regulation which resulted in unnecessarily high costs on the Australian industry. He controversially stated at the time that the costs imposed by aviation safety regulation had to be affordable by those who pay these costs otherwise participation levels would drop.
Dick became chair of CASA in 1997 and pushed hard for reform based on what long experience had taught him about risk management. These reforms included abolishing the high cost mandatory full position reporting for visual flight rule aircraft. Dick says he only achieved about 30% of what he feels is required to ensure Australia becomes a world leader in aviation.
Dick Smith was awarded an Officer of the Order of Australia in the Australia Day Honours of 1999 for his services to the community, charity and business. He is a passionate supporter of Australian aviation heritage and has done much to maintain the story of our rich flying history.
One of his heroes is Sir Hubert Wilkins, and it is fitting that tonight Richard Harold “Dick” Smith AO joins Sir Hubert as an Australian Aviation Hall of Fame inductee.