Arguably one of the most successful pioneer flyers of all time, Sir Charles Kingsford Smith remains a household name in Australia as a national hero.
Born on 9 February 1897, Kingsford Smith was an adventurous boy and loved a dare. He completed school and trained as an Electrical Engineer before joining the AIF at eighteen years serving in Gallipoli, Egypt and France as a dispatch rider. He transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in 1917 and became a Second Lieutenant Flying Officer. His outstanding flying capability was immediately apparent bringing down four enemy aircraft along with other targets. His exploits earned a Military Cross – at 20 years of age, Kingsford Smith was a war hero.
Back in Australia after the war, Kingsford Smith flew for Norman Brearley’s West Australian Airways flying mail and passengers around the outback. Then it was to Sydney with Keith Anderson and Charles Ulm to operate Interstate Flying Services. But Kingsford Smith dreamed of doing more, especially a trans Pacific flight between the US and Australia.
To successfully gain Government contracts to fly mail in those days you had to have a reputation as an experienced flyer. To gain such a reputation many flyers did promotional flights to show off their ability to conduct long distance services. Kingsford Smith and his colleagues conducted such a flight around Australia in 10 days five hours in 1927. This feat gained a £9,000 grant from the New South Wales Government. With the backing of Sidney Myer and the Californian oil magnate G. Allan Hancock, it was off to America later that year where a Fokker Trimotor plane was acquired and named “Southern Cross”.
On 31 May 1928, Kingsford Smith with co-pilot Charles Ulm, Americans navigator Harry Lyon and radio operator James Warner, took off from Oakland, California bound for Australia. Flying across the Pacific via Hawaii and Fiji they reached Brisbane in 83 hours 38 minutes flying time – a remarkable and historic first air crossing of the Pacific. This incredible feat placed Kingsford Smith at the forefront of world flying.
In succeeding months Kingsford Smith made the first non-stop flight across the Australian Continent and the first flight across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand. In early 1929 he set off for England in the Southern Cross only to be forced to land on the Glenelg River estuary flats without radio contact. Unfortunately crew members Keith Anderson and Robert Hitchcock perished before help arrived thirteen days later. The flight resumed in June that year and reached England in a record 12 days 13 hours flying.
In 1930 he established and flew regular services for Australian National Airways. But adventure flying was Kingsford Smith’s passion. He again set off for England that year and flew the “Southern Cross” across the Atlantic from east to west. When he arrived in Oakland California on 4 July 1930 he was the first man to circumnavigate the globe by air.
His next long distance flight was England – Australia in an Avro Avian biplane “Southern Cross Junior” which beat Bert Hinkler’s record by five and a half days.
Following his marriage to Mary Powell in December 1930 and the birth of his son, Charles, Kingsford Smith remained in Australia at Australian National Airways but with the loss of the “Southern Cloud” in an accident in 1931 and the Great Depression, aviation was very tough. In late 1933 he travelled to England by sea and flew solo from London to Wyndham in Western Australia in just over seven days in a single engine Percival Gull. On the strength of this achievement, the Commonwealth Government granted him £3,000 and he became a consultant to the Vacuum Oil Company.
As modifications to the Lockheed Altair, named “The Lady Southern Cross” entered by Kingsford Smith and P G Taylor in the 1934 London to Melbourne Air Race could not be completed in time, they instead flew from Brisbane to San Francisco – the first west to east trans-Pacific flight.
Kingsford Smith and Taylor returned to Australia to begin their trans-Tasman air mail service. The inaugural flight on 15 April 1935 in the “Southern Cross” entailed one of the most daring and disaster prevention acts in flying history. This involved Taylor climbing out on the wing struts to transfer oil from one stricken engine to another which was failing.
Later that year, Kingsford Smith arranged for the “Lady Southern Cross” to be shipped to England where another record breaking attempt would be made to fly from England to Australia. With co-pilot J T Pethybridge, the “Lady Southern Cross” took off from Croydon on 6 November 1935. Soon after leaving a stopover at Allahabad on 7 November, the aircraft and crew were lost somewhere off the coast of Burma at night while flying towards Singapore. Unfortunately neither the aircraft nor its pilots have been found.
Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith has been called the world’s greatest aviator. His record breaking flights and almost superhuman flying skills are legendary. His contribution to civil aviation was an effort of faith and stamina. He was knighted in 1932 and is honoured on the Australian $20 note.