Sir Keith Macpherson Smith Kbe (1890 – 1955)
It was to be a race like no other. Great Britain to Australia in 30 days and £A10,000 up for grabs for the first aviator to do so. It was early 1919 and the Australian government set the conditions.
Aircrews must all be Australian nationals, the aircraft must be constructed in the British Empire, the journey must be completed within 720 consecutive hours (30 days) and be completed before midnight on 31 December 1920. The departure point must be either Hounslow Heath Aerodrome (for landplanes) or RNAS Calshot (for seaplanes), with reporting points at Alexandria and Singapore. The final destination was the region of Darwin. All flights were to be conducted under the competition rules of the Royal Aero Club which would supervise the start and control the competition generally.
Of the six entries that started, the winners were none other than South Australian brothers, Keith and Ross Macpherson Smith and their two crew members in a Vickers Vimy.
The Smith brothers were born in Adelaide, in 1890 and 1892. Both were educated at Queen’s School, Adelaide and for two years in Scotland, their father’s birthplace. On their return to Australia, both brothers had served in World War I and had entered aviation within weeks of each other, despite pursuing different career paths initially.
Keith became a pilot when he joined the Royal Flying Corps in Britain in 1914 while Ross first served with the Australian Light Horse at Gallipoli. While recovering from injury, Ross learnt to fly and transferred to the Australian Flying Corps in 1916. He became an ace with eleven aerial victories and was awarded the M.C. and bar, D.F.C. and A.F.C.
By the end of the war Ross had acquired considerable experience flying the twin-engine Handley Page 0/400 bomber and was selected to co-pilot the aircraft in a pioneer flight from Cairo to Calcutta in 1918. The experience proved invaluable for his later win in the England to Australia Air Race with brother, Keith.
To make the long flight to Australia in record time, Ross applied to the British company Vickers to supply an aircraft similar to the 0/400 bomber. Vickers obliged and provided a converted Vimy bomber (the registration GEAOU being whimsically said to stand for “God ‘elp all of us”).
With Keith as co-pilot and navigator and accompanied by two mechanics Sergeants Jim Bennett and Wally Shiers, the attempt began from Hounslow, England, on 12 November 1919. Flying conditions were very poor and most hazardous until they reached Basra. From Basra to Delhi, a distance of 2575 km, they spent 25½ hours out of 54 hours in the air. A poor landing-area at Singora and torrential rain almost brought disaster. Disaster again almost came at Sourabaya where the aircraft was bogged and had to take off from an improvised airstrip made of bamboo mats.
They landed in Darwin on 10 December 1919 covering a distance of 18,250 km in just under 28 days. With an actual flying time of 135 hours – an average speed of 137 km/hr, the Smith brothers flew their way into Australian folklore. The £A10,000 prize money was divided into four equal shares, both Ross and Keith were immediately knighted and the aircraft was presented to the Australian government. It is now displayed at Adelaide Airport.
Their next venture, to fly round the world in a Vickers Viking amphibian, ended tragically when Sir Ross and Jim Bennett were killed during a test flight in England in 1922. Sadly, Sir Keith witnessed the accident.
Sir Keith went on to be appointed Australian agent for Vickers and retained a close connection with the company for many years. Later he became a director of several airlines and other public companies before passing away from cancer in 1955.