In 1919, Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes was flying between England and France for the Paris peace talks, and realised the potential of aviation to link his young nation to the world. Knowing it would also build pride after a devastating war that claimed 60,000 Australian lives, he approved a £10,000 prize for the first Australians to fly from London to Darwin in a British-made plane.
The planes were rudimentary, with open cockpits and only basic navigation (it was still just 16 years after the Wright brothers made the first powered flight!) Aerodromes along parts of the route were non-existent. Yet six Australians crews took up the challenge: two were killed; two crashed out. A French pilot made it all the way to Asia before he crashed out, too. Only one crew made it home inside the required 30 days.
South Australian brothers Ross and Keith Smith, with their mechanics Wally Shiers and Jim Bennett, left England on 12 November 1919 and flew into Darwin on 10 December. Brian Riddle, Chief Librarian at the National Aerospace Library in England, believes the Smith crew’s achievement “was in its time as remarkable a journey as that of the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing just 50 years later”.
Brothers Ross and Keith Smith, both born in Semaphore, were knighted by King George V soon after landing in Darwin. Both had flown during WWI – Sir Ross becoming one of Australia’s most decorated airmen. He was a pilot to Colonel T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) and was also given command of the only twin-engine bomber to fly over Egypt and Palestine.
Sergeants Wally Shiers (SA) and Jim Bennett (Victoria) were both mechanics with the Australian Flying Corps’ No.1 Squadron, trusted by Ross Smith to keep his planes in the air. They were so ingenious at fixing engines that they were often sent out into the desert to reclaim crashed or damaged machines.
The four men were pioneers in their field. Newspapers of the day likened them to Christopher Columbus and Captain Cook. Tragically, Sir Ross and Jim Bennett were killed in a plane crash in England just two years later, while preparing for a flight around the world.
The Vickers Vimy biplane was designed as a bomber, but didn’t see active service during WWI. Made chiefly of wood and fabric, the 21m Vimy had open cockpits and only a compass for navigation. It was one of the first planes to fly through international airspace after the war and was given the registration letters G-EAOU. Ross Smith said it stood for “God ’Elp All Of Us”. The Vimy can still be seen today in its 1950s hangar near the long-term car park at Adelaide Airport.
Dr Alex Spencer from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington believes the Vickers Vimy is now one of the world’s most important aviation artefacts: “Your Vimy should be as iconic to Australia as the Spirit of Saint Louis is to America.”
As the first flight across the planet, the 1919 epic flight was one of the world’s greatest pioneering achievements. The feat is of special significance to South Australia because three members of the Vimy crew were born here – and because we are custodians of the aircraft that got them home.
The Epic Flight Centenary 2019 (EFC2019) Committee, formed under the auspice of the History Trust of South Australia, includes key representatives from defence, government, industry, cultural institutions and aviation museums. Our goal is to celebrate the Smith brother’s extraordinary achievement with a series of exhibitions, air shows and events, and develop an education program that inspires a new generation to reach for the skies.