Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes was flying between England and France for the Paris Peace Conference when he came up with the idea of a Great Air Race across the world to Australia. Soaring high above the English Channel, Hughes quickly realised the potential of aviation to unite the Empire and inspire his young nation after a devastating war. So he offered a £10,000 prize for the first Aussie airmen to fly from London to Darwin in a British-built plane. The catch? They had to land on home soil within 30 days.
The critics called the race a “circus” that would surely end in death. Certainly, the journey was not without risk. Despite technological advances during the war, aircraft of the time were rudimentary, fashioned from wood, wire and fabric with open cockpits and only basic navigation. Along parts of the route, crews would be forced to land on short racetracks and hastily cleared jungle.
Yet as you’ll learn below, six Australian crews took up the challenge. And four were led by South Australian men who’d proven their skill and daring on the ground and in the air in WWI. Two crews perished and two others crashed out. Charismatic French pilot Etienne Poulet also took off from Paris, determined to be the first to Australia.
Only one aircraft reached the destination in the required 30 days – the Vickers Vimy, flown by South Australia’s Ross and Keith Smith.
Adelaide’s George Matthews, front, and his mechanic Thomas Kay were the first Australian crew to depart Hounslow Aerodrome, but over the following months they suffered a series of disasters in their Sopwith Wallaby. After being snowbound for weeks in Germany, they eventually made it further south only to be imprisoned as suspected spies for four days on a pig farm in Yugoslavia (escaping only after their guards were sleeping off a big night of drinking). They were finally forced out of the race when they crashed in Bali.
Start: 21 October 1919
Finish: 17 April 1920 in Bali
The fully-enclosed Alliance P.2 Endeavour left Hounslow a day after the Vickers Vimy and was considered a major contender, but within minutes tragedy struck. Spiralling out of control, the aircraft crashed into an apple orchard, killing both the pilot Roger “Dodger” Douglas and his navigator Leslie Ross.
Start: 13 November 1919
Finish: 13 November 1919 in Surbiton, UK
WWI official Australian war photographer, South Australian-born Hubert Wilkins, led the Blackburn Kangaroo crew who made it as far as Crete before crashing into a ditch. Mishaps plagued the flight to such an extent there was talk of sabotage. Wilkins went on to become Sir Hubert, one of Australia’s most celebrated explorers. The other crew members were Valdemar Rendle, David (Reg) Potts and Garnsey Potts. You can read more about Hubert Wilkins, including the Blackburn Kangaroo’s flight, in The Last Explorer by Simon Nasht.
Start: 21 November 1919
Finish: 8 December 1919 in Suda Bay, Crete
Adelaide-born Cedric Howell, right, won three gallantry awards and was credited with destroying 19 enemy aircraft during the war, but his luck ran out in the Air Race. He and mechanic George Fraser both perished when their Martinsyde A1 crashed into stormy seas off the island of Corfu.
Start: 4 December 1919
Finish: 9 December 1919, St George’s Bay, Corfu
Air race officials tried to talk Ray Parer and his co-pilot John McIntosh from departing Hounslow, but they took off anyway despite the Vickers Vimy having landed in Darwin almost a month earlier. Their flight was so plagued with incidents and crash landings that Parer earned the nickname “Battling Ray Parer” (and sometimes “The Re-pairer”). But they did finally make it home, becoming only the second air race crew to land in Darwin. The Airco DH9, bought from a war salvage yard in the UK, became the first single-engine aircraft to fly from London to Australia. It remains on display today at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
Start: 8 January 1920
Finish: 2 August 1920 in Darwin
Frenchman Etienne Poulet was ineligible to claim the £10,000 prize, but he was more than capable of stealing the glory by reaching Australia first. He and his mechanic Jean Benoist left Paris on 14 October (nearly a month before the Smith crew left Hounslow) and made it all the way to Burma in his tiny Caudron G4 before the Vickers Vimy overtook him.
Start: 14 October 1919 in Paris
Finish: 8 December 1919 in Burma (today’s Myanmar)
For a comprehensive list of further reading materials on the Great Air Race and competing crews, visit our Recommended Reading page.
The Vickers Vimy was designed as a strategic bomber to attack German cities, but arrived too late to enter active service in WWI. With a 68ft (22m) wingspan, the huge biplane had a fuselage that looked like a long, thin cigar. At first sight, mechanic Wally Shiers noted to his fellow mechanic Jim Bennett: “My God Benny, fancy trying to fly this to Australia … she’d never last half the journey.” The crew also joked that the Vimy’s registration letters G-EAOU stood for “God ’Elp All Of Us”.
Powered by twin 360-horsepower Rolls-Royce Eagle Mark VIII engines, the Vimy was largely made of spruce pine covered by Irish linen. Twenty-five women workers were in charge of the fabric covering, sewing huge sleeves for the wings which were then stitched together with 10,000 knots. Water was used to shrink the fabric over the wooden skeleton before the plane was covered in multiple layers of dope – a kind of lacquer that was so toxic the women were ordered to drink lemonade to stop them from fainting.
Despite the crew’s trepidation, the Vimy proved her worth, guiding the crew safely home in 27 days and 20 hours. Ross Smith wrote of his admiration for the aircraft in his book 14,000 Miles Through The Air: “Not once, from the time we took our departure from Hounslow, had she ever been under shelter. And now, as I looked over her, aglow with pride, the Vimy loomed up as the zenith of man’s inventive and constructional genius.”
The Vimy caused major delays to Ross Smith’s victory lap of Australia, with the crew almost coming to grief when a propeller split two days out of Darwin, and fire engulfing the port engine in Charleville, Qld, a couple of weeks later. After a seven-week repair job, the Vimy limped her way south to Sydney, Melbourne and, finally, to the Smith brothers’ home town of Adelaide on 23 March 1920. On 5 April, the aircraft made its final flight from Adelaide to Pt Cook in Melbourne. As Ross Smith told a Daily Herald journalist on the day: “In a way I am very sorry to be leaving the Vimy, for during the past few months I have grown attached to it. Today I feel that I am leaving an old and trusty friend that has borne me many thousands of miles.”
You’ll find lots more on the England to Australia flight, and the Vimy’s engine troubles on the Australian leg of the journey, in our timeline. You’ll also find a list of 120 newspaper articles relating to the Vimy in 1920 on Trove.
The Vickers Vimy was never flown again, but for the next two years the aircraft was regularly out of the hangar and put on show to raise money for the planned Australian War Museum.
When the Australian War Museum opened in the Melbourne Exhibition Building in the second half of 1922, the Vimy became a star exhibit. You can see it in the background of the image below.
The Australian War Museum took up temporary residence in Sydney’s Exhibition Building in 1925, and the Vimy was again on display. Below on the left you can also see the single-engine DH9 flown from England to Australia by Ray Parer in the Great Air Race.
When the Australian War Memorial was officially opened in Canberra on 11 November 1941, the Vimy again took centre stage, displayed alongside WWI German bombers and Ray Parer’s DH9.
On 1 July 1955, Sir Keith Smith wrote to then Prime Minister Robert Menzies to raise his concerns about the fate of the Vickers Vimy, after learning the aircraft had been removed from the Australian War Memorial.
“I venture the suggestion that in the years to come the aircraft will be of increasing historical interest to Australians and visitors alike … I suppose it is too late for anything to be done now, but I felt that I should personally let you know how concerned I am about the matter.”
Prime Minister Menzies was swift to respond, replying on 12 July that “the removal of the machine from the War Memorial building does not carry any imputation that it has suffered, or is likely to suffer, any diminution of its historical value”.
When the machine was first placed in the War Memorial none of us could have foreseen that Australia would be forced to fight in another major war and that we would be required to find room in the building for a great number of exhibits perpetuating our further efforts on the field of battle. That position, however, did arise and the War Museum has had to be re-organised … At this juncture, certain people in Adelaide, a city that has always been proud of being your birthplace, asked if they might have the machine on exhibition in the city.
To view a PDF of both letters, copies of which are held in South Australian Aviation Museum library, please click here.
In 1956, the Royal Aero Club of South Australia and South Australian Senator Keith Laught (among others) established the Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith War Memorial Committee and launched a public appeal to raise £30,000 to house the Vimy in Adelaide. Donations poured in from all parts of Australia and overseas including England and New Zealand. The Vickers Corporation chipped in £5000.
The high-powered committee secured South Australian Governor Sir Robert George as Vice-Regal Patron and Qantas co-founder Sir Hudson Fysh as one of nine vice-presidents. To view a PDF of a 1958 letter signed by the chairman and showing a full breakdown of the committee, please click here.
Significantly, the South Australian Government insisted that the Federal Government maintain ownership of the aircraft. The Federal Government also provided a prime location outside the original terminal at Adelaide Airport.
At 11.40am on 3 November 1957, disaster struck while the Vickers Vimy was en route to its new home in Adelaide. Fire engulfed one of two RAAF lorries transporting the aircraft, with responding country fire crews pouring water onto the wreckage for three hours. Luckily, the fuselage was undamaged. In an article headed “FAMOUS OLD PLANE AFIRE”, The Advertiser reported:
The mainplane and other parts of Sir Ross Smith’s famous Vickers Vimy aircraft were destroyed near Keith yesterday when fire broke out among crates on one of two RAAF semi-trailers which were bringing the parts to Adelaide. Other parts destroyed included propellers, engine cowlings and radiators. The cause of the fire, which started in the centre of the load, is not known. When the fire broke out the driver of the semi-trailer drove to the side of the road followed by the other vehicle.
Both The News and The Advertiser reported Keith fire officer Roger Gransden as saying the RAAF party had been “most secretive” about the blaze. “The men, particularly the warrant officer who appeared to be in charge, were very upset,” he said.
Within days the memorial building’s scheduled opening on 15 December was postponed, with Memorial Committee chairman Group Captain RM Rechner declaring: “Whatever has been destroyed will be replaced.” The Department of Defence Production, however, was directed to restore the Vimy to “mock-up conditions” only, so that “externally it appears sufficiently like the original to be accepted as such by persons other than those with special knowledge”.
Deane Leicester remembers his father Walter working on the Vimy’s upholstery and wing cladding at Parafield after it was partly destroyed in the fire. “Dad worked at the Department of Aircraft Production with another upholsterer by the name of Alec Gibb – they mostly did the DC-3s so the Vimy was something very different,” Deane says. “I helped him cover another plane once in Irish linen and dope [as Walter and Alec would have done on the Vimy’s outer wings which needed to be replaced] and it was terribly smelly and very volatile.”
On 9 November The Advertiser reported that an RAAF Court of Enquiry at Edinburgh Airfield had completed an investigation into the blaze, with statements also gathered from eyewitnesses in Keith. Rumours spread that a cigarette butt might have sparked the blaze. If the cause was ever officially established, it doesn’t appear to have been made public.
Above you can see the undamaged fuselage, wing stubs and under-carriage of the Vickers Vimy in the unfinished memorial building at Adelaide Airport in 1957. Images copyright: News Corporation.
On 26 April 1958, 40,000 people flocked to Adelaide Airport to witness Air Marshall Sir Richard Williams officially open the Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith Memorial and unveil the John Dowie sculpture of the four Vimy crew members. Sir Keith had died of cancer in December 1955 (only months after writing to Prime Minister Menzies about the Vimy) so Wally Shiers was the only surviving Vimy crew member at the opening. Sir Keith’s widow Lady Anita Smith was also a guest of honour.
Sir Richard, who had been Ross Smith’s commanding officer with No. 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps during WWI, described the aviator as a “most meticulous” pilot. “Had Ross not died so tragically in 1922 I have no doubt he would have made an even greater contribution to aviation,” he said.
The then Premier Sir Thomas Playford described the memorial as a “fitting commemoration of one of the greatest achievements of SA’s sons”. He continued:
It is fitting that the site chosen for the memorial is the centre of aerial activities of civil aviation in SA, where every person who today enjoys the great advantages of modern transport can stop for a moment and ponder on those who contributed to them.
In 1987, protective screens were erected around the Vimy building to protect the aircraft from ultraviolet light. This was largely the result of lobbying efforts by Norman Pointing, a maintenance engineer who’d helped to restore the Vimy in 1957 and carried out a further major restoration in the early 1980s when it became clear the Vimy was deteriorating under extremes of temperature and humidity. South Australian artist Stefan Twain-Wood was contracted to paint a Vimy mural on the screens surrounding the building. Sadly the screens were damaged in the sun, too, and eventually thrown away.
In May 1998 the Commonwealth privatised Adelaide Airport. Under the terms of the lease agreement, the new airport lessee, Adelaide Airport Limited, took responsibility for the management and operation of the Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith Memorial, and for maintenance of the building and is contents.
With the opening of Adelaide Airport’s new state-of-the-art Terminal 1 in 2005, the Vickers Vimy no longer had pride of place outside the main terminal entrance. To link the Vimy with the new Terminal 1 building, Adelaide Airport and Arts SA collaborated to develop the Vimy Walk – marking each stopping point that the Vimy made on its epic route to Australia.
Ahead of Australia’s 2019 federal election it was announced that a new state-of-the-art facility would be built for the Vickers Vimy at Adelaide Airport.
Announcing a $2m funding commitment by the federal Morrison Government, SA Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham said it was a major win for South Australia’s cultural heritage, for tourism, and would serve to educate generations to come of our state’s pioneering and aviation history.
The $2m commitment (matched by the federal Labor opposition) was matched by the South Australian Marshall Government and Adelaide Airport Ltd, taking the combined total for the rehousing project to $6m. The Vimy is set to be moved to a prominent position within the new airport terminal in 2021.
Only two original Vimy aircraft remain in the world – Alcock and Brown’s Vimy at the British Science Museum (where it was installed soon after the famous Atlantic crossing in June 1919) and the Smith crew’s Vimy at Adelaide Airport. Smithsonian Air and Space Museum curator Alex Spencer believes Ross Smith’s Vimy should be as iconic to Australia as Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis is to the United States.
Written and researched by Lainie Anderson, author of Long Flight Home, which tells the story of the Great Air Race through the eyes of Vimy mechanic Wally Shiers. Further information on the Vimy’s move to Adelaide and maintenance and custodianship of the aircraft in subsequent years can be found in a comprehensive profile of Sir Ross Smith and the Vickers Vimy crew, written by Mike Milln at the South Australian Aviation Museum (head to page 16).
The weather report in Hounslow, England, was dire on the morning of 12 November 1919: “Totally unfit for all flying.” Ross Smith took off anyway, fearing worse weather with the oncoming European winter, and knowing his French rival Etienne Poulet was already well on the way to Australia.
The snowstorm they encountered that first day over France was so fierce he was forced to fly at 11,000 feet (3,350 metres) to escape towering cloud banks. Their goggles and cockpit dials froze. After six hours of flying blind, they spotted a hole in the clouds and flew down to earth, discovering they were just 40 miles from Keith’s predicted location of Lyon, France.
Over the following 28 days, they passed through the world’s climatic zones, and the weather threw everything at them: European snowstorms, desert sandstorms and tropical downpours that lashed the skin from their faces. But across the world – from Italy to Indonesia, Crete to Calcutta – people came to their aid.
In Pisa, overnight rain left the Vimy surrounded by a lake of water. Thirty Italian mechanics worked in vain to get the six-tonne plane free of the sludge. Ross Smith told Jim Bennett to run beside the fuselage, holding the Vimy’s tail down and her nose up out of the mud, until they became airborne. When the wheels left the ground, Jim sprinted for the back cockpit and Wally hauled him in.
In Ramadie, near Baghdad, 50 Indian cavalrymen stood sentry over the plane all night, using their weight to prevent her from busting up or being blown away in a raging desert sandstorm.
In Surabaya, Indonesia, villagers took the bamboo matting walls from their homes and “came streaming in from every direction” to lay a 300m runway over soft mud that had threatened to entrap the Vimy. The crew called it Matting Road.
No-one knew the route quite like the Smith brothers. Having served with the Royal Flying Corps in Britain, Keith was experienced at flying in freezing temperatures, while Ross knew the deserts of the Middle East like the back of his hand. Directly after the war Ross had flown from Cairo to Calcutta before scouting possible landing sites by sea all the way down to East Timor.
That knowledge – as well as the contacts Ross made – proved one of the keys to the crew’s success.
At precisely 3pm on 10 December 1919, the Vimy touched down on a makeshift air strip near Fannie Bay Gaol. Darwin was an outpost of just 1500 people but the townsfolk raced to greet her, carrying the exhausted crew shoulder high. At Government House, they received hundreds of telegrams – including messages from King George V, Winston Churchill and Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes.
The journey however wasn’t over. The 3,000-mile (4,800km) flight south to Sydney, Melbourne and finally Adelaide was another series of aviation firsts, but the Vimy was close to collapse. Plagued with breakdowns, the journey took three months (three times longer than the entire flight across the world).
In Melbourne, the crew received their cheque for £10,000 from Prime Minister Billy Hughes before Ross had it evenly split four ways. The Smith brothers received Knighthoods, while Jim Bennett and Wally Shiers both received bars to their Air Force Medals and were later promoted to lieutenants.
A certain race mania ensued after the epic flight. Smith was taken on a world speaking tour using aerial cinematography by his friend Frank Hurley. Souvenir badges and programmes were distributed across the country. People even played the Sir Ross Smith Aeroplane Race Game, a board game for two or more players featuring flight paths between England and Australia dotted with penalties and bonuses.
The Smith crew’s fame by now was unparalleled, feted in newspapers across the globe for their achievement. Ross Smith was hailed as a latter-day Captain Cook, the New York Times said he was ‘the foremost living aviator’. He arguably became his young nation’s first international superstar.
Tragically, Ross didn’t have long to enjoy it. He immediately dedicated himself to the next record-breaking flight – a world circumnavigation in a Vickers Viking amphibious aircraft accompanied by Keith and mechanic Jim Bennett. In 1922, during testing the Viking near London, the aircraft spiralled out of the sky. Keith, who had been delayed for the test flight, watched helplessly as his brother and Jim Bennett plunged to their deaths.
Sir Keith Smith continued working in aviation, representing the Vickers company in Australia, before dying of cancer in 1955. Lieutenant Wally Shiers ran a garage and got his pilot’s licence. He lived out his last years in Hilton, Adelaide, and died in 1969.
Keith Smith was employed in the merchandise department at Elder Smith & Co. before the war, and Ross worked in the warehouse for Harris Scarfe. They returned in 1920 as conquering heroes, with more than 20,000 waiting to greet them at Northfield Aerodrome. Tens of thousands more – including school children who were given the day off – climbed onto rooftops and into trees, or trekked into the Adelaide Hills for a view of the record-breaking Vimy.
The plane was spotted low and to the left of Mount Lofty at exactly 1.38pm on 23 March 1920, with The Advertiser reporting that “instantly there was a cry from thousands of throats of ‘there she comes’”. The Vimy charted a course down Cross Road, where family friends had hung welcome signs from balconies, before heading north over the city centre. The crew waved handkerchiefs in response to the “cheer upon cheer” which “rent the air”.
Ross Smith’s old comrades from the 3rd Light Horse Regiment arranged a lavish welcome reception at the Tivoli (now Her Majesty’s Theatre). The Advertiser reported “a scene of such enthusiasm and gaiety … as the theatre has rarely seen”, with Ross Smith telling the crowd the night was “quite the happiest he had ever spent in his life, because he was back in his native city”.
Ross Smith had been a gifted sportsman before the war, winning both the junior and senior athletic championships at Queen’s School and leading the cricket and football teams. Every member of the 1908 Queen’s School XI cricket team enlisted in the war, but sadly, five did not survive to welcome their old captain home. Ross was also a former member of the Adelaide Harriers running club – in his honour a set of wings was added to the club’s “A” insignia (as seen in the photo of 1933 running champion Phyllis Hicks above left) and remains to this day.
The extent to which Ross Smith was adored in Adelaide was never more evident than the day he was buried, just two and a half years after the epic flight, on 15 June 1922. More than 100,000 people (one fifth of the state’s population) lined the streets of Adelaide to honour his funeral cortege.
His coffin lay in St Peter’s Cathedral before being interred in North Road Cemetery. The funeral cortege of more than 100 vehicles, headed by a guard of airmen with the casket borne on an aeroplane trailer, was watched from planes flying overhead and crowds more than a dozen deep lining the streets all the way from St Peter’s Cathedral in North Adelaide to North Road Cemetery.
A statue in Sir Ross Smith’s honour can still be seen outside Adelaide Oval. Lieutenant Jim Bennett was buried on the same day in his native Melbourne – a memorial in his honour can be seen on The Esplanade at St Kilda.
The legacy of Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith cannot be underestimated. The epic flight highlighted that a ‘Kangaroo Route’ between England and Australia would one day be possible. It inspired a series of endurance flights around Australia and the South Pacific which reinforced that aircraft could overcome the tyranny of distance in the southern hemisphere. It illustrated the need for a Royal Australian Air Force, which was established only 15 months later in 1921. The clearing of airfields from Darwin to Brisbane also led to the creation of Qantas in 1920.
In South Australia, the Smith brothers’ triumph helped to forge an entrepreneurial, can-do mindset in aviation and defence that continues to this day. In the 1950s and ’60s, South Australia was at the forefront of air and space research and development at the Woomera Test Range (the largest land test range in the world). Over the last 30 years we’ve been at the forefront of development and operations of over the horizon radar, and in November 2018 Adelaide was announced as home to the first Australian Space Agency.
In a dreary post-WWI Australia devastated by war, the epic flight provided a badly-needed source of inspiration and pride, showing that anything is possible with visionary thinking, courage, hard work, determination and audacity. For children raised under the South Australian sun, the sky is no limit.
When Keith Smith’s widow Lady Anita Smith, above, passed away in 1986, she bequeathed her entire estate to the Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith Fund for the purpose of encouraging scientific study, research and education in disciplines related to aeronautics and aerospace technology in South Australia.
The fund has since distributed millions in funding to individuals and organisations for projects large and small. They include everything from a revolutionary radial engine designed by SA engineering firm Bespoke Engineering, to a unique aviation course at the Mid North Christian College in Port Pirie – the only school in Australia where you can learn to fly while studying Years 11 and 12. Other projects include The Greatest Air Race documentary, made in 2019 by SA’s All Of Us Productions, and an industrial-scale wind tunnel at The University of Adelaide’s Faculty of Engineering, Computer and Mathematical Sciences.
For further information, including details on how to apply for funding, visit www.smithfund.org.au.