The New York Times hailed Ross Smith as the world’s “foremost living aviator” after he completed the awe-inspiring flight from England to Australia in 1919.
The young aviator’s love of heights began early – and a world away from the media spotlight – in the red dust of the South Australian outback.
Born on 4 December 1892, Ross was the third child of Scottish-born sheep station manager Andrew Smith and his wife Jessie. Their first child, Janet, had lived only a month after being born on the remote Mutooroo Station, so Jessie travelled to Adelaide for the birth of her three remaining children: Keith, Ross and Colin.
Andrew Smith managed the 7700sqkm sheep run for prominent South Australian pastoralist Peter Waite (business partner to Thomas Elder and Robert Barr-Smith). And, according to Waite, he did it in exemplary fashion. “Some of the greatest work in this State has been done by Andrew Smith,” he told The Register after Andrew Smith’s death in 1924. “He arrived at Paratoo [another Waite run] in 1879, proceeded to Mutooroo, and has built up, improved, and converted the waterless region into a productive wool country. Last year 129,000 sheep were shorn on the run.”
Peter Waite also told The Register he’d always been sure Keith and Ross would succeed because “they are sons of Andrew”.
The boys spent their early years on Mutooroo, often out riding and hunting kangaroos. A former employee by the name of J. Mount wrote to Broken Hill’s Barrier Miner in 1954, recalling a “flying gadget” they created by fastening wires to a gum tree and securely pegged to the ground some distance away. “A gadget was made to fit on the wires which enabled them to slide slowly to the ground,” Mr Mount wrote. When asked what they were doing they replied ‘We are flying’.”
In early 1900 the boys headed to Adelaide for school at Queen’s College in North Adelaide, where Ross quickly made a name for himself as an all-round sportsman. Fellow boarder and close friend Jack Howard, in a letter written after the epic flight, recalled Ross as “a stocky, sandy-haired boy excelling at all kinds of sport and universally popular”. “He was nicknamed ‘Froggy’, why I don’t know, but the name clung to him to the end.”
Neither Ross nor Keith were particularly academic, with both being described as “unassuming boys who would never set the Thames on fire” by the headmaster, Mr Hood. Ross was clearly a born leader, though, captaining the college’s cricket and football teams. A keen runner, he also won both the junior and senior school championships.
In 1906 the boys headed to Scotland with their mother for two years, attending Warriston preparatory school in their father Andrew’s former home town of Moffat. (Among those to send the brothers a telegram on 10 December 1919 was the Warriston headmaster Mr F.W. Gardiner, who wrote: “Captain Ross Smith, Port Darwin. Well done Ross and Keith; Warriston proud of you.- From Gardiner.”)
On the family’s return from Moffat to Adelaide, Ross got a warehouse job with Harris Scarfe, proving his loyalty to management by driving a cart through a crowd of striking workers and suffering a blow to the head.
In 1910, at the age of 17, Ross joined Adelaide’s mounted cadet squadron of the Commonwealth Military Cadet Corps – and promptly headed overseas on the cavalry regiment’s round-the-world expedition. As author Michael Molkentin explains in the Ross Smith biography Anzac & Aviator, it was on this trip that Ross had the pivotal experience of seeing an aircraft for the first time. Fellow cadet Clifford Browne, who kept a diary of the expedition, wrote that four of the youngsters travelled to Brooklands motor racing track during their time in London to watch a flying exhibition, which was a wondrous experience because none of them had seen an aeroplane before. Little did they know that Ross Smith would be back at Brooklands within a decade, at the Vickers Aviation factory preparing the Vimy for the epic flight.
Back in Adelaide before the war, life for Ross was a series of parties, sunny weekends in the Adelaide Hills and motor bike riding (Jack Howard recalls that “as a beginner he was a hopeless rider and never became proficient” and also “could never affect the simplest repair”).
In her autobiography I’m No Lady (printed posthumously by her son), Adelaide Lady Mayoress and arts patron Lady Constance Jean Bonython writes of her childhood friendship with Ross and Keith. She got to know them through her cousin Matthew Woodley, who also boarded at Queen’s College. “He found great friends there in Keith and Ross (later to become famous aviators) … and as a result those three together with Pauline Schomburgk, my sister Bobbie and I became inseparable companions for years. We would frequently meet up at the Smith’s where those at home were Mrs Smith, Keith and Ross and their much-younger brother Colin. Bobbie was in love with Ross, but although Keith married Anita … Ross was still unmarried at the time of his tragic death…”
Ross enlisted in the 3rd Light Horse Regiment the day after war was declared in August 1914, becoming one of the first South Australians to do so. Departing Adelaide in October 1914 in the first South Australia troop ship, he landed at Gallipoli in May 1915 and was quickly promoted to regimental sergeant major and then second lieutenant before being invalided to England by the end of the year. His medical pass held in The University of Adelaide Library collection shows he had scarlet fever, and on the back Ross has written “My ticket when I left Anzac”. After recovering (and being promoted to lieutenant) he returned to Egypt and was involved in heavy fighting at the Battle of Romani in August 1916.
Throughout the war Ross wrote to his “Dearest Maw” Jessie, providing a terrific insight into his years of service on the ground and in the air. The letters are now held by the State Library of South Australia and have been digitised and transcribed.
Ross transferred to the Australian Flying Corps in October 1916, qualifying initially as an observer and then as a pilot, and quickly established himself as an outstanding aviator conducting air defence, ground attacks, bombing and aerial reconnaissance missions.
In March 1917 he was awarded his first Military Cross as an observer when he and his pilot landed their BE2C in the face of hostile tribesman in the desert while rescuing a downed Royal Flying Corps pilot. While his pilot rescued the downed pilot, Ross kept the approaching enemy at bay with his revolver. Several weeks later, he was involved in his first effective victory when he was injured in shooting down a German Albatross fighter. Ross would go onto record a total of eleven victories in the Middle Eastern campaign – a remarkable record given the paucity of aircraft involved compared with the Western Front where the great majority of aces emerged.
He was awarded a second Military Cross in 1918 for conspicuous action and gallantry in conducting photo reconnaissance and bombing. He conducted a bombing raid in the huge Handley Page 0/400 during the Battle of Armageddon where he destroyed the critical telephone exchange at El Afule and severely damaged the railway junction. He also flew with the famous T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and is praised in Lawrence’s book Seven Pillars of Wisdom for his grit in taking to the skies to drive off enemy aircraft between mouthfuls of breakfast.
By the end of the war, Ross had accumulated more than 600 flying hours and was one of Australia’ most decorated airmen. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross three times to accompany his two Military Crosses. He was later awarded the Air Force Cross for non-operational flying. In the official history of Australian air operations in WWI, F.M. Cutlack wrote that “there was probably no better example of what a fighting pilot should be than the Australian, Ross Smith”.
Following the Armistice, Ross was invited by the two highest ranking Royal Flying Corps officials in the Middle East – Major General W.G.H Salmond and Brigadier General Amyas “Biffy” Borton – on a long-range survey mission in the Handley Page from Cairo to Calcutta. He took two air mechanics with him: Jim Bennett and Wally Shiers, who’d gained valuable experience on the Handley Page’s twin Rolls Royce Eagle VIII engines during the final months of the war.
After enjoying the Viceroy’s Cup horse race in Calcutta, Ross and Biffy joked that they should fly on to Australia for the Melbourne Cup. There was only one problem – after India, airfields were almost non-existent. The British Air Ministry was keenly interested in carving out aviation routes across the Empire, though, and the men were granted permission to travel by ship from India to the Dutch East Indies to scout potential airfields. The first ship, RIMS Sphinx, was laden with 7000 gallons of petrol to deposit at landing sites, and almost killed the men when it exploded into flames on day two. The second, RIMS Minto, safely transported them all the way down to Timor over the following months, with Ross meeting high-level contacts and carrying out landing site reconnaissance that would prove pivotal in the Great Air Race.
Two things happened on their return to India: they learned that the Handley Page had been destroyed in a storm, so there was no possibility of flying on from Calcutta to Australia; and they learned that Billy Hughes had announced a £10,000 prize for the first Australian airmen to fly from London to Darwin, so they needed to high tail it to England and find themselves a new aircraft before any other competitors set off.
Biffy Borton and Ross had become firm friends, so Ross, Wally and Jim were invited to stay at the 15-century Borton family estate ‘Cheveney’ on their arrival in England. Biffy and General Salmond also played an instrumental role in convincing Vickers Aviation to provide Ross with a plane, despite initial reluctance due to the high risk of the pioneering flight to Australia and the fact the company had recently gained massive positive exposure from the first successful trans-Atlantic flight in a Vickers Vimy by Brits John Alock and Arthur Whitten-Brown.
On 12 November 1919, the Smith crew took off from Hounslow in the Vickers Vimy G-EAOU (which Ross joked stood for “God ‘Elp All Of Us”) and set course for France. The weather had been declared totally unfit for all flying but Ross took off anyway, determined to make up ground on popular French aviator Etienne Poulet who was ineligible to win the prizemoney but highly capable of stealing the glory for France. And he was thousands of miles ahead! You’ll find daily posts on the crew’s awe-inspiring flight – including many first-hand accounts from Ross Smith’s memoir 14,000 Miles Through the Air – in our timeline.
On 10 December 1919, after covering 18,500km and spending 135 hours in the air over 27 days and 20 hours, the Vimy landed in Darwin. Telegrams streamed in from around the world:
In Adelaide, The Advertiser quickly informed Jessie Smith of the news at her home in Stephen Terrace, Walkerville. “Oh thank you, thank you,” she said, and The Advertiser noted that “the tone in which the phrase was uttered was more expressive than the words convey”. Immediately afterwards the news was transmitted to the Lord Mayor from The Advertiser office, and a “merry peal was rung from the Town Hall bells in honour of the marvellous feat performed by the gallant young Adelaide aviators”.
The four men became national heroes (and household names internationally) and within a fortnight Ross and Keith were knighted for their achievement by King George V.
When Ross received the £10,000 winner’s cheque he immediately split it four ways – a gesture which went a long way to ensuring the mechanics would be better recognised than merely receiving a bar to their Air Force Medal. Upon discharge from active service later that year, both were made honourary lieutenants in the AIF Reserve of Officers.
Over the next two years the Smith brothers were mobbed wherever they went, with Ross speaking in lecture halls to hundreds of thousands of people across Australia, New Zealand and the UK. He was inundated with marriage proposals and feted by politicians, socialites and royalty alike. As Ross Smith biographer Michael Molkentin writes in Anzac & Aviator, a portrait of Ross painted in 1920, and now hanging in the Australian War Memorial, suggests Ross “seems to have been diminished, not magnified, by fame”. “The artist, William McInnes, represents Ross as weary and worn thin by four years of war, a flight halfway around the globe and six months living in the glare of publicity,” Molkentin writes. “His hair is receding and his distinctive hooded eyes seem tired – perhaps even sad; he looks considerably older than his 28 years.”
Tragically, Ross died in front of his brother in an aircraft accident on 14 April 1922 at Weybridge in England, where he was test flying a Vickers Viking amphibious aircraft ahead of an around-the-world endurance flight. Jim Bennett was in the plane with him, while Keith missed the test flight after being delayed in London. He arrived to see the plane nose-diving to the ground. The coronor ruled that the men died “by misadventure”, while – as noted in Anzac & Aviator – the Air Council attributed the accident to “an error of judgement” that resulted from Ross’s inexperience with the Viking and limited hours in the air since the epic flight.
A large memorial service was held at St Clement Danes, the church of the Royal Air Force in central London, before Keith escorted the bodies home. After lying in state at Adelaide’s St Peter’s Cathedral, Ross was buried at North Road Cemetery on 15 June 1922. It’s estimated that 100,000 people – one fifth of the state’s population – lined the streets to pay their respects as his casket was conveyed on an aeroplane trailer to the cemetery. His devastated mother Jessie told reporters: “Before Ross died he belonged to us, but now he belongs to the Empire.”
A shilling fund was established for the creation of a monument to commemorate South Australia’s “most famous son” and his pioneering flight from England to Australia. British sculptor Frederick Brook Hitch won a competition to design the statue – which was bronze sculpted in Ross’s image on a base of granite sourced from Murray Bridge. Completed in August 1927, the monument was unveiled in Adelaide’s Creswell Gardens on 10 December 1927 by Lieutenant-Governor Sir George Murray, with three Royal Australian Air Force aircraft circling overheard and surviving Vickers Vimy crew members Keith Smith and Wally Shiers in attendance. Creswell Gardens, beside Adelaide Oval, was chosen as a fitting location for the memorial because Sir Ross had advocated that very site for the construction of a monument in honour of those who’d served in the 3rd Light Horse Brigade. The statue gazes towards Mount Lofty, where the Vimy was first spotted when the Smith crew flew into Adelaide on 23 March 1920.
Written and researched by Lainie Anderson, author of Long Flight Home.