Image: Biplane on open field surrounded by onlookers

The 1919 Air Race

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 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.