The Epic Flight

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.

Into Darwin and into history

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 proclaiming him ‘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.

‘The First Aeroplane Voyage from England to Australia’ by Sir Ross Smith.
Ross Smith’s diary of dates, departure times, daily flight duration and distances, published in 14,000 Miles Through The Air (MacMillan & Co, 1922).