The Great Air Race

The first flight from Britain to Australia in 1919 by the crew of Vickers Vimy G-EAOU is among the greatest feats of vision and courage in aviation history. In the aftermath of the First World War and an influenza pandemic that cost the lives of millions of people, Australia along with the rest of the world was looking toward a brighter future. 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. 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.

Powered flight was less than 16 years old when the Vimy lifted off from snow-covered Hounslow airfield near London on 12 November 1919 to fly 14,250 miles, ending in Adelaide on 23 March 1920. 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. 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.

When the Vimy landed at Darwin on 10 December 1919, aviation in Australia had barely made an impact. Nobody had flown across Bass Strait let alone halfway around the world in what was described as a ‘trans-planet’ flight. The Vimy’s arrival was a ‘lightbulb’ moment that showed the true potential of aviation beyond its military role or as a plaything for the rich. Australians rapidly embraced air travel connecting people and places over vast distances. Australian aviators were the first to cross every major world ocean except the North Atlantic and the Vimy’s flight inspired the formation of Australia’s first international airline.