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Hounslow, England

12 November, 1919

South Australian brothers Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith, with mechanics Wally Shiers (SA) and Jim Bennett (Vic), departed Hounslow aerodrome in the Vickers Vimy at 9.05am. The official weather report said “totally unfit for all flying”. But Ross took off anyway, fearing the onset of the European winter and determined to catch Frenchman Etienne Poulet, who had a huge head-start in the race to Australia. A fierce snowstorm over France forced Ross to take the Vickers Vimy G-EAOU to 9,000ft. Their goggles froze, their gauges froze – even their sandwiches froze! His navigator brother Keith, unable to make out any landmarks below, sat with a compass and marked tiny lines on a map to indicate the Vimy’s approximate location. After six long hours, Ross spotted a break in the clouds and spiraled down, to find they were only 40 miles from their destination in Lyon. Ross later wrote he was “a silly ass” for taking off in such appalling conditions. But they’d survived day one! You can read Sir Ross Smith’s personal account of the race in The National Geographic Magazine by clicking here.

The Vimy crew just before departure from the snow-covered Hounslow aerodrome with a small group of well-wishers including aircraft designer Rex Pierson (he’s the tall man in the black coat and hat, fifth from the right). Prince Albert sent a message: “May good fortune attend you in your sporting attempt.” SLSA PRG 1701/1/1].

Hounslow Heath today. Photo: Lainie Anderson