On this day: first crossing of Australia by hot air balloon

By Matt Ingles | June 18, 2014

On a cold night on 18 June 1993 entrepreneur Dick Smith floated into the history books – making the first non-stop flight across Australia in a hot air balloon.

IT WAS LATE in the evening on 18 JUNE 1993 when Australian entrepreneur and adventurer Dick Smith and his balloonist John Wallington landed in a paddock just north of the village of Tabulam on the Clarence River in northern New South Wales. That thud onto the grass of a paddock would mark the first non-stop flight across the nation in a hot air balloon.

After they clambered wearily out of the balloon’s basket one of the first people to meet up with them was nine-year-old Setina Greenwood from nearby Bonalbo. “My dad is an adventure-seeker and naturally was drawn to the event,” remembers Selina, now 30.

“We drove [towards the site] with our heads out of the window looking to the sky to see the balloon, whilst listening to the radio for any updates. We arrived just in time to see the landing on a farm property and jumped the fence and ran down a slight hill, eager to meet the famous adventurers. My Dad ran over and helped Dick whilst my sisters and I all jumped on the balloon as it landed on the ground.”

The race to be the first balloonist across Australia

Dick Smith and John Wallington had set off in their Australian Geographic Flyer balloon almost two days earlier from Carnarvon in Western Australia at 10:52am and didn’t touch land till they reached Tabulam in New South Wales, 4000km away, over 40 hours later.

Undoubtedly a tired Dick and John would have been happy for the help from Selina and her family. On landing Dick was heard saying, “We did it. I can’t believe it”. And when asked about how it had been his response was a wry, “bloody hard”.

It had been a speedier than expected trip, but it had started off with some heart-stopping reality. Only 10 minutes into the flight the balloon began heading west out into the Indian Ocean. But after 15 minutes of heart-in-mouth fiddling with the burners, they managed to change direction and the trip went without any further dramas.

The balloon was about 6km above the ground for most of the journey, speeding along on westerly winds at between 150 and 188 km/h. Despite toughing out almost two days in the air John remembers ecstatic times along the journey. “It was great fun to sit on the $2 deckchair on the completely open ‘sun deck’ as we sped along in the Jetstream,” he told Australian Geographic recently.  

The seed for this adventure was planted in 1984 when Dick read about Julian Nott’s failed attempt to cross from Pearce in WA, to western NSW. In 1991 Dick decided to throw his hat into the ring and in November 1992 he would be further fuelled by a challenge from fellow balloonist Phil Kavanagh, who is still Australia’s only hot air balloon manufacturer.

Phil’s balloon took off just over two weeks before Dick and John were to depart; however, he was forced to land near Windorah in Queensland.  

Record-breaking ballooning continued

Dick and John would go on to another record-breaking trip in 2000, becoming the first people to fly in a hot air balloon from New Zealand to Australia. Many of the objects used in this flight are on display at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.

The Kyogle Local Council (which oversees Tabulam), is planning on having the site where the balloon landed declared a historic site, with an information bay and rest area opposite the landing site to be established by the 25th anniversary in 2018.

And, both adventurers continue to fly to this day. While Dick has more recently turned his efforts to light aircraft, John continues to fly hot air balloons and offers instruction for keen learners in Alice Springs. Though there are plans for the adventurers team up again and fly across the Atlantic Ocean, from Africa to South America, though there is no set timeframe for this to occur.