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THROUGH THE CHILLY darkness of an early Sunday morning in March 2018, a Qantas 787-9 Dreamliner landed at London’s Heathrow Airport to complete a historic milestone in Australian aviation history. The 17-hour non-stop journey of QF9 from Australia was “game-changing”, said Alan Joyce, Qantas Chief Executive and a passenger on board.

A Qantas 747 Jumbo had made an experimental flight without a break to Sydney in 1999, but QF9 from Perth to London was the first flight of a regular non-stop service between Australia and England. Alan Joyce was right: for Australians at least, the new 14,498km route was a major step forward in global interconnectedness.

Stepping back almost 100 years to the dawn of long-distance aviation, the first aircraft to fly between the two countries took roughly 40 times longer than QF9 to complete a comparable journey from London to Darwin. But rather than being a mere game-changer for 1919, that first flight was a monumental groundbreaker, arguably one of the greatest single advances in aviation history.

Andy Thomas, Australian astronaut and veteran of four space missions for NASA, describes the 1919 feat as the “moon landing of its day”. Yet the Australians who first flew halfway around the planet are today unjustly absent from the pantheon of national heroes, and, beyond the ken of aviation historians, their daring deeds are often overlooked.

PRIME MINISTER Billy Hughes claimed to speak for “60,000 dead” Australians at the end of World War I in 1918. Through that battlefield blood sacrifice, Australia was, at Hughes’s insistence, entitled to its own seat at the diplomatic table, a seat he himself would occupy.

While peace negotiations proceeded through early 1919 at Versailles, the pugnacious and energetic Hughes was flown back and forth from London to Paris in a converted Handley Page bomber.

A passion for aviation and its peacetime potential was taking hold in Hughes’s mind. New deeds, he sensed, rather than old exhortations to honour, were needed to reinvigorate the bonds of Empire after four terrible years of conflict.

The previous Christmas, Hughes had visited wounded Australian troops at Cobham Hall in Kent. Eager to return home, some of the airmen dreamt of flying their aircraft –  their “machines”, as they were known at the time – all the way to Australia. At first, Hughes thought the idea too risky.

In 1918 no aircraft had yet crossed an ocean, let alone flown anything like the immense distances needed to reach Australia. They were now not being shot at, but aircraft still fell from the sky with depressing frequency.

Ross Smith flies the Vimy over Adelaide,
23 March 1920. The intersection of North Terrace and King William Street can clearly be seen below. Mechanical problems in the NT and QLD meant the Vimy took more than three times as long to cross Australia than it took to fly from England to Darwin. A daring Keith Smith took this photograph standing on the edge of the cockpit. (Image credit: Keith Smith/State library of South Australia)

The idea nevertheless persisted, and in February 1919 Hughes cabled his cabinet back in Melbourne with a proposal. Acting prime minister William Watt responded officially a month later: “With a view to stimulating aerial activity, the Commonwealth Government has decided to offer £10,000 for the first successful flight to Australia from Great Britain.”

In his appeals to cabinet, Hughes claimed the venture would “concentrate the eyes of the world on us”. That undoubtedly would be so, but what if the latest breed of flying machines proved incapable of reaching Australia? The whole thing could turn into a tragic flop, and nearly did. With his government facing an election later in 1919, Hughes, despite his post-war popularity, was taking a significant political risk.

The government’s offer matched a standing prize staked in 1913 by London’s Daily Mail newspaper for a trans-Atlantic crossing. Delayed by war, it was not until June 1919 that John Alcock and Arthur Brown in a modified Vickers Vimy bomber successfully crossed the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Ireland. The pair spent more than 15 hours above turbulent waves, demonstrating that a flight to Australia might be feasible.

Inevitably, the naysayers back home were quick to savage Hughes’s idea. Melbourne’s The Age dismissed the race as a “circus”, and a “poorly disguised attempt at self-advertisement” by the government. “As usual,” The Age whined, “the person who pays is left wondering what practical value he is to get out of the generous spending of his money.”

Its equally stuffy rival, The Argus, thought government encouragement was unnecessary, because “private enterprise may be trusted to develop aviation”.

With no appreciation of the dangers ahead, The Argus commented that the “achievement would, after war experiences, be something of a commonplace in aviation.” With typical bush terseness The Cowra Free Press felt that as many politicians as possible should be bundled aboard the “experimental voyage” and left “somewhere else”.

But come what may, the race was on.

The Vickers Vimy MkIV bomber (G-EAOU).

RULES WERE QUICKLY drafted and refined by the UK’s Royal Aero Club. Only Australian airmen were eligible for the prize; they had to supply their own British-made machine; a time limit of

30 days was set; and all entrants were to depart from Hounslow Heath Aerodrome west of London or, for any seaplanes entered, Calshot near Portsmouth. Darwin was set as the end point, and the prize would remain open until the end of 1920.

Six Australian crews duly entered the race. Most of the men had seen service with the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) over the Western Front or the Middle East. A seventh, unofficial, entry came from French aviator Étienne Poulet.

From the start, the trials and tribulations of each entry made a mockery of the armchair judges and their “commonplace” dismissal of the event. Apart from daily confronting the nerve-racking fragility of their machines, the airmen had to fly in open cockpits through a freezing European winter and storm-tossed Asian monsoon.

When they chose to land, or had an emergency descent forced upon them, stretches of open ground that even remotely passed for an airstrip would be terrifyingly scarce. In the end, only two aircraft to attempt the flight completed it.

On 21 October, the first machine left Hounslow and soon faced trouble. The Sopwith Wallaby (G-EAKS) of George Matthews and Thomas Kay was delayed by engine trouble and storms while crossing Europe, and, as wartime tensions lingered, the pair was temporarily imprisoned as suspected Bolsheviks in Yugoslavia. Their journey came to an abrupt end with a crash in Bali in April 1920.

Three weeks after Matthews and Kay departed Hounslow, the race claimed its first casualties. On 13 November 1919, Roger Douglas and Leslie Ross were killed when their Alliance P2 Seabird (G-EAOX), named Endeavour, spiralled out of control shortly after take-off, also from Hounslow.

Another disaster was narrowly averted on 8 December, when a Blackburn Kangaroo (G-EAOW), whose crew included Arctic explorer and fearless battlefield photographer Hubert Wilkins, crash-landed near a mental asylum in Crete. A series of inexplicable problems, including engine oil contaminated with iron filings, led the crew to suspect, but never prove, foul play.

Then, a day after the Blackburn Kangaroo’s race ended, tragedy struck a second time. A Martinsyde Type A MkI (G-EAMR), flown by Cedric Howell and George Fraser, ditched into the sea near the Greek island of Corfu. Both men drowned.

By 10 December just three aircraft remained. One was within hours of staking its place in history; in contrast, the Sopwith Wallaby staggered on, while a third machine was yet to start.

Even after the race had been won, an Airco DH.9 (G-EAQM), flown by Ray Parer and John McIntosh, took off from Hounslow in January, determined to reach Australia. They flew over Mt Vesuvius, where billowing hot air “caused them to drop 600ft in a few seconds”.

The machine twice caught fire and in Syria they fought off hostile Arabs. The pair took nearly seven months to complete their journey. Having succeeded against all expectations, McIntosh and ‘Battling Ray’ Parer received a hero’s welcome and were awarded consolation prizes of £500 each.

Theirs had been the first flight to reach Australia in a single-engine aircraft. And, symbolically at least, they also transported the first airfreight from England – a carefully stowed bottle of whisky from the DH9’s sponsor, Scottish distilling baron Peter Dawson. The whisky was a gift intended for Billy Hughes.

Taken on 14 February 1920 over Sydney, this image of Ross and Keith Smith was made by Frank Hurley while sitting in the Vimy’s gunner’s cockpit. The two mechanics are squeezed into the rear. (Image credit: Keith SMith/State library of South Australia)

As Parer and McIntosh started their perilous trek, the winning aircraft had been in Australia for almost a month. That momentous achievement had been realised on the afternoon of Wednesday 10 December 1919, when a Vickers Vimy MkIV bomber (G-EAOU), similar to that used by Alcock and Brown to traverse the Atlantic about six months earlier, “crossed the coast of Australia at twenty minutes past three o’clock” after a six-hour flight from Timor.

The Northern Territory Times and Gazette reported that “less than half an hour later it had landed…and the longest [flight] in the history of the world, was over.”

The extraordinary achievement took 135 hours in the air and came 27 days and 20 hours after taking off from a snow-covered Hounslow. On board were: South Australian pilot Ross Smith; his co-pilot, navigator, cameraman and older brother, Keith; and mechanics Walter ‘Wally’ Shiers (also from SA) and Jim Bennett from Victoria.

The team finally landed at a makeshift aerodrome hacked from scrub alongside Fannie Bay Gaol. Darwin’s population was then less than 1500, but Ross Smith estimated “about 2,000…ordinary citizens” turned out to greet them. Such was the frenzy of excitement surrounding the Vimy’s arrival, he could be forgiven a little exaggeration.

Through THEIR JOURNEY, Smith and his fellow pioneering aviators struggled with iced-up goggles and frozen flying suits over the Alps and were battered by sandstorms at Baghdad.

To save weight they flew without a radio receiver, making weather predictions guesswork. Their only navigational aids were a handheld compass and rudimentary maps, and, when flying blind above cloud or over water and featureless terrain, Keith relied on dead reckoning to approximate their position. 

Ross worried the undercarriage might be wrenched off by tree stumps erupting from a rough-hewn jungle airstrip at Singora in Siam (Thailand). He remarked it was “by the merciful guidance of Providence” that they came to rest safely. He had previously quipped that the registration, G-EAOU, stood for “God ’Elp All Of Us”.

The Vimy was nearly bogged without hope at Pisa in Italy and at Surabaya in the Dutch East Indies, where locals solved the problem by stripping bamboo matting from their houses to make a take-off strip. Such were the trials of just a few of their 14 originally planned stops and 11 unscheduled landings en route to Darwin.

As the race wore on, Poulet and his mechanic Jean Benoist in their Caudron G4 biplane looked like they might upstage the Vimy. On 14 November, The Sydney Morning Herald fretted that “if Poulet maintains his present rate of flight…chances of an Australian airman beating him…will depend on a possible accident”. The newspaper need not have worried.

Finally overtaken by the Vimy, Poulet abandoned his flight after a “vulture dashed into his machine” in southern Burma [Myanmar]. The Vimy forged ahead, its twin Rolls Royce Eagle VIII engines droning on and on, and on.

The fabric-covered Vickers FB-27A Vimy MkIV (G-EAOU) had a wingspan of 20.7m and a length of 13.3m. Powered by two Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII water-cooled 360hp (270kW) V12 engines, and with an extra fuel tank installed, “petrol capacity would carry us for 13 hours at a cruising speed of 80 miles an hour (128.7kph)”, Ross Smith wrote. (Image credit: Keith SMith/State library of South Australia)

Billy Hughes’s “eyes of the world” on Australia prediction was fulfilled as news of the Vimy’s journey was keenly followed. When it reached Darwin, The New York Times called Ross Smith the “foremost living aviator”.

The flight was described in the House of Lords as an “epoch in history”. As well as being a momentous aviation accomplishment, the flight marked the birth of airmail. The Vimy carried 364 self-addressed envelopes from well-wishers hoping for a souvenir of the great event. Once in Australia, specially printed “First Aerial Mail – England to Australia” labels were added then cancelled with local postmarks and crewmembers signed the envelopes. These Ross Smith “Vignettes”, were Australia’s  first commemorative philatelic items.

Sweetly fresh-faced, Ross Smith was only 25 at war’s end, yet in those four years he had become one of Australia’s most celebrated soldiers and airmen. The ribbons above his left breast pocket told a story of conspicuous valour on land and in the air, with the award of the Military Cross twice, and the Distinguished Flying Cross three times. Smith had fought at Gallipoli, and in the bloody victory over the Turks at Romani in Egypt in 1916.

The following year, he volunteered for the AFC in Palestine. With No.1 Squadron, Smith undertook daring bombing raids, fighter attacks and aerial photographic missions. In 1918 he befriended Frank Hurley, Australia’s official photographer during the Middle East campaign. Hurley described Smith as a “born bird-man…perfectly en rapport with his machine”.

War had been quieter for Ross’s brother, Keith. Rejected as medically unfit in Australia, he paid his own way to England where he joined the Royal Flying Corps, but was forced to cool his heels as an instructor. Nevertheless, by the time of the race, Keith was both a skilled pilot and an experienced navigator.

Immediately post-war, Ross had flown a Handley Page bomber to India, then surveyed a possible route further east to Australia by sea. Connections to the upper echelons of the military, and Ross’s knowledge of the route, opened the hangar doors to the great long-range bomber of Vickers Limited. While other entrants struggled to find sponsors and suitable aircraft, the Smith brothers were already miles ahead and probably always going to win.

The Vimy didn’t linger in Darwin. The glory of its arrival turned to frustration, first in the Northern Territory and later in Queensland when a delaminating propeller and engine trouble forced a lay-up of more than seven weeks. The delay allowed Frank Hurley to join his old friend Ross Smith and fly in and photograph the onwards progress of the machine that had, he said, “obliterated space”.

The Vimy reached Sydney on 14 February 1920, and Melbourne a week later. Huge crowds gathered to greet the four celebrity aviators, their every move reported at length.

Knighthoods pended for the officer brothers. But the “master mechanics”, who’d taken the same risks and used their ingenuity to keep the Vimy flying, only had bars added to their existing Air Force Medals (AFM). Promotions to lieutenant came much later. In Melbourne, an exultant Billy Hughes presented the winner’s cheque to Ross Smith, and, in a more egalitarian gesture than that of officialdom, he distributed the prize in four equal shares.

After Melbourne, the Vimy made its final flight, westwards to an adoring Adelaide; a glorious return for the crew’s three South Australians and for Ross, there was a “greatest-of-all” homecoming to his parents after “five long years”.

In a tragic postscript, Ross Smith and Jim Bennett followed the same fatal path as so many young pioneering aviators. Both died in a crash in 1922 while preparing to fly around the world, their hopes snuffed out in a Viking, another Vickers machine.

The “supreme pinnacle of wisdom…greatest of all things… since the dawn of Kings”, Frank Hurley gushed on meeting the Vimy at Charleville. But after the Vimy’s flying days were done, its story has not always befitted such a queen of the skies.

For a time, it was displayed in Sydney and Melbourne, where competing embryonic war museums coveted it as a prime exhibit. By 1941 the Vimy was in Canberra at the newly opened Australian War Memorial (AWM).

There it might have remained, but as WWII ended, the AWM was flooded with new acquisitions and quickly ran out of room for such large artefacts. Amid much “bureaucratic finger pointing in Canberra, no-one really wanted it,” says Mike Milln, from the SA Aviation Museum.

Because three of the four members of the Vimy’s crew were from SA, its fate was very much the concern of the proud people of that state.

In 1957 a public appeal raised £30,000 and plans to honour the Vimy’s crew became a reality. It was to be moved to Adelaide to be the centrepiece of a memorial at the entrance to the city’s new airport. Dismantled and loaded on two semitrailers, the Vimy headed for its new home, but one vehicle caught fire en route. The doped fabric “went up like a torch”, Mike says. The propellers, and the entire upper wing, and outer lower wings, were destroyed.

Restored and cocooned in a purpose-built, air-conditioned hangar at Adelaide Airport for several decades, the Vimy enthralled all who took a close look. Then as air traffic increased, redevelopment of the airport followed. A new terminal was opened in 2005.

The Vimy remained in the same location, but rather than gracing the main entrance, the airport’s reconfigured layout consigned it to the staff car park. Out of sight, and out of mind for many, it faded from view, its latter-day obscurity made worse by the installation of solid protective screens to save the aircraft’s fragile fabric from the ravages of ultraviolet light.   

Growing up in Adelaide, Andy Thomas remembers being awestruck by “this huge, wonderful biplane” at the airport.His illustrious aeronautical engineering career launched in the shadow of the Vimy’s wings, Andy, on his first NASA mission in 1996, carried the diminutive wings from the Smith brothers’ uniforms into space.

The wings are but scraps of cloth, yet their intrinsic worth is profound. Andy believed that such a deeply symbolic act would “inspire a new generation” and help restore the Vimy crew to their deserved place in Australian history.

Now another symbolic, yet concrete, act of a totally different order is being played out in Adelaide. As Australia’s fifth busiest airport, Adelaide handles more than 8 million domestic and international passenger movements a year. The facility has outgrown its previous redevelopment, and a second phase of expansion is underway.

Brenton Cox from Adelaide Airport Ltd, lessees and managers of the facility since 1998, says that in contemplating the Vimy’s future his company concluded “we’ve got to do better”. There are now plans to move the aircraft to an “entirely new atmospheric environment” in a second terminal.

 In total contrast to its glory days with wings “armoured with ice”, or enduring tropical rains that “smote like hail” – as Ross Smith put it – light, temperature, humidity and even vibration will be controlled to museum standards.

By necessity, the Vimy will remain in a “bubble”, Brenton says. But it will be seen from many angles, including from above and from outside, and be located close to the terminal’s busiest areas. He admits “this is hard work…this is a big, very fragile aircraft…old and precious”.

The Vimy will again need to be dismantled and reassembled and the work on the aircraft and the bespoke environment in which it will be housed come at significant cost.

Major events in 2019 have helped loosen public purse strings to make the Vimy’s final move a reality. With a federal election and the air race centenary in the same year, both major political parties promised $2 million towards the move if elected. This figure was matched by the SA government and Adelaide Airport, making a total pool of $6 million.

After Sir Ross Smith’s 1922 death, the 1919 England to Australia race – with all its triumphs and tragedies, daring and drama – faded from view like an old biplane slowly sputtering towards the horizon.

Commemorative events late this year to mark what is officially known as the “Epic Flight Centenary” will surely bring that metaphorical biplane roaring back overhead. And with the move of the Vimy by 2021 the remarkable legacy of four brave Australians will finally be accorded the true stature it deserves.

The program notes for a Sydney concert given in honour of the Smiths in February 1920 floridly proclaimed:

A message from the motherland they brought to us on high,

To bind us with a triple bond of earth and sea and sky;

And show to all the wondering world Britannia rules the air –

When the first flight is made to Mars, Australia Will Be There!

Forget Britannia and the motherland. If Ross and Keith Smith, Jim Bennett and Wally Shiers were around today, that flight to Mars would surely be theirs!