Sir Charles Kingsford Smith remembered

By Natsumi Penberthy 5 November 2013
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The record-breaking aviator’s life, and why he was mourned around the world after his mysterious disappearance.

SIR CHARLES KINGSFORD SMITH is best remembered for the mystery that surrounds his disappearance mid-flight in 1935. But, he should also be remembered for the feats that made him the world’s poster-boy for daring aviation: a series of flights throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s in the ground-breaking aircraft of the day.

His short 38-year life is marked by a decorated performance during WWI, more than a dozen record-breaking flights, a sometimes larrikin reputation and wide, confident smile.

“Although it is little more than seven years since Sir Charles Kingsford Smith loomed big in public importance through his part in the first Trans-Pacific flight, he has gone on from deed to deed until he must be placed as one of the greatest airman the world has seen,” said The Sydney Morning Herald two days after his disappearance in on 7 November 1935. “His is a loss that this country, so dependent on air-minded men of action, can ill afford, and the whole of Australia will await with anxiety for further news of his discovery and rescue by the searchers”.

Kingsford Smith: the indestructible aviator

Charles disappeared on his way to Singapore whilst attempting to break the record for the fastest flight from England to Australia. The search that was launched to find the airman – who had become both a British and Australian national hero – involved more than 75 men (his body was never found. See “On this day: Aviation’s golden-boy disappears”).

“The search for ‘Smithy’ was the greatest land-sea search of all-time at that point,” says historian Peter FitzSimons, who wrote a 2010 book on Kingsford Smith’s life. “Ships and planes, and people in outposts. It went for two weeks before it started to fade.”

“There was a view that he was indestructible,” says Peter. “There’s no way he could be dead. They retained hope for years after…The British Empire was still in existence and [he] was a [British] national icon.”

In his short-but-glamorous life ‘Smithy’ was famous for being a war hero, stuntman, airline owner, postman and fearless aviator in the golden age of flying. Although his wife Mary was finally granted a death certificate in March 1936, 7 November is the best guess we have on the actual date of his demise.