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Australia salutes an era when air travel was for the bold

March 22, 2019 Headline News No Comments Email Email

This month is the centenary of one of the most daring and farseeing air travel incentives ever devised – an offer by the Australian Government of a huge monetary prize for the first successful flight from England to Australia, an initiative which spurred the Great Air Race of 1919 and saw the goal achieved.

In March 1919, just four months after World War I had finished, Australia announced it would give a prize of 10,000 Australian pounds to the first aviators to fly, in under 30 days, the flight path that later became known as the Kangaroo Route.

Australia’s pound was pegged to the British pound and the sum is roughly AUD 1 million in today’s money.

The Britain-Australia route is now routinely covered in less than 24 hours – and Qantas serves it non-stop with a B787-9 Dreamliner. A century ago, however, it was a feat that only the brave and skilful dared contemplate.

The winning Vickers Vimy, 1919

With plenty of war surplus aircraft around and intrepid flyers keen to compete, six crews eventually took part in the Great Air Race – but only two crews finished. Two other crews crashed fatally and two more had to withdraw after their aircraft suffered major damage and were no longer airworthy.

The winning team comprised two brothers from South Australia, Ross and Keith Smith, and their mechanics James Bennett and Wally Shiers, flying a Vickers Vimy biplane, a two-engined former bomber. It flew at speeds not much faster than a car on a highway.

Members of the winning crew standing in front of their Vickers Vimy biplane, a twin-engined bomber. Identified are, from left to right: Sir Keith Smith; Sir Ross Smith; Sergeant (Sgt) Jim Bennett and Sgt Wally Shiers. Australian War Memorial 

The History Trust of South Australia has designed a website to commemorate the centenary of their feat.

The men were true heroes. Ross Smith had joined the Australian Light Horse and fought in Gallipoli and at the battle of Romani. He joined the fledgling Australian Flying Corps (AFC) in Egypt in 1916 and war’s end was an Air Ace, one of Australia’s most decorated airmen. He had even served as pilot to Lawrence of Arabia.

Keith Smith had served in the Royal Flying Corps and was an expert navigator – the perfect companion for his brother Ross during the gruelling Great Air Race, a true test of endurance. Air mechanics Jim Bennett and Wally Shiers had also fought in World War I. Bennett was from Victoria and Shiers was from South Australia.

The Vimy with its crew of four Australians lifted off from London’s Hounslow Heath at 8am on 12 November 1919.

The plane flew via Lyon, Rome, Cairo, Damascus, Basra, Karachi and Delhi to Calcutta (now Kolkata). It landed at Akyab (now known as Sittwe and the capital of Rakhine State in Myanmar).

It landed at Rangoon (Yangon) racecourse and made an unscheduled landing in heavy rain at Singora (Songkhla) in Thailand. It pressed on to Singapore, then Batavia (now known as Jakarta) and Surabaya, where the aircraft was bogged. To take off on the last leg, the Vimy had to use a temporary airstrip made from bamboo mats.

On the spot they landed. ‘First Flight from England to Australia by Australians’ Monument in Darwin.

The plane lifted off, roared into the air and reached Darwin at 4.10pm on 10 December 1919. The flight distance was estimated as 17,911 kilometres and total flying time was 135 hours 55 minutes. The average speed was not much faster than a car: 131.8 km/h (81.9 mph).

With the prize won, the team split the prizemoney four ways equally.

The Smith brothers each received a knighthood for their exploit. They presented their aircraft to the Australian government and it is now displayed at Adelaide Airport.

Written by Peter Needham

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