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Charles Kingsford Smith

Portrait of Sir Charles Edward Kingsford Smith.

Unknown, Portrait of Sir Charles Edward Kingsford Smith, between 1919 and 1927. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia: 3302805.

Sir Charles Kingsford Smith's love of excitement led to career as a pilot. But his spirit of adventure led to him being called the world's greatest pilot. He set many world flight records during his time and the mystery surrounding his disappearance off the coast of Rangoon in South-East Asia only added to his enduring fame.

A flying ace is born

Charles Kingsford Smith was born in Hamilton (a suburb of Brisbane), Queensland, in 1897. He enjoyed working with his hands and when he turned thirteen, he started at the Sydney Technical College studying mechanics and electrical engineering. He was an active young man and owned a motorbike, preferring to ride it instead of studying and school work.

When World War One began in 1914, like many other young Australians at the time, Kingsford Smith was eager to join up. His daring, adventurous nature made him keen to see some action. So, on his 18th birthday, he enlisted in the AIF.

Kingsford Smith was sent to Gallipoli, where he fought for a while and also worked as a despatch-rider on a motorbike. Later, he was selected to join Britain's Royal Flying Corps, a new unit that was formed to fly aircraft that were being used in battle for the first time.

While he was in training he wrote home to his parents: 'I have discovered one thing about flying and that is that my future, for whatever it may be worth, is bound up with it.' He received his wings in 1917 and served in the skies over France.

Kingsford Smith took quickly to flying planes, which were very primitive by today's standards. These aircraft were made of wood, fabric and wire. They were difficult to fly, unreliable and dangerous. On one of his missions, he was shot in the foot when his plane was attacked by the enemy. As a result, he had several toes amputated. This injury meant the end of his military career. He was only twenty years old, but his gallant and heroic efforts saw him receive the Military Cross.

He then made his way to America, where he worked as a stunt pilot in Hollywood for several years. The film industry was just beginning and although the work was very dangerous, it was exciting and gave him an opportunity to indulge his first love – flying planes. However, the work was too risky even for Kingsford Smith and he returned to Australia after a colleague died during a particularly daring stunt.

The beginning of the legend

The Southern Cross on its arrival in Sydney from the flight across the Pacific, 10 June 1928

Unknown, The Southern Cross on its arrival in Sydney from the flight across the Pacific, 10 June 1928, photograph: B&W. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an24664462.

On his return to Australia, Kingsford Smith joined the newly formed West Australian Airways and flew planes long distances to remote outback locations, delivering mail and supplies. Flights piloted by Kingsford Smith were the first regular mail service between Geraldton and Derby. In 1926, with another pilot, C T P Ulm, he completed a round-Australia flight in 10 days and 5 hours. This was half the time it had taken earlier pilots. It was during this time that he began to focus on his first major flying goal – to pilot an aircraft across the Pacific, the earth's largest ocean.

In 1926 Kingsford Smith and Ulm travelled to the United States. They were in search of a plane that would enable them to make the long return trip to Australia – a feat that had never been achieved before. They purchased a Fokker VIIb-3m, which they renamed the Southern Cross, and a legend was born.

The Southern Cross weighed over 6000 kg. Its wingspan was 23 metres, it was about 15 metres long and just under 4 metres high. It had a cruising speed of just 93 miles per hour (about 150 kilometres per hour). In contrast, today's commercial planes cruise at speeds between 500 and 950 kilometres per hour.

The crew consisted of two pilots, one navigator and one radio operator. In order for the crew to keep in contact with others, they used three radio transmitter sets and two separate receivers. Navigation was aided by four compasses. The crew ensured they were well prepared for an emergency and had plans in place in the event the aircraft crashed into the ocean. They decided they would dump what fuel was left in the fuel tanks (which were housed in the wings) and use the wings as rafts. On the plane they loaded distress signals, water and enough food to last for just a week.

The first leg of their long journey began in Oakland, California, and took them to Hawaii. Although this leg took over 27 hours, everything went to plan and was uneventful for the crew. The next stage of the trip was over 3,000 miles and would take them to Suva in Fiji. On this leg, they encountered severe storms and Kingsford Smith, in charge of the aircraft, fought until he was exhausted before handing the controls to Ulm. It's amazing to think that although Ulm was a proficient flyer, he was not actually a licensed pilot. Thirty three hours after take off they arrived in Fiji, battered and tired, but safe. The final leg of their journey was Suva to Brisbane – a relatively short journey, compared to the distances they had already travelled. On their arrival at Brisbane, they were greeted by over 25,000 people who had come to see their hero, 'Smithy', arrive back home.

By this time, the amazing achievements of Smithy and his crew were already a legend. When the four arrived in Sydney just a few days later, over 300,000 people were waiting to cheer them on and marvel at this incredible accomplishment.

The photograph above shows the Southern Cross touching down in Sydney. The four crew members are also pictured. From left to right they are: J. Warner, C T P Ulm, C E Kingsford Smith and H W Lyon.

But Smithy and Ulm were not finished with their adventures – they felt they could take their plane further. Together, they flew the Southern Cross to England. They then flew it across the Atlantic and the continent of North America, returning to Oakland where their first flight began. They had just completed the world's first around-the-world flight.

Sir Charles Kingsford Smith Southern Cross medal

Stokes (Australasia) Ltd, Sir Charles Kingsford Smith Southern Cross medal, struck in 1935 to commemorate the aviator. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia: an6411764.

Smithy's love of flying and competitive spirit saw him tackle many other challenges over the coming years. In 1930, he flew 10,000 miles by himself. During the same year he was married to Mary Powell and together they had a son, Charles. In 1932 he received a knighthood for his services to aviation.

Three years later, in 1933, he broke the record again for solo flight from England to Australia. Sir Charles Kingsford Smith held more flying records than anyone else at that time and was said to be the world's greatest pilot. He was an international celebrity, universally admired for his courage, skill and daring sense of adventure.

Smithy's last flight

In early November 1935, Smithy and a co-pilot, Tommy Pethybridge, left England for Australia in an aircraft called Lady Southern Cross. This plane was a Lockheed Altair. Their trip brought them to India, where they departed the city of Allahabad on their way to Singapore, before the final leg of their journey to Australia. They were recorded as flying over Rangoon (the capital of the country now known as Myanmar), at 1.30am on the 7th of November.

Smithy's plane never made it to Singapore.

The Royal Air Force completed a thorough search of the entire route between Rangoon and Singapore but found no trace of the aircraft. In May 1937, fishermen found its starboard undercarriage leg on the shore of an island south-east of Rangoon.

Sir Charles Kingsford Smith featured on an Australian $20 dollar note

Sir Charles Kingsford Smith featured on an Australian $20 dollar note. Image courtesy of the Reserve Bank of Australia.

A theory was developed that Smithy had flown into a rocky peak on the island, which in turn sent the aircraft into the sea. Many years later in 1983, an Australian expedition to the island searched for the wreck of Smithy's plan on the floor of the ocean near the island, but no trace of the Lady Southern Cross was found.

Today, the memory of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and his amazing accomplishments remains alive through numerous memorials throughout Australia. Best known among these is the Kingsford Smith memorial near Brisbane Airport, not far from where he was born. As well as providing a history of his life and adventures, the memorial is home to his plane, the Southern Cross. It is also fitting that Australia's main gateway for international travellers – Sydney's Kingsford Smith Airport – is named in honour of him.

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Last updated: 8 September 2009

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