It is amazing how aviation in Australian has evolved over the last 125 years, from Lawrence Hargrave who on the 12th of November 1894, launched himself in a seat strung below four box kites at Stanwell Park south of Sydney, proving it was possible to maintain aloft in a heavier than air contraption, to well known escapologist Harry Houdini (Ehrich Weiss) who, on the 18th March 1910, in a Voisin biplane at Diggers Rest in Victoria, is recognised as making Australia’s first powered flight. But undoubtedly one of the most significant events in our aviation history has to be the Great Air Race of 1919.
What was The Great Air Race?
Following the end of the First World War, Australian aviators leaving England and Europe for repatriation home to Australia made it known that they would prefer to fly home instead of returning by ship on that long journey by sea.
Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes was flying between England and France attending the Paris Peace Conference when he is said to have thought of the idea to hold a Great Air Race from England to Australia.
So in March 1919, just four months after the war was over, the Australian Government announced that it would reward a £A10,000 prize for the first successful flight by an Australian aviator in a British built aircraft from England to Australia – the timeframe – 30 days or less.
It was a smart move by Billy Hughes, as not only was the advertised £A10,000 prize a considerable sum of money in 1919, but the publicity the race was to bring would not only put Australia on the world map, but raise interest in an emerging aviation industry both globally and in Australia. To travel long distance in Australia usually meant taking coastal ships, trains or travelling roads of dubious condition, so why not promote flying to cover the vast distances and bolster a post war emerging aircraft manufacturing industry. The race would eventually be a catalyst to opening up the world to air mail, international passenger services and quick reliable cargo transport.
Due to the availability of surplus British built wartime aircraft and an abundance of spare parts, eventually six Australian crews entered The Great Air Race. It was on!
The teams consisted of the following:
Vickers Vimy (G-EAOU) – pilot Captain Ross Macpherson Smith with his brother Lieutenant Keith Macpherson Smith as co-pilot and mechanics Sergeant W.H. (Wally) Shiers and J.M. (Jim) Bennett.
Airco DH.9 (G-EAQM) – pilot Lieutenant Ray Parer, with co-pilot Lieutenant John C. McIntosh
Sopwith Wallaby (G-EAKS) – pilot Captain George Campbell Matthews AFC and Sergeant Thomas D. Kay as mechanic.
Blackburn Kangaroo (G-EAOW) – pilot Lieutenant V. Rendle with Captain Wilkins, Lieutenant D.R. Williams and Lieutenant Garnsey St. C. Potts as crew. Charles Kingsford Smith, later of Southern Cross fame, had been selected as the navigator but withdrew from the race.
Martinsyde Type A Mk.I (G-EAMR) – piloto Captain Cedric E. Howell and Lieutenant George Henry Fraser.
Alliance P.2 Seabird (G-EAOX) – pilot Lieutenant Roger M. Douglas, MC DCM and Lieutenant J.S.L. Ross.
Only two crews and their aircraft were to eventually complete The Great Air Race – the Vickers Vimy G-EAOU, winning the £A10,000 prize, which is on display at Adelaide Airport, plus Airco DH.9 G-EAQM, taking 206 days to complete the journey, winning a consolation prize of £A1000 and also on display, but at the Australian War Memorial. Of note is that G-EAQM became the first single engined aircraft to fly from England to Australia.
Sopwith Wallaby (G-EAKS) and Blackburn Kangaroo (G-EAOW) with their crews were to fall by the wayside at Bali and Crete, not completing the race.
Sadly the two crews flying G-EAMR and G-EAOX were to perish during the race.
Tagging a long were French pilots Etienne Poulet and Jean Benoist, who took off from Paris on October 14th 1919 in their Caudron G4 biplane, determined to be the first to Australia albeit outside the conditions of The Great Air Race. The Vimy overtook Poulet and Benoist in Burma on 29 November 1919 and he decided to abandon his attempt in Thailand around 12th of December 1919.
The Darwin connection
Much has already been written of the The Great Air Race and it’s contestants but as a local resident of Darwin we have a significant connection with the race. Not only are there a number of memorials in recognition of the Smith crew and their endeavours but many places have a connection to this special time in history. A number of streets in Darwin bear the names of Smith, Bennett and Shiers.
Ross Smith Avenue now occupies the former Parap airfield of WWII. Running off the avenue is another road named Hudson Fysh Avenue.
Wilmot Hudson Fysh, mostly known for his partnership in founding that great Australian icon QANTAS, had also planned to enter the air race but due to funding issues withdrew from the venture. Instead he, with Ginty McGinnis and mechanic, George Gorham, were commissioned by by Major-General James Gordon Legge from the Defence Department to survey Northern Australia from Longreach to Darwin for suitable routes in preparation of the Air Race. A number of areas suitable for landing aircraft were noted along the rough drive in their Model T Ford, such as Warlock Ponds and Newcastle Waters. The plan also included the site for construction of a landing strip in Katherine.
After rejecting the local race course in Darwin, Hudson Fysh suggested building an alternate strip with labour help from the local prisons near Fannie Bay, to the north of Darwin. Scrub was cleared and the crude paddock airstrip constructed (£A700) some days before the landing of the Smith brothers.
The Finish Line
After sighting the HMAS Sydney, 160km offshore and dropping a message in a bottle, the team of the Smith brothers, Bennett and Shiers in G-EAOU, flew onwards to their final destination for the last day, Port Darwin.
Leaving Hounslow Heath Aerodrome near London at 8.30am on 12 November 1919 and conducting some very challenging flights through questionable weather, landing at crude airstrips and suffering a few mechanical breakdowns they were about to land on Australian soil. After a quick circuit to check out where they were to land, smoke indicating the wind direction at the field, they finally touched down about 3:00pm, Wednesday 10th of December 1919 on this little hastily prepared airstrip in Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia. They had done it!
The journey had taken them 135 hours 55 minutes, covering an estimated 17,911 kilometres and on hand to welcome them were pretty much the total population of Darwin (about 1500) plus officials including the Northern Territory Administrator, Miles Staniforth Smith, Lieutenant Hudson Fysh as the official representative of the Defence Department, Darwin Mayor and Customs official. They were also met with numerous telegrams of congratulations from Prime Minister Billy Hughes and King George V. among others.
The Vimy still needed to fly south to Melbourne so the Defence Department had earlier commisioned Capt Henry Wrigley and Sgt Arthur William Murphy to conduct an aerial survey of a suitable route. They departed RAAF Point Cook (Williams) on 16th 0f November 1919 and arrived in Darwin on the 12th of December, having travelled 4,500 km in almost forty seven flying hours. This was another milestone of Australian aviation – the first trans-Australia flight, bravely accomplished in a single-engined Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2e with no radio. Not only without communication equipment they surveyed about 17 landing sites using crude maps, the old telegraph line and basic navigation techniques, and making about twenty landings, many forced. ‘Spud’ Murphy’s practical engineering experience proved invaluable to get them airborne again to continue on surveying the route which was to be used by aircraft in the historic England to Australia air race. Their Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2e B6163 was actually the first aircraft to land in the Northern Territory at Alexandria Station, near the QLD border. The pair arrived in Darwin two days after the Smith Brothers and both Wrigley and Murphy were later awarded the Air Force Cross.
Of course thet Vimy and her crew soon departed for Melbourne and great acclaim at their achievements, attending various functions to celebrate. In addition to the prize money which they divided up, on January 1920 both Ross and Keith Smith were knighted while Sergeants Wally Shiers and James Bennett were commissioned and awarded Bars to their Air Force Medals. A fitting tribute to their efforts several months earlier.
These two aircraft are on display at Adelaide Airport (G-EAOU) and the Australian War Memorial (G-EAQM) – testemony to those early days of aviation ingenuity and engineering and such a contrast to aircraft of today which can fly non-stop London to Australia. It is by luck that the Vickers Vimy is actually preserved as it had resided at the Australian War Memorial until it was removed and dissassembled awaiting disposal. Through bureaucratic red tape, contested ownership and responsibilities (cost in £) to maintain A5-1 (G-EAOU) eventually it was to have a dedicated structure built at Adelaide Airport to house this historic icon.
Memorials and Parks
Darwin has landmarks dedicated to Ross Smith and the crew of G-EAOU and many have been recently refurbished by Darwin City Council to honour the centenary
In March 1923, a memorial located overlooking Fannie Bay was erected in Darwin by the Commonwealth of Australia to commemorate the pioneering flight. Of note is that this monument is the first ever built in Australia for the pupose of recognising our aviators and the achievements they made.
At No.23 Giles St in Fannie Bay is Smith Park, dedicated to the landing site where the Vickers Vimy touched down in 1919 – a far cry from the the original paddock airstrip and now surrounded by private residences. The park includes a display and memorial stone set under shady trees.
Located opposite of the northern end of Ross Smith Ave is Aviators Park. This display shares how Darwin has had strong ties with both military and civilian aviation over the last century and has recently been refurbished with new information panels.
Another Northern Territory icon dedicated to preserving aviation history is Darwin’s Aviation Heritage Museum who with their passionate and dedicated members have promoted the Great Air Race. The museum has recently changed their frontage to include a huge print of G-EAOU and silhouettes of the crew plus a permanent exhibit to celebrate the centenary of the first successful flight from England to Australia. A must see if you are ever in the Top End.
A challenge in 2019 – UK 2 OZ 100
100 years later, one aviator who has retraced the historic route as close as possible 100 years later is Michael Smith in his UK 2 Oz 100 adventure.
The 51 year old Australian pilot has flown his new ‘Southern Sun’, a custom built SeaBear Flying Boat, from White Waltham Airfield, about 30km from Hounslow Heath Aerodrome, the original departure point of the Vickers Vimy at, all the way to Darwin International Airport in the Northern Territory.
Michael is no stranger to solo adventure as he was the first person to solo navigate the world in an Aerodyne SeaRey single-engine flying boat, also named Southern Sun. The trip in 2015 was originally to retrace the Sydney to London Empire Flying Boat route of Qantas, but he continued on to land back in Longreach, Queensland, 210 days after leaving Melbourne. That adventure earned him recognition as Australian Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year in 2016. Many may know or have met Michael who spent 20 years restoring the Sun Theatre in Melbourne making him one of the last independent cinema operators in Australia. He has appeared at public aviation events such as Wings Over Illawarra and has proudly promoted the documentary that covered his circumnavigation of the planet in the original Southern Sun. He has also published The Voyage of the Southern Sun which is a written account of his 7 month adventure.
This time Michael has sourced his rather unusual amphibian from the manufacturer of SeaBear Aircraft in Russia. He picked the aircraft up in Samara, South Western Russia which is located on the River Volga – perfect for an amphibian aircraft. Southern Sun was blessed in the traditional Russian Orthodox way before leaving Krasny Yar airfield outside of Samara for England, where he will begin his journey from White Waltham airfield.
The Chaika LLC L65 SeaBear bears the Australian registration VH-OMS and is a unique twin engined design with a V tail. This arrangement allows a ‘dry feet’ access to the rear cabin door when reverse docked.
The cabin sports four seats with the rear two folding down for cargo or equipment, or even allowing the pilot to sleep aboard, which Michael has had to do during this adventure. VH-OMS has an Australian connection with the seats being upholstered in very durable and comfortable kangaroo hide.
With dual controls, a glass cockpit and twin Rotax 914 UL Turbo Charged engines each pushing out 115Hp, the SeaBear can cruise at 220-240km/h up to 4000m with an endurance and range of around 12hrs or 2500km. With a takeoff distance of 250m and a landing run of 150m at 75kph – the SeaBear is ideal for small field (or water) operation.
Michael departed West London Aero Club, White Waltham 11:30 on 20 November 2019 on this fantastic adventure and had planned to land in Darwin the same time as Smiths and Co.
His modified route due to geopolitical and restricted airspace considerations was as follows: London – Lyon – Pisa – Brindisi – Aerotre airfield – Souda Bay – Cairo – Aqaba – Haifa – Amman – Bahrain – Karachi – Delhi – Patna – Calcutta – Rangoon – Bangkok – Singapore – Surabaya – Dili – Darwin.
As part of the recreation Michael has made a number of photographic re-enactments of images printed in the March 1921 edition of National Geographic magazine – fueling up the aircraft from jerrycans, mechanics posing in front of the engine and the Sphinx and great Pyramids to name a few. This very rare March edition which focused solely on Sir Ross Smith’s experiences and the Vimy flight during the 1919 Great Air Race, has been used as a invaluable reference guide to retrace the route and events that occured on the original flight.
Another feature of the original flight that Michael has replicated is the carriage of a variety of postal items. The flight in 1919 was the first ever to carry overseas airmail to reach Australia. Hundreds of covers were carried on board the Vimy’s flight to Australia, some from England and others deposited at various points along the route. Once the letters finally arrived in Melbourne, a special stamp-like label was applied as well as a date stamp. Commemorative stamps have been printed for the 364 items of mail which consists of a combination of envelopes, postcards, aerogrammes,first day covers and letters. The mail will be adorned with stamps printed to commemorate the occasion and postmarked in England. On arrival in Darwin the mail items are to be postmarked by Australia Post representatives. Australia Post has also created a Great Air Race edition of $1 and $3.20 stamps along with the Royal Australian mint producing a Centenary of the Great Air Race – 2019 $1 Uncirculated 8 Coin Collection to mark the occasion.
The last legs of the long flight have been a challenge with the monsoon season transitioning across the equator towards Northern Australia creating some headwinds. He departed Dili airport in Timor-Leste at 10:54am traversing the long ocean expanse to Darwin International Airport, stamping a few letters along the way. Southern Sun touched down on Rwy 36 (due to local storm cells) at 3:45pm local time.
I was permitted to go airside at Darwin International Airport to capture his touchdown and watched as he taxied to the Darwin terminal for customs clearance.
To mark the occasion Darwin Airport ARFF tenders had positioned themselves to give VH-OMS the traditional water arch salute as he taxied onto the RPT apron.
Parking in the international bay, Biosecurity and Customs officers performed the ususal international checks, unlike the original arrival of G-EAOU. In 1919 the gathered crowd had surged forward to welcome the Smith brothers and crew, pretty much negating any planned Heatlh and Customs processes. In 1919 and despite the crowd, Hudson Fysh had managed to verify the five Royal Aero Club seals that had been applied, and in doing so confirmed the crew had won the Great Air Race. In today’s age of tracking technology, navigation apps and even social media it is so easy for the public to follow most adventurers along their routes.
With a crowd gathering on the upper level of the Terminal, Michael restarted his engines and taxied to Bay 3, parking along side Alliance Fokker VH-FKD. Alliance had been unable to relocated the 100 Year Centenary livery aircraft, VH-QQW, and so VH-FKD had been used for the observer flight out to meet VH-OMS and perform a couple of low passes over Fannie Bay and the Ross Smith memorial.
Also on the bay were two representatives of AusPost, waiting to receive the mail and a package that Michael had brought from England. The items will be postmarked and stamped just like the originals in 1919, this time with a Great Air Race centenary commemorative post mark. It is amazing that items such as these, photo’s along the route, and visiting exact locations can be re-created 100 years on from the original challenge.
Closing up the SeaBear from the incoming weather Michael walked across to the terminal and after a short chat wandered inside to meet the families of Smith, Shiers and Bennett and face the public and media gathered inside. He will be giving an evening seminar on Wednesday night before departing homeward in a southerly direction.
Another challenge in 2019 – The Wrigley-Murphy flight re-creation
To meet Michael was long time friend and aviator Stefan Drury. Stefan had arrived on Sunday after completing another amazing recreation of an important flight himself.
He is retracing the route of Capt Henry Wrigley and Sgt Arthur William Murphy who departed RAAF Point Cook (Williams) on 20th November 1919 and arrived in Darwin on the 12th of December, to meet up with Ross Smith and provide details of suitable landing places. The pair had arrived in Darwin two days after the Smith Brothers and in time for the Vimy to depart on the 13th of December. Wrigley and Murphy were later awarded the Air Force Cross for their efforts.
Stefan has flown his Gen3 Cirrus Aircraft SR-22 aircraft, VH-EYZ following the original route as close as possible then and will return to Melbourne – unlike Wrigley and Murphy’s B.E.2e which was dismantled and shipped back south.
For those interested in Michael or Stean’s trips, photos, blogs, Instagram and previous adventures, click on the links at the bottom of this page.
A huge thanks to Darwin International Airport for the invite airside and of course our intrepid aviators Michael and Stefan – ASO wishes them a safe and comfortable journey home to their final destinations. We look forward to any future adventures they may undertake but I suspect that a break from flying long distance may be on the cards in the short term.
Cheers, Sid Mitchell
The fabric-covered Vickers FB-27A Vimy MkIV (G-EAOU) Specificaions:
- Crew: 4 for this flight
- Length: 43 ft 7 in (13.28 m)
- Wingspan: 68 ft 1 in (20.75 m)
- Height: 15 ft 8 in (4.78 m)
- Wing area: 1,330 sq ft (124 m2)
- Empty weight: 7,104 lb (3,222 kg)
- Max takeoff weight: 10,884 lb (4,937 kg)
- Powerplant: 2 × Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII water-cooled V12 engines, 360 hp (270 kW) each
- Maximum speed: 100 mph (160 km/h, 87 kn)
- Range: 900 mi (1,400 km, 780 nmi) But 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.
- Service ceiling: Normally 7,000 ft (2,100 m) but up to 11,000 during this flight
Chaika LLC L65 SeaBear Specifications:
- Seats: 4
- Length: 29 ft (8,9m)
- Wing span: 46 ft (14m)
- Wing area: 204 sq ft (19 sq m)
- Gross weight: 3,218 lbs (1460kg)
- Powerplant: 2 x Rotax-914 ULF, 2 engines 115HP each
- Cruise speed: 118 kt (economical cruise) (220km/h) Max speed 130 kt (fast cruise) (240km/h)
- Range: 1350 nm (2500 км)
- Service ceiling: up 13 000 ft (4000m)