The year was 1919. The war was finally over. Prime Minister Billy Hughes offered £10 000 for the first Australian airmen to fly home from England in 30 days. Six crews took up the challenge in planes that were as rudimentary as they were unreliable. And who won? South Australian brothers Ross and Keith Smith, backed by mechanics Wally Shiers (SA) and Jim Bennett (Vic). Their magnificent Vickers Vimy bomber can still be seen at Adelaide airport.
The Smith Brothers
Ross and Keith Smith spent part of their childhood growing up on Mutooroo Station, near Broken Hill. They were educated in Adelaide, and in 1910, Ross joined the Australian Mounted Cadets and was selected to represent South Australia in an international tour. He enlisted in August 1914, joining the 3rd Light Horse Brigade and served in the Dardanelles and later at Romani. Following an injury he learned to fly and in 1917 he joined the Australian Flying Corps. Keith Smith joined the Royal Flying Corps in Britain in 1917.
Prime Minister Billy Huges developed the idea for the competition with an eye to the potential of aviation technology, and how it could be used to Australia's benefit. The the Commonwealth Government provided the £10 000 prize money and the Royal Aero Club drafted the rules. The challenge was to fly from England to Australia within a period of 30 consecutive days, and competitors had to arrive before midnight on 31 December 1920.
Ross flew as pilot, Keith as assistant pilot and navigator, Wally Shiers and Jim Bennett were the mechanics. The four men left Hounslow in England on 12 November 1919. The journey was difficult, they took off in bad weather, after several delays, and struck more en route making visibility poor and at times forcing Ross Smith to fly low. They were aided in their journey by the Smith brothers' knowledge of parts of the route from their war service. They flew through parts of Europe, the Middle East, India and south east Asia to the finish in Darwin.
The Smith Brothers and their crew were successful in the challenge, and the Smith brothers were knighted for their efforts. Only one of the five other groups to take up the challenge actually made it to Australia.
In 2019 we celebrate the men, the plane, and the centenary of a journey every bit as awe-inspiring as the moon landing. The History Trust of South Australia is preparing a series of programs and events to mark the 100th anniversary of the successful flight. There will be updates here and a dedicated website for the commemoration later in 2018.
The Airways Museum & Civil Aviation Historical Society, 'England-Australia Air Race - 1919', http://www.airwaysmuseum.com/Vickers%20Vimy%20G-EAOU%20crew.htm, accessed 6 April 2017
History Trust of South Australia, 'Ross Smith' in A World Away: South Australia's War, accessed 6 April 2017
State Library of South Australia, Digital Collections: 'First England-Australia Flight', http://digital.collections.slsa.sa.gov.au/nodes/view/2823, accessed 6 April 2017