AUSTRALIA - GREAT AUSTRALIAN MEN

Sir Charles Edward Kingsford Smith (1897 - 1935)

 

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. From 1903 to 1907, he and his family lived in Vancouver, Canada.

         

Often called by his nickname Smithy, was an early Australian aviator. In 1928, he earned global fame when he made the first trans-Pacific flight from the United States to Australia. He also made the first non-stop crossing of the Australian mainland, the first flights between Australia and New Zealand, and the first eastward Pacific crossing from Australia to the United States. He also made a flight from Australia to London, setting a new record of 10.5 days.

Upon returning to Australia, he attended St Andrew's Cathedral School in Sydney. He then studied electrical engineering at Sydney Technical College.

Charles Kingsford Smith was twice married. His first marriage was to Thelma Eileen Corboy (1901–1990) on 6 June 1923. They were divorced in 1928. His second marriage was to Mary Powell (1910–1997) on 10 December 1930. Charles and Mary and had one son, Charles Arthur Kingsford Smith who was born on 22 December 1932.

World War I and early flying experience

At 16, Kingsford Smith became an engineering apprentice with the Colonial Sugar Refining Company. In 1915, he enlisted for duty in the 1st AIF (Australian Army) and served at Gallipoli. Initially, he performed duty as a motorcycle despatch, before transferring to the Royal Flying Corps, earning his pilot's wings in 1917.

In August 1917, while serving with No 23 Squadron Kingsford Smith was shot down and received injuries which required amputation of a large part of his left foot. He was awarded the Military Cross for his gallantry in battle. As his recovery was predicted to be lengthy, Kingsford Smith was permitted to take leave in Australia where he visited his parents. Returning to England, Kingsford Smith was assigned to instructor duties and promoted to Captain.

On 1 April 1918, along with other members of the Royal Flying Corps, Kingsford Smith was transferred to the newly established Royal Air Force. On being demobilised in England, in early 1919, he joined Tasmanian Cyril Maddocks, to form Kingsford Smith, Maddocks Aeros Ltd., flying a joy-riding service mainly in the North of England, during the summer of 1919, initially using surplus trainers. Later Kingsford Smith worked as a barnstormer in the United States before returning to Australia in 1921. He did the same in Australia and also flew airmail services, and began to plan his record-breaking flight across the Pacific. Applying for a commercial pilot's licence on 2 June 1921 (in which he gave his name as 'Charles Edward Kingsford-Smith'), he became one of Australia's first airline pilots when he was chosen by to fly for the newly formed West Australian Airways.

1928 Trans-Pacific flight

Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm arrived in the United States and began to search for an aircraft. They purchased and equipped a Fokker F Vll/3m monoplane, which they named the Southern Cross.

At 8:54 am on 31 May 1928, Kingsford Smith and his crew left Oakland, California, to make the first trans-Pacific flight to Australia. The flight was in three stages. The first stage from Oakland to Hawaii 3,870 kilometres (2,400 mi), taking 27 hours 25 minutes and was uneventful. They then took off from Mana, Kauai, proceeding to Suva Fiji, 5,077 kilometres (3,155 mi) away, taking 34 hours 30 minutes. This was the most demanding part of the journey as they flew through a massive lightning storm near the Equator. They then flew on to Brisbane, 2,709 kilometres (1,683 mi) in 20 hours, where they landed on 9 June after approximately 11,566 kilometres (7,187 mi) total distance. On arrival, Kingsford Smith was met by a huge crowd of 25,000 and was feted as a hero.

1928 Trans-Tasman flight

After making the first non-stop flight across Australia from Melbourne to Perth, in August 1928, Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm registered themselves as Australian National Airways. They then decided to attempt the Tasman crossing to New Zealand not only because it had never yet been done, but also in the hope the Australian Government would grant Australian National Airways a subsidised contract to carry scheduled mail on a regular basis. The Tasman remained unflown after the failure of the first attempt in January 1928, when two New Zealanders vanished without trace.

Kingsford Smith's flight was planned for takeoff from Richmond near Sydney, on 2 September, with a landing around 0900 on Sunday 3 September at Wigram Aerodrome, near Christchurch, the principal city in the South Island of New Zealand. This plan drew a storm of protest from New Zealand churchmen about ‘setting the sanctity of the Sabbath at nought’. The mayor of Christchurch supported the churchmen and cabled a protest to Kingsford Smith. As it happened, unfavourable weather developed over the Tasman and the flight was deferred, so it is not known if or how Kingsford Smith would have heeded the cable.

Accompanied by Charles Ulm, navigator Harold Arthur Litchfield, and radio operator Thomas H. McWilliams, a New Zealander made available by the New Zealand Government, Kingsford Smith left Richmond in the evening of 10 September, planning to fly overnight to a daylight landing after a flight of about 14 hours. The 1,600 mile / 2,600 km planned route was only just over half the distance between Hawaii and Fiji. After a stormy flight, at times through icing conditions, the Southern Cross made landfall in much improved weather near Cook Strait, the passage between New Zealand's two main islands. At an estimated 150 miles out from New Zealand the crew had dropped a wreath in memory of the two New Zealanders who had disappeared during their attempt to cross the Tasman earlier that year.

There was a tremendous welcome in Christchurch, where the Southern Cross landed at 0922 after a flight of 14 hours and 25 minutes. About 30,000 people made their way to Wigram, including many students from state schools, who were given the day off, and public servants, who were granted leave until 11 a.m. The event was also broadcast live on radio.

'Coffee Royal' Incident

On 31 March 1929, enroute from Sydney to England, the Southern Cross with Kingsford Smith at the helm made an emergency landing on a mudflat near the mouth of the Glenelg River in the Kimberley of northern Western Australia. The Southern Cross was found and rescued after a fortnight's searching, with George Innes Beard, Albert Barunga and Wally from Kunmunya Mission the first overland party to reach the downed aircraft.

Two men (both old friends of Kingsford Smith) — Keith Vincent Anderson and Henry Smith 'Bobby' Hitchcock, in their Westland Widgeon plane named Kookaburra — crash landed in the Tanami Desert in Central Australia and died of thirst and exposure on 12 April 1929 while on their way to help with the search. Despite Kingsford Smith being exonerated by an official enquiry, many sections of the media and public felt that the forced landing, dubbed the 'Coffee Royal' incident after the brew of coffee and brandy which the crew had drunk while awaiting rescue, had been a publicity stunt and that Kingsford Smith was responsible for the deaths. His reputation within Australia never fully recovered during his lifetime.

The bodies of Anderson and Hitchcock were later recovered from the Tanani Desert. Hitchcock's body was returned to Perth for burial, while Anderson's body was returned to Sydney. Over 6000 mourners attended Keith Anderson's funeral. It was an elaborate affair befitting a national hero. Anderson was buried on 6 July 1929. A grand memorial was later erected at the gravesite in his honour.

Disappearance and Death

Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and co-pilot Tommy Pethybridge were flying the Lady Southern Cross overnight from Allshabad, India, to Singapore, as part of their attempt to break the England-Australia speed record , when they disappeared over the Anaman Sea in the early hours of 8 November 1935. Their bodies were never found.

Eighteen months later, Burmese fishermen found an undercarriage leg and wheel (with its tyre still inflated) which had been washed ashore at Aye Island in the Gulf Of Martaban, 3 km (2 mi) off the southeast coastline of Burma, some 137 km (85 mi) south of Mottama (formerly known as Martaban). Lockheed confirmed the undercarriage leg to be from the Lady Southern Cross. Botanists who examined the weeds clinging to the undercarriage leg estimated that the aircraft itself lies not far from the island at a depth of approximately 15 fathoms (90 ft; 27 m). The undercarriage leg is now on public display at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia.

Kingsford Smith was survived by his wife, Mary Kingsford Smith and their three year old son Charles Jnr. His autobiography My Flying Life, was published posthumously in 1937 and became a best seller.

Honours and Legacy

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.

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

 

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.

 

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

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