Australia’s kangaroo-route ‘moonshot’

Video highlights from Only In OZ

The first flight from England to Australia was forgotten by everyone – except the first Aussie into space

Each year, 3.5 million people visit London’s Science Museum to see one of Britain’s most famous aircraft.

The giant Vickers Vimy biplane - a world war one bomber with wings longer than two parked buses - has been venerated ever since it was flown across the Atlantic by John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown in June 1919.

There is only one other surviving Vickers Vimy in the world. It’s in a hangar near the long-term car park at Adelaide Airport, where it’s seen by perhaps 3000 people a year (if they’re not rushing to catch a plane).

Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith's arrival from England at Northfield. The aeroplane is a Vickers-Vimy G EAOU, former bomber with an open cockpit.

Ironically, this Australian-based Vimy also made a record-breaking flight.

Just six months after Alcock and Brown flew 1900 miles, the Australian Vimy flew five times that distance, to make the first trans-planet crossing from England to Australia. Yet the story of this Vimy, and the four men who flew it, has been all but forgotten.

The Adelaide Vimy has been at the airport since it was cleared out of Canberra’s Australian War Memorial in the 1950s to make way for WW2 exhibits. NASA astronaut and Adelaide native Andy Thomas well remembers seeing the vast twin-engine bi-plane as a small boy. He was in thrall to it, and how South Australian pilot Ross Smith with his brother (and navigator) Keith flew it to victory in ‘the Great Air Race’ of 1919.

The Vickers Vimy, on display at Adelaide Airport.

“It took them 28 days to make the journey,” says Thomas, now 67. “Their aircraft was little more than wood, wire and fabric. They were in open cockpits and had no navigational aids except for maps and compass. There was no meteorological forecasting, and half the globe didn’t even have landing strips.

“In 1919, attempting to fly 11,000 miles was little short of a moon-shot.”

London to Darwin race for $1.5m

Thomas has just completed Australian filming on The Greatest Air Race and The Heroes The World Forgot, most recently wrapping a punishing 39C (100 degree Fahrenheit) outback shoot on Mutooroo Station where the Smith brothers grew up.

“Yes, it was pretty taxing!” he says from his home in Houston, Texas. “But it was critical to the story, and the sheep station has never been filmed before. It’s 3000 square miles of arid country and clearly taught the brothers how to be resourceful and hardy – skills that served them in the First World War and during the race.”

The Great Air Race was announced by then Australian prime minister Billy Hughes, who was convinced the fledgling aviation industry could deliver more than bombs and bullets. He offered £10,000 (about A$1.5 million today) for the first Australian crew to fly a British-made plane from Hounslow (near London) to Darwin within 30 days.

The race was immediately decried as a ‘circus’ that would end in death.

Over six weeks in October and November, six competitors left Europe’s wintry skies to attempt to claim the prize. The field was an extraordinary mix of rudimentary single and twin-engine planes. Two crews died and two more crashed out.

A crowd greeting the arrival of the Smith brothers in their aircraft at Northfield after their historic flight from England.

Fighter ace had the right stuff

Captain Ross Smith had a number of advantages. The World War I fighter ace was fearless and a natural leader of men. He also knew the route, having reconnoitred potential landing sites for the British government. His giant Vimy was easily the biggest in the field, and though she needed long airstrips, she could carry two mechanics to overhaul the Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII engines each night on landing. Those mechanics were Victorian Jim Bennett and South Australian Wally Shiers.

Not that their race was an easy one. The exposed crew faced every conceivable weather condition: snow over France, flooding in Italy, sandstorms in Baghdad, monsoons over Thailand. They broke pieces of undercarriage because race tracks and hastily cleared jungle strips were too short or too rough.

A disastrous engine fracture was overcome thanks to a putty of chewing gum (a box was given to all race competitors by the Wrigley’s company). And in Surabaya, they were rescued from a bog by villagers constructing a runway of bamboo matting some 300 yards (275 metres) long.

“Ross Smith was disciplined and inspiring, and kept his crew going through thick and thin,” says Thomas. “I think he had what would later come to be called ‘the right stuff’.”

On December 11 1919, the Vimy touched down in a Darwin paddock after covering 11,060 miles (17,800km). The crew became superstars, hailed by the world’s press including The New York Times who called Smith ‘the foremost living aviator’. The legacy too, was enormous, not least in proving the feasibility of a ‘Kangaroo route’ that could close the terrible distance between Australia and England.


Heroes descent into obscurity

So why did the story – and the Vimy – become so obscure?

“I think it’s down to a number of things. Firstly, Ross Smith died in an air crash just two years after the race so there was no building on his legacy. Secondly, as human beings, we tend to lionize solo achievements rather than those of crews. And thirdly, Australians have made a hero of Charles Kingsford Smith who crossed the Pacific. Sadly, it’s almost a case of too many Smiths.”

Thomas insists the Vimy represents a major milestone in world aviation history. “The trans-planet flight was way ahead of its time – out of all proportion to the capabilities of the technology, and substantially predating the 1930s ‘golden age of aviation’ made famous by the like of Lindbergh and Kingsford Smith.

“This Vimy is right up there with the Apollo moon lander. Australians, and for that matter the world, need to know about it.”

• The Greatest Air Race And The Heroes The World Forgot is to air in November 2019, to coincide with the centenary of the race. The Vickers Vimy hangar at Adelaide Airport can be viewed 24 hours a day..

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