The Life That Made Charles Kingsford Smith An Australian Icon

A dashing aviator of worldwide renown, Charles Kingsford Smith was born 121 years ago today.

Charles ‘Smithy’ Kingsford Smith was renowned as Australia’s boldest pilot, pioneering routes that include the first trans-Australian, trans-Tasman and trans-Pacific flights. As well as completing other record flights, he helped usher commercial aviation into Australia.

Kingsford Smith was born on 9 February 1897 in Brisbane, and educated both in Australia and Canada. On his eighteenth birthday, after enjoying three years as a cadet, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), serving at Gallipoli as a sapper and a dispatch rider in Egypt and France before transferring to the Australian Flying Corps. His flying skills were immediately recognised. In his first month as pilot he brought down four enemy planes as well as enemy balloons, before being brought down and wounded himself. Awarded the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty, he then became a flying instructor.

Charles Kingsford Smith circa 1930s
Library of State Library of NSW, Sydney

After the war, Kingsford Smith piloted joy flights and joined an aerial stunt team before setting up an aerial transport service in Australia. To generate publicity he and partner Charles Ulm achieved a series of aviation firsts. They completed a record-breaking around-Australia circuit in 10 days, 5 hours, with minimal navigational aids.

Next they bought the three-engine Fokker plane Southern Cross from Sir Hubert Wilkins and flew it across the Pacific from California to Brisbane, in 83 hours, 38 minutes. Kingsford Smith was awarded the Air Force Cross for this feat. After breaking more flight records in Australia, he and Ulm flew from Sydney to Christchurch in New Zealand, demonstrating the feasibility of regular passenger and mail services across the Tasman Sea.

In 1929, Smithy flew from Australia to England in the record-breaking time of 12 days, 18 hours, and the following year completed an east–west crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in 31 hours, followed by a record-breaking solo flight from England to Darwin in 10 days. He was knighted for services to aviation in 1932, but didn’t stop pushing the boundaries, making the first west–east trans-Pacific flight in 1934.

In late 1935 Kingsford Smith took off on the second leg of another flight from England to Australia with John ‘JT’ Pethybridge. The plane and pilots were never seen again, believed to have crashed into the sea at night somewhere off the coast of Burma.

This profile is part of the Trailblazers: Australia’s 50 greatest explorers series, presented in collaboration with the Australian Museum. Find more trailblazers on our website here.

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