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The epic, world-first flight Australia forgot

Robyn Ironside, November 12, 2019 6:45PM The Australian

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The Vickers Vimy crew, from left, Keith Smith, Ross Smith, James Bennett and Walter Shiers, with their plane at the start, in England, in 1919, for the race from England to Australia. Picture: State Library of SA media_cameraThe Vickers Vimy crew, from left, Keith Smith, Ross Smith, James Bennett and Walter Shiers, with their plane at the start, in England, in 1919, for the race from England to Australia. Picture: State Library of SA

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Fifty years before the moon landing, two Adelaide brothers made history with their world-first flight from England to Australia in a cloth-covered, open cockpit*, two-engine biplane.

On November 12, 1919, Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith set off to win the Great Air Race with the help of mechanics Wally Shiers and Jim Bennett, flying from London, UK, to Darwin in the Northern Territory in just under 28 days.

From the outset* they endured extreme conditions — from a snowstorm on takeoff that froze their sandwiches to birdstrikes and runways not long enough for their Vickers Vimy WWI Bomber.

media_cameraPilot Ross Smith, navigator Keith Smith and crew James Bennett and Walter Shiers, behind, fly into Sydney in their Vickers Vimy on February 14, 1920. Picture: Frank Hurley/State Library of South Australia

The race captured the world’s imagination, and Sir Ross’s telegrams from each stop along the way were received with enormous interest.

When the Vimy touched down in Darwin on December 10, 1500 people turned out to greet their new heroes, and Sir Ross commented that he thought “the world had gone mad”.

media_cameraThe men were celebrities at the time. Here, the Vickers Vimy crew are meeting then Prime Minister W M Hughes. Left to right: Ross Smith, Prime Minister William Morris Hughes, Keith Smith, Andrew Smith, Walter Shiers. Taken on February 27, 1920. Picture: State Library of South Australia

But 100 years on, the Vickers Vimy is stored in a staff carpark at Adelaide Airport and the names Ross and Keith Smith are unfamiliar to most Australians.

It’s a situation that Australian astronaut Andy Thomas would very much like to rectify*, after being inspired by the Smiths’ story as a boy growing up in Adelaide.

“It’s a hugely underappreciated* historical event in the development of aviation and long-haul transport,” Dr Thomas said.

“Qantas owe their existence to that flight because Hudson Fysh, who formed Qantas, was tasked by the Australian Government to travel by motor vehicle across the northern part of Australia to map out potential landing sites for the Vimy after it had arrived in Darwin. He later used that information to form the Queensland And Northern Territory Aerial Service, so Qantas has a direct link to the Vimy flight.”

Andy Thomas with Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith’s Vickers Vimy at Adelaide. Picture: AAP media_cameraAndy Thomas with Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith’s Vickers Vimy at Adelaide. Picture: AAP

As well as the 18,000km flight’s significance to aviation, Dr Thomas said the feat helped shape Australia, just 18 years after federation.

“The country had just come out of four years of a ghastly war. It had a huge impact on the country and the old world had changed forever. A new world was emerging and there was a lot of uncertainty about what that new world was going to be,” he said.

“Then along come these four young Australians and they do something incredible by the standard of the day. The main mode of transport then was horse-drawn vehicles, and they fly an aeroplane no less from England to Australia, breaking the tyranny* of distance and showing what that new world order was likely to look like.”

Royal Australian Air Force group captain Greg Weller, who is the deputy chair of South Australia’s Epic Flight Centenary Committee, said the Smiths’ feat also served as inspiration for political leaders to focus on aviation.

“The flight fundamentally* demonstrated that distance was no longer a defence for Australia. We could now fly across the world, across continents and it really highlighted a need to develop air capability*, an air force,” Captain Weller said.

“We had good experience with aviation with the Australian Flying Corps in WWI but the flight highlighted that we needed to develop our own indigenous* air force.”

As a result the Royal Australian Air Force was formed in 1921, from the Australian Air Corps, after the Australian Flying Corps was disbanded in December 1919.

Supplied Editorial The Vickers Vimy crew, from left, James Bennett, Ross Smith, Keith Smith and Walter Shiers, with their plane on December 10, 1919, after winning the race from England to Australia. Source: State Library of SA PRG18-9-3-2a media_cameraThe Vickers Vimy crew, from left, James Bennett, Ross Smith, Keith Smith and Walter Shiers, with their plane on December 10, 1919, after winning the race from England to Australia. Picture: State Library of South Australia

South Australia’s Chief Entrepreneur and member of the Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith Fund advisory committee, Jim Whalley, said the flight was an important part of Australia’s history that should not be ignored.

“I suspect if they were Americans they’d be far more famous and the Vimy would be sitting in the middle of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington,” Mr Whalley said. “I don’t think we’re necessarily good at celebrating those heroes, and I think it’s so sad they’ve sort of fallen into a level of obscurity*.”

media_cameraThe Vickers Vimy aircraft at Adelaide Airport. Picture: AAP

ASTRONAUT’S SPACE TRIBUTE
Former NASA astronaut Andy Thomas may not be the only fan of Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith’s heroic England to Darwin flight in the aircraft Vimy but he is the only one to have taken their incredible story into space.

After learning of the epic flight as a boy growing up in Adelaide, the Australian astronaut was inspired to honour their legacy when he undertook his first space flight on the Space Shuttle Endeavour in May 1996.

“We’re allowed to carry artefacts into space, and I wanted to do something to bring the memory of Ross and Keith Smith’s flight back to life again because I thought there was a whole generation of Australians who were not aware of the flight or understood its significance, and I still think that’s true today,” Dr Thomas said.

“So I got in touch with the State Library of South Australia, and it turned out they had the cloth wings from Ross and Keith Smith — from their uniforms.”

The library sent the wings to Dr Thomas in the US and they were stowed on board the shuttle for what would be another epic journey.

“They travelled some 10 million miles,” he said.

“The England to Australia flight that took Ross and Keith Smith 27 days, took the wings about 20 minutes.”

Aust astronaut Dr Andrew (Andy) Thomas somersaulting in space shuttle Endeavour.  /Space/exploration media_cameraAustralian astronaut Dr Andy Thomas somersaulting in space shuttle Endeavour in 1996.

In honour of the flight’s centenary and its significance to aviation history the State Library in Adelaide is holding an exhibition of memorabilia*, including the cloth wings Dr Thomas took into space.

Adelaide Airport is building a new home for the Vimy more befitting* of the aircraft’s place in Australian aviation history.

GLOSSARY

  • cockpit: cabin of a plane where the pilot sits
  • outset: beginning
  • rectify: fix
  • underappreciated: not appreciated enough
  • tyranny: difficulty
  • fundamentally: centrally and importantly
  • capability: ability to do something
  • indigenous: from a particular place
  • obscurity: has been forgotten
  • memorabilia: souvenir or historical item to remember something by
  • befitting: as appropriate for how important something or someone is

EXTRA READING

Great Air Race to be recreated

100 years since Qantas was born on long drive

New airport named for Nancy-Bird Walton

Schoolboy makes airline deal with Qantas boss

QUICK QUIZ

  1. How many engines did the plane have?
  2. Where has the Vickers Vimy plane been stored?
  3. What distance was their flight?
  4. Where did Andy Thomas take the Smith’s cloth wings from their uniforms?
  5. Where will the aeroplane be stored in the future?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Honouring the Smith brothers
Andy Thomas, astronaut, believes that “Qantas owe their existence to that flight …” If that is true, work with a partner and give the current Qantas airline boss, Alan Joyce, some possible ideas or ways that the famous Australian airline could honour the Smith brothers. Your ideas should be creative, fun, attract a lot of interest and attention and help the Smith brother’s memory become more well-known in Australia’s history.

List your ideas in detail and share your best idea with the class.

Time: allow 25 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, History, Personal and social, Critical and creative thinking

2. Extension
Jim Whalley from the Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith Fund advisory committee states in the Kids News article that “I don’t think we’re necessarily good at celebrating those heroes, and I think it’s so sad they’ve sort of fallen into a level of obscurity.”

What does he mean by this statement? Can you think of a hero that is celebrated in Australia’s history and compare that to the Smith brothers. It might not even be a hero but someone well-known or remembered such as Ned Kelly.

Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, History, Critical and creative thinking

VCOP ACTIVITY
After reading the article, with a partner, highlight as many wow words or ambitious pieces of vocabulary that you can find in yellow. Discuss the meanings of these words and see if you can use them orally in another sentence.

HAVE YOUR SAY: Do you think Australians are good at celebrating heroes?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

Extra Reading in history