Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith’s famous Fokker Southern Cross has pride of place in Brisbane.
At Brisbane Airport, not far from where today’s jumbo jets touch down after their transpacific flights, the Fokker F.VIIb/3m trimotor Southern Cross used by Australian airman Charles Kingsford-Smith to cross the Pacific in 1928 rests comfortably in a specially built hangar. Sur – rounded by artifacts related to its most famous passage, the airplane that Kingsford-Smith affectionately referred to as the “Old Bus” embodies a bygone era of seat-of-the-pants flying, long before cabin pressurization, autopilots and global positioning systems took much of the romance out of long-distance air travel.
In our disposable society, longevity is a pretty rare commodity these days. Southern Cross is basic, rugged and low-tech, but high on aviation mystique—especially for pilots, who can fully appreciate the courage of the early pathfinders. During a recent visit to the Brisbane exhibit, I was privileged to venture into the Fokker’s cockpit, an experience I will not soon forget.
Kingsford-Smith acquired the Fokker from explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins, who had originally intended to use it on an arctic expedition. Wilkins repaired the aircraft after an Alaskan crash in 1926, but then decided it was too large for his expedition. He sold the airframe, minus engines and instruments, to Kingsford-Smith and Charles Ulm in 1928. The Fokker’s new owners outfitted it with three new Wright Whirlwind engines and embarked on a series of proving flights. Kingsford-Smith himself—who would lend his nickname, “Smithy,” to a posthumous biopic—twice attempted the world endurance record in the aircraft.
The name Southern Cross was a nod to the constellation that the Australian pilot and copilot hoped would help guide them home, and was originally supplemented by Faegol Flyer, a reference to a truck manufacturer, and The Spirit of California. Those clumsy additions were removed before Smithy and Ulm set out on their transpacific flight.
The first leg of Southern Cross’ Pacific odyssey, the 2,400-mile stretch to Hawaii, began on the morning of May 31, 1928, in Oakland, Calif. Joining Kingsford-Smith and Ulm, the copilot, were navigator Harry Lyon and radioman James Warner, both U.S. merchant mariners. The Australians reportedly stuck an Australian flag between the fuel gauges. Since the cockpit was partially open to the weather, the little pennant would eventually be shredded by the winds that buffeted the aircraft in the course of their journey.
Knowing they might have to ditch at some point, the team had prepared as best they could. A special dump valve would allow them to quickly drop the bulk of their fuel in an emergency, and they carried steel saws capable of cutting off the engines, to turn the wings into a raft. Within the wings were stored rations, as well as a device to help the crew produce drinking water and a watertight radio transmitter.
Following an uneventful crossing, the Fokker landed at Oahu’s Wheeler Field after 27½ hours in the air. Since Wheeler’s runway wasn’t very long, the trimotor team opted to take off on the next long leg, all of 3,200 miles to Suva, from a specially prepared strip of sandy beach on Kauai.
Flying at low altitude to conserve fuel, they encountered rainsqualls that made celestial navigation next to impossible. By the following morning, noting how low they were on fuel, Ulm wrote in his log that he doubted they would be able to make Suva. But make it they did, coming down safely on a newly cleared landing strip at 3:50 p.m. on June 5.
On the 8th Southern Cross lifted off once again from a lengthy beach with a full load of fuel, headed for Australia. The crew soon found themselves engulfed by torrential rain and gusty winds that sent the trimotor badly off course. Fortunately Kingsford-Smith and company came out of the storms in time to correct their heading for Brisbane, where they landed in triumph.
That was by no means the end of the road for Southern Cross, however. Kingsford-Smith and Ulm made the first nonstop flight across the Tasman Sea, 2,500 miles, in the famous Fokker in September 1928. In April 1929, after Kingsford-Smith force-landed in northwest Australia, tragedy struck: Aviators Keith Anderson and Robert Hitchcock, who were attempting to come to their rescue, died during the search. Southern Cross, with its crew, was subsequently rescued, but the incident would haunt Kingsford-Smith for the rest of his career.
Smithy formed his own airline, Australian National Airways, and was knighted in 1932. Southern Cross was subsequently used to carry from eight to 12 paying passengers. Not content to remain a businessman, Kingsford-Smith chalked up several other aviation records before he disappeared over the Andaman Sea in November 1935 during the course of an England-to-Australia flight in a Lock – heed Altair named Lady Southern Cross.
Today if you look inside the Fokker’s mostly empty fuselage, you can see the cabin where Kansas native Jim Warner strained to detect a radio signal while Harry Lyon plotted their course to Suva in 1928—one of history’s most amazing examples of rudimentary dead reckoning. Given the awful weather they experienced on that leg of the trip, Lyon’s sextant was of limited value; he had to rely on the constants of time, heading and groundspeed. He calculated drift by throwing powder by day and flares by night into the Pacific below, and flying a constant heading.
Flights in the Fokker were so noisy that the crew was rendered temporarily deaf once they shut down the engines. While in the air, the men found it so difficult to communicate that they resorted to exchanging messages between the cabin and cockpit via a stick with notes pinned to the end.
When I gingerly sat down in the left-hand seat that Kingsford-Smith occupied, I quickly realized that, looking forward, visibility was hampered by the cylinders and exhaust stack of the central radial engine. The instrumentation was basic: a bank-and-turn indicator, a rate-of-climb meter, an earth inductor compass and three magnetic compasses. Further dominating the view from Smithy’s seat are the plane’s broad wings. The thick airfoil was obviously built for lift, not for speed. Those same huge wings provided shade when the crewmen found themselves stranded for 12 days in the desolate Kimberley region after the 1929 forced landing.
The wings and engines dominate the view to port and starboard, but another challenging aspect of flying the Fokker is evident in the openings on both sides of the cockpit. Despite the central windscreen, the pilots were still exposed to the elements. Imagine what it was like to fly in the semi-open cockpit, straining to see through rain, fog and thick cloud cover while battling gusty winds.
On at least one occasion, in May 1935, the side openings came in handy during an emergency in a lengthy overwater flight. When the starboard engine prop shattered over the Tasman Sea, the remaining engines had to labor mightily to keep the trimotor aloft. Copilot P.G. “Bill” Taylor climbed through one of the cockpit openings and drained oil from the damaged engine, then transferred it to the failing port engine. Despite serious problems with its power plants throughout that ill-fated odyssey, the Fokker managed to limp back to Sydney, where it landed safely after 15 hours aloft.
That would be the last major flight for Southern Cross, which had logged 300,000 miles during its adventurous career. Shortly before his death, Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith donated the storied “Old Bus” to the Australian Commonwealth.
During World War II the Fokker was dismantled and stored in Canberra. Though its fabric and rubber components were no longer airworthy, the engines were fully overhauled in 1944. Southern Cross was returned to airworthy status in 1945 for the film Smithy. Its final flight, to a Royal Aero Club airshow, came in 1947.
In 1958 it was fully restored in preparation for its new starring role as the central exhibit at Brisbane’s Eagle Farm Airport. The trimotor was relocated to the new Brisbane Airport in 1988, where it now occupies a climate-controlled hangar near the international terminal. In South Australia there is also a full-size flying replica of the historic Fokker, which made its maiden flight in 1987.
The story of Southern Cross has been celebrated in print as well as film. With Charles Ulm, his copilot in the 1928 flight, Kingsford-Smith wrote Story of the Southern Cross’ Trans-Pacific Flight. Flying solo, he also penned The Old Bus and a biography, My Flying Life, which was published in 1937, two years after his death.
Originally published in the January 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.