It wasn’t long after Kitty Hawk that intrepid birdmen sought to overcome the challenges imposed by large bodies of water, beginning with Louis Blériot’s English Channel crossing in 1909. Before World War I, bold aviators had already traversed the Mediterranean, North and Norwegian seas. By war’s end, the development of large, increasingly powerful multiengine planes offered the possibility of spanning the oceans. Even casual observers anticipated that the British Daily Mail’s prize purse of £10,000 (later £13,000), offered for the first transatlantic flight between Britain and America in 72 hours or less, would not long remain unclaimed.
Journalists obsessively reported every move of the aviators gathering in Newfoundland, the launching pad for attempts to span the Atlantic. (Most missed the irony of aircraft being shipped westward across the Atlantic to take advantage of favorable winds if flown eastward back to Britain.) “Keep absolutely quiet,” cautioned one British flier’s wife in discussing a planned attempt, “as they want to get through before the Yanks have time to find out.” Despite Britain’s hopes, in May 1919 the United States made the first crossing when a Navy-Curtiss NC-4 flying boat skippered by Lt. Cmdr. Albert C. “Putty” Read hopped from Newfoundland to the Azores, Portugal and then to England.
Within weeks, British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown had flown nonstop from Newfoundland to Ireland in a modified Vickers Vimy twin-engine bomber, braving appalling conditions and justly garnering the Daily Mail prize. Then, in July, the British dirigible R34 completed a round trip between Scotland and Long Is land, signaling the coming revolution in transoceanic transport.
But interest in pushing the barriers of flight was by no means confined to the Northern Hemisphere. In March 1919, Australia’s government had announced its own £10,000 prize for the first England-to-Australia flight, allowing 30 days for the voyage. Compared to the Daily Mail’s Atlantic challenge, however, it attracted relatively little interest, in part because eligibility for the prize was limited to Australians, but also because Australia was roughly six times farther from Europe than America. Even so, several teams began prepping for the challenge, including one headed by two remarkable brothers, Ross and Keith Smith.
The Smiths had been born in Adelaide, the sons of a station manager. Ross had fought with the Australian Light Horse at Gallipoli and in Egypt, then transferred to the Australian Flying Corps, first training as an observer and then as a pilot. Delayed by medical problems, his brother Keith paid his own way to England, joined the Royal Flying Corps (later the Royal Air Force) and served as a flight instructor.
While he was stationed in the Middle East, Ross Smith’s aggressive flying impressed even the not-easily-awed Colonel T.E. Lawrence, who recalled how the pilot “climbed like a cat up the sky” to shoot down a prowling German reconnaissance plane. Scoring 12 aerial victories flying Bristol F.2B fighters, Ross twice received the Military Cross (the first for having landed and rescued a downed aviator), and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross three times.
Surprisingly, Smith’s favorite wartime mount was not his speedy fighter but a lumbering bomber, the twin-engine Handley Page O/400. In August 1918, RAF Brig. Gen. Amyas “Biffy” Borton had flown an O/400 from England to Egypt, to support General Sir Edmund Allenby’s upcoming offensive against the Turks and their German allies. Borton’s flight gained widespread attention despite wartime press censorship, and Lawrence noted that the huge plane left Bedouins gaping in admiration as it “stood majestic on the grass, with [other airplanes] like fledglings beneath its spread of wings.” Piloting the bomber a month later, Smith attacked Turkish forces on the west bank of the Jordan. He later recalled that the big Handley Page opened his eyes “to the possibilities of modern aëroplanes and their application to commercial uses.”
In late 1918, Maj. Gen. Sir Geoffrey Salmond, Britain’s Middle East air commander, borrowed the O/400, together with Borton, Smith and two mechanics, Sergeants James Bennett and Walter Shiers, to fly to India. Eager to explore the feasibility of air routes to India and be – yond, Salmond ordered Borton and Smith to establish fuel depots throughout Southeast Asia for a proving flight to Australia. They sailed from Chittagong on the Royal Indian Marine Service ship Sphinx, carrying 7,000 gallons of aviation fuel. Two days out, while crossing the Bay of Bengal, the vessel exploded in flames, but Borton and Smith survived. Aboard another vessel (sans the fuel cargo), they undertook a three-month cruise as far as the Netherlands East Indies, evaluating possible landing sites.
News of Australia’s £10,000 prize whetted their appetite, and Borton asked if Vickers could supply a Vimy for an attempt, since while they were away another crew had crashed their O/400. Vickers, which was then competing with Handley Page for the emerging airline market, swiftly assented, undoubtedly realizing the potential value of such a triumph after Alcock and Brown’s success. Although Borton could not go along, Ross Smith could. Sergeants Bennett and Shiers were ideal candidates, and when Ross reunited with his instructor brother Keith, he both found his copilot and completed his team.
By that time, they were not alone; others had entered the competition, including a remarkable, too-little-remembered French flier, Lieu – tenant Étienne Poulet, who competed for a very personal reason. Poulet had been a close friend of Jules Védrines, a noted prewar air racer, politician and combat flier from a working class background. Védrines’ large family meant that he always needed money, and he came to specialize in attention-getting, financially rewarding stunts. In the spring of 1919, Védrines became captivated with the prospect of flying to Australia, but first he and a mechanic entered a Paris-to-Rome rally that April. En route both perished when their fuel-laden plane crashed into a vineyard in the Rhône Valley. Thousands gathered at Paris’ Pantin cemetery for their funeral.
Though ineligible for the prize because of his nationality, Poulet was determined to fulfill Védrines’ quest, hoping to raise money for the fallen aviator’s widow and children by putting on aerial exhibitions along the way. He purchased a twin-engine Caudron G-4 still emblazoned with its wartime markings and, along with mechanic Jean Benoist, left Villacoublay airfield, on the outskirts of Paris, on October 14, 1919.
The Smiths’ concern over Poulet’s departure turned to alarm a week later when another rival team, this one Australian and headed by Captain George C. Matthews, left from England flying a powerful new single-engine Sopwith Wallaby. But Matthews’ team soon ran into a combination of problems that thwarted their attempt. Not Poulet: By November, flying a rattletrap craft rooted in prewar design (it was powered by two obsolescent Le Rhône rotary engines and used wing-warping rather than ailerons for banking and turning), the French avia tor and his mechanic were already nearing Karachi.
Poulet’s journey had been far from trouble free, but the pilot and his mechanic managed to escape serious harm. Engine problems forced the Caudron down in the Persian desert, where the crew was quickly surrounded by brigands, but the fliers succeeded in standing them off long enough to fix their ailing power plant and take off again. The French team clearly possessed sufficient courage to belie its pilot’s marvelously inappropriate name.
Facing steadily deteriorating weather, the Smith team decided to launch on November 14, ferrying their Vimy from the Vickers plant at Brooklands to Hounslow aerodrome (now the site of London’s Heathrow) the day before. But November 11 dawned so fair that the team impulsively decided to fly to Hounslow, and the following morning they took off for France. That leg ominously foretold what the team would confront over the rest of the journey: The Aussies battled fog, clouds, snow and bitter cold before reaching Lyons. They left for Rome the next morning, however, soaring over the Alps and circling Monte Carlo amid clear, crisp conditions. When winds slowed them and darkness approached, they prudently landed at Pisa.
Rain and mud delayed their departure from Pisa, and a faulty oil gauge subsequently forced another precautionary landing at Venturina. They finally reached Rome’s Centocelle aerodrome on November 15, but extreme turbulence plagued their hop to Taranto, and cloud, mist and rain complicated the leg to Crete. They landed at Suda Bay, on the north shore of Crete, spending the night in a lice-infested British hospital.
The next day, November 18, dawned miserable and wet. Following a hasty departure, the poorly rested Smiths had to thread their way through a mountain pass, risking being trapped between layers of thickening clouds. Once they reached the southern side, the clouds turned the normally turquoise Med a dull, lifeless gray. Eventually the Egyptian coast appeared, and they passed the Pyramids and Cairo, then throttled back in a powered glide to land gently at Heliopolis, the largest of the RAF’s Middle East airfields. A rousing welcome took the edge off their fatigue, but the team soon learned they had no time to relax: Poulet and his mechanic had already reached India.
The Smiths decided to forgo further delays, even at the expense of getting sufficient rest. On November 19, they left for Damascus, arriving slightly over four hours later after a veritable tour of Biblical sites. The mud was so bad in Damascus that they greased the Vimy’s tires lest the wheels become stuck in the boggy morass. On takeoff, Ross Smith later wrote, the propellers “sucked up water and mud, whirling it in all directions,” fouling the plane and crew. Nevertheless, they got off the ground, dirty but relieved, and flew eastward. Strong headwinds forced a landing at Ramadi, where Indian army lancers “were thoroughly pleased to see us [and prepared] an excellent dinner.”
That night heavy winds nearly overturned the Vimy. Gusts blasted the ailerons so violently that the control wires all stretched or broke, forcing Bennett and Shiers to make emergency repairs. Afterward, however, fortune smiled upon them: Excellent weather and following winds sped them on to Baghdad and beyond to the tiny port of Basra. There, the team took a day off to work on the hard-flogged engines.
On Sunday, November 23, they left for Bandar Abbas, on the Persian coast. Ross recalled that “sunlight sparkled on our varnished wings, and the polished propellers became halos of shimmering light” while the engines “sang away merrily.” Even so, the team was relieved to land at Bandar, having noted the “chaos of scarred mountains and gouged valleys” and the placid deceptiveness of the shark-filled gulf. The next day took the Aussies fully 730 miles over a treacherous landscape to Karachi—a flight made more risky by their growing fatigue.
At Karachi they learned the Frenchmen had reached Delhi. The local RAF contingent threw a dining-in, dashing hopes for a good sleep, and the fliers tumbled into bed late. After just 3½ hours’ rest they resumed their trek. As they flew on, bleary-eyed, desert vistas gave way to lush foliage. Then, from “a haziness of green plain” appeared Delhi. Nine hours after takeoff they landed, too deafened by engine noise to hear the cheers of well-wishers. Little over 75 years earlier, it had taken Biffy Borton’s grandfather 130 days to reach India from England; the Smith team had covered the 5,870 miles from London to Delhi in just 13 days.
Poulet, however, was still ahead, having already reached Allahabad. Despite that, the exhausted Vimy fliers rested for a day, fearing that fatigue might otherwise lead to tragedy. After an early departure on November 27, a defective oil gauge forced an emergency landing at Muttra, but then they were off to Allahabad. Again they found that Poulet had gone ahead, to Calcutta. Nothing, it seemed, could go right for the Smiths: As they tried to leave Allahabad the next morning, a belligerent bull delayed their departure—until a brave boy distracted the animal long enough for the Vimy to take off, leaving the bull “in sole possession of the aërodrome.”
The flight to Calcutta was without incident, but upon the team’s arrival at its racecourse, enthusiastic crowds nearly damaged the Vimy, forcing police to form a protective line. They soon learned that the resolute Poulet had once more leapt ahead, to Akyab, Burma.
Early the next morning, they were off again, narrowly avoiding disaster when two large hawks collided with the plane just after takeoff. It was the most dangerous moment of their flight. One raptor hit a wing, while the second shredded itself passing through the port propeller, which fortunately held together. Had it disintegrated, the unbalanced prop could have torn the engine from its mounts and sent the heavily laden Vimy crashing to earth. Despite the bird strike, the team flew on, passing over the Burma coast and eventually reaching Akyab, where a pleasant sight awaited: Poulet’s Caudron! The chase was finally over.
With the camaraderie characteristic of the time, Poulet and Benoist cheerily greeted the Australians, who warmly responded. The two teams agreed to launch simultaneously for Rangoon, but the next morning, November 30, the Aussies had to delay their departure. With their blessing, the Frenchmen left first. The Vimy’s greater power and speed, however, ensured that they still reached Rangoon first, by more than an hour.
The British lieutenant governor of Burma and his wife diplomatically cheered on both teams. The next morning engine trouble de – layed Poulet, so the Smith team departed alone for Bangkok, narrowly missing disaster again when the Vimy brushed treetops as they climbed away. Back in Rangoon, the two Frenchmen discovered the Caudron’s engine had a cracked piston. Poulet fixed it, and they continued on. Then, over Thailand, an aggressive vulture dived straight down to attack the Caudron, shattering its right propeller, a twobladed version less robust than the Vimy’s four-bladed prop. Poulet pulled off a harrowing emergency landing on a mountain plateau.
The French team was out of the race. After repairing the Caudron, they returned home, having added considerable luster to the already impressive reputation of France’s hardy pioneer airmen.
Following their departure from Rangoon, the Aussies flew on to Bangkok, where they heard about Poulet’s problems. From this point on, only bad luck or mistakes could keep the Smiths from winning. Within a matter of hours, events would drive that home. First the Vimy’s undercarriage again brushed treetops as they took off, fortunately without snagging any branches. Then, climbing toward a thickening bank of monsoon clouds, they narrowly avoided being trapped in a box canyon. At 11,000 feet the wall of cloud remained and they could fly no higher. With no other recourse, they plunged into a moist, dark world, uncertain of both direction and attitude. As their disorientation grew, the Smiths lost control of the Vimy, which plunged earthward. Fortunately, it did not spin, and Ross Smith regained control. The team eventually broke out “into full view of a glorious world, carpeted with trees, 1,500 feet below,” as Ross later wrote. They followed the rich brown Mekong River to Bangkok’s Don Muang airport, which the air-minded Siamese government had built five years before.
The team enjoyed the locals’ warm hospitality, and did not depart until late the next day, heading for Singora, roughly half the distance between Bangkok and Singapore. Escorted by four planes, the Aussies turned south and droned on down the Malay Peninsula as drenching rains turned the flight into a sodden nightmare. Wind buffeted the Vimy, and hail pummeled its fabric covering. Visibility de creased to such an extent that Ross nearly flew into a hill. For five hours the Aussies battled the elements before they broke into open skies.
An hour later they reached Singora, where Ross made a daunting landing, somehow avoiding flooded areas of the field and skirting drier sections festooned with rough-cut stumps—one of which ripped out the Vimy’s tailskid, the only serious damage the plane sustained on the entire journey. Repairs, locating fuel and stump clearing—by convicts—took nearly two days, delaying their departure until December 4. Even then, the takeoff proved to be a near thing; the muddy field slowed the Vimy, and crew and onlookers alike wondered if it could get airborne before plunging into the jungle. Their luck held, however, and they climbed away between low clouds. Smith dodged limestone ridges and outcrops, some hundreds of feet high, passing over Kuala Lumpur and Malacca before arriving at Singapore.
Surprisingly, Singapore lacked any sort of developed airfield. As a precaution, just as the Vimy touched down on the city’s racecourse Sergeant Bennett shinnied down to the tailplane, using his weight to keep the aircraft from nosing over, which had happened when Alcock and Brown landed their Vimy on soft ground in Ireland.
So far the Vimy had proven very reliable, even winning over Ross Smith from his previous love, the Handley Page. But now his team had only eight days left to reach Darwin, still more than 2,300 miles away. They might run out of time, weather might ground them, the engines might irredeemably pack up or fatigue might lead to a fatal error.
At 7 a.m. on December 6, the team took off on a grueling 640-mile leg to Kalidjati, Java. Again the Vimy’s landing gear brushed the treetops as they lifted off, once again without any dire consequences. On this leg they crossed the equator, and as if welcoming them to the Southern Hemisphere, the weather improved dramatically.
Nearing Java, the Vimy overflew a sea ringed by beautiful islets and filled with the sails of fishing smacks. Smith next headed for Batavia, turning along a railway line and following it to an airfield at Kaledjati, where nine hours after takeoff the Vimy came to earth. The fliers were given a cheery reception by the Dutch governor-general and his staff.
Early the next day, December 7, they were off again, landing 350 miles further on, at Soerabaya, where the Vimy promptly sank in thick mud up to its axles. Thanks to order-shouting colonial officials and the backbreaking labor of conscripted natives, the plane was eventually extricated and set on bamboo matting. But as Smith attempted to taxi, the Vimy dug itself in once more. Locals again dug out the plane and maneuvered it across bamboo mats, gradually bringing it to the edge of the field.
But how would they get off the ground the next day? The Smith brothers determined that they would need nothing less than a whole runway fashioned from bamboo mats! Officials had the native population provide sheets of matting—actually the roofs off their own homes—and then laid them end-to-end to create a runway. During the first takeoff attempt, prop wash blew some of the mats away, and a few wrapped themselves around the horizontal tail, another dangerous moment for the team. The plane also bogged down due to a punctured tire. For the third time the native work force dug them out, this time interweaving and securely pegging the mats into position. At noon, the fliers climbed into the Vimy, officials huzzahed and it took to the air—“with the mats flying in all directions,” Ross remembered. One can only sympathize with the natives, left to pick up the torn, scattered remnants of their roofs as they watched this symbol of European technology finally wing its way out of their lives.
The Vimy’s journey from Soerabaya to Bima went smoothly. Oddly enough, though, a mysterious intruder attempted to break into Ross Smith’s quarters that night, scared off only when the flier fired his Very flare pistol. The next morning the crew left for Timor. They skirted an erupting volcano, landing without incident at an airfield that the Dutch had just finished building the day before. Then the two mechanics prepped the Vimy for its last great test—the 470-mile haul from Timor to Darwin. On the morning of December 10, the Smith team took off for Australia, scraping trees yet again after liftoff. Halfway across the Timor Sea they spotted HMAS Sydney, and buzzed the cruiser before continuing on to Darwin. Within an hour Bathurst lighthouse came into view, then the mainland, Darwin and the aerodrome at Fanny Bay. At 3 p.m., Ross recalled, “we settled on Terra Australis on December 10th, 27 days 20 hours after taking off from Hounslow.”
The Smiths had won the Australian prize, finishing the race with a margin of just two days and four hours. Slightly over a week later, Ross and Keith Smith were knighted by King George V, while James Bennett and Walter Shiers received commissions.
The team flew around Australia during the next three months, raising the morale of a country that had experienced, for its size, enormous losses in the Great War. In one of many congratulatory messages to the aviators, Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes proclaimed: “This is an epoch in the history of Australia and aviation. Although you may not realize it, we have this day overcome…those geographical disabilities that hedge us about….It is a great thing that an Australian has been the first to get here….What did he do it for? Not for the 10,000….He has done it for the honor of Australia.”
The Smiths’ Vimy still survives, at Adelaide. In March 1920, Vickers gave it to Prime Minister Hughes, and it thereafter became the only officially registered Vimy in the Royal Australian Air Force. Partially destroyed by fire when it was being transferred to a permanent home at the Adelaide/West Beach Airport, it was rebuilt and remains on display there in a shelter near the passenger terminal.
Sadly, Sir Ross Smith and James Bennett perished in England in 1922, when a Vickers Viking amphibian they had hoped to fly around the world spun to earth during a final test flight. Keith Smith, who worked as an Australian agent for Vickers, remained active in aviation until his death in December 1955. By that time global-ranging aircraft routinely traversed Australian skies, fulfilling the promise inherent in the Smiths’ harrowing passage from Britain to Australia nearly four decades earlier.
Richard P. Hallion served as the U.S. Air Force historian at the Pentagon from 1991 to 2002, and was the 2007-2008 Verville Fellow of the National Air and Space Museum. He writes frequently on aviation-related topics. For additional reading, he recommends: 14,000 Miles Through the Air, by Ross Smith; Farther and Faster: Aviation’s Adventuring Years, 1909-1939, by Terry Gwynn-Jones; and The Pathfinders, by David Nevin. Also see National Geographic Video’s The Greatest Flight.
Originally published in the November 2009 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.