SMITH, Sir Charles Edward Kingsford (1897-1935)


SMITH, Sir Charles Edward Kingsford (1897-1935)
aviator
was born at Brisbane on 9 February 1897, youngest son of William Charles Smith, bank manager. When he was six years of age the family removed to Canada, the father having become a superintendent in the Canadian Pacific railway. On the voyage his youngest son was discovered hanging from the hawse-hole in the bow of the ship. He was demonstrating to another boy how it could be done. Having returned to Sydney about four years later, he was with difficulty rescued from drowning when bathing off the beach at Bondi. He was believed to be dead but a nurse who worked over him for an hour brought him back to life. Later on he sang in the choir of St David's and attended the cathedral school, but when his voice broke joined the Sydney technical college and studied electrical engineering. He spent his holidays camping on the Hawkesbury River and began his knowledge of navigation on a sailing boat. At 16 he joined the service of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company in the engineering shop at Sydney. When the war broke out he wanted to enlist and was allowed to do so by his parents on his eighteenth birthday in February 1915. He was trained as a dispatch rider and served in Egypt, on Gallipoli, and in France. In October 1916 he was one of 140 chosen from the ranks of the A.I.F. to go to England to train for a commission in the Royal Flying Corps. Before the end of 1917 the boy was in action in France, and early in his career obtained the military cross for bringing down a two-seater in flames, setting fire to some wooden huts, and machine-gunning a column of Germans who were massing for an attack. He was wounded in the foot a few days later, and three toes had to be amputated. He had been engaged in a fight with three German planes, and though his plane had about 180 bullet holes in it and he had momentarily fainted, he managed to make a moderately good landing. As it would be months before he could fly again he was allowed leave and returned to Australia to visit his parents. On his return to England he was made an instructor and was promoted captain.
When the war ceased Smith and a companion, Cyril Maddocks, did aerial joy-riding in England until both their machines were disabled. When the £10,000 prize was offered by the Australian government for the first flight to Australia, Smith decided to fly with Maddocks and V. Rendle in a two-engined biplane; but W. M. Hughes as prime minister stopped the flight on the ground that not one of the crew really knew anything about navigation. Smith then went to America, worked as a flyer, did aerial stunting, worked for movie-makers, and risked his life in many ways. He was eventually robbed by the promoters of an air circus, and decided to return to Australia. He arrived in Sydney in January 1921 possessed of little more than the clothes he stood in. He obtained work with the Digger's Aviation Company, and shortly afterwards succeeded in landing himself and his passengers safely in a plane with a collapsed wing, a remarkable feat. Following this Smith obtained a position in connexion with Australia's first regular air mail service between Charlton and Derby in Western Australia. Then with a partner a motor truck carrying company was started and carried on successfully. About the end of 1926 Smith sold out of this and returned to Sydney where he met another great flyer, Charles Ulm. Together they did a remarkable flight round Australia in ten days five and a quarter hours, in a seven-year-old Bristol tourer. But Smith's great ambition was to fly over the Pacific from America to Australia, and Ulm shared this ambition. The problem was to raise the money to buy a suitable plane, and the first encouragement came from J. T. Lang, then premier of New South Wales, who obtained for them a grant of £3500. Sidney Myer (q.v.) gave them £1500 but the preparatory costs mounted up, and though help was received from the Vacuum Oil Company, the flight was not possible until Captain G. Allen Hancock of Los Angeles came to the rescue and the purchase of the monoplane, The Southern Cross, was completed. On 31 May 1928 a start was made with a crew consisting of Smith, Ulm, Captain H. Lyon of Maine as navigator, and J. Warner of Kansas, as radio operator. The 7389 miles of ocean was crossed in three hops including the longest non-stop ever flown up to that time. The plane arrived at Brisbane on the morning of 8 June. The actual flying time was 83 hours 11 minutes during which Smith piloted for over 50 hours and Ulm for over 30. It was a marvellous feat considering the conditions; how close they were to disaster may be read in My Flying Life and Caesar of the Skies. Many honours and gifts were bestowed on the flyers, the total amount of the subscriptions being over £20,000
Smith, however, was not tempted to give up flying. A non-stop flight from Point Cook near Melbourne to Perth followed, and after the return journey a flight across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand. On this flight ice formed on the wings and fuselage when going through an electric storm, the air-speed indicator was put out of action, and for once Smith admitted he was terrified. But they got through safely and at Christchurch completed the first flight from Australia to New Zealand. A return flight was made to Australia, and on 31 March 1929 a start was made on a flight to England and from there to the starting point in the United States. Soon after the start the radio aerial of the Southern Cross was carried away by an accident, and Smith was unable to receive messages of bad weather ahead sent from Sydney. After crossing the overland telegraph line the plane ran into a terrific storm and after flying blind for some time their destination Wyndharn was over-shot and their petrol having nearly given out a forced landing was made on a mud flat. There they remained for 13 days before they were found in a practically starving condition, by one of the planes that was searching for them. Unfortunately Smith's friend, Keith Anderson and his mechanic, H. S. Hitchcock, who were on another of the searching planes lost their lives during the search. This led to a committee of inquiry being formed which went into the whole matter and exonerated Smith and his companions from blame. A fresh start was made on 25 June and London was reached in the then record-time of 12 days 18 hours. Ulm then returned to Australia in connexion with the air service company they were forming, and Smith followed by way of America. He was determined, however, to make the east-west flight across the Atlantic which had never been done. He returned to Europe to find the Southern Cross which had been re-conditioned by the Fokker Company free of charge, like a new plane. He felt he would like to pay a compliment to the Dutch people by asking a Dutchman to act as co-pilot, and obtained the services of Evert van Dyk. On 24 June 1930 the plane took off from Portmarnock beach in Ireland and in spite of the usual head wind the flight went well for most of the journey. But after flying blind for some time in a fog the compasses became affected, and the aviators were temporarily lost and in great danger. A successful landing was, however, made in Newfoundland, and going on to New York Smith and his companions had an enthusiastic reception. Flying on to California the first journey round the world by air was completed.
On returning to Europe Smith and his companions had another enthusiastic reception at Amsterdam. Shortly after Smith was operated on for appendicitis, but after a short convalescence, decided to endeavour to beat Hinkler's (q.v.) record of 15½ days for a flight to Australia in a light solo plane. He left on 9 October 1930 and landed at Darwin on 19 October having done the journey in just under 10 days. But within a short time this had been beaten twice, by Charles Scott and then by Mollison, whose time was 8 days 21 hours.
On 10 December 1930 Smith was married to Mary Powell. On his honeymoon in Tasmania he was impressed by the desire for a regular air service to the mainland, which his company inaugurated on 16 January 1931. There was a regular service between Melbourne and Sydney. On 21 March there was a great disaster, the disappearance of the Southern Cloud with eight passengers on board. The loss to the company exceeded £10,000, the financial depression of the period prevented many people from travelling by air, and the company had practically to cease operating. Smith then decided to endeavour to beat Mollison's record and started from Wyndham on 24 September 1931. He had a most unfortunate flight including an attack of sunstroke. A fortnight had passed before he arrived in England. Returning to Australia by steamer Smith demonstrated that an air-mail service between Australia and England was quite feasible. His company sent a plane with the Christmas mail, which left Sydney on 20 November 1931 and crashed six days later. Smith then followed in another plane and delivered the mail on 16 December. A mail from England to Australia was successfully carried in January 1932. It was, however, impossible to obtain a subsidy from the government, and Smith made a living by giving people in various parts of Australia flights at 10s. each. Another journey was made to New Zealand where many people had their first experience of the air. In September 1933 Smith went to England again, and in October made a record solo flight to Australia in seven days four hours and forty-three minutes. The Commonwealth government made Smith a grant of £3000 and a little later he was given the position of aviation consultant by the Vacuum Oil Company. Early in 1934 Smith made preparations to compete for the prize of £10,000 offered by Sir Macpherson Robertson for the winner of an air-race from England to Australia. An accident to the machine he had selected, however, made it impossible for him to be a competitor. In October 1934 he flew the reverse journey across the Pacific from Australia to California. He came back to Australia by steamer, and nearly lost his life when inaugurating a mail service with New Zealand in May 1935. The plane was only saved by the heroism of the navigator, "Bill" Taylor, who climbed out on the wing and managed to transfer oil from the crippled starboard engine to the port engine. In July 1935 Smith sold the Southern Cross to the Commonwealth government for £3000 and went to London to organize a company to carry mails, Airlines of Australia Limited. He had sent the plane he had bought for the air race to America intending to sell it, but he now decided to have it brought to England and to fly it to Australia. He had much difficulty and worry in connexion with the amount of petrol he would be permitted to carry, and he was not in good health. His biographer believed that his physical condition was the most probable cause of the disaster that followed. Smith with his companion, J. T. Pethybridge, left England on 6 November 1935, and on the evening of 7 November left Allahabad on their way to Singapore. On that night or next day Smith and his companion perished. Searches were made by planes on sea and land for several days, but no vestige of the lost plane was ever found. Smith was knighted in 1932. His wife survived him with a son.
Smith was flying for half of his short life of 38 years. He had immense vitality, but the strain of his great flights with their many dangers was beginning to tell on him towards the end. It was ironical that he should have perished just when flying was about to come into its own in Australia, and when the necessity for record-breaking flights had passed. He was much liked and was modest and generous-natured; he was rapid in speech and movement, was a natural mechanic, and had that combination of carefulness, resource and courage that makes a great flyer. When the great Dutch aeronautical designer, Anthony Fokker, wrote his book about 1930 he called Smith "the greatest flyer in the world today" (Flying Dutchman, p. 272), and his biographers called him the world's "greatest airman". Smith would not have agreed with these verdicts, but no man of his period approached his record.
Charles E. Kingsford-Smith and Geoffrey Rawson, My Flying Life; Beau Sheil and Colin Simpson, Caesar of the Skies; C. E. Kingsford-Smith and C. T. P. Ulm, The Great Trans-Pacific Flight; C. E. Kingsford-Smith, "The Old Bus"; P. G. Taylor, Pacific Flight, The Story of the Lady Southern Cross; The Times, 7 December 1935.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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