Sir Charles Kingsford Smith (1897-1935) was the Australian pilot who made the first flight across the Pacific from the United States to Australia and the first flight the reverse way. He has often been described as the greatest of all the pioneer long-distance aviators who laid the foundations of moderntrans-oceanic air transport before World War II.
Kingsford Smith was born near Brisbane on February 9, 1897, the son of a bank manager who took the family to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, for four years. The boy went to St. Andrew's Cathedral School in Sydney before studying electrical engineering at Sydney Technical College. At 16 he became an engineering apprentice with the Colonial Sugar Refining Company. After two years he enlisted in the First Australian Imperial Force to serve on Gallipoli as a dispatch rider in World War I.
Like many young Australian soldiers, Kingsford Smith transferred to the Royal Flying Corps when he reached England after the evacuation of Gallipoli and completed pilot training in 1917. He had a distinguished career as a fighter pilot, shooting down a number of German aircraft to win the Military Cross, but losing three toes when wounded in action. He decided to remain in aviation.
Kingsford Smith and two Australian veterans still in England in 1919 were refused permission to compete in the England/Australia Air Race for the 10,000 pound prize offered by the Australian government for the first flight halfway across the world. Kingsford Smith was considered to have too little knowledge of navigation. He then made a living of sorts in the United States as a flying circus pilot and a Hollywood stunt pilot in films. Back in Australia in 1921 he scratched a living "joy-riding" before joining Australia's first regular airline (Western Australian Airways) later that year. This airline pioneered airmail operations in the far northwest, Geraldton-Derby. In that remote region he had time to think and plan a flight across the Pacific Ocean—at that time a reasonably crazy notion. To raise money he started a trucking venture, sold out in 1926, and bought two Bristol aircraft.
In Sydney Kingsford Smith met C. T. P. Ulm, another pilot who had the business skills which Kingsford Smith always lacked. They made a flight around Australia in 10 days 5 hours, half the previous record, and then went off to the United States to find a suitable airplane for the Pacific crossing.
Kingsford Smith and Ulm secured financial assistance from the government of New South Wales and later from the Los Angeles millionaire G. A. Hancock. They bought a Fokker from another Australian pioneer aviator, Sir Hubert Wilkins, famous for his Arctic flights, and named it Southern Cross. To get public support they made two attempts on the United States transcontinental record, but failed under conditions that attracted nationwide attention and professional admiration.
The first trans-Pacific crossing began on May 31, 1928, with two Americans completing the crew—Harry Lyon, navigator, and J. Warner, radioman. They flew from Oakland, California, to Honolulu, then to Suva in Fiji, and on to Brisbane, the longest flight being between Honolulu and Fiji, 2,740 nautical miles. That leg took 33 hours under conditions which few people today could imagine. There were no radio aids, no navigation aids, no alternates in case of trouble, and no adequate weather reports. Rain came into the cabin; the noise of the three engines deafened the crew. But they landed at Brisbane on June 8.
Kingsford Smith—Smithy to millions of Australians— became the great Australian hero of the day, surpassed only when the greatest cricket batsman of all time, Donald Bradman, began his career a little later. Both men were typically Australian in voice and character. The Southern Cross itself became almost a hero, too.
Kingsford Smith, Ulm, and their aircraft went on to make more records, including the first nonstop flight across Australia and the first flights across the stormy Tasman Sea to and from New Zealand. In March 1929 they continued their planned flight around the world by flying on to England. Forced down by storms in the remote Australian northwest, the crew was lost for 13 days. The enormous public attention was sharpened by the loss of two flying friends of the lost pilots who were searching for them. There were accusations that the whole affair was done for publicity. A nasty public inquiry fully exonerated Kingsford Smith and Ulm, who started off again in June to set a record of 12 days 18 hours for the Australia/England route. A year later they completed the world circle by flying across the Atlantic from Ireland to New York and on to California.
Kingsford Smith then demonstrated his skill as a solo pilot and as a first-class navigator by flying a tiny Avro Avian from England to Darwin in 9 days, 22 hours. (Before World War II, breaking the Australia-Great Britain record was a minor aviation industry. Kingsford Smith made several record-breaking flights on the route in small aircraft.)
The two partners made a valiant attempt to pioneer regular intercity air transport in southeast Australia when they founded Australian National Airways (ANA). In 1931 the Depression was at its height. There were no proper navigation aids and the Avro-Fokker "airliners" they chose to fly the routes could not cope with the demands of weather and other conditions in the very difficult flying region between Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane. When the Southern Cloud vanished between Sydney and Melbourne with eight people aboard in dreadful weather over mountain ranges on March 31, 1931, ANA was doomed.
Kingsford Smith could not secure a footing in the development of the Australian airline industry. The Australian and New Zealand governments, recognizing his poor business ability, did not approve his plans for a trans-Tasman air service. He had to return to personal flying. His main public recognitions came from his knighthood and the honorary rank of Air Commodore in the Royal Australian Air Force.
In October/November 1934 he and P. G. Taylor made the first flight from Australia to the United States in the Lockheed Altair, Lady Southern Cross, but the event created no financial opportunities. Exhausted and disappointed, Kingsford Smith flew out of England on November 8, 1935, to try and set a new record to Australia, but he vanished over the Bay of Bengal the following morning.
Sir Charles Kingsford Smith always organized and planned his flights in the most meticulous fashion, until the last one, when he was very tired and should not have flown. A man of personal modesty but with an aura of his own, he was a hero to an entire generation of Australians and New Zealanders.
Further Reading on Sir Charles Kingsford Smith
Two biographies of Kingsford Smith are Smithy by Ward McNally (London, 1966) and Caesar of the Skies by Beau Shiel and Colin Simpson (1937).
Additional Biography Sources
Davis, Pedr, Charles Kinsford Smith: the world's greatest aviator, Sydney; New York: Summit Books, 1977.
McNally, Ward, The man on the twenty dollar note: Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith, Terrey Hills, N.S.W.: Reed, 1976.
Pickering, John, The routes of the Valkyries: a brief joint biography of Air Commodore Sir Charles Edward Kingsford Smith, KBE, MC, AFC, and Flt Lt Charles Thomas Phillippe Ulm, AFC, including a combined chronological record of their achievements and philatelic check list, Chippenham: Picton Publishing, 1977.