Saturday, November 13, 2010

Sir Charles Kingsford Smith

Those who watched Sunday Night on Channel 7 on, not unsurprisingly, Sunday night last week, will have seen a story about documentary filmmaker Damien Lay claiming to have tracked down the final resting place of the aeroplane in which Sir Charles Kingsford Smith disappeared, the Lady Southern Cross.

Kingsford-Smith disappeared over the Andaman Sea south of Burma with co-pilot John Thompson "Tommy" Pethybridge in November 1935, while flying from India to Singapore on his way home from England. The only trace of the plane ever found was a Lockheed Altair starboard undercarriage leg recovered with a still-inflated tyre in May 1937. It was found by Burmese fishermen near Aye Island, south of Rangoon.

Lay claims to have found the plane using sonar imaging. He says that it is under 1.5 metres of mud. The thick mud and zero visibility make it difficult to assess the claim and Lay has his detractors.

What is of more interest than Sir Charles Kingsford Smith’s death is his life, which few of us know beyond the fact that he is the face on the $20 note, that Sydney’s airport is named after him and that he did something famous to do with flying.

In fact his achievements include

#  the first trans-Pacific flight from the United States to Australia (1928);

#  the first non-stop crossing of the Australian mainland;

#  the first flights between Australia and New Zealand;

#  the first eastward Pacific crossing from Australia to the United States;

#  a flight from Australia to London that set a new record of 10.5 days.

Following is a brief biography of a great, but flawed, Australian icon:

- Born in 1897 in Hamilton, a suburb of Brisbane, the youngest of 7 children (these were the days before TV).

- Because his parents considered the name “Smith” too confusing in an age when Smith was the most common family name, they adopted the use of the name Kingsford Smith as the family name, his mother’s maiden name being Kingsford.

- On 2 January 1907, aged 12, Charlie Smith was saved from drowning by bathers at Bondi. Those same bathers seven weeks later formed the world’s first life saving club at Bondi Beach.

- At age 16 Charlie became an engineering apprentice with CSR.

- In 1916, at age 18, he enlisted and fought at Galipolli, as well as doing a stint as a motorbike despatch rider. He also served in France and held the motorcycle speed record in the Services for the mile.

- He then transferred to Britain's Royal Flying Corps, which urgently needed pilots. He wrote home: "It is an honourable and an interesting career, and at home there will be possibilities for our services."

- Once having started flying, he wrote home that "I have discovered one thing about flying and that is that my future, for whatever it may be worth, is bound up with it."

- He was flying solo after 5 hours, and wrote "It was grand having the old bus up in the air by myself,"

- He shot down an enemy plane in a dogfight on his second mission and shot down a total of 4 aircraft before his plan was riddled with bullets and downed in August 1917, resulting in his being wounded and a large part of his left foot being amputated.

- Out of the war because of his injury, he was awarded the Military Cross and attended Buckingham Palace to receive it from the King, who spent several minutes in conversation with Kingsford Smith. Once the medal had been received, Kingsford Smith stepped back on his crutches but slipped and fell. Although others rushed to aid him, it was the King who offered his arm. After being satisfied that Kingsford Smith could move unaided, His Majesty told him to waive ceremony and move away as best as he was able. Kingsford Smith broke the protocol that a commoner must not turn his back on the King and later would smilingly say that he was one of the few persons who had ever done so.

- Between 1919 and 1927 he was a barnstormer in the US, doing stunt work, shows and early films.

- In 1928 he and Charles Ulm made the first flight across the Pacific from the US to Australia in a Fokker they had purchased and named the Southern Cross.

- Further milestones:

#   the first non-stop flight across the Australian Continent;

#  the first flight across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand;

#  a round-the-world flight (1929);

#  won the England to Australia air race in 1930, flying solo;

#  the first west to east crossing of the Atlantic. (1934)

-  He was knighted in 1932 for services to aviation.

-  Kingsford Smith and co-pilot Tommy Pethybridge disapeared over the Andaman Sea on 8 November 1935 whilst flying the Lady Southern Cross overnight from India, to Singapore, as part of their attempt to break the England-Australia speed record.

- 18 months later, Burmese fishermen found an undercarriage leg and wheel (with its tyre still inflated) washed ashore at Aye off the southeast coastline of Burma, The undercarriage leg is now on public display at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney,

- Some of the more controversial aspects of Kingsford Smith’s character and life:

-  He had a morbid fear of drowning and of the sea, which fear he called “aquaphobia”. This caused incapacitating panic attacks in the air and caused mysterious illnesses on the eve of many of his epic flights.

-  He was a fame and adrenalin junkie. Addicted to the 3 F’s – fame, fear and flying – he sought journeys of ever increasing danger. By the time of his death flying had evolved from its daredevil and risky origins. Planes had become safer, routes with regular stops had become established and protocols and procedures were now in force. Smithy, however, still lived for the reckless journeys and the risk taking challenges. He failed to see that the world had moved on.

-  In 1929, enroute from Sydney to England, the Southern Cross with Kingsford Smith piloting made an emergency landing on a mudflat near the mouth of the Glenelg River in the Kimberley region of northern Western Australia. After a fortnight’s searching, the Southern Cross was found but 2 men helping in the search were forced to land in central Australia, where they died of thirst and exposure. Kingsford Smith was cleared by an official enquiry, but many sections of the media and public felt that the forced landing, dubbed the 'Coffee Royal' incident after the brew of coffee and brandy which the crew had drunk while awaiting rescue, had been a publicity stunt, It wa felt by them that Kingsford Smith was responsible for the deaths, with the result that his reputation within Australia never fully recovered during his lifetime.

Above:  Kingsford Smith with the plane that was renamed Lady Southern Cross, in which he disappeared in 1935.
When Sir Charles Kingsford Smith’s aircraft Lady Southern Cross mysteriously disappeared off the coast of Burma in the dark of a tropical night in November 1935, the pioneer age of aviation lost, at the age of thirty eight, one of its most formidable and charismatic heroes. For seven years this small man of craggy face, rapid wit and broad grin was one of the most revered figures in Australia. His epic and dangerous journeys in fragile aeroplanes were followed by millions on radios around the world. Rising to international celebrity in the late1920s and early 1930s – when many of the world’s oceanic air routes were still unflown, when aircraft were primitive and accurate navigation systems did not exist – ‘Smithy’, in his famous Fokker trimotor Southern Cross, piloted the first flights across the Pacific in both directions, traversed the Tasman Sea and made the first successful westbound crossing of the Atlantic.

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