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The Legend of Smithy And His Southern Cross.

Charles Kingsford Smith on the Twenty Dollars Bank Note

I have decided to cover in this months blog a gentleman who’s vision and determination changed the face of our nation and he became one of Australia’s best-loved and best known cultural heroes. A man who seemingly knew no fear and conquered some of the toughest and most dangerous aviation routes that had yet to be achieved in his time. In the modern era of aviation it is an everyday event to fly across the Pacific and the Tasman but in his time it was a massive achievement given the state of the aeronautical industry of the day and the instrumentation then available.


A picture of Kingsford Smiths plane , The Southern Cross on the ground at Brisbane
A  picture of Kingsford Smiths plane , The Southern Cross on the ground at Brisbane


Cockpit Of Southern Cross
Controls in the cockpit of Southern Cross

Sir Charles Edward Kingsford Smith is better known in Australian colloquial terms simply as “Smithy”. True to the nature of Australians shortening people’s names down to the bare essentials. He was born on the 9th of February 1897 which was just a few weeks after the birth of Sir William Samuel Stephenson a Canadian soldier who in W.W.II had the codename, Intrepid. He was the inspiration for James Bond. Smithy was the youngest of seven children born to William Charles Smith, a bank manager, and Catherine Mary Kingsford. The family lived abroad in Vancouver from 1903 until 1906 when they returned to Australia. Perhaps it was the overseas travel at such the young age of 16 that inspired Smithy to conquer the world in the manner he did. In a fascinating turn of events Smithy was swimming at Bondi Beach just after New Years Day in 1907 when he got into serious difficulties and was rescued by a group of people who just a few weeks later would form the first official surf life saving group in Australia at Bondi beach.

Smithy’s education consisted of two schools in Sydney the first being St. Andrews Cathedral School and the second, Sydney Technical College where he studied electrical engineering. On the completion of this he managed to gain an engineering apprenticeship with C.S.R. (Colonial Sugar Refining Company).

At the outbreak of World War One he, like many other young men of his day, enlisted for the armed services and was sent to Gallipoli where he served as a motorcycle dispatch rider and then later transferring to the Royal Flying Corp where in 1917 he earned his wings and as they say, the rest is history. He saw considerable action until his aircraft was shot down resulting in a serious injury to his foot requiring partial amputation. After a period of convalescence and revivification he was promoted to the rank of Captain and became a flight instructor. By this time the war was practically over and when the armed forces began demobilizing he and a friend one Cyril Maddocks from Tasmania began a flight joy ride company operating around England. A short period followed this which saw him barnstorming in the United States until his return to Australian shores in 1921. The practice of barnstorming proved popular also in Australia and was a good earner for him both monetarily and reputation wise. Some of his flights included occasional mail runs and he eventually applied for his commercial pilots license in mid 1921. Shortly after he was hand-picked by Norman Brearley to become a pilot for his newly formed West Australian Airways and by doing so became one of Australia’s first airline pilots.

Early portrait of aviation legend Kingsford Smith
Early portrait of an aviation legend.

Smithy was now in a position to start to formulate plans for bigger and more adventurous projects. He began searching for an appropriate aircraft to undertake his first major planned expedition which was to cross the Pacific, traversing from California to Queensland. He found the aircraft he was looking for in a Fokker F.VII/3m which was previously owned by a polar explorer named Sir Hubert Wilkins and purchased it. The aircraft was named Southern Cross. By 1928 He had selected a crew of 3 others to assist on the long journey and these people were Charles Ulm as co-pilot and as radio operator, navigator and engineer, Captain Harry Lyon and James Warner who were both Americans. The flight was staged in 3 sections beginning on 28th May with the first leg of 2,400 miles from Oakland California to Hawaii, completed in 27 hours and 25 minutes. The second and longest leg was from there to Suva in Fiji, a distance of 3,100 miles, completed in  34 hours and 30 minutes despite encountering a severe electrical storm. From Fiji the last leg to Brisbane was completed in 20 hours. All in all they flew almost 7,400 miles and wrote themselves in the history books in doing so. A crowd of 25,000 were waiting for them at Eagle Farm airport in Brisbane when they landed to a heroes welcome.

The Southern Cross in flight over the airfield
The Southern Cross in flight over the airfield

 Inspired by the success of the flight Smithy and Charles Ulm took off in August of the same year to make the first non-stop flight across Australia from Melbourne to Perth. At the end of this flight they registered themselves as “Australian National Airways”. The next undertaking was an attempt at a Trans Tasman crossing as they hoped that by doing so they would secure a mail contract from the Australian Government. Only one attempt had been made previously at flying this route and the aviators of that attempt, John Moncrieff and George Hood, vanished without trace. They departed Richmond, New South Wales on 10th September and made amazing time despite storms and poor weather conditions to land near Cook Strait some 14 hours later to a tumultuous welcome by an estimated 30,000 people.The return to Sydney was also hampered with atrocious weather and the flight took 9 hours longer than the outbound leg at 23 hours. When they landed they were virtually running on fumes with only 10 minutes flying time left.

Smith and Ulm In Commemorative Trans-Pacific Photo
Smith and Ulm In Commemorative Trans-Pacific Photo

Many other record-breaking flights followed including solo runs between Australia and England and also the first eastward flight from Australia to America across the Pacific Ocean. He was married in 1930 to Mary Powell and together they had a son, Charles. His final flight was in a Lockheed Altair named Lady Southern Cross en route between India and Singapore during an attempt to break the England to Australia speed record. Smithy and co-pilot Tommy Pethybridge disappeared over the Andaman Sea in the early morning of the 8th November 1935. Wreckage found by fisherman some 18 months later was eventually confirmed by Boeing to be a part of the undercarriage from his aircraft. It is believed that the aircraft lies some 3 kms off the shore of southern Burma.

The Southern Cross replica as seen today in the Sydney aviation museum.
The Southern Cross replica as seen today in the Sydney aviation museum.

Smithy had been made a Knight of the Realm in 1932 and was also an honorary Air Commodore of the Royal Australian Air Force. Sydney airport, streets, electoral divisions and schools have been named in honour of him and his aircraft, even Qantas and KLM have given aircraft his name.

His place on our 20 dollars banknote is well deserved and his face serves as a reminder of gallantry, bravery and intrepid actions.


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