The Wright
Jean Batten
Tom Rolt
No Empty
All Books

Paula Mackersey

Sir Charles Kingsford Smith biography


Sir Charles Kingsford Smith book Click here to buy

The Life of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith
(1897 – 1935)

Ian Mackersey

Little, Brown (Time Warner Books) UK, London, 1998 (ISBN: 0 316 64308 4)

Paperback: Warner Books, London, 1999 (ISBN: 0 7515 2656 8)

The definitive biography of Australia’s Greatest Aviator

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.

Smithy: The Life of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith: Cigarette
Smithy on arrival in Brisbane in October 1933 in his Percival Gull Miss Southern Cross. His flight from England had been plagued by panic attacks.
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.

Written with the co-operation of Kingsford Smith’s widow and family, Ian Mackersey’s Smithy reveals a man obsessed by fame and worshipped by women, yet, paradoxically, one who suffered from a morbid fear of the sea which this seemingly indestructible flying genius called ‘aquaphobia’.

Smithy: The Life of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith: South
The Fokker trimotor Southern Cross flies past Mt Taranaki on arrival in New Zealand in 1933.

The chronic nervous disorder induced incapacitating panic attacks in the air and gave rise to the mysterious illnesses which flared up on the eve of many of his epic flights. But Kingsford Smith was a man addicted to terror, as well as to fame and flying: his nightmarish experiences at the controls served only to drive him to embark upon journeys of ever greater danger.

At the end of his great pioneer flights crowds of more than 200,000 would flock to Sydney’s Mascot aerodrome to cheer and chant and hoist him shoulder high. He was treated like royalty and infinitely more publicised than the country’s leaders or any Hollywood star.

Smithy: The Life of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith: Crew
Crew of the Southern Cross's historic 1928 first trans-Pacific flight from San Francisco to Brisbane. From left: radio operator Jim Warner, relief pilot Charles Ulm, Smithy, navigator Harry Lyon.
The biography looks beyond Kingsford Smith’s awesome flying exploits to examine a reckless character shaped by a childhood near drowning experience, the lasting trauma of service and wounding in the First World War, the forces of Empire that thwarted his deepest ambitions, and the jealousy and litigation that constantly swirled about him.

Smithy: The Life of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith: Wave
Smithy poses in 1934 beside his newly purchased 200-mph Altair temporarily named Anzac.
Smithy: The Life of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith: Wave
Smithy and his co-pilot, Tom Pethybridge, beside the Lockheed Altair Lady Southern Cross in which they disappeared off the Burma coast in 1935.
Smithy: The Life of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith: Wheel
The starboard undercarriage leg of the Lady Southern Cross found in 1937 on an island 140 miles south-east of Rangoon.

Charles Kingsford Smith’s last flight

When Smithy set out from Lympne in Kent in November 1935 with his co-pilot, Tommy Pethybridge, to attempt to break the 71-hour England-Melbourne record (set the previous year by Charles Scott and Tom Campbell Black) he was ill. It was to have been his last record bid. It became his last flight.

The Lockheed Altair Lady Southern Cross, pausing to refuel only at Athens and Baghdad, made a swift flight to India. At dusk on 7 November Smithy and Pethybridge took off from Allahabad to fly non-stop through the night to Singapore. They were seen to pass over Calcutta, Akyab and Rangoon – which they overflew at 1.30 am.

Sometime around 2.50 that morning, 8 November, another Australian pilot, Jimmy Melrose, who was heading south from Rangoon in a much slower Percival Gull, was excited to see the Altair overtake him over the Andaman Sea. On arrival in Singapore later that day Melrose was surprised to learn that the Lady Southern Cross had not arrived.

Despite a huge search of the entire Rangoon-Singapore route by squadrons of RAF aircraft no trace of the Altair was found for 18 months. In May 1937 its starboard undercarriage leg, with still inflated tyre, was picked up by Burmese fishermen on the rocky shore of Aye Island off the south coast of Burma, about 140 miles south-east of Rangoon.

The theory grew that Smithy had flown into the 460-foot top of the jungle-covered island and the aircraft had plunged into the sea, the wheel breaking off and floating ashore. However, if Melrose had genuinely seen the Altair overtake him - they were the only two aircraft in Burma airspace that night - then Smithy would have crashed at least 100 miles south of Aye, and the wheel have drifted north. The conclusions that five years research into the mystery led Mackersey finally to reach are fascinatingly detailed in his book. It recreates Smithy’s final hours and explodes the erroneous 60-years-old Aye Island theory.

The biography revisits the records of the sighting of the Kingsford Smith aeroplane over the Andaman Sea by Melrose. It examines the still surviving weather data for that night – along with the critically seasonal November Indian Ocean currents into which the aeroplane fell; the hard facts establish the much more probable site of the great aviator’s watery grave in the Andaman Sea.

In 1998 Ian Mackersey went to Burma, obtaining a rare special permit from the military government to visit the country’s prohibited southern coast. There, with an interpreter and continuously escorted by two special branch agents, he travelled to remote fishing villages on the Andaman Sea to try and confirm persistent reports that Burmese fishermen had seen Smithy’s Altair descend into the sea on the fateful night. His research eventually proved fruitful, tracing an elderly newspaperman who clearly recalled the reports of a much discussed ‘big light’ that had fallen from the sky into the ocean in the vicinity of Tavoy – now Dawei.

Sir Charles Kingsford Smith books
Quest for Smithy's ocean grave. In 1998 Ian Mackersey questions fishermen on the southern coast of Burma. In the Andaman Sea near here Kingsford Smith plunged to his death in 1935. The aeroplane has never been found.

What the critics said of the biography Smithy

Guardian (London):  Smithy is one of those rare accomplishments, a biography that transcends the achievements of its subject and would be worth reading even if Charles Kingsford Smith hadn't been the first long-distance pilot to conquer the Pacific and the Tasman in both directions, and to fly the Atlantic from east to west. What makes this even more impressive is that Kingsford Smith is such a legend in his native Australia that every biography that has been written up till now has been hagiography and Mackersey has had to uncover a host of sources, including Smithy's second wife, who have hitherto maintained a discreet silence. Mackersey is an even-handed biographer. He doesn't avoid the difficult areas nor does he pillory his subject for them and both the reader and Kingsford Smith are well served by his efforts. Even if you don't like flying, read it for the humanity. And if humanity doesn't touch you, treat it as an object lesson in biography. - John Crace.

London Evening Standard: ‘Superb … Mackersey is a master of narrative and storytelling … contains not a single dull page.’

‘A good biography of this Stanley of the skies was badly needed but we could hardly have expected such a magnificent book as this.’

Independent (London): ‘An exemplary study of a pioneer aviator.’

Independent on Sunday (London): ‘A brilliant amalgam of high adventure and psychological probing.’

The Herald (Glasgow): ‘Exemplary biography painstakingly researched, deeply pondered and excitingly written … Mackersey’s magnificent book does the hero full justice.’

Weekend Australian: The definitive biography of Kingsford Smith … Mackersey’s rendering of those terrifying flights is masterly.’

New Scientist: ‘Mackersey’s biography is lively, the subject fascinating.’

Sydney Morning Herald: ‘By painting Smithy as a very fallible man who achieved great things … this book allows simple hero worship to be replaced with a deeper respect.’

Brisbane Courier-Mail: ‘Smithy is a treasure trove of adventure tales relayed with the style of a fast-moving novel but dripping with the authenticity of thorough research and the sense of the extraordinary that only the truth can muster.’

The Age (Melbourne): ‘A thorough and enthralling insight into one of aviation’s legendary figures.’

Adelaide Advertiser: ‘Meticulously researched … engrossing biography.’

Otago Daily Times
: ‘A carefully researched and beautifully written account of an extraordinary life.’

Evening Post
(Wellington): ‘By stripping away the tinsel Mackersey’s excellent book restores the true glory of an amazing career.’

NZ Sunday Star-Times: ‘Ian Mackersey’s Jean Batten: The Garbo of the Skies ranks among the most admired books of recent times … he returns with another carefully researched biography.’

Sir Charles Kingsford Smith’s principal flights

(Times - when he entered them - and aircraft registrations from his logbooks)

Smithy: The Life of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith: Autograph
Smithy and the Southern Cross which he used to call 'my old bus.'
At the end of the first trans-Pacific flight from America to Australia the crew of the Southern Cross are driven in triumph through the streets of Brisbane. From left: Smithy, Harry Lyon, Jim Warner. Charles Ulm seated.
Smithy, looking older than his 38 years, seen shortly before his death in 1935.
Crowds flocked to airfields to greet the Southern Cross at the end of Smithy's great oceanic flights - this one in 1928 in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Kingsford Smith's flights made front-page news in Fleet Street.
Smithy and his wife Mary who became Lady Kingsford Smith.
1927 (28 - 31 January) Perth-Sydney. Failed record attempt, with two passengers, in Bristol Tourer (G-AUDK). Flight made in formation with second Tourer (G-AUDJ) flown by Keith Anderson. Journey took over four days and 30 flying hours; record was 21 1/2 hours.
Route: Perth - Kalgoorlie - Nareetha - Cook - Wirramina - Broken Hill - Parkes - Sydney.

1927 (19 - 29 June) Around Australia. Record 7,500-mile flight of ten days 5 1/4 hours with passenger Charles Ulm in Bristol Tourer (G-AUDJ).
Route: Sydney - Brisbane - Longreach - Darwin - Broome - Carnarvon - Perth - Nareetha - Wirraminna - Adelaide - Melbourne - Sydney.

1928 (17 - 19 January) San Francisco (World endurance flight record attempt). Fokker trimotor FVIIb-3m Southern Cross (United States identification No: 1985). Co-pilot: Commander George Pond. Airborne time of 50 hours 5 minutes failed to break the 52 hours 22 minutes record.

1928 (31 May - 9 June) America - Australia. First trans-Pacific flight between the two countries (7,200 miles). Fokker Southern Cross (1985). Co-pilot, Charles Ulm; navigator, Harry Lyon; wireless operator, Jim Warner. Total flying time: 83 hours 50 minutes.
Route: Oakland - Honolulu (27 hrs 25 mins); Honolulu - Kauai (55 mins); Kauai - Suva (34 hrs 30 mins); Suva - Naselai beach (1 hr); Naselai - Brisbane (20 hrs).

1928 (8 - 9 August) Melbourne - Perth.
First non-stop flight across Australia (2,000 miles). Fokker Southern Cross (G-AUSU). Co-pilot, Charles Ulm; navigator, Harold Litchfield; wireless operator, Tom McWilliams. Time: 23 hours 25 minutes.

1928 (10 - 11 September) Australia - New Zealand. First flight across the Tasman Sea. Fokker Southern Cross (G-AUSU). Co-pilot, Charles Ulm; navigator, Harold Litchfield; wireless operator, Tom McWilliams. Sydney - Christchurch time: 14 hours 25 minutes.

1928 (8 - 9 October) New Zealand - Australia. First westbound Tasman crossing. Fokker Southern Cross (G-AUSU). Crew as for eastward journey. Blenheim - Sydney time: 23 hours.

1929 (30 - 31 March) Sydney - 'Coffee Royal'. Disastrous attempt to fly from Australia to England in Southern Cross (G-AUSU). Co-pilot, Charles Ulm; navigator, Harold Litchfield; wireless operator, Tom McWilliams. Lost in bad weather in North Western Australia, Smithy force-landed on Kimberley mudflat. Time: 28 hours 30 minutes.

1929 (25 June - 8 July) Australia - England. Record flight between the two countries. Southern Cross (G-AUSU). Resumed flight to England following Coffee Royal forced landing. Co-pilot, Charles Ulm; navigator, Harold Litchfield; wireless operator, Tom McWilliams. Time: 12 days 18 hours.
Route: Sydney - Derby - Singapore - Singora - Rangoon - Calcutta - Allahabad - Karachi - Bandar Abbas - Basra - Bagdad - Athens - Rome - London.

1930 (23 - 24 June) Ireland - New Foundland.
First fully successful westbound North Atlantic flight. Southern Cross (VH-USU). Co-pilot, Evert van Dijk; navigator, Paddy Saul; wireless operator, John Stannage. Portmarnock Beach (near Dublin) - Harbour Grace (New Foundland). Distance: 1,900 miles. Time: 31 hours 30 minutes.

1930 (9 - 19 October) England - Australia. Record solo flight in Avro Avian Southern Cross Junior (G-ABCF). Time of 9 days 22 hours (London - Darwin) broke Hinkler's 1928 15 1/2-day record.
Route: London - Rome - Athens - Aleppo - Bushire - Karachi - Allahabad - Rangoon - Singapore - Surabaya - Atamboea (Timor) - Darwin - Cloncurry - Brisbane - Sydney.

1931 (24 September - 7 October) Australia - England. Failed solo record attempt in Avro Avian Southern Cross Minor (VH-UQG). Bad weather necessitated a forced landing in Malaya; illness another in Turkey where he was temporarily detained - later resting for four days in Athens. Australia - England time of 14 days failed to beat the under-nine day record of Jim Mollison.
Route: Melbourne - Adelaide - Oodnadatta - Alice Springs - Wyndham - Ceribon (Java) - Malayan beach - Victoria Point - Rangoon - Calcutta - Jhansi - Karachi - Jask - Bushire - Bagdad - Aleppo - Milas (Turkey) - Athens - Rome - London.

1931 (30 November - 16 December) Australia - England. First all-Australian airmail flight to England. Avro Ten trimotor Southern Star (VH-UMG). Co-pilot, Scotty Allan; engineer, Wyndham Hewitt. Time: 17 days.
Route: Sydney - Brisbane - Cloncurry - Camooweal - Darwin - Kupang - Surabaya - Alur Setar - Bangkok - Rangoon - Calcutta - Gaya - Allahabad - Jhodpur - Karachi - Jask - Bushire - Bagdad - Aleppo - Athens - Rome - Lyon - Le Touquet (beach) - London.

1932 (7 - 22 January) England - Australia return mail flight (London - Melbourne). Avro Ten Southern Star (VH-UMG). Co-pilot, Scotty Allan. Time: 16 days.
Route: Hamble - Le Bourget - Marseille - Rome - Athens - Aleppo - Bushire - Jask - Jhodpur - Calcutta - Bangkok - Alur Setar - Singapore - Surabaya - Kupang - Darwin - Camooweal - Cloncurry - Longreach - Brisbane - Sydney - Melbourne.

1933 (11 January) Australia - New Zealand.
Southern Cross (VH-USU) to NZ for joyriding tour. Gerringong Beach, NSW - New Plymouth. Time: 14 hours. Co-pilot/navigator, P G (Bill) Taylor; wireless operator, John Stannage.

1933 (27 March) New Zealand - Australia. Southern Cross (VH-USU) return Tasman flight. Co-pilot/navigator, P G (Bill) Taylor; wireless operator, John Stannage. Ninety Mile Beach, NZ - Sydney. Time: 13 hours 42 minutes.

1933 (4 - 11 October: England – Australia). Lympne to Wyndham so flight time of 7 days 4 hours 43 minutes was briefly an absolute record for the route. Percival Gull 4 Miss Southern Cross (G-ACJV - later VH-CKS).
Route: Lympne (Kent) - Brindisi - Bagdad - Gwadar - Karachi - Jhodpur - Akyab - Alur Setar - Surabaya - Wyndham (then via Camooweal, Brisbane and Sydney to Melbourne, arriving 14 October.)

1934 (13 January) Australia - New Zealand. Southern Cross (VH-USU) to NZ for second summer joyriding visit. Co-pilot, Tommy Pethybridge; navigator, P G (Bill) Taylor; wireless operator, John Stannage. Time: 15 hours 25 minutes (Sydney - New Plymouth).

1934 (29 March) New Zealand - Australia.
Southern Cross (VH-USU). Return Tasman flight. Co-pilot, Tommy Pethybridge; navigator, P G (Bill) Taylor; wireless operator, John Stannage. Time: 13 hours 23 minutes (Ninety Mile Beach, NZ - Sydney).

1934 (8 September) Sydney - Perth. Trans-Australia record. Lockheed Altair Lady Southern Cross (VH-USB). Co-pilot, P G (Bill) Taylor. Time: 10 hours 19 minutes (Melbourne - Perth).

1934 (20 October - 3 November) Australia - America. World's first eastbound trans-Pacific flight. Lockheed Altair Lady Southern Cross (VH-USB). Co-pilot/navigator, P G (Bill) Taylor. Total flying time: 52 hours. Route and sector times: Brisbane - Suva (12 hours); Suva - Honolulu (25 hours); Honolulu - San Francisco (15 hours).

1935 (15 May) Tasman forced return flight.
Failed Australia - New Zealand special Jubilee airmail flight. Southern Cross (VH-USU). Co-pilot/navigator, P G (Bill) Taylor; wireless operator, John Stannage. Aircraft returned to Sydney on two engines when starboard propeller was smashed in mid-Tasman. Time: 6 hours out, 9 hours back.

1935 (6 - 8 November) England - Burma. Kingsford Smith's final flight - a failed attempt to break Scott and Black's England - Australia record of 2 days 4 hours 38 minutes to Darwin. Lockheed Altair Lady Southern Cross (G-ADUS). Co-pilot, Tommy Pethybridge.
Route: and cumulative times according to Sydney Morning Herald: Lympne (Kent) - Athens (8 hours) - Bagdad (15 hours 52 minutes) - Allahabad (29 hours 27 minutes - compared with Scott and Black's 26 hours 41 minutes) - crashed into Andaman Sea off South Burma.