here to buy
The Life of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith
Little, Brown (Time Warner Books)
UK, London, 1998
(ISBN: 0 316 64308
Paperback: Warner Books, London, 1999 (ISBN: 0 7515 2656 8)
The definitive biography of Australias Greatest Aviator
When Sir Charles Kingsford Smiths 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
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.
|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.
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’.
|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.
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.
|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.
|Smithy poses in 1934 beside his newly purchased 200-mph Altair temporarily named Anzac.
|Smithy and his co-pilot, Tom Pethybridge, beside the Lockheed Altair Lady Southern Cross in which they disappeared off the Burma coast in 1935.
|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 Smithys 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 aviators
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 countrys 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 Smithys
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.
|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
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
magnificent book does the hero full justice.
Australian: The definitive biography of Kingsford Smith
rendering of those terrifying flights is masterly.
Scientist: Mackerseys biography is lively, the subject
Sydney Morning Herald: By painting
Smithy as a very fallible man who achieved great things
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 aviations legendary
Adelaide Advertiser: Meticulously researched
Otago Daily Times: A carefully researched and beautifully written
account of an extraordinary life.
Evening Post (Wellington): By stripping away the tinsel Mackerseys
excellent book restores the true glory of an amazing career.
NZ Sunday Star-Times: Ian Mackerseys 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 Smiths principal flights
(Times - when he entered them - and aircraft registrations from his logbooks)
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.
|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
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
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
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
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.)
(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
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.