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On 12 November 1919, Ross and Keith Smith, with mechanics Wally Shier and Jim Bennett, set out from Hounslow, near London, for Australia in a Vickers Vimy. Arriving 28 days later in Darwin, NT, they claimed the £10,000 prize offered by the Commonwealth Government for the first Australians to fly from England to Australia in less than 30 days.
Originally designed as a World War I bomber, the Vickers Vimy Mk IV never saw active service. Powered by twin Rolls Royce engines, the open cockpit Vimy had a top speed of 177 kph, carried 2,300 litres of fuel and had a cruising range of 1,600 kilometres. It completed the 17,910 kilometre journey from UK to Australia in 28 days at an average speed of 137 kph.
Ross and Keith Smith set out for Australia from Hounslow in a Vickers Vimy MK IV on 12 November 1919. They reached Darwin 28 days later on December 10, claiming the prize of 10 000 pounds for being the first Australians to fly from England to Australia in less than 30 days.
The Smith brothers' flight was not without problems. The plane got bogged to the axles in Surabaya, but far worse awaited them in Australia. The trip from Darwin to Sydney took almost twice as long as the flight to Australia. The Vimy was forced down at Cobbs Creek, NT, with a split propeller. In 52 degree heat, the mechanics toiled for three days to make repairs, gluing wood splinters into the shattered end and reshaping it using glass from a broken bottle. They made another unscheduled landing near Charleville, Qld, when their out-of-balance port engine exploded at 900 metres altitude. This repair alone took 50 days.
On 14 February 1920, the Vickers Vimy flew across NSW from Narromine to Sydney. When the plane was spotted over Katoomba, a message was wired to the GPO in Sydney, where a flag was raised on the Martin Place tower to signal the Vimy's imminent arrival. Spectators flocked to the city and Mascot airfield to see the plane, which landed at 11.12am.
"Almost before it had come to a stop, the Vickers-Vimy was a towering island in a great surging sea of humanity..."
wrote the Sunday Times 15 Feb 1920.
Message in a bottle
On the final and most dangerous leg of Ross and Keith Smith’s record-breaking flight, 180 miles off the coast of Port Darwin on 10 December 1919, they sighted the HMAS Sydney, a tiny speck in the Timor Sea below them. The ship was positioned to guide their course onto Port Darwin in case of need. However the men were perfectly on course - "proof of wonderfully accurate navigation on the part of the aviators" according to Captain H. Hayley, HMAS Sydney.
The brothers, who had no radio on board, decided to drop a 'message in a bottle' to the captain of the ship below, letting him know all was going well. Using string and a hastily made parachute they dropped the bottle which landed in the sea near the ship. The pencil message read:
"The Air, 10/12/19, Vickers Vimy, The Commander, H.M.A.S., Very glad to see you. Many thanks for looking after us. Going strong. Keith Smith, Ross Smith, Sgt. J. Bennett, Sgt. W. H. Shiers"
In fact it wasn’t a bottle the brothers dropped, but an Escoffier pickle jar. Presumably they had eaten the pickles en route to London, and it proved the perfect vessel to convey their message to the HMAS Sydney.
Most of their epic flight had been over land. The final leg was the first time they had done such a long haul over sea. They were glad to see the ship below because they realised that if there was a problem, they at least had a chance of survival.
Ross and Keith Smith’s original message and bottle were donated to the Library by Captain H. Cayley, Commander of HMAS Sydney, in 1922.
As detailed flight maps of the route from England to Australia were not available at the time, Ross and Keith Smith used whatever they could find – basic hydrographical maps which were more suited to ocean navigation than flight. "The VIMY had an open cockpit so the crew were fully exposed to the weather, with the result that the maps suffered during the many storms encountered particularly from Calcutta onwards" (Keith Smith, 1950).
The original maps, presented to the Library by Keith Smith in 1950, show their actual flight route with handwritten notes made to each other during the flight.
The first map shows the exact spot where they dropped the bottle in the Timor Sea. Their annotation reads: "Dropped message. Boat turned". The second map shows the final part of their flight, including Indonesia and the Timor Sea. Various pencil annotations describe their speed and weather conditions, topographical features, and conversations between the men: "Has the wind changed, look at the wave tops?" ; "Only a couple of degrees, keep going on 120T". The third map is a fragment of a Map of the World showing their various stops from London to Darwin.
Both Ross and Keith Smith were knighted following their remarkable flight. Public interest was enormous, spawning many souvenirs, photographs, pamphlets – even board games.