Charles Kingsford Smith, better known as Smithy to his mates, was one of Australia’s pioneering aviators in the early 20th century. This lanky bloke with an oversized grin made history with his daring record-breaking flights across the globe.
From completing the first-ever trans-Pacific flight to Australia, to pulling off the remarkable feat of crossing the entire Australian mainland in under 24 hours, Smithy’s aviation milestones rival some of the greatest achievements in early flight. His aerial daring and ability to court publicity certainly contributed to his notoriety as both a flyboy and Australian folk hero.
So crack open a coldie, sit back and enjoy as we detail some of Smithy’s most memorable aviation moments that made him a household name down under.
Key Aviation Milestones
First trans-Pacific flight from the United States to Australia in 1928
After Charles Lindbergh’s history making solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, Kingsford Smith was inspired to make the first ever non-stop crossing of the vast Pacific ocean from North America to Australia. As wild and ambitious as this mission seemed, Smithy was determined to accomplish the unthinkable.
Teaming up with seasoned aviators Charles Ulm and Harry Lyon, along with their intrepid American navigator Captain James Warner, the crew embarked on their daring journey aboard the Southern Cross, a triple-engine Fokker F.VIIb/3m trimotor monoplane. On May 31st, 1928 they eagerly took off from Oakland, California bound for Hawaii and later Brisbane, Australia.
The flight was hardly smooth sailing though as the Southern Cross battled against heavy winds, turbulent seas, smoke in the cockpit and failed radio equipment. But Smithy kept her steady through it all. After enduring nearly 84 grueling hours in the air, white knuckles clenched to the controls, they finally sighted the red soil of Australia. The crew triumphantly landed in Brisbane on June 9th to a roaring crowd of proud Australians. Their epic 7,500 mile flight ushered in new era of aviation and proved commercial long-distance air travel was possible.
- Details on flight:
- Duration: Nearly 84 hours of flight time
- Stops: Short stopovers in Hawaii and Fiji for fuel
- Challenges: High winds, smoke in cockpit, radio problems
Smithy and his crewmates were treated like absolute rock stars upon their arrival in Brisbane. Swarmed by mobs of adoring fans, they were the Lindberghs of the South Pacific!
First non-stop crossing of the Australian mainland in 1929
In the afterglow of his trans-Pacific success, Smithy aimed to tackle yet another record setting Australian flight. At the time, other aviators had attempted to cross Australia from east to west but all were unsuccessful due to weather or aircraft issues. Ever the daring pilot, Smithy believed he could pull it off.
Departing from Point Cook airfield in Victoria on February 8, 1929, Smithy, accompanied only by his reliable radio operator John Stannage, pointed their small Avro Avian biplane towards the vast Outback. Screaming across Australia at nearly 100 mph, the journey was plagued by terrible visibility, heavy rain, humidity and turbulent winds. But Smithy persevered through the atrocious conditions. After a grueling 18 hours and 55 minutes they completed the first successful aerial crossing of Australia, finally touching down in Perth.
- Details on flight:
- Duration: 18 hours 55 minutes
- Purpose: Prove commercial flight routes across Australia possible
- Impact: Showcased Australia’s interior, paved way for inaugural east-west mail service
The epic mainland crossing was another history-making moment, proving that air routes across the desolate Outback could successfully connect eastern and western Australian cities. Smithy’s heroics provided a spark that soon led to the establishment of the first official east-west Australia mail service later that year.
Fastest crossing of the Pacific in 1930
Not satisfied with just being the first to conquer the Pacific by air, Smithy aimed higher by attempting to set a new record for the fastest flight from Australia to the United States aboard his trusty Southern Cross.
Departing from Sydney, Smithy and his co-pilot John Pethybridge first touched down in Brisbane to pick up their navigator, none other than Captain James Warner. Yes, the same bloke who helped them navigate across the Pacific two years earlier. The crew then took off from Brisbane on April 28, 1930 dashing at breakneck speeds towards the States.
Braving high winds and turbulence over the vast open ocean, Smithy throttled the Southern Cross to her limits. After nearly 74 hours battling rough conditions and fatigue, the gold Southern Cross shimmered in the morning sun as the California coastline came into view. They safely landed on May 1st completing an astonishing feat – the fastest crossing of Pacific by air and slicing a whopping 10 hours off the previous record!
- Details on flight:
- Duration: 73 hours, 45 minutes
- Speed records: Fastest Australia to U.S. crossing, previous record beaten by 10 hours
- Occupants: Smithy, co-pilot John Pethybridge, navigator Captain James Warner
Smithy emerged from the record setting flight grinning from ear to ear, surely pleased as punch by their tremendous accomplishment.
First westbound crossing of the Atlantic in 1930
Smithy must’ve caught a second wind after his history making Pacific flight because soon after he set his aeronautical sights on conquering yet another ocean – the Atlantic. At the time, numerous pilots had crossed from east to west but no one had successfully flown the more difficult westward route against prevailing winds. Ready to etch his name into the record books once more, Smithy readied himself for the arduous Atlantic hop.
On August 18, 1930 Smithy, accompanied by co-pilot Pethybridge and their radio operator, lifted off from Portmarnock Strand, near Dublin, Ireland. Battling whipping winds gusting over 30 mph, it was a violently bumpy and miserable ride. Still, Smithy kept pushing forward. After nearly 31 grueling hours in the air, the crew sighted land as they passed over Trevose Head, Cornwall. Flying on fumes with fuel tanks nearly empty, they finally crossed the Irish Sea and safely landed on August 19th in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. Their landmark flight marked the very first successful westward Atlantic crossing, an incredible capstone to Smithy’s long string of aeronautical achievements.
- Details on flight:
- Duration: 30 hours, 18 minutes
- Purpose: Complete first westbound crossing of Atlantic
- Occupants: Smithy, co-pilot John Pethybridge, radio operator
Touching down in Newfoundland, an exhausted yet jubilant Smithy had once more conquered the impossible, his name forever etched in aviation lore.
Knights of the Air: Details on his 1920s commercial aviation company
In addition to his daring record setting flights, Smithy also founded an early Australian commercial airline in the 1920s called the Knights of the Air. Launched in 1921 with his WWI flying ace mate Adrian “Gubby” Gurr, the company started as an airplane tire sales and air taxi service. But Smithy had bigger ambitions than giving joy rides across the Outback.
Purchasing their first three-seater airliner,byname “The Canary”, Smithy and Gubby expanded routes throughout New South Wales and Queensland. The enterprising duo later added an Avro Ten tri-motor, Oscar Garden’s “Rajah”, expanding services to Victoria and South Australia. For several years the Knights of the Air operated successful mail and passenger flights across eastern Australia while Smithy and Gurr continued thrilling crowds with their flying circus stunts on the weekends. By the mid-20s Kingsford Smith sold his shares in Knights to teammate Charles Ulm who steered the airline on its destined course towards becoming the behemoth Australian National Airways.
- Details on Knights of the Air:
- Innovations: Pioneered commercial air routes across Australia
- Routes: New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and South Australia
- Planes used: The Canary (3 seater), Avro Ten tri-motor Oscar Garden’s “Rajah”
- Growth and demise: Expanded routes across eastern Australia, sold to partner Charles Ulm in mid-1920s who grew it into Australian National Airways
For a brief shining moment, Smithy and his Knights of the Air pioneered commercial aviation down under before their little airline flew off into the sunset, and Australian aviation history.
Whether he was conquering the vast open Pacific, screaming across the Australian Outback, or battling violent Atlantic storms, Smithy constantly defied the limits of early aviation, relentlessly pursuing his passion for flight. His numerous pioneering accomplishments, dazzling airmanship skills and affable personality certainly cemented his status as a beloved Australian cultural icon. Though his story ended tragically in 1935 after vanishing over the Andaman Sea, Kingsford Smith’s adventurous spirit and trailblazing aviation milestones continue inspiring new generations of ambitious Aussies who still look to the heavens and dream.