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Sir Charles Edward Kingsford Smith (1897–1935)

by Frederick Howard

This article was published:

Charles Edward Kingsford Smith (1897-1935), by Frank Dunne, c1935

Charles Edward Kingsford Smith (1897-1935), by Frank Dunne, c1935

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an2291463

Sir Charles Edward Kingsford Smith (1897-1935), aviator, was born on 9 February 1897 in Brisbane, fifth son and seventh child of William Charles Smith, banker, and his wife Catherine Mary, née Kingsford. The name Kingsford was added to the family surname in Canada; William went into real estate business there in 1903 and later became a clerk with the Canadian Pacific Railways. The family returned to Sydney in 1907. Charles was educated at Vancouver, Canada, at St Andrew's Cathedral Choir School, Sydney, and at Sydney Technical High School. At 16 he was apprenticed to the Colonial Sugar Refining Co. Ltd.

In February 1915 after three years with the Senior Cadets Kingsford Smith enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. He embarked with the 4th Signal Troop, 2nd Division Signal Company, on 31 May as a sapper and served on Gallipoli and, as a dispatch rider, in Egypt and France. In October 1916, as sergeant, he transferred to the Australian Flying Corps. After training in England he was discharged from the A.I.F. and commissioned as second lieutenant, Royal Flying Corps, in March next year; he was appointed flying officer in May and in July joined No.23 Squadron in France. Wounded and shot down in August, he was awarded the Military Cross 'for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty'; he had brought down four machines during his first month at the front and done valuable work in attacking ground targets and hostile balloons. After promotion to lieutenant in April 1918 he served as an R.F.C. flying instructor.

Barred from participating in the 1919 England to Australia air race because of supposedly inadequate navigational experience, Kingsford Smith and his friend Cyril Maddocks piloted joy-flights in England as Kingsford Smith, Maddocks Aeros Ltd. 'Smithy' then went to the United States of America where he failed to attract sponsors for a trans-Pacific flight and was briefly a stunt flier in a flying circus. Back in Australia in January 1921 he worked first in Sydney with another joy-riding organization, the Diggers' Aviation Co., and then as a salaried pilot for Norman Brearley's Western Australian Airways Ltd. On 6 June 1923 at Marble Bar, Western Australia, he married Thelma Eileen Hope Corboy.

Realizing the great potential for air transport in Australia, Kingsford Smith formed a partnership in 1924 with fellow pilot Keith Anderson. They raised the capital to buy two Bristol Tourers by operating a trucking business from Carnarvon, the Gascoyne Transport Co., and in 1927 they returned to Sydney to operate with Charles Ulm as Interstate Flying Services. After tendering unsuccessfully for an Adelaide-Perth mail service, the partners launched a series of important demonstration flights.

On the first of these in June 1927 Kingsford Smith and Ulm completed a round-Australia circuit in 10 days, 5 hours, a notable achievement with minimal navigational aids. Kingsford Smith at once sought support for a trans-Pacific flight and obtained a grant of £9000 from the New South Wales government as well as backing from Sidney Myer and the Californian oil magnate G. Allan Hancock. In a three-engined Fokker plane, the Southern Cross, with Ulm and two American crewmen, Harry Lyon and Jim Warner, he took off from Oakland, California, on 31 May 1928 and flew via Hawaii and Suva to Brisbane, completing the historic crossing in 83 hours, 38 minutes, of flying time. The fliers received subscriptions of over £20,000; Kingsford Smith was awarded the Air Force Cross and appointed honorary squadron leader, Royal Australian Air Force. Anderson, no longer a partner, sued unsuccessfully for part of the prize-money.

In August Kingsford Smith flew the Southern Cross non-stop from Point Cook, Victoria, to Perth. In September-October with Ulm and an Australian crew he piloted the plane from Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand, demonstrating the feasibility of regular passenger and mail services across the Tasman Sea. He then set out to fly the Southern Cross to England to place orders for a fleet of four aircraft with which he intended to begin an inter-capital air service in Australia. However, on 1 April 1929, losing radio contact with the ground and meeting bad weather over north-west Australia, he was forced to land on the flats of the Glenelg River estuary. Before help reached the stranded party on 13 April, Keith Anderson and Robert Hitchcock had perished in the search. After an official inquiry exonerated Kingsford Smith and Ulm from a charge of having staged the incident for publicity, the flight to England was resumed in June and completed in the record time of 12 days, 18 hours.

Kingsford Smith's airline, Australian National Airways, began operations in January 1930 with Kingsford Smith piloting one of the new Avro Ten planes, the Southern Cloud, on the Sydney-Melbourne route. But 'Smithy' was far from ready to settle down. Collecting his 'old bus', Southern Cross, from the Fokker Aircraft Co. in Holland where it had been overhauled, in June 1930 he achieved an east-west crossing of the Atlantic, from Ireland to Newfoundland, in 31½ hours. New York gave him a tumultuous welcome. He then returned to England to take delivery of an Avro Avian biplane, Southern Cross Junior, and attempt a record-breaking solo flight to Darwin in October. This he accomplished, within ten days, beating four competitors who had left England ahead of him and breaking Hinkler's time by 5½ days.

He was now 34 and world famous. Divorced in May 1929, he married Mary Powell on 10 December 1930 at Scots Church, Melbourne. A little later he joined Eric Campbell's New Guard. He had been made honorary air commodore in November, and the future of his airline appeared bright.

However, on 21 March 1931 the Southern Cloud, flying from Sydney to Melbourne with pilot, co-pilot and six passengers, was lost in severe storms over the Snowy Mountains. There were no survivors and the wreckage was not discovered until 1958. This loss and the deepening Depression crippled the airline. Yet to a man with Kingsford Smith's ambitions the pressure to continue flying was constant. In April 1931 he flew the Southern Cross on an emergency mission to pick up mail for Australia from a damaged Imperial Airways plane in Timor. In September he made a solo flight to England in a new Avro Avian biplane, Southern Cross Minor, intending to gain publicity with an immediate return flight. But his health was showing the strains of an arduous career and the return trip was abandoned on medical advice. In November, however, when one of his company planes under contract to fly Christmas mail to England was damaged in Malaya, he took off in another plane to collect the stranded mail, flew it to England in time for Christmas delivery, and returned with mail for Australia.

In 1932, when he was knighted for services to aviation, Kingsford Smith was almost back to where he had started, selling joy-flights at ten shillings a trip. A flight to New Zealand in 1933 added to this precarious income but failed to persuade the New Zealand government to give him a charter for passenger and mail services between Auckland and Singapore. That year he established a flying training school in Sydney, Kingsford Smith Air Service, but sold out at a loss in 1935.

Towards the end of 1933 prospects brightened. After travelling to England by sea in September, he achieved a brilliant success in October, flying solo from London to Wyndham, Western Australia, in a Percival Gull, Miss Southern Cross, in just over seven days. After the feat the Commonwealth government granted him £3000 and he was appointed aviation consultant to the Vacuum Oil Co.

Inevitably, he was attracted by the announcement that a London to Melbourne air race, sponsored by Sir Macpherson Robertson with a prize of £10,000, would be a feature of Victoria's centenary celebrations. With financial help from friends and sponsors, he bought a fast two-seater Lockheed Altair, which he named Lady Southern Cross, and invited (Sir) P. G. Taylor to accompany him in the race. The plan had to be dropped when modifications to the aircraft could not be completed in time. Kingsford Smith and Taylor then flew Lady Southern Cross from Brisbane to San Francisco in October-November 1934 in order to sell it and reimburse sponsors. This west-east trans-Pacific flight was another first in aviation history.

Leaving the Lady Southern Cross to find an American purchaser, Kingsford Smith and Taylor returned to Australia to the long-awaited authorization for a trans-Tasman airmail service. They began the inaugural flight on 15 May 1935. The result was failure in a setting of spectacular courage. Before dawn and some 500 miles (800 km) out over the Tasman, a damaged propeller blade had put one of the three motors out of action, and a second motor threatened to seize as it rapidly burned oil. Taylor, climbing out of the cockpit, succeeded at great hazard in collecting enough oil from the sump of the dead motor to replenish the other. By jettisoning cargo, and finally most of the mail-bags, Kingsford Smith nursed the Southern Cross back to Sydney.

He was a tired man of 38; but he was impelled to go on demonstrating that the future of world transport was in aviation. He arranged for the still unsold Lady Southern Cross to be shipped to England. From there, with J. T. Pethybridge, he took off on 6 November 1935, aiming to make one more record-breaking flight to Australia. It was the end of the long endeavour. The plane and both fliers were lost. It is assumed they crashed into the sea somewhere off the coast of Burma while flying at night towards Singapore. Kingsford Smith was survived by his wife and son and left an estate valued for probate at £12,875.

His contribution to civil aviation was an effort of faith and stamina and places him among the world's notable pioneers. Lean, with 'cool blue eyes', generous mouth and terse manner, he is featured on the Australian $20 note. Sydney's airport is named after him and there is a memorial to him, Taylor and Ulm at Anderson Park, Sydney. The Southern Cross is on view at Brisbane airport. Kingsford Smith was the author of The Old Bus (1932) and, with Ulm, Story of 'Southern Cross' Trans-Pacific Flight (1928). His autobiography My Flying Life was published posthumously in 1937 and the story of his life was filmed in Australia in 1946.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Ellison, Flying Matilda (Syd, 1957)
  • F. J. Howard, Charles Kingsford Smith (Melb, 1962)
  • P. G. Taylor, The Sky Beyond (Boston, 1963)
  • E. Campbell, The Rallying Point (Melb, 1965).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Frederick Howard, 'Kingsford Smith, Sir Charles Edward (1897–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Charles Edward Kingsford Smith (1897-1935), by Frank Dunne, c1935

Charles Edward Kingsford Smith (1897-1935), by Frank Dunne, c1935

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an2291463