Remembered as one of the world’s greatest aviators, Charles Kingsford Smith had exceptional accomplishments to his name by the time he turned 25: decorated First World War pilot, military flight instructor, airline owner, barnstormer and one of Australia’s first commercial pilots. Greater achievements were yet to come; the first, a daring and ambitious flight across the Pacific Ocean.
On 31 May 1928, Kingsford Smith and fellow Australian pilot Charles Ulm, along with American navigator Harry Lyon and radio operator Jim Warner, took off from Oakland airport in California in the Southern Cross. The journey took nine days and was completed in three stages, covering almost 12,000 kilometres.
The first stage of the journey between San Francisco and Honolulu was completed without difficulty, but weather conditions began to deteriorate. On the flight from Honolulu to Suva, the pilots were forced to fly blind for long periods at a time. At one stage, they were also concerned they were going to run out of fuel. After two rest days in Suva, the aviators took off for the final and shortest stage of their journey. It was then that the Southern Cross confronted the worst weather of the flight. Kingsford Smith would later say, ‘The best indication I can give you of the fierceness of the storm is the fact that half an inch was sheared off our propellers’.
Reaching Australian shores, the plane crossed the coastline south of Ballina, about 177 kilometres off course. Flying northwards to Brisbane, Kingsford Smith and his crew landed at Eagle Farm Aerodrome on the morning of 9 June 1928 to a crowd of more than 10,000 supporters. After a civic reception with Queensland Premier William McCormack, Kingsford Smith and Ulm left Brisbane the next day. They continued their aerial voyage to Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.
Among Kingsford Smith’s other record-breaking feats in the years following were a flight around Australia, a non-stop flight from Point Cook in Victoria to Perth, aerial circumnavigation of the equator, crossing of the Tasman Sea, an east–west crossing of the Atlantic, and he won the 1930 England to Australia air race flying solo. He was knighted in 1932 for services to aviation.
The disappearance of Lady Southern Cross
Kingsford Smith and co-pilot John Thompson “Tommy” Pethybridge made an attempt in 1935 to break the England-Australia speed record in a new plane, the Lady Southern Cross. The plane was a Lockheed Altair Monoplane and was considerably faster than Kingsford Smith’s previous Fokker trimotor monoplane the Southern Cross.
On the 6 November 1935 the Lady Southern Cross left Croyden. It was last claimed to have been seen above the Andaman Sea on 8 November, flying 240km from shore. A search was conducted but the crash site was never discovered.
18 months after the disappearance, a piece of the Lady Southern Cross‘s undercarriage and wheel washed ashore at Aye island. Lockheed confirmed it was from the Lady Southern Cross. Attempts to find the crash site persist, with a Sydney film crew claiming they have discovered it buried under mud in the Bay of Bengal in 2009.
In memory of one of the world’s greatest aviators, Sir Charles Kingsford Smith’s plane, the Southern Cross, is preserved plane in a dedicated hanger. Visitors can find it near the international terminal at Brisbane airport on Airport Drive.
Cover image: Arrival of Charles Kingsford Smith in “Southern Cross” at Eagle Farm Racecourse after first crossing of the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco, 9 June 1928: ITM1662474