I must have walked past the mounted row of wooden propellers in our large transport store dozens and dozens of times without registering what I was seeing. They are all mostly of beautiful polished timber but it’s the broken one that’s should have caught my eye. It’s from Sir Charles Kingsford Smith’s famous Fokker Tri-motor, ‘Southern Cross’. But what’s its story?
I had a visit from curator, Jennifer Wilson, from the National Museum of Australia in Canberra who’s doing aviation research. The National Museum has a piece of timber purporting to be from the same propeller and she wanted to have a look at ours to make sure that it was. It transpires that our propeller played an instrumental part in one of Australia’s most daring, heart-stopping and breathtaking acts of heroism in aviation history.
Sir Charles Kingsford Smith (Smithy) has been a household name in Australia for setting aviation records. He was seen as a daredevil pilot and the public adored him. In 1935 he took off from Sydney in the Southern Cross, which he nicked named ‘The Old Bus’, to fly a special airmail flight carrying 30,000 letters in 21 mail bags to New Zealand celebrating the King’s jubilee. (The first airmail had been carried to New Zealand only the year before by fellow Australian aviator, Charles Ulm). On board with Smithy was Captain P.G. (Bill) Taylor as navigator and John Stannage, the radio operator. The Old Bus carried a radio, not terribly common in those days, and Smithy had planned to speak to his fans on radio station 2CH while flying over the Tasman Sea. But things didn’t go to plan…’The Sydney Morning Herald’ of 16 May 1935 tells us…
The first intimation that anything was amiss was a noise like a pistol shot. A portion of the metal on the exhaust manifold of the centre engine had become detached and the speed of the ‘plane hurled it towards the starboard propeller. It struck one of the blades, splintering the blade and breaking off a portion of the end.
This put the starboard engine out of use so Smithy decided it was too risky to continue on to New Zealand with over 1400 km to go. However…
the extra strain on the other two engines caused them to labour, and when the oil of the port engine showed indications of giving trouble Captain Taylor decided to take the great risk of draining the sump of the dead starboard engine. To reach it he had to climb out of the small window of the cockpit against a wind so strong that he risked being blown into the sea. He climbed perilously along a narrow strut leading to the starboard engine. Clinging to the strut with one hand, he removed one of the plates of the engine cowling, and then leaned into the engine until he was able to unscrew the cap of the oil drain pipe.
Before leaving the cockpit he broke the top off a thermos flask in which coffee was carried for the trip. With the thermos flask in his pocket of his flying coat and a suitcase clamped under his arm, he was able to drain the oil from the sump first into the thermos flask and then into the suit case. Then climbing back along the strut he manoeuvred his way through the cramped cabin by scrambling over the shoulders of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, who was at the controls. It was necessary to stop the port engine while he climbed along the strut to replenish its oil supply and in this way the ‘plane lost both altitude and speed.
Each time the ‘plane was within 50 feet of the sea Captain Taylor climbed back into the cockpit and Sir Charles Kingsford Smith gave the port engine full throttle to regain speed and height again. It was necessary for Captain Taylor to repeat these perilous climbs from the starboard engine to the port engine several times, as the bottom of the suitcase would carry only a small quantity of oil…meanwhile the huge monoplane was labouring on, gradually shortening the distance between it and Sydney. Stannage sent wireless messages every half-hour, giving news of their progress. Many times it seemed that the Southern Cross would plunge into the sea. All ships along the coast and on the Tasman Sea, as well as the wireless stations, picked up the dramatic messages.
The staffs at the Amalgamated Wireless listening centre at La Perouse and at the central radio office in York-street were doubled. While one operator concentrated on listening for messages from the ‘plane another operator kept in touch with all ships at sea, informing them of the ‘plane’s peril.
After Stannage had thrown everything out of the plane including cargo, petrol, food hampers, boots and spare clothing, gradually 14 of the 21 bags of the precious mail cargo was jettisoned. This wasn’t any old air mail delivery, thousands of philatelic enthusiasts had posted off special letters from all over Australia to be taken on the flight. Finally at…
‘4 p.m. the hundreds of anxious watchers at the Mascot aerodrome…were able to discern black specks in the haze over the sea across Botany Bay. At 4.10 p.m. the Southern Cross, escorted by seven ‘planes, descended slowly over the aerodrome and made a perfect landing on the runway… Sir Charles Kingsford Smith taxied the ‘plane straight into the hangar, where the crowd had assembled. Deafening cheers rose from the ground with shouts of ‘good old Smithy.’
To prevent souvenir hunters from getting at the famous splintered propeller, Smithy’s mechanic, Harold Affleck, removed it from the Southern Cross but not before a sliver had been broken from it and thrown to 16-year-old Victor Piper, part of the welcoming crowd. This fragment eventually went into the National Museum’s collection and achieved notoriety being taken into orbit around earth in 2001 by the Australian-born astronaut, Andy Thomas.
What happened to the Southern Cross? It was seen as so important to the nation it was purchased from Smithy only 2 months after the flight in July 1935 by the Federal Government. It’s on display in a special hangar at Brisbane airport.
What happened to the oily suitcase? It’s in the collection of the National Library of Australia in Canberra.
What happened to Captain Taylor? For his amazing act of bravery, he was awarded the Empire Gallantry Medal. He went on to make the pioneering flight across the South Pacific from Australia to Chile in 1951 in the Catalina flying boat, Frigate Bird II. That’s the huge aircraft suspended in Transport exhibition of the Museum.
What happened to Smithy? Well, after the flight he was exhausted. The Herald reported that he vowed his long distance flights were behind him but only months later in an attempt to break the England to Australia speed record in a single-engine Lockheed Altair, ‘Lady Southern Cross’, he perished together with his engineer, Tommy Pethybridge. Their bodies were never found but a part of the plane’s undercarriage, now in the Museum’s collection, was discovered in 1937 washed up on a beach of the tiny island of Aye, off the coast of Burma.
And what happened to the damaged propeller from the Southern Cross? It was presented to the Director of Posts, Harold P. Brown, in gratitude for giving permission by radio for Smithy to dump the special Jubilee air mail. The propeller was then given to the Museum by Brown’s son, and it was transported in 1972 from Melbourne to Sydney by Smithy’s old mechanic, Harold Affleck in his car with the back seat removed as he didn’t trust its journey by air!