Eighty years ago today on 8 November 1935, Australia’s greatest pilot, Sir Charles Kingsford Smith (Smithy), tragically and mysteriously disappeared off the Burmese coast in the Indian Ocean while flying his plane, the Lockheed Altair Lady Southern Cross. Smithy and his co-pilot and engineer, John Thompson ‘Tommy’ Pethybridge, were trying to break yet another England–Australia speed record.
Smithy was one of the pilots in the golden age of aviation of the 1920s and 30s working to establish commercial air routes. Almost 80 years after the plane’s strange disappearance another occurred on 8 March 2014. This time the infamous Malaysia Airlines’ Flight 370, a Boeing 777 jet, flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. It also tragically went missing over the same ocean, with the apparent loss of its 239 passengers and crew.
World War I pilot and aviation pioneer
Of the young Australian World War One pilots who returned from the front none went on to make aviation history as Sir Charles Kingsford Smith. Smithy flew in the AIF in Egypt, Gallipoli and France before being commissioned into the Royal Flying Corps in 1917.
After the war undertook a number of pioneering flights and sought to establish regular air services in Australia. One of the most famous was the first flight across the Pacific with Charles Ulm as co-pilot. Smithy flew a rebuilt Fokker tri-motor he named Southern Cross from Oakland, California, to Honolulu, then on to Fiji before landing at Brisbane on 9 June 1928. This was an extraordinary achievement especially in navigational terms as the flight involved landing on mere dots of islands across the vast expanse of the Pacific. Other record-setting flights included across the Tasman Sea, and the first successful westbound crossing of the Atlantic.
Smithy was granted the rank of Air Commodore in the RAAF in 1930 and was knighted in 1932. He was a superb pilot who planned his long distance flights with great care. However, he was no businessman and generally left all those sorts of matters to Ulm and others. Smithy received much publicity for his pioneering flights, but little reward and for much of his life was beset by financial worries.
Lady Southern Cross
Driven to set even more records he decided to compete in the 1934 MacRobertson Air Race from London to Melbourne and purchased the single-engine Lockheed Altair Lady Southern Cross, which he considered capable of achieving first place. Engineering problems and lack of time saw him withdraw from the race. Even so, in testing the aircraft in Australia, he established a number of city-to-city speed records in the Altair and to ‘save face’ for withdrawing he flew in late October and early November 1934 across the Pacific from Australia to California instead. Flying this time in a west to east direction he added another record to his list with navigator, Captain P.G. Taylor.
Of all the flights undertaken by Kingsford Smith the one that remains most in popular history is the failed cross Tasman flight from Australia to New Zealand. Undertaken 6 months after the Pacific flight on 15 May 1935, it was to carry special Jubilee airmail. This is the one that saw Southern Cross turn around halfway across the Tasman Sea and limp back to Sydney on two engines after the starboard propeller was smashed. Co-pilot and navigator P.G. Taylor famously climbed out onto the struts to retrieve oil from the stricken engine for the two labouring ones. Southern Cross perilously skimmed the wave tops but Smithy managed to bring it home. He was very badly shaken and in the press vowed his flying days were over.
But only 6 months later Smithy was in England with his Altair Lady Southern Cross attempting to break Scott and Black’s England to Australia record. This brings us back to his disappearance on that dark tropical night on 8 November 1935 which saw the loss of one of the most loved and honoured Australians of all time. The charismatic pilot, only 38 years of age, had been a household name in Australia and known around the world for setting aviation records. He was a daredevil pilot, some say reckless, but the public adored him, especially women. Thousands followed his epic journeys in primitive flimsy little aircraft without accurate navigation systems at a time when commercial aviation was in its infancy and the world’s oceanic air routes still to be conquered.
After the disappearance of the Lady Southern Cross people asked how could this have happened? Surely Smithy was invincible. Or was he? According to Ian Mackersey in his 1998 book ‘Smithy: The Life of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith’, the pilot was a flawed hero obsessed by fame who strangely had a morbid fear of the sea. Mackersey says:
‘this seemingly indestructible flying genius was afflicted by a chronic nervous disorder which induced incapacitating panic attacks in the air and gave rise to the mysterious illnesses which flared up on the eve of his epic flights. But Kingsford Smith was a man addicted to terror, as well as fame and flying: his nightmarish experiences at the controls served only to drive him to embark upon journeys of ever greater danger’.
Eighty years later the world was asking the same questions. How could a commercial jet with all the state of the art navigation equipment also disappear over the same ocean? The coincidental histories of the two flights continue as sixteen months after it vanished airliner debris was found on a beach on Réunion, an island in the western Indian Ocean on 29 July 2015. Experts confirmed that the flaperon’s serial numbers were from Malaysian Airlines’ missing Boeing 777.
On 1 May 1937, eighteen months after Lady Southern Cross had disappeared, two Burmese fishermen found an aircraft wheel floating in the sea among rocks off an uninhabited island called Kokunye Kyun (Aye). The big black tyre was still inflated and its tubular steel fork encased in marine growth. Just as the Malaysian Airlines’ aircraft part was verified so too this was confirmed with serial numbers to be the starboard aircraft undercarriage with its wheel and oleo strut from Lady Southern Cross.
Written by Margaret Simpson, Curator, November 2015