Flight path of a pioneering aviator
‘King of the Air: The Turbulent Life of Charles Kingsford Smith’
By Ann Blainey
Black Inc, 377pp, $49.99 (HB)
by Ross Fitzgerald
If you happen to be in Brisbane rushing to or from the airport, take a slight detour on Airport Drive and have a look at the Kingsford Smith Memorial. It’s a hidden treasure that most travellers pass by.
Dedicated to our greatest aviator, Charles Kingsford Smith, the memorial features his preserved Southern Cross aeroplane. Brisbane Airport is a custodian of this important relic for the commonwealth and the memorial is free and open 24/7. There’s a voiceover that tells the tale of the Southern Cross. And what a tale it is.
Biographer Ann Blainey had known about Kingsford Smith since she was 11. On her schoolroom wall there was a map of the Pacific Ocean with the pioneering route of the Southern Cross painted in red. That same year, Blainey also learned about Magellan and Columbus in her history class. But her enthusiasm centred on ‘‘Smithy”, an Australian who was born in Brisbane on February 9, 1897.
Intriguingly, Blainey’s mother had made a short trip in the Southern Cross, while her father, Commander Frances William Heriot, a navigator with the Royal Australian Navy (to whom this fine biography is dedicated), had charted parts of the coastline over which the renowned pilot had flown. So her father could explain to her the full details of Smithy’s extraordinary flights.
As Blainey documents in this brilliant book, ‘King of the Air’, over three years Kingsford Smith broke numerous aviation records with some astonishing voyages. These included the first trans-Pacific flight from the US to Australia; the first circumnavigation around the equator; and the first nonstop crossing of the Australian mainland.
Smithy became a world-famous celebrity. On New York’s Fifth Avenue a tickertape parade down Broadway was held in his honour, while in Australia he was a national hero.
Subtitled ‘The Turbulent Life of Charles Kingsford Smith’, Blainey’s fascinating book focuses on the inner as well as the outer man.
While career highlights of Smithy’s short and successful public life may have been well known, his ambiguous relationship with fame, his drinking problems, and his doubts and fears — especially his increasing panic attacks and free-floating emotional distress — were not.
It is pleasing to report that in this beautifully written, scrupulously researched and meticulously indexed work, Blainey has filled this gap to perfection. Also documented is Smithy’s often tumultuous relationship with his first wife, Thelma, whom he divorced in May 1929.
This was to marry the woman he loved, Mary Powell, whom he had met on a passenger ship in the Pacific. They were married in December 1930 and they had a son, Charles, to whom Smithy was devoted. Mary and Smithy’s mother Catherine, whom he regarded as his best friend, were the strongest and most positive influences in his jam-packed life.
Thanks to Blainey’s painstaking efforts, the real person beneath the sometimes confected image of Smithy the heroic aviator can now emerge. What I find particularly revealing is Blainey’s elucidation and analysis of how Kingsford Smith had first witnessed the scarifying physical and mental horrors of being a soldier at Gallipoli.
Later in the so-called Great War, he was a combat pilot with the Royal Flying Corps. In August 1917, while serving with No 23 Squadron, Kingsford Smith was shot down by the Germans and received injuries that resulted in the loss of part of his left foot. He was awarded the Military Cross for his gallantry in battle.
But, as Blainey explains, while the general public in Australia and America in particular recognised Smithy’s derring-do, “only those close to him knew the anxious man who pushed himself to the edge of health and sanity”.
Among almost 30 inspiring black-and-white photographs there are a number of standouts. There is one of Smithy and Charles Ulm, the pioneering Melbourne-born aviator who also “wanted to do something that would make the world sit up”. This 1927 photo shows the two Aussie aviators being greeted at Mascot Aerodrome by controversial NSW premier Jack Lang after their flight around Australia in an old Bristol Tourer. As Blainey explains, Lang was so impressed that he promised money for their adventurous plans to cross the Pacific.
Another is from June 1928 at Eagle Farm Aerodrome in Brisbane where the trans-Pacific flight had finished in front of a waiting crowd of 15,000 excited Queenslanders. The Southern Cross, a Fokker monoplane with three engines, had been in the air for almost 84 hours.
But perhaps the most fascinating photo is one taken in June 1930, after Kingsford Smith completed his circumnavigation of the world in 31 hours and 30 minutes by flying from Portmarnock in Ireland to the tip of Newfoundland, Canada. This group portrait features the four key participants: Smithy and Dutch co-pilot Evert van Dyk, Smithy’s navigator Patrick (“Paddy”) Saul, who was Irish, and his wireless operator John Stannage, a New Zealander.
Blainey is grateful to her historian husband Geoffrey Blainey, who travelled with her to most of Smithy’s airfields and flight paths. This involved fact-finding trips throughout outback Australia, and also in New Zealand, Fiji, North America and Asia, including Burma (now Myanmar), where Kingsford Smith met his tragic death in November 1935.
Smithy was lost in the Andaman Sea, his body never recovered. He has since entered the bloodstream of Australian legend but Blainey has extracted the man from the myth.
So next time you are in Brisbane, stop at the Kingsford Smith Memorial and think about this great yet flawed Australian and his incredible aviation achievements.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 40 books.
The Weekend Australian, December 8-9, 2018, review, Books, p 21.