Cairo to Indonesia: How Ross Smith really won the Great Air Race

We discuss Sir Ross Smith's aviation knowledge and how he won the Great Air Race

Date Published January 17, 2019
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There were several factors that contributed to the success of Ross Smith’s flight from London to Darwin. Including, but not limited to, his sturdy and reliable Vickers Vimy aircraft, his giant twin Rolls-Royce engines, and, most importantly, his intimate knowledge of two thirds of the Cairo to Timor route!

This knowledge gave Ross Smith and his crew a huge advantage over the other 5 entrants in the Great Air Race: as none of the other entrants were familiar with this 6000 mile sector of the race.

On November 13th, 1918, two days after Armistice day, Ross Smith was in Cairo where he wrote to his mother in Australia to say that he was going to fly in a Handley Page to the far east. He said he expected to leave the aircraft in India and charter a small ship to survey possible landing fields from India to Timor. Obviously, the R.A.F was most interested in the earliest establishment of an air service between England and Australia, as there had never been a flight between these two countries before!

Read below for more on the Cairo to Timor route! 

“Towards the end of the war, Brigadier-General A.E. Borton had flown the latest Handley Page out from England for use on night bombing raids in the Middle East. Commander of the RAF in the area, Major-General Sir W.G.H. Salmond decided to use this particular aircraft for the survey. The personnel aboard the plane were the General Salmond, General Borton, Captain Ross Smith, [and the two mechanics] Sgts Bennett and Shiers. The flight began from Cairo on 29 November 1918 when they flew to Damascus and then Baghdad. On 4 December, they took off for India via Basra, Bushire and Bundar Abbas, arriving in Karachi on the 10th.

Salmond, Barton and Ross Smith shared the flying, doing one hour periods. Landings were divided between Borton and Ross Smith. When the plane reached Karachi on 10 December the generals were so impressed with their progress they pushed on to Delhi with little delay. The flying time for the 3233 miles from Cairo to Delhi was forty-seven hours twenty-one minutes, an average speed of about seventy miles per hour. A decision to accept unexpected Christmas-week invitations resulted in the Handley Page continuing survey flight to Calcutta where they arrived on 18 December.

Here a huge welcoming crowd of 250,000 encroached dangerously into the small landing space causing General Borton to scrape a tree. Luckily there was only slight damage to one wing.The record-breaking flight of 4088 miles from Cairo to Calcutta had taken a flying time of fifty-nine hours eleven minutes at an average speed of sixty-nine miles per hour. Mail was taken aboard in Cairo for delivery in Karachi and Delhi.

Meanwhile, during the festive season in Calcutta, Borton was busy sending cables to the Air Ministry in London for permission to charter a ship to survey a suitable air route from India to Australia. Permission was granted. When the Proposed survey was completed, Borton and Ross Smith fully intended to return to Lahore where they planned to leave the Handley Page and then fly it to Australia using their selected route.

On 10 February 1919, the Indian Government’s R.I.M.S.Sphinx sailed from Calcutta loaded with equipment and 7,000 gallons of petrol which was to be distributed at selected points en route to Australia.

To start with, all went well; the first port called at was Chittagong. Then, only two days out from Calcutta and shortly after leaving Chittagong, the ship caught fire and exploded. General Borton and Ross Smith narrowly escaped death. The Indian Government was again called on for assistance and this time provided their R.I.M.S Minto with a proviso that a petrol cargo would not be carried.

They sailed down the Malay Peninsula, calling at Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, and Timor in a voyage lasting three months. The survey appeared to have been quite successful, the only setback being attacks of malaria suffered by both Borton and Smith when the Minto was nearing Koepang.

They were attended by a Dutch doctor but did not set foot ashore at Koepang. In fact it would seem that by this time the airmen-surveyors considered they had traveled for enough by ship. This, coupled with their sickness, must have caused them to terminate their exploration and not go through to Darwin as planned. After Timor they returned to Batavia where Ross wrote, “we have no difficulty about landing grounds, for the Dutch people have been very good and have given every assistance. Dili in Portuguese Timor was all swampy ground and useless.”

So the Minto sailed back to Calcutta where they learned yet another Afghan war had broken out. They discovered to their disappointment that the Handley Page, which they had intended to fly immediately to Australia, had been detailed to the north-west frontier of India where it crashed during a storm. Offsetting this blow, however, was the announcement of the 10,000 pound air race to Australia.

To learn the terms and conditions of the air race it became necessary to return to London as quickly as possible. The only was was by one of the many troop transports ferrying the English soldiers home from India. As officers, Ross smith and Borton had no difficulty in being allocated berths, but for Sergeants Bennett and Shiers, it was a different matter. Wally Shiers and Bennett virtually stowed away on the same ship. Shiers later wrote “We joined the ranks of the English soldiers and marched aboard with the rest of them. Everything went well until just before sailing time when we were discovered. We absolutely refused to leave the ship and I guess they didn’t have the heart to put us off, so we were locked up in the brig”.

Shortly after the ship set sail, Borton and Ross Smith tactfully organised their release. From Shiers’ account of the voyage the two sergeant mechanics then had a wonderful time.

With Ross Smith, Wally Shiers, and James Bennett spent the next five months in London pursuing a suitable aircraft that was capable of travelling the 1919 Great Air Race route!

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