The 1919 Great Air Race

In 1919, The acting Australian Prime Minister William Alexander Watt announced, on behalf of Prime Minister William “Billy” Hughes, the Commonwealth Government would offer a prize of £10,000 for the first successful flight to Australia from Great Britain in under 30 days.

Australia had the world’s attention on 10 December 1919 as the winners of the Great Air Race from England to Australia finally touched down in Fannie Bay, Northern Territory.

The victorious pilots, Ross and Keith Smith in their Vickers Vimy G-EAOU twin engine plane, won the £10,000 prize when they landed in Darwin to enormous local, national and international acclaim. This extraordinary event was the forerunner to the international air travel that is so commonplace today and opened new trade channels for international mail and freight – in 1919, with aviation in its infancy, excitement gripped the world and encapsulated the imagination of the Australian people.

From that time, Darwin and the Northern Territory became the Northern gateway to Australia and for many years Australia led the world in long distance pioneering aviation. The race was the catalyst to develop domestic air routes across northern Australia and ultimately led to the establishment of QANTAS airways.

The Great Air Race was embraced by all Australians as the first major international feat of significance following the dark days of World War 1.

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Original Route

The official starting place for the competitive flight was the Hounslow aerodrome (West London). Hounslow was then the main ‘civilian’ aerodrome of London, and all commercial machines inward and outward bound started from or landed there. On the morning of November 12th 1919 at around 8am, the Vickers Vimy took off from the snow-covered Hounslow aerodrome bound for Lyons.

Date Start Finish
12 Nov London Lyons (France)
13 Nov Lyons Pisa (Italy)
15 Nov Pisa Rome
16 Nov Rome Taranto
17 Nov Taranto Crete (Greece)
18 Nov Crete Cairo (Egypt)
19 Nov Cairo Damascus (Syria)
20 Nov Damascus Ramadie (Iraq)
21 Nov Ramadie Basra
23 Nov Basra Bundar Abbas (Iran)
24 Nov Bundar Abbas Karachi (Pakistan)
25 Nov Karachi Delhi (India)
27 Nov Delhi Allahabad
28 Nov Allahabad Calcutta
29 Nov Calcutta Burma (Myanmar)
30 Nov Burma Rangoon
1 Dec Rangoon Bangkok (Thailand)
2 Dec Bangkok Singora
4 Dec Singora Singapore
6 Dec Singapore Java (Indonesia)
7 Dec Java Surabaya
8 Dec Surabaya Bima (Sumbawa)
9 Dec Bima Timor
10 Dec Timor Port Darwin
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The Impossible Idea

It was an instant love affair.  In January, 1919, en-route to the post WW1 Versailles Peace Conference in Paris, the then-Australian Prime Minister, (Premier) William “Billy” Hughes, experienced flying for the first time – and he fell in love with it.

Over the next four months, Hughes flew the short distance between London and Paris on three occasions and with this newfound travel experience raising endless new possibilities, his always active mind was now “in overdrive”.

What benefits, he imagined, could be derived from regular flights from the Mother country, Great Britain, to Australia and back.  Carrying passengers?  Goods?  Air Mail?

The idea had started to ferment two months earlier, when he motored to Cobham Hall, just out of Central London, on Christmas day in 1918, to address wounded WW1 Australian servicemen.

There, he met airmen who were anxious to fly back home to Australia, rather than endure up to the seven-week sea journey. This, together with his newfound thrill of flying, culminated in the cable he sent to his government officials in Melbourne, dated February 18, 1919:

“Several Australian aviators are desirous of attempting flight London to Australia they are all first-class men and very keen your thoughts”

Only four weeks later, an official statement was released. “With a view to stimulating aerial activity the Commonwealth Government has decided to offer £10,000 for the first successful flight to Australia from Great Britain in a machine manned by Australians”.

Then followed the rules, including, that the flight had to be achieved in a maximum of 30 days and be completed by December 31, 1919.

This announcement of the “Great Air Race”, to the Australian press, created an avalanche of negativity – “A Circus Flight”, “Billy Hughes has another terrible idea”, “A complete waste of money” and “Bad News for All”, were just a few of the critical articles that appeared on a regular basis.

Overall, it was the opinion of most scribes that no aircraft was capable of a flight half way across the globe in less than 30 days and over a distance of 18,000 kilometres when the world record was a mere 5,000 kilometres.

Impossible! Impossible! Impossible!

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Pilots & Aircraft

Within five months of the announcement, six groups of Australian airmen, all WW1 veterans, had paid the £100 entry fee to be eligible.  However, obtaining a suitable plane and financing such a flight was the greatest hurdle they all faced.

During the last year of the WW1, British Aircraft builders had developed several revolutionary, for their time, aircraft.  Included were heavy bombers, which were utilised in the last four months of the war.

When the details of the six entrants were made public, it was the entry of Captain Ross Smith that appeared to have the best chance of success to win the Great Air Race prize.

Captain Ross Smith, who had served throughout the duration of the four-year war, was a highly decorated pilot – one of only 29 Australians designated as a “War Ace” and his exploits had gained him hero status back in his home town of Adelaide.

Flying in combat, during 1917 and 1918, he was also the regular pilot for T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) on numerous occasions.

With recommendations from the British Air Minister, Winston Churchill and others, the Vickers Aircraft Company made available to Captain Ross Smith their newly developed “Vimy” heavy bomber aircraft. They further assisted by quickly establishing landing fields and fuel depots along the route to Australia.  Petroleum products from Shell and Wakefield were subsequently made available to the team.

The other five entrants were also eventually able to obtain the aircraft required for their participation in the Great Air Race.  Sponsors were somehow found from amongst the various wealthy aviation enthusiasts and other likeminded individuals.

Unfortunately, these aircraft were simply not equipped to sustain the arduous 18,000-kilometre distance.  Only the Vickers “Vimy”, Ross Smith’s plane, was up to the task – the latest in aviation technology from all aspects.   Sadly, it turned out that the other five entrants were to fly in machines that were to prove to be totally unsuitable.

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The Race

At 11.44 a.m., on October 21, 1919, the first of the six aircraft took off from Hounslow, England.   Piloting a Sopwith “Wallaby” was Captain George Matthews with Sergeant Thomas Kay as mechanic.  Nothing seemed to go right for them.

Dreadful weather conditions, engine breakdowns and being imprisoned in Yugoslavia for four days when the local authorities mistakenly accused them of being “Bolsheviks”, it was one long nightmare experience. Finally, six months later, on April 17, 1920, they crash landed in Bali.  Their race was over.

At 11.33 a.m., on November 13, 1919 Captain Roger Douglas, as pilot, and Lieutenant James Ross as navigator, departed in an Alliance P.2 Bi-plane.  Only a few minutes into the flight, their plane, from an altitude of less than 1,000 feet, went into a spin and crashed into an apple orchard and both airmen died instantly.

At 10.37 a.m., on November 21, 1919, with four airmen on board, a Blackburn “Kangaroo” left Hounslow.  The crew comprised Lieutenants Valdemar Rendle and David Williams as co-pilots, Captain Hubert Wilkins as navigator and Lieutenant Garnsey Potts as mechanic.  After 18 comparatively uneventful days of flying, on December 8, they crash landed at Suda Bay, Crete.  The damage to the engine was total and they withdrew from the race.

At 9.34 a.m. on December 4, 1919, a single engine Martinsyde, Type A piloted by Captain Cedric Howell, with Lieutenant George Fraser as navigator, lifted off from Hounslow.  During his WW1 service, Captain Howell was credited with having destroyed 32 enemy aircraft and was considered an extremely gifted pilot.

Approaching Corfu, Greece, due to heavy cloud and mist, he misjudged his bearings and the aircraft crashed into the ocean just short of land.  The wreckage and Howell’s body were eventually recovered but Fraser’s body was never found.

The fifth entrant, an Airco, DH9 piloted by Lieutenant Ray Parer and Lieutenant John McIntosh, didn’t depart London until January 20, 1920, and so they were ineligible for the prize. Their aircraft constantly broke down and the journey was a most unpleasant experience for the two flyers.

They continued their flight anyway, eventually reaching Darwin seven months later on August 2, 1920.   At least they had completed the first “single engine” flight from England to Australia and for this, the Australian government awarded them a 1,000 pounds consolation prize.

But as the press had predicted, the Great Air Race was simply too great a task for man and plane alike.  What they hadn’t reckoned on, was Captain Ross Smith and his “Vimy”.

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The Flight of the "Vimy"

At 9.05 a.m., on November 12, 1919, Captain Ross Smith’s Vickers “Vimy” rose into the air and departed the snow-covered Hounslow Airfield en-route to their first designated stop in Lyon, France.  On board were his brother Lieutenant Keith Smith as navigator and Sergeants Wally Shiers and James Bennett as co mechanics.

Prior to take off, their WW1 bi-plane had been painted on the wings and fuselage, with the registered letterings, G.E.A.O.U., which was a recent requirement for all international aircraft.  Ross Smith had quipped that these five letters really stood for “God ‘Elp All Of Us”.

As it turned out, they didn’t need God.  The aircraft itself and the giant twin Rolls Royce Eagle Mark VIII engines were to be their saviours, along with their enormous courage and skill.

Flying the aircraft in an open cockpit, Ross Smith struggled with the constant changing weather elements.  To stabilise the necessary weight, a decision had been made not to carry any radio equipment, and so with no way of anticipating weather conditions ahead of them and using only a handheld compass to guide them, they were often flying blind.

Constant heavy cloud, rain squalls, snow storms and blinding unbearable heat were to be their constant companions throughout the duration of the journey.

Their thoughts were directed to their concern to reach Darwin, hopefully in one piece, within the 30 days’ time frame to make them eligible for the £10,000 prize.

Landing at the various airfields, racecourses and open fields along the route presented a few problems, but taking off with sufficient thrust was even a bigger challenge.  On several occasions, the ground was so heavy that they and the plane were saturated in mud and slush as the aircraft ascended.

Utilising the navigational skills of his brother, Keith, together with his two mechanics, Shiers and Bennett, who were constantly” patching up” the aircraft, they remained on schedule throughout their journey.

Their intended route took them through Lyon, Rome, Cairo, Damascus, Basra, Karachi, Delhi, Calcutta, Akyab, Rangoon, Singora, Singapore, Batavia and Surabaya with nine additional unscheduled stops before they finally reached Darwin.

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The Arrival

Smith and his team landed at Fannie Bay Airfield in Darwin at 4.12 p.m. on December 10, 1919 and were instantly mobbed by almost the entire population of just under 1,500.  Lieutenant Hudson Fysh, soon to be co-founder of the newly formed Qantas, was the first to greet the four airmen.

Fysh had been sent by the Australian Government to survey flying fields from Darwin to Longreach (Queensland) to aid the Vimy’s flight through to the eastern coast cities.  This he did, driving a T model Ford from Brisbane.

Also at Fannie Bay, in the welcoming throng, was the Northern Territory Administrator, Staniforth Smith and the mayor of Darwin.  Thrust into Ross Smith’s frostbitten hands were dozens of telegrams and cables, including one from King George V reading “delighted at your safe arrival your success will bring Australia nearer to the mother country”.

The welcoming telegram from Prime Minister Hughes was so wordy that later, Ross Smith stated, “we would have had to stay in Darwin for a whole week just to get through it”.


Hughes was overjoyed at the success of the flight as he now had the ultimate victory over the pessimistic Australian press that had criticised him for months for his “crazy Great Air Race folly of an idea”.

Smith and his crew had flown half way across the world – a distance of 17,911 kilometres, to set a new record for a long-distance flight by an aircraft, smashing the previous record of 5,140 kilometres from Cairo to Delhi in 1918.  They had averaged a speed of 137 kilometres an hour with an actual flying time of 135 hours.

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The Headlines

Newspaper articles and headlines blazed around the world lauding the Great Air Race and the world record flight.  The New York Times editorial of December 12 gushed “Captain Ross Smith has done a wonderful thing for the prestige of the British Empire.  He must be hailed as the foremost living aviator”.  The Melbourne Age wrote “This is one of the greatest flights, if not the greatest, in the history of aviation”.

There are simply no previous comparisons and it could be said that the impact was akin to man flying to the moon, exactly 50 years later. On January 1, 1920, it was announced that both Ross and Keith Smith had been awarded knighthoods by King George V and Shiers and Bennett were awarded bars to their existing air force medals and were made honorary Lieutenants.

On February 24, at Parliament House, Melbourne, Prime Minister Hughes presented the £10,000 cheque to Sir Ross Smith.

With one flight, the planet had effectively become significantly smaller and aviation was heralded as the wonder of the 20th century.  Sir Ross Smith had led the way in a plane constructed of wood, fabric and wire.  For Australia, well, we were no longer this distant and mostly unreachable island at the bottom of the globe, known for its multitude of sheep and little else.  We were Australians and we were bloody good!!

In 1984, the head of Washington’s Smithsonian Institutes’ Air and Space Museum was visiting Sydney and made the following statement for the local press: “In the first fifty years of manned flight (1903-1953), there were ground breaking achievements from the likes of Louis Bleriot, John Alcock, Charles Kingsford-Smith, Charles Lindberg and others but it could be said, and should be said, that Ross Smith’s flight of 1919 was the greatest of them all”.

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