Australia

One of Australia's forgotten milestones in aviation history is being remembered

The Great Air Race of 1919 resulted in the first flight from Great Britain to Australia and the longest multi-stop flight of its era. Source: Supplied

This week will mark 100 years since the end of the Great Air Race, a perilous and profoundly momentous aviation challenge described as "the Moon landing of its day".

At a time when transatlantic flights were deemed unthinkable, a group of young Australians defied the odds and shaped the future of aviation by proving long-distance air travel was indeed possible.

On Tuesday 10 December, that era-defining feat will be a century old.

In 1919, then-Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes offered £10,000 to the first Australians in a British aircraft to fly from London to Darwin. The competition was dubbed The Great Air Race.

"It was by far the longest flight that had occurred at the time," aviation historian Tom Lockley tells SBS News. 

"It's been compared by one of the American historians for its impact with the journey to the Moon. It was really world breaking stuff."

The race

On the snowy London morning of 12 November 1919, Australian captain Ross Smith and his brother, lieutenant Keith Smith, took off from Hounslow Heath aerodrome in a Vickers Vimy aircraft, a twin-engine converted World War I fighter bomber.

With mechanics Jim Bennett and Wally Shiers, they navigated previously unchartered territory, completing landings and takeoffs in dangerous terrain, overcoming engine failures and mechanical hiccups, to safely land in Darwin at 4.12pm on 10 December.

Great Air Race centenary
Pilots Ross and Keith Smith.

To win the race, the men had to complete the journey in 30 days. They did it in 28, with their success contributing to a rapid expansion of global aviation development in the years that followed.

"It forever changed the way the world looked at aviation," says retired NASA astronaut Andy Thomas, who was born in Adelaide.

"It was something that had a terrific effect on Australia because it firmly put Australia on the map. There was an amazing pace of development in the years following that flight. Just 50 years after that, humans landed on the Moon, Neil and Buzz walked on the lunar surface.

"We went from fabric-covered biplanes to humans landing on the Moon, in less than a human lifetime."

'Battling' Parer's epic journey

But along with the glory came a bloody toll. Of the six teams to enter the race, four crashed out, and two of those crews perished. The only other crew to finish was piloted by 'Battling' Ray Parer.

"He was the first man to fly a single-engine aircraft from England to Australia, in a time when single-engine aircraft just didn't fly that far," his son, Mike Parer says. 

Great Air Race centenary
Mike Parer, with wife Gail, holds up a painting of the Airco DH.9 flown by his father.
SBS News/Omar Dabbagh

"The longest sector of the flight was probably from Dilli to Darwin, and it lasted for nine hours. They didn't know if they would get through because the engine had never run for nine hours before, and he miscalculated the fuel flow.

"[When] he landed at Darwin, and they asked him to taxi to the dispersal point, and he said 'I can't, I'm out of fuel'."

Flying an Airco DH.9 built by a furniture manufacturer, and with a co-pilot who had never flown before, Parer departed from London a month after the Smith brothers landed in Darwin. It took them almost seven months to reach Australian soil, with his aircraft considered fragile even by the standards of the day.

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"On the way, he lost his maps," Mike says.

"Most of the way, as far as Calcutta [now Kolkata], he navigated with a school atlas. So he was a brilliant navigator. He crossed the Sahara Desert, which was unheard of, nobody had done that either.

"He just wanted to get home under his own steam, and for that reason, even though he almost wrote the aircraft off three times, he rebuilt it and kept coming, and he was absolutely determined not to surrender."

"He was determined to pioneer the air route from England to Australia. And he did that in spades."

Great Air Race centenary
'Battling' Ray Parer is considered a pioneer of long distance single-engine flying.
Supplied

'Lost in history'

The men who took part were regarded as national heroes, and those inspired by their feats are determined to ensure their legacy is not forgotten.

Mr Thomas carried the pilot pins of the Smith brothers on his first NASA space mission in 1996.

"When I was a young kid we used to go down to the airport and watch these giant airplanes take off and land," he says. 

"One day we drove past the hangar that the [Vickers] Vimy was in, and you could see it on display, and I was absolutely spellbound. I was just stunned at this beautiful airplane on display there and my father told me the history of it. And I remember that history when I flew my first flight in 1996."

"It's ironic that this profoundly significant event that was likened to the Moon landing of its day, and which garnered international attention for Australia was lost in the mist of history."

"It's sad, many people know who [aviator] Kingsford Smith is, and there's a lot of confusion," historian Mr Lockley says.

"But Ross Smith's flight was ten years before, and it was absolutely world breaking."

Great Air Race centenary
Historian Tom Lockley, left, and Powerhouse Museum curator Damian McDonald.

At Sydney's Powerhouse Museum, a new display now honours the Smith brothers' achievements. It includes a model of the Vickers Vimy and one of its blown-out engines, plus a board game created in the years after the race, demonstrating the celebrity status the crews had.

"That really's an indicator of how famous and how much they were regarded national heroes at the time," says display curator Damian McDonald.

"I'm not really sure why these guys aren't so well known because it was, at the time, really big news."

The rise of Qantas

The legacy of the Great Air Race is also linked to the rise of Qantas and the boom of international travel to Australia that quickly followed.

Qantas founders Hudson Fysh and Fergus McMaster helped the Smith brothers navigate their way back to Adelaide after landing in Darwin, in part inspiring the men to found the airline in 1920.

"After they landed in Darwin, the government-mandated Hudson Fysh, an aviator of the day, to go and scope out potential landing sites across the NT and Queensland so the Vickers Vimy could return," Mr Thomas says.

"And Hudson Fysh subsequently used that information to form a company that he called Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service: Qantas."

Mr McDonald also explains the aftermath of the race left a lasting legacy on regional Australia, with the Smith brothers travelling across central Australian towns as they transported the Vickers Vimy back home to Adelaide. But that was no easy task, it took longer to get back to Adelaide than it did to reach Darwin with the aircraft on its last legs.

"They were big events when the Smith brothers would land in towns, and it gave the towns something to celebrate and it also got them on the map, metaphorically," he said.

"Of course, they had to build runways in them. And of course, there was a legacy with some of those turned into longer-term runways and small airports."

Great Air Race centenary
Mass crowds welcome the Vickers Vimy crew as they arrive in Australia.
Supplied

Aviation has taken giant steps in the century since, with technology and knowledge far superior today to what the men of the Great Air Race had access to. And their feats are not just stories of engineering success, but of human resolve too.

"It's meant to me, in my challenges in life, I've never surrendered. I've had very serious challenges, and my father's legacy has meant I never surrender," Mike Parer says.

"It's an incredible measure of human capacity for creativity and resolve, when you put your mind to it," Andy Thomas says.

"The next 100 years of aviation are going to be as equally significant, I suspect."

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