Friday, August 12, 2011

Kingsford Smith and Co-Aviators

In the record books and from details taken from Kingsford Smith’s logbooks is the following:

1931 (24 September –16 December) Australia-England. First all-Australian airmail flight to England. Avro Ten trimotor Southern Star (VH - UMG). Co-pilot, Scotty Allen: engineer, Wyndham Hewitt. Time: 17 days. Route: Sydney – Brisbane – Cloncurry – Camooweal – Darwin – Kupang – Surabaya – Alur Setar – Bangkok – Rangoon – Calcutta – Gaya – Allahabad – Jhodpur – Karachi – Jask – Bushire – Bagdad – Aleppo – Athens – Rome – Lyon – Le Touquet (beach) – London.

Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, as he became, was a pioneer Australian aviator. He was the first to fly across the Pacific Ocean, and in both directions, crossed the Tasman Sea, and made the first successful westbound crossing of the Atlantic by air, mostly in a Fokker Trimotor (Avro built them under licence in England) that he called “my old bus”.
These were the days when aeroplanes were “stringbags”, flown by pilots and navigators “by the seat of their pants”. They were flimsy aircraft, unreliable, often dangerous, and with no navigational aids. It was also a time of opening up international air routes.
Kingsford Smith, surprisingly for a long-distance aviator, was terrified by the fear of the sea after a near drowning accident as a boy. He was also prone to panic attacks in the air and mysterious illnesses before epic flights – thought later to possibly be alcohol related.
He was a much loved international hero, especially so in Australia where crowds of 200,000 or more greeted him after his exploits in the air by hoisting him shoulder high in admiration and awe.
So who were those other two record-breaking aviators? “Scotty” Allen was also a famous Australian pilot, flying as reserve pilot with Kingsford Smith and Wyndham Hewitt (chief engineer) in the famous Avro trimotor Southern Cross - all, on one occasion, flying to Keepang, Timor, to collect air mail from England from the City of Cairo aircraft that had crashed there – a headline-breaking newspaper story of the time.
My own special interest in these early aviation days was that as a boy I was mad about aeroplanes and flying. In April 1932, at the age of 7, Kingsford Smith, a year after the aforementioned Australia-England record flight, was about to fly myself, brother and sister around London from the newly-opened Croydon Aerodrome in his ‘plane. Unfortunately the tail skid broke and a wooden replacement failed. So another pilot flew us around London in a Klemm Bat instead.
Why should Kingsford Smith volunteer to pilot us around London? It was because Wyndham Hewitt, the engineer on that epic flight was my uncle and friend of the great Australian aviator.
Wyndham, sent to South Africa after some misdemeanour or other, was next heard of in Australia. He was generally in trouble concerning women, cars and money, having kept a mistress in London in his schooldays (but those are other stories not for this blog). However, Wyn was a brilliant mechanic, completely at home with engines and their workings. So to Kingsford Smith he was invaluable when aircraft motors were unreliable and, in record-breaking exploits, under considerable stress for duration and ever-changing climatic conditions.
On the record occasion mentioned, The Southern Star and its three occupants landed at Croydon in record time with the Christmas mail from Australia, to be greeted by Sir Sefton Brancker (director of civil aviation), a congratulatory telegram from King George V, and jubilant crowds - aviation then being a new frontier to conquer and of enormous interest generally.
Although heralded as an all-Australian record trip, Wyndham Hewitt was English, which accounts for his name not featuring greatly, other than in the record books. Also not mentioned was that the aircraft had hit the top of a telegraph pole when landing in Darwin, nearly killing Kingsford Smith “and his engineer”.
Wyndham went on to found a successful engineering company and to race cars, dying in his 90s an unliked person, his several wives having been couture models and his cars the fastest models.
Kingsford Smith died, aged 38, crashing into the sea that he feared so much off Burma in 1935. He was attempting yet another England-Australia record.
I am proud to be in some remote way connected to so great an aviator as Kingsford Smith – even though he never did fly me around London from Croydon in 1932 or land in our field at Silchester where we had laid out sheets to indicate wind direction.
The truth is that Kingsford Smith was notoriously unreliable, and interested mainly in flying (of which he was a complete master), wenching and drink. However, he charmed everyone with his radiant personality and with his splendid songs accompanied by a ukulele.
Throughout his life he wanted to break records and, to make money, establish airlines. But, for the latter, other than using his name to good effect, the humdrum life as an executive and airline pilot bored him – so most were doomed to failure.
It was flying records he wanted and, appropriately I suppose, it was an attempted record that ended his life.