Few people realise that the famed Southern Cross – one of Australia's greatest historical treasures – is to be found at Brisbane Airport.
In 1928, Sir Charles Kingsford Smith achieved immortality by becoming the first person to fly across the Pacific Ocean, when he piloted the Fokker F.VIIb/3m trimotor monoplane almost 12,000 kilometres from Oakland to Brisbane.
Smithy, as he was known, was born in Hamilton in 1897. After serving at Gallipoli, he became a pilot in 1917, soon establishing a reputation as a hard-drinking, skirt-chasing, hell-raising larrikin. Following the First World War, he took on a series of flying jobs, enhancing his reputation for daredevilry, all the while harbouring a burning ambition to be the first person to complete a trans-Pacific flight.
In 1926, he met Charles Ulm, who could barely fly, but had the same dream. So the following year, they travelled to America, where they tried desperately to find a plane and garner support. On the verge of bankruptcy, they had the greatest of good fortune to meet Allan Hancock, a millionaire who was determined to see the Pacific crossed, and who agreed to back them. They were also joined by two Americans, James Warner and Harry Lyon, who were to perform the radio, navigational and engineering duties.
On May 31, the slow, uncomfortable and open-aired Southern Cross took off from Oakland. The first stop was Hawaii, about 4000 kilometres away, where they touched down 27 hours later. On June 3, they set off for Suva. Of the four planes that had already flown between mainland America and Hawaii, none had continued to Fiji, as it seemed impossible to carry enough fuel. Death was a real possibility on this leg, but despite a brutish electrical storm, navigational problems and then a frighteningly short airstrip, they made it 34 hours later, with barely anything left in the tank. Three days later, they embarked on the final 2700 kilometre hop. The foursome flew off course, so that their first contact with home soil came at Ballina, 200 kilometres to the south, before they steered to Brisbane, touching down on the morning of June 9. A massive crowd was on hand to welcome them. "Hello Aussies," Smithy said, "my kingdom for a smoke."
Three months later, Smithy broke another record in the Southern Cross, making the first trans-Tasman flight in history. In 1935, he donated his faithful friend to Australia.
Besides the famous plane, the Kingsford Smith Memorial contains an absorbing historical display. It's the sort of attraction every local should see, whether on a dedicated trip, or as a diversion next time you have to go to the airport. It's situated alongside the big roundabout on Airport Drive.