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Vickers Vimy and Sir Ross & Sir Keith Smith Memorial

Home > Adelaide > Family | Free | Fun Things To Do | Memorials | Museums
by Paula McManus (subscribe)
Photography obsessed writer and urban explorer. Lover of nature, art and long weekends. Adelaide, South Australia.
Published December 5th 2018
The Single Greatest Flight In Aviation History
Many South Australians are aware of, but very few visit one of the most important historical memorials in Australia. At the Adelaide Airport, past the terminal and inside a small building in the middle of the staff carpark and adjacent to the main runway, sits the Vickers Vimy and Sir Ross & Sir Keith Smith War Memorial.

Vickers Vimy Mascot Ross Smith
Vickers Vimy at Mascot Airfield. Photo courtesy the State Library of New South Wales

This much-ignored shelter shed contains the actual plane that was flown by the Adelaide-born Smith Brothers in their historic and truly epic flight from the UK to Australia in 1919. The plane was originally built as a World War 1 heavy bomber with the registration G-EAOU (affectionately known as "God 'Elp All Of Us"). The plane never saw active service but a year after the war ended, it became one of the most important aircraft in world aviation history.

The Great Air Race 1919 crew
The crew of Vickers Vimy. Photo courtesy of The Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith Fund

Ross and Keith flew the plane 17,950 kilometres across the world. It might sound like a simple feat in these days of modern travel and the present-day technology that we take for granted, but you have to cast your mind back and realise that they did this flight just 16 years after the Wright Brothers flew the first ever powered aircraft! The plane had an open cockpit and they flew through rain, blizzards and fog with no radios, no navigational equipment and no maps. Flight maps from England to Australia simply didn't exist, so they were forced to use hydrographical charts (used for ocean navigation) and Ross's personal flight memory of the Middle East to find their way. At one point on the flight, their goggles became so frozen they couldn't be used. So, they risked their eyesight by flying through 145kph icy winds with no eye protection.

Vickers Vimy over Australia Ross Smith
Vickers Vimy over Australia. Photo courtesy State Library of New South Wales

The plane travelled from England through France, Italy, Crete, Egypt, Palestine, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Persia (Iran), India, Burma, Federated Malay States and the Netherlands East Indies to Port Darwin in Australia. They had engine troubles, they got bogged, they got lost, they were met with ferocious storms and there was danger every step of the way, but not once did they give up.

On their approach to Darwin, they put a handwritten message into an empty pickle jar, made a parachute and dropped it into the Timor Sea to let Captain H. Hayley of the HMAS Sydney know that they were on track and all was going well for their arrival. The pencilled message read "The Air, 10/12/19, Vickers Vimy, The Commander, H.M.A.S., Very glad to see you. Many thanks for looking after us. Going strong. Keith Smith, Ross Smith, Sgt. J. Bennett, Sgt. W. H. Shiers". The message and the jar were donated to the State Library of New South Wales by Captain Hayley in 1922.

James Bennett and Walter Shiers in Vickers Vimy during flight
James Bennett and Walter Shiers in Vickers Vimy during flight. photo courtesy State Library of South Australia

The Smith Brothers were competing in the Air Race of 1919 and were determined to be the first to fly from England to Australia in under 30 days. Six crews entered the air race, but only 2 finished. With their mechanics, Sergeants Jim Bennett of Victoria and Wally Shiers also of Adelaide, they did it in just 27 days and 20 hours and won a whopping 10,000 first prize (equivalent to more than $1million today), which was shared equally amongst the 4 crew. They spent a total of 124 hours in the air.

Vickers Vimy G-EAOU
The presentation of the cheque. Photo courtesy State Library of South Australia

The second team to finish were Lieutenants Ray Parer and John McIntosh, who didn't leave England until the 20th January 1920 - well after the race had already been won. This didn't deter them and they eventually finished, but not until they had met with Murphy and his law - whatever could go wrong, would and did. It took them took 237 days to reach Australia after crashing several times.

Of the remaining 4 crews, two crews fatally crashed and the other two were put out of the competition due to a crash and a forced landing. Four of the pilots in the race were Air Aces - extremely skilled and highly honoured air servicemen.

Vickers Vimy G-EAOU
Vickers Vimy G-EAOU. photo courtesy State Library of South Australia

The Air Race was launched by then Prime Minister, Rt Hon Billy Hughes in March 1919 - just 4 months after the end of the Great War. Both Ross and Keith were pilots in World War 1 - Keith was Lawrence of Arabia's pilot.

Ross Smith, born in Adelaide in 1892, was awarded the Military Cross and received the Flying Cross 3 times. He is an Air Ace and Australia's most decorated WW1 pilot.

Sir Ross Macpherson Smith
Sir Ross Macpherson Smith. Photo courtesy State Library of New South Wales

The trip from Darwin to Sydney took almost twice as long as the flight from England to Australia. The plane was forced down and repairs were made using whatever materials were available. The mechanics worked in 52-degree Celsius heat but they got the plane into the air again and on the 14th of February 1920, a message was sent by wire transfer to the GPO in Sydney that the plane had been spotted over the Blue Mountains and that their arrival in the city was imminent. A flag was raised to alert the people and they flocked to the airport to greet the crew.

The men also carried with them several letters - the first airmail from England to Australia. The Prime Minister was notified of this additional world first and sent a telegram to his Government that said "Captain Ross Smith bearing several letters stop desires for special stamp stop communication with right authorities and arrange, Hughes". The Government began working with the Postmaster General's Department (now known as Australia Post) to develop a limited edition run of 364 Air Mail Covers - one for each letter. The cover was worded "First Aerial Mail England to Australia" and was stamped at the Sydney GPO as "received 26 February 1920".

When they arrived home in Adelaide, there was a jubilant mob of more than 20,000 people there to greet them. What a triumphant homecoming for such a record-breaking and heroic flight!

Vickers Vimy and crew
Vickers Vimy and crew. Photo courtesy State Library of South Australia

The Smith Brothers were knighted by His Majesty, George V, on December 22nd 1919 and Sergeants W. H. Shiers and J. M. Bennett were promoted to the ranks of Lieutenant and awarded Bars to their Air Force Medals.

The plane was originally on display in Canberra but was then moved to a purpose-built home at the entrance to Adelaide's brand new airport terminal at West Beach in the 1950s. The terminal has since moved, but the Vickers Vimy is still where it was and is now surrounded by airport industry and carparks. The plane is protected from the elements and is safe enough behind glass. But, it's not in the most enviable spot for such an important part of our history. Should it be moved? If so where? And how? Discussions and ideas pop up in the news every now and then and I for one would be in favour of moving it where we can all enjoy it and be proud of our State's momentous involvement in aviation pioneering history.

the Vickers Vimy
the Vickers Vimy. Photo courtesy the Australian War Museum

In the meantime, the plane is there at the airport and it's free for the public to view. There are just a couple of carparks on the road that runs between the staff carpark and the long-term carpark. There's a 15-minute maximum time limit and there's no charge. The time limit isn't great, but if you're driving to the airport, I'd definitely recommend a quick stop to see this magnificent plane and read the storyboards that tell of its crew and their most historic and daring tale.

If you have the time while at the airport, then consider stepping out on the Vimy Walk which will take you from the main terminal to the memorial building.

2019 is the 100th Anniversary of the England-Australia Air Race. There's a modern-day Air Race planned - if you'd like to get involved or follow the event, head to their website.

Vickers Vimy G-EAOU
Vickers Vimy G-EAOU. photo courtesy State Library of South Australia
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Why? Many South Australians are aware of, but very few visit one of the most important historical memorials in Australia
When: Open every day of the year
Where: Adelaide Airport
Cost: Free
Your Comment
Thanks for a very interesting history lesson Paula.
by May Cross (score: 3|7904) 929 days ago
So much great information. Thanks Paula!
by Michael Genrich (score: 3|1764) 914 days ago
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