Famous Flights

Back to the main menu

Kingsford-Smith and the "Southern Cross"

A man and his dream

Charles Edward Kingsford-Smith was born on February 9, 1897 in Brisbane. Barely eighteen, he volunteered for the Royal Engineers, but when stationed in France he switched to the Royal Flying Corps, getting his license in March 1917. He quickly turned out to be an excellent pilot, but not quite good enough to escape Von Richthofen in his Fokker Dr.I triplane. After recovering from the wounds he had sustained in the crash-landing that followed their confrontation, he served as an instructor for the remainder of the war.

With peace also came the first fledling airline companies and after brief spells in Britain and America, Kingsford-Smith returned to Australia to join a succession of airlines. In 1919 Alcock and Whitten-Brown crossed the Atlantic in a war surplus Vickers Vimy and Great Britain and Australia were linked by air in a similar aircraft piloted by Ross and Keith Smith. It was around this time that Kingsford-Smith began to dream of flying the Pacific from America to Australia, but apart from a lack of funds the state of the art made such a venture completely impractical, because of the far greater distances involved.

In 1927, when he was a pilot with Interstate Flying Services, he and his colleague Charles Ulm found out that they had both fostered the same trans-Pacific ambition for a number of years. They decided to join forces and make a flight round Australia, to gain more long-distance experience and at the same time attract publicity for a Pacific attempt. Setting a record time gave them a boost, and through the trans-Atlantic successes of Lindbergh, Chamberlin and Byrd their ambition no longer sounded so phantastic as it had at the beginning of the decade.

As a result, they now found various sources willing to back them, and in July 1927 they sailed to America. At first, they toyed with the idea of hopping across the Pacific in a float plane, but soon gave that up as unrealistic. They then set out to learn as much as they could about the various flights across the Atlantic and to Hawaii made that summer. This led them to conclude that their best bet by far was to use a Fokker trimotor, fitted with Wright Whirlwind engines.

Plans and preparations

Their fellow countryman George Hubert Wilkins had not had much luck with his Fokker aircraft. For his 1926 Arctic expedition he had bought a single-engined F. VIIa and a trimotor, called the "Detroiter" after main sponsor the Detroit News. It was the first of a new type, derived from the F. VIIa-3m but fitted with a larger wing to increase the maximum load and therefore designated F. VIIb-3m. However, soon after their arrival in Alaska a newspaperman was killed by a whirling propeller and within a week both aircraft were damaged in landing incidents. After breaking an arm and two more flying accidents Wilkins figured that maybe it would be a better idea to try again next year.

While the "Detroiter" was being repaired by Boeing in Seattle, Sir Hubert met with Kingsford-Smith and Ulm in San Francisco to discuss a possible sale. The two decided to buy the trimotor without engines and instruments, and to have two additional fuel tanks installed. With those, the Fokker's range would allow for the route they were now contemplating, from San Francisco via Honolulu and Lae, New Guinea, to Brisbane. The Wright Whirlwind production schedule at this time was seriously backlogged, but they managed to get their engines anyhow. The United States Secretary for War was approached and he agreed to deliver three Whirlwinds from a Government order right away and accept their later order in return.

Just when everything finally seemed to be going their way, Kingsford-Smith and Ulm were confronted with the aftermath of the disastrous Dole Race to Hawaii. In claiming ten lives, it had thoroughly soured the mood for ocean flights and as a result various sponsors withdrew their support. One businessman implored them to keep his £ 1,500 as long as they wouldn't use it in risking their lives. In order to enhance their financial situation, Kingsford-Smith made two attempts at the world endurance record. Both failed by a margin of some three hours to break the 52 hours 22 minutes record time, but, accompanied by Lieutenant George Pond who was far more familiair with Fokker trimotors, Kingsford-Smith gained much valuable experience.

However, soon after it seemed that all their troubles had been in vain. Under pressure from the newly elected New South Wales government and pursued by their American creditors, they saw no alternative but to offer their aircraft for sale and abandon the flight. In a despondent mood, they met the wealthy American Captain G. Allan Hancock, who became more and more interested in their plan. To their complete surprise, he offered not only to buy their Fokker at a price that would allow them to pay off their debts but also let them use it for their proposed flight.

Naturally, they readily accepted the offer and preparations now continued with full force. Their compasses were swung by Captain McMillan, chief of the Hydrographic Office in San Francisco, who introduced them to marine navigator Harry Lyon. Kingsford-Smith and Ulm asked him to join the effort and after accepting, he in turn suggested they take on Jim Warner as radio operator.

Kingsford-Smith and Ulm believed their critics wrongly identified their Pacific effort with other attempts that they saw as ill-advised, ill-prepared and therefore ill-fated. For instance, they put the Fokker through a number of testflights with increasing overloads and had the Douglas company strenghten the parts most afflicted. Also, they severely tested their ability at blind flying and radio navigation, both still quite a novelty but essential for their success. To prepare themselves for the long flights, they frequently went out driving for fifteen hours, then flying for four hours, running for two, back to flying and so on for a total of some forty hours. Apart from their fixed radio transmitters, they had a watertight, battery-powered emergency radio, the aerial of which could be lifted with a kite or some gas balloons they carried.

First across the Pacific

In short, their preparations covered every eventuality. And so with complete confidence in their aircraft, its engines and their own ability Kingsford-Smith, Ulm, Lyon and Warner awaited the right moment. It came on May 31, 1928, with favourable weather predictions for the route to Hawaii and the advantage of a full moon during the night. The take-off from Oakland, close to 9 AM, went well and Kingsford-Smith describes how, flying over the Golden Gate which lay glistening in the morning haze, he felt relieved that after all their preparations they were finally under way.

The flight itself was quite uneventful. In fact, to the two pilots who could hardly move and were sitting in the horrendous roar of the engines, it was probably boring more than anything else. Kingsford-Smith, a hopeless addict, continually longed for a cigaret. But the sunset was spectacular and for the first hours of night, the moon lighted their path, and stars filled the sky. At ten, Lyon threw out a flare, to check for drift. At close to midnight, to avoid some rainclouds they climbed to 4,800 feet, but otherwise the weather was as perfect as predicted.

Shortly before two, they noticed some lights far below. Kingsford-Smith used his spotlight, fitted with a Morse key, to make contact with the ship and let them know the "Southern Cross" was doing fine. Within an hour, they passed another ship, from which Warner received a radio bearing. They were the only two ships they encountered on their entire Pacific crossing.

When dawn finally came, Kingsford-Smith decided to descend below the clouds, as it had become rather chilly in the cockpit. At 8 AM, Lyon estimated Hawaii was just over 200 nautical miles away. A number of times, the land Kingsford-Smith or Ulm spotted turned out to be yet another cloud bank, until finally, close to 11 AM, Mauna Kea came into view. At 12:17 PM, the "Southern Cross" touched down at Honolulu's Wheeler Field, after a flight of more than 1,700 nautical miles.

But it was only the beginning. For take-off on the next and longest leg, it was decided to use the beach of Barking Sands on the island of Kauai. The "Southern Cross" took to the skies on June 3, at 5:20 AM. The weather was perfect and for the first 600 nautical miles they could follow a radio beam transmitted from Wheeler Field. But an hour and a half after departure, Ulm noticed tiny drops coming from the wing tank. At that point, the aircraft was a flying fuel tank, so a gas leak could be catastrophic. Mercifully, Kingsford-Smith quickly discovered it was only water, formed by condensation.

Meanwhile, Warner was having problems with the radio. One of the batteries wasn't functioning properly, and occasionally he lost the signal from the radio beacon. Then, at 10 AM, the radio quit working altogether. It took him three hours to repair the set. At noon Lyon reported that they were making good progress, with an average speed of some 90 knots. The weather was deteriorating a bit, with rain showers occasionally forcing the two pilots to fly on instruments.

At about half past three the monotonous roar was broken by a cough in the starboard engine. It wasn't loud, but it sounded threatening enough to the four men and it was followed by some spluttering. Still, there was nothing they could do about it, and to their relief it stopped after eight minutes and didn't return. After sunset it really started pouring and the pilots' efforts to avoid the worst of the thunderstorms they encountered meant that they were using more precious fuel than anticipated. Also, it made it much more difficult for Lyon to navigate.

Sunrise brough no change in the weather conditions and the crew were unsure of the distance to go. However, shortly after noon Ulm spotted land, which was identified as Exploring Island and led the way to Suva. The Albert Park Sports Oval had been chosen as a landing field, but its 400 yards were barely enough. On landing, Kingsford-Smith had to ground loop the "Southern Cross" to avoid some trees at the end of the improvised runway. It was 3:50 PM, and it had taken 34½ hours to cross the 2,700 nautical miles from Hawaii to Suva.

Obviously, the Sports Oval was totally unsuitable for a take-off. Instead, the start for the final leg would take place from Naselai Beach. The only drawback was that all the petrol had to be brought in by motor boat, and take-off was possible only during low-tide. It delayed departure until 3 PM on June 8. This last flight was also the shortest, Brisbane being some 1,500 nautical miles away, and the crew were confident of their success.

But only minutes into the flight, the first sign of trouble presented itself. The earth inductor compass was out of order, so they had to rely on the aircraft's magnetic compasses, which were not as accurate. Then, about half an hour after sunset, clouds obscured the moon and the temperature went down. The weather was deteriorating fast. What followed was four hours of flying completely blind through a waterfall, while the "Southern Cross" was being smashed about. In the middle of a thunder storm, blue sparks played round the plug leads of the engines. It seemed as if any moment the engines could quit, drowned in the torrential rain. Kingsford-Smith and Ulm had to fight continually to keep the aircraft in control. It was the most frightening part of the Pacific crossing.

But the engines kept going, the "Southern Cross" and its pilots were holding out and close to midnight it seemed that the worst was over. However, the rain continued and Kingsford-Smith and Ulm were soaked, numb and cold. They had no idea where they were, until finally, at 7 in the morning, Warner got a radio bearing and Lyon could shoot the sun.

Even so, when to their intense delight they spotted the Australian coastline, they found that they had drifted off to the south by some 100 nautical miles. They flew up the coast to Brisbane and at 10:13 AM on June 9 the "Southern Cross" touched down at Eagle Farm Aerodrome. The first crossing of the Pacific had been accomplished.

First non-stop flight across Australia

The success of their trans-Pacific flight had convinced Kingsford-Smith and Ulm that the "Southern Cross" could fly them anywhere. In fact, they began to consider the possibilities of making a round-the-world-flight and their next efforts they considered as stepping-stones in that direction. Although closer to home, these flights were still impressive in their own right, starting with the first non-stop flight across Australia. Since Lyon had returned to America, along with Warner, they asked H.A. Litchfield to act as navigator. Third Officer on the ship that had brought them to America in 1927, Litchfield had been a valuable source of information on the latest in navigation. With a subsequent flight to New Zealand in mind they approached the New Zealand government for the services of a radio operator. The authorities recommended T.H. McWilliams, a teacher at the radio school of the Union Steamship Company in Wellington.

On August 8, 1928, the "Southern Cross" took off from Point Cook near Melbourne and set course for Perth, more than 2,000 miles away. The first part of the flight Kingsford-Smith described as rather dull, while the second part was made thoroughly unpleasant by a cloud cover their heavy machine couldn't rise out of. For hours they endured the bitter cold and when daylight finally came, they discovered that they had drifted off course to Bunbury, some 75 miles south of Perth. After their arrival at Maylands airport they found that summer rains had turned the field more or less into a swamp. Over two weeks went by and still they could only carry fuel for the first 100 miles of their return trip, so Adelaide was reached with a fuel stop at Tammin and on August 28, they flew on towards Sydney. The first non-stop flight across Australia was accomplished, the "Southern Cross" had performed flawlessly again and the two new crew members proved up to their task. Kingsford-Smith and Ulm felt all were ready for the jump over the Tasman Sea.

To New Zealand and back

Christchurch being some 1,700 miles from Sydney, this time the main challenge was not the distance but the notoriety of the Tasman Sea as one of the wildest and stormiest on earth. They set off from Richmond aerodrome in the evening of September 10, 1928 and aided by a tailwind they made good progress. Then, at around 11:00 PM, Kingsford-Smith and Ulm noticed thunderclouds looming on the horizon, some two flying hours ahead. The front seemed too broad to fly around and too high to fly over, so they saw no alternative but to fly straight ahead.

Once they entered the thunderstorm, they were first soaked for half an hour. Worse was to follow, for the aircraft began to ice up and from 95 mph suddenly the speed went to zero. Kingsford-Smith pushed his wheel forward, but the speed indicator still registered zero. Just in time, a glance at the altimeter made him realize that they were actually plummeting down and that the speed indicator's pitot tube must be frozen. He managed to pull up from the dive and tried to maintain altitude and speed, by keeping the altimeter and tachometer readings constant.

Still, the turbulence was so severe that Litchfield and McWilliams were smashed all through the cabin. One moment the aircraft went up 100 feet, the next it fell 200 feet. Lightning struck time and again, ruining the radio equipment and blanketing the plane in an eerie glow of static electricity. Fortunately, at this lower altitude the ice in the pitot tube melted and the speed indicator regained life, but otherwise their predicament continued for several hours. When they finally emerged from the storm, Kingsford-Smith and Ulm noticed a disturbing vibration in the engines. But their Whirlwinds kept going and later they found that, damaged by ice, the propellers were at fault.

Long-awaited dawn came at 5:30 and cruising at 3000 feet, the "Southern Cross" was flying on top of a white and peaceful cloud cover. Just as Litchfield sent a note forward that his calculations showed they were over Cook Strait, the pilots found a hole in the clouds to descend and see their navigator was right. After buzzing Wellington, they flew on towards Christchurch where they were given a well-deserved and hearty welcome. In fourteen hours they had crossed the Tasman Sea. It had fully lived up to its reputation and the four men aboard had frequently doubted that they would make it, but firmly back on the ground they were confident that the "Southern Cross" would safely take them back as well.

This time their plans called for a take-off at dawn, on October 8, 1928. In light of the prevailing westerly winds, they had taken on a heavy fuel load and therefore decided to use a lengthy runway at Blenheim. The first hours of the flight were uneventful and both Litchfield and McWilliams used their equipment to full advantage. Then, just as Ulm rose to stretch out a little, the starboard engine quit. Unable to maintain altitude on just two engines, Kingsford-Smith was about to order Ulm to start draining fuel, when he saw that the contact was off, probably because Ulm, standing up, had accidentally hit the switch. They managed to restart the wind-milling propeller and with no further difficulties reached the Australian coastline.

By that time it was dark, and the twinkling light that had lured them on turned out to be the lighthouse of Newcastle rather than Sydney. Flying very low under a cloud cover Kingsford-Smith followed the coast south and then found his way to Richmond airfield by following a trail of headlights, as thousands of people were on their way to welcome the crew of the "Southern Cross".

Lost over Australia

Kingsford-Smith and Ulm always maintained that their pioneer flights were no risky stunts, but rather carefully planned expeditions, aimed at opening up the skies for regular air transport. To them, therefore, founding their own airline was but the next logical step. It was called Australian National Airways, signifying that unlike its regional competitors it would offer transcontinental services. Since the "Southern Cross" had gained their complete confidence, they decided to order similar aircraft for their airline. However, by this time the Avro company was building the Fokker F. VIIb-3m under license, calling it their model Ten. The fact that this British product came without the heavy import tariffs that its Dutch original carried, made it an easy choice for the two Australians.

They thought it best to finalize the deal in person, and naturally to them the way to get there was by air. Also, a flight from Australia to Great Britain fitted in nicely with their ambition to fly round the world. So, after lengthy preparations, the "Southern Cross" was once again fuelled up and on March 31, 1929, at around midnight it took off from Richmond.

Carrying the same crew as on the New Zealand round trip, that is Kingsford-Smith, Ulm, Litchfield and McWilliams, the aircraft was pointed towards Wyndham, on the northwest coast. An hour into the flight, McWilliams informed the pilots that the trailing antenna of the long wave radio was lost, apparently because Litchfield had accidentally pushed its release button while taking a drift measurement. The weather forecast from Wyndham had been favourable and returning to Richmond with a heavy fuel load seemed undesirable, so the decision was made to continue.

About halfway, to the surprise of all on board, the weather began to deteriorate. Later it turned out that their representative in Wyndham had tried to warn them, but without antenna McWilliams was unable to receive the message. The aircraft was now completely surrounded by clouds, making it very difficult to navigate. When finally they spotted the coast, it didn't look quite the way they had expected. Flying round for an hour convinced them that they had flown past Wyndham and should follow the coastline back. Passing a mission post, they threw down a message asking for the direction to Wyndham and dutifully obeyed the outstretched arms. Unfortunately, the people below hadn't found the message and merely pointed the way to the nearest airstrip.

Small wonder then, that Wyndham refused to show up. The crew began to worry about their dwindling fuel supply. At the next mission post, directions were asked again and the Fokker's nose was turned again, this time in the right heading. However, after a while it became clear that their tanks would be dry long before Wyndham was reached. Kingsford-Smith decided to try to return to the mission post, but visibility was still poor and its position unclear. Unable to find it, he saw no alternative but to find a spot to put the "Southern Cross" down. In the desolate wilderness, a strip of mud seemed the best bet. Miraculously, the aircraft made it in one piece and the crew were unhurt.

Despite the loss of the trailing antenna, while still airborne McWilliams had managed to transmit an account of their troubles. Unfortunately, once on the ground only the short wave receiver was operational, but at least the crew were relieved to hear that rescue operations were started immediately. For twelve days they went through hell, with water and supplies running out and the occasional aircraft passing overhead without spotting them. Finally, they were found, fuel was flown in and on April 18, the "Southern Cross" flew on towards Derby. Sadly, Keith Anderson, who had been involved in the preparations for the trans-Pacific flight, and his mechanic were not so lucky. In a rescue attempt, their plane developed engine trouble and they ran out of water before they could be located.

Record flight to England

Kingsford-Smith and his crew were criticized about various aspects of the flight, but the foursome were undetered. So, with the same goal they climbed aboard the same aircraft on June 25, 1929, and this time Derby was reached with only one minor problem. Careful to take on more emergency equipment, once airborne they discovered that now they had forgotten their ear plugs, more or less a necessity in those days. From Derby, they accomplished the first non-stop flight from Australia to Singapore.

Their next scheduled stop was Rangoon, but just after take-off from Singapore, McWilliams received the message that they couldn't land on the race track, because it was being used as a race track. Kingsford-Smith and Ulm decided to put the "Southern Cross" down at Sengora, now Songkla, in Thailand, and continue the next day. Repairs on one of the port engine magnetos led to a one day delay in Rangoon. When Calcutta was reached, they left the worst of the monsoon behind them, but on the flight to Karachi a fierce headwind forced them to stop over at Allahabad.

After Karachi they proceeded to Bandar Abbas. En-route to Baghdad, a dust storm made it practically impossible for Litchfield to navigate. Apart from that, a minor engine problem developed, so when the river Shatt-al-Arab was spotted, the decision was made to land at Basra, where the engine was fixed and the crew drank a pint. Being one of the amenities of modern aviation, the phrase "eight hours between bottle and throttle" hadn't been coined yet, so after putting down their glasses the four men quickly resumed their flight.

The flight from Baghdad to Athens offered some breathtaking views. Kingsford-Smith describes how to him the islands in the Aegean Sea seemed like jewels, set in a sea of sapphire. However, their reception was less fortunate. Apparently, permission to take off again had not yet been granted by the police commander, who was on holiday and therefore couldn't be disturbed. When Kingsford-Smith asked if he could test the strength of the field, the gendarmes obliged by swinging the propellers. He taxied about a bit, and then said he wanted to try a heavier load. So Ulm, Litchfield and McWilliams climbed aboard and next they were airborne, heading for Rome. The following day, July 10, London was reached, after a record flight of 12 days 18 hours.

Across the Atlantic

The "Southern Cross" was flown to its birth place, the Fokker factory at Amsterdam, for a major overhaul, and while Ulm sailed back to Australia to direct further preparations for their airline, Kingsford-Smith first went to America, in view of their latest plan, an Atlantic crossing. Aboard the ship that returned him to Australia he met the girl he later married. On January 1, 1930, Australian National Airways commenced services from Sydney to Melbourne and Brisbane, and a few months later, Kingsford-Smith and Ulm were ready for the Atlantic.However, their Board felt that for the company to be properly run, Ulm would have to stay behind.

In Amsterdam, Kingsford-Smith found the "Southern Cross" in immaculate condition and asked Evert van Dijk, a very experienced pilot with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, to be his co-pilot. While in London he ran into John Stannage, who had been radio operator of the aircraft that had come to the rescue of the "Southern Cross" a year earlier, and he too joined the crew. Since the flight would start from Ireland Kingsford-Smith decided to take on Irishman J.P. "Paddy" Saul as navigator.

At Portmarnock Beach, on June 24, 1930 some seven hundred people had gathered to witness the start of the trans-Atlantic undertaking. After a run of some 3000 feet the heavily laden aircraft took to the air and Kingsford-Smith banked it ever so gently in a westerly direction. Over the Bay of Galway the four men caught a last glimpse of land, before setting out for Cape Race, about 1700 nautical miles of ocean away.

Favourable weather conditions lasted until the afternoon, when they were caught in a cloud cover. Kingsford-Smith and Van Dijk, who took turns at the controls, decided to descend below the clouds, but at 200 feet above the waves, Stannage could only just lower his trailing antenna. He kept in touch with a number of ships, which supplied him with bearings that Saul used to navigate. When finally the aircraft had lost enough weight to rise above the clouds, Saul quickly discovered that at that altitude a fierce headwind slowed the "Southern Cross" down by around 45 knots.

There was no alternative but to descend again. For hours and hours Kingsford-Smith and Van Dijk flew on instruments alone. In his book about the flight Van Dijk called it "sheer hell", because there seemed to be no end to it. At last, they decided to descend some more, but they were still in the clouds when Stannage warned them that his antenna was hitting the waves. And so they struggled on in the dark, eyes glued to a few dimly lit dials and numbers.

After more than a day in the air, still some 350 nautical miles off Newfoundland, the three compasses on board all began to point in different directions. The four were at the end of their tether, when Stannage managed to contact a radio station at Cape Race, which guided them in the right direction. By sheer coincidence, the clouds just lifted when they passed Harbor Grace and at noon GMT, 32 hours after take-off, the "Southern Cross" touched down at the other end of the Atlantic.

Around the world in two years

Afer a good night's rest Kingsford-Smith, Van Dijk, Saul and Stannage felt up to the onward flight to New York. From Boston, they were escorted by a number of aircraft all the way to Roosevelt Field, where the Fokker arrived on the afternoon of June 26. For the next few days, the foursome basked in the heroes' welcome they were given, highlighted by a tickertape parade and lunch with president Hoover at the White House.

On July 2, the "Southern Cross" took off from Roosevelt Field, heading west. First stop was Chicago, the next day Salt Lake City was reached and the day after Kingsford-Smith landed the plane in Oakland. Just over two years before, he had set off from Oakland to conquer the Pacific and now he was back, in the same aircraft, after having flown it completely around the world. It was a moment of great satisfaction for him.

The Old Bus enters service

Kingsford-Smith had achieved his ambition, but he was not the kind of man to rest on his laurels. He returned to Europe by boat, with plans to make a record flight from England to Australia. To this end, he ordered an Avro Avian biplane, which he called the "Southern Cross Junior". The attempt was delayed, because while in Holland he had to part company with his appendix and tonsils, but on October 9, 1930, he set off from Heston Aerodrome. He made it to Darwin in just under ten days, a considerable improvement over the fifteen days it had taken Bert Hinkler two years earlier.

Meanwhile, the "Southern Cross" was prepared for the long voyage home from California. In January 1931, she arrived by steamer in Sydney, and after a complete overhaul joined the fleet of Australian National Airways. But in April 1931, the aircraft briefly reappeared in the limelight. An Imperial Airways aircraft, on the first trial mail flight to Australia, had crashlanded on Timor, Dutch East Indies, and Kingsford-Smith was asked to pick up the mail. Naturally, he chose to make the flight in the "Southern Cross" and along with G.U. "Scotty" Allen and engineer Hewitt, he left for Timor on April 21, returning to Darwin on April 25. Next, they transported the outgoing mail from Darwin to Akyab, Birma, and brought back a second batch to Darwin on May 11.

Business was slow for ANA in the winter of 1931, so Kingsford-Smith took the "Southern Cross" on a tour through Australia. Thousands of passengers made a ride in the famous Fokker, which somewhat improved the company's cashflow. But, restless as ever, Kingsford-Smith had once more set his sights on a long-distance flight. He wanted to recapture both the Australia to England and England to Australia records, which were then held by Jim Mollison and Charles Scott respectively. On September 21, 1931, he set off in his new aircraft, the "Southern Cross Minor". What followed was a nerve wrecking flight, with a brief interlude in a Turkish prison thrown in, so he failed to set a record to London and was too exhausted to try the return flight.

For the "Southern Cross", there was no retirement either. On January 11, 1933, the aircraft made the first passenger flight from Australia to New Zealand. On board were Kingsford-Smith, co-pilot and navigator Captain P.G. "Bill" Taylor, radio operator John Stannage and J.T. "Tommy" Pethybridge as engineer, along with three passengers. After a tour of New Zealand, the four crew members and one passenger returned to Australia on March 26.

Later that year Kingsford-Smith had another try at the England to Australia record. On October 4, his Percival Gull took off from Lympne and this time the conditions proved more favourable, so he managed to reach Wyndham, Australia, in a record time of just over seven days. Unfortunately, ANA fared less well. Unable to cope with the combined effects of fierce competition and an economic crisis, it went bankrupt, leaving Kingsford-Smith in a "financial desert" as he called it, from which he would never fully recover.

His next flight was an eastbound crossing of the Pacific in the Lockheed Altair "Lady Southern Cross", together with co-pilot and navigator P.G. Taylor. Leaving Brisbane on October 22, 1934, after stops on Fiji and Hawaii they landed at Oakland on November 4.

Nightmare over the Tasman Sea

In an effort to alleviate his financial worries, Kingsford-Smith made plans for a trans-Tasman airmail service. The "Southern Cross" would make one last flight, carrying mail to New Zealand to raise support for this regular service. Once more, he was joined by P.G. Taylor and John Stannage, who would maintain contact with broadcasting stations in Australia and New Zealand, for live coverage from the Tasman.

Close to midnight on May 15, 1935, the "Southern Cross" took to the air from Richmond Airport and for the next few hours the flight progressed as planned. However, with dawn approaching, Bill Taylor noticed that a hole was forming in the center engine exhaust manifold. Kingsford-Smith and he could do nothing but watch, as the pipe slowly disintegrated and finally the top of it was blown away. At that moment, the entire aircraft began to shake violently. The vibrations originated in the right engine, so Kingsford-Smith closed its throttle and gave full power to the other two engines. It turned out that part of the starboard propeller had been torn off by the piece of metal the center engine had lost.

With its heavy load, the Fokker was unable to maintain altitude on two engines. As it began a slow descent, Kingsford-Smith and Taylor decided to throw just about everything overboard, except for the mail. The aircraft's nose was turned back to Australia and mercifully, at 600 feet, its descent stopped. The pilots struggled with the controls of the unbalanced aircraft, but they managed quite well for five hours, when suddenly the port engine oil pressure began to drop.

It seemed only a matter of minutes, before the engine would pack up. With just the center engine running, all hope was lost, so, no alternatives left, Taylor suggested the unthinkable. Armed with a thermos flask, he climbed out of the cockpit onto the strut between the fuselage and the starboard engine. The slipstream of the center engine threatened to blow him off at any moment, but miraculously he held on and managed to fill the flask with oil from the dead starboard engine. Next, he had to get out on the port side. But as the port engine was still running, he now had to fight the slipstream of two engines. It was impossible even to climb out!

Somehow, Kingsford-Smith managed to get the Fokker up to 750 feet and then throttled back on the left engine. While the aircraft was losing height, Taylor had just enough time to get out and reach the engine. As he clung to it, Kingsford-Smith opened up the engine to regain height. Then he throttled back again, to give Taylor the chance to fill the engine. It worked, and Taylor climbed back in, completely worn out by his ordeal, but exhilarated that they were saved.

For the moment at least. In just over half an hour, the pressure was dropping again. Once more, Taylor had to transfer oil from one engine to the other. It worked, but even so the engine was losing power. Kingsford-Smith decided it was time to dump the mail. Still 25 miles from land, the pressure dropped for a third time, and Taylor risked his neck for a third time. It was enough for the "Southern Cross" to safely reach Sydney's Mascot Aerodrome.

This close call earned Taylor a well-deserved Empire Medal, the highest for civilian bravery. It had also kept Australia and New Zealand glued to their radio sets, as Stannage had remained at his post throughout most of the ordeal. However, it failed to win Kingsford-Smith the contract he had so desperately wanted. And in retrospect, it seemed like a warning that he chose to ignore.

The end of an era

Kingsford-Smith's luck finally ran out six months later. He wanted to make one last record flight, from England to Australia, in his Lockheed Altair "Lady Southern Cross". With Tommy Pethybridge acting as co-pilot, he set off on November 6, 1935. On the first legs, he made good progress, but in Allahabad he was almost 3 hours behind the record time, set by the winners of the 1934 Melbourne race, Charles Scott and Tom Campbell Black. On November 9, the two failed to arrive in Singapore. Apparently, after their take-off from Akyab, Birma, they had met with very bad weather over the Bay of Bengal. An intense search of the area was started, but when no trace of the men or their machine could be found all hope was lost. On July 7, 1937, a part of the aircraft's undercarriage was found on the Burmese coast, but to this day, it is unclear what happened on that final flight of one of the world's greatest aviators.

Just over a month after Kingsford-Smith's was lost, the Douglas DC-3 made its first flight. It proved to be a major step forward in air transport. At the same time, Pan American Airways was opening up the Pacific for mail and passenger service. The era of the pioneers was drawing to a close.

Today, one of the few historic Fokker aircraft to survive, the "Southern Cross" is preserved at the Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith Memorial in Brisbane. In fact, as the original is considered too precious to fly anymore, a replica was built, so that the legendary name "Southern Cross" still roams the sky.

Your suggestions or comment are welcome. Send your e-mail to Leo Bakker