King of the Air – The Turbulent Life of Charles Kingsford Smith

by Ann Blainey

  • Black Ink, December 2018
  • ISBN: 9781760641078
  • RRP $49.99 (hb)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson

Students and fans of Australia’s greatest pioneering aviator, Charles Kingsford Smith, should be thankful that historian and biographer Ann Blainey chose to spend her recent years researching the life story of this legend of the skies.

Following Peter Fitzsimons’ boys own adventure portrait of Kingsford Smith in 2016, among other aviators of note, Ann Blainey has produced a record of this king of the air that, unlike Fitzsimons, achieves the complex and comprehensive analysis he deserves. In just one example, demonstrating from old newsreel photos filmed of the ticker tape parade Smithy and his crew received in New York in 1930 after their record flight across the Atlantic, Blainey demolishes the suggestion by Fitzsimons that it did not happen.

In her warts and all book, Charles Kingsford Smith: King of the Air, Blainey reveals a daredevil, at times reckless, adventurer who could be all of warm and generous, self absorbed and careless, a loving husband and philanderer and a herculean of physical strength and ingenuity who faced increasing panic attacks in the air.

In the love-hate world of aviator contests between the world wars, Smithy as he was known could both charm his fans and disappoint them. In the way of celebrity notoriety – now so familiar nearly a century later – he could be the hero and anti-hero depending on the serendipity of fortune.

Summing up Smithy’s drive and ambition, Blainey writes: “Air, space, speed, distance were a constant continuing challenge. No woman could compete with this; few could even live with it.”

Kingsford’s Smith’s first wife, Thelma, left him early in their marriage; his second, the delightful young Mary Powell and mother of their small son Charles Arthur, begged him not to continue long distance flights over water only to join him at various destinations, leaving their baby child behind and taking long sea voyages.

Smithy was not only king of the skies but king of the family nest, his mother making excuses for his “flirtations” and the Powells financing their daughter’s need to travel, among other expenses attached to Mary and Smithy’s married life. Young Charles Arthur would be just three when his father, with co-pilot Tommy Pethybrdge, disappeared for good over the Andaman Sea.

Born in February 1897, Charles Kingsford Smith was the youngest of seven and ten years younger than his youngest sibling. With a host of much older brothers and sisters, he was an indulged child who showed a fascination for engines from an early age. His father, for some time in the banking industry, was a mason. This no doubt helped his business connections over years. The family lived comfortably; even after William Smith (Smithy’s father) lost employment at the bank, his wife Catherine’s generous inheritance from her father Richard Kingsford in 1902 kept the family well resourced until William found other ways to earn income.

The times suited Charles Kingsford Smith, as did his belonging to not only the Australian corner of the British Empire but also for his being, at that time, considered part British.

There are the horrors of war and there is the inevitable contribution of major wars to scientific advancement. Smithy joined up the day after his eighteenth birthday, on 10 February 1915, and was among the earliest contingents of Australian troops sent to Egypt and the battles for Britain in World War I. At just five feet six and a half inches in height, he just made it.

Smithy was part of the fighting at Gallipoli and the Somme. His major contributions over his years in the war were as a motor cyclist messenger rider in France and later pilot, where he showed indifference for human targets until he found himself vomiting after one particular straffing incident. He was left with an injured foot, the loss of some toes and a Military Cross for bravery by the end of the war. After the war, he came down with the Spanish flu and was in debt.

Smithy, however, had learned to fly, courtesy of the Royal Flying Corps Special Reserve Battalion. After a cocky but flawed start he had risen to be among the best, especially for his daring. Recklessness at the time, in this infant industry, was a plus.

It is the strength of Blainey’s telling of the Smithy story that her meticulous research allows her to track through the facts of the many and varied incidents in Smithy’s short but daring life and let the evidence allow the reader to form a conclusion. This is especially so in recording how Smithy missed the possible air prize for the first successful flight from England to Australia in 1919. Smithy’s account was always that he was stopped from attempting the flight by Prime Minister Billy Hughes who believed the Australian did not have sufficient navigational resources.

Blainey, however, records the real reason. Smithy had developed a practice of over-insuring aircraft used for thrill flights and barnstorming, with aircraft often damaged but easily replaced. Blainey writes, “Smithy seems to have had no pangs of conscience about over-insuring, and to have regarded it as an amusing prank. But there were many, his parents included, who would have seen it as downright dishonesty.” The upshot was that Smithy and team-mate Maddocks were fired from the crew of Kangaroo, the plane they were to fly in, by the Australian Liaison Officer for the air race.

Ann Blainey’s achievement in following the course of the Smithy story is her capacity to reproduce the danger and daring ingenuity, alongside physical over reach, involved in the many perilous flights that made Smithy’s legacy such a unique one. This is no mean feat as capturing the sense of tension and technical difficulty Smithy and his various crews encountered in making their long distance flights meant Blainey needed to go through all the flight recordings and records along with gathering a detailed understanding of the mechanics, at the time, of aircraft and flying routines. She does all this – with page turner effect.

Taking off from Oakland airport in San Francisco on 31 May 1928, to make a record flight from the US to Australia, Smithy and co-pilot Charles Ulm, with Americans navigator Harry Lyon and radio officer James (Jim) Warner, had little fear of what lay ahead – twenty-seven hours of flying to make Hawaii in just the first leg. To lessen the weight on the aircraft, the men sat on wicker chairs not bolted to the floor. As the elements of flying took hold, Ulm recorded, “We ran a gamut, between black pessimism and wild exhilaration.” They made Hawaii and took off again.

They encountered life threatening weather conditions, fear they would run out of fuel, flying blind at times and risking their fuel supplies to fly higher to gain indications of where they were. The starboard engine spluttering gave them a scare but then – after nearly ten minutes – it resumed its regular sound. After crossing the equator when they had been flying 24 hours from Hawaii, Blainey writes, “Smithy had been flying through, or close to, hell. He wondered how much more they could endure.” At Fiji, “Dazed, deaf, unshaven and oil-stained, the co-commanders stumbled down from the cockpit.”

In 1935, as Smithy was attempting to set up a trans Tasman air service, his flight in the Southern Cross taking off from Richmond in Sydney struck difficulties after seven hours of flying when a metal part of the central engine’s exhaust pipe broke loose and ripped a foot long gash in the wooden blade of the starboard propeller.

Shutting the engine down, Smithy turned back for home. The plane dropped luggage and surplus tools, and most of the fuel in the cabin tank, over the side to lighten their load. Piloting the plane at 500 feet with a slow pace of sixty miles an hour from his remaining two engines, Smithy attempted to make Port Stephens north of Sydney. At around five hours the port engine showed signs of running out of oil.

At this point, crew mate Taylor, in desperation, performed an amazing feat – one he repeated until the plane was able make it to land. Taylor fastened himself to a line around the mailbags and perilously climbed along the strut to the dead motor where he siphoned oil into a thermos flask.

The task of getting to the oil required painstaking removal of the cowl, screw by screw, with mate Stannage passing spanner and flask as needed. All the while, Smithy kept the craft afloat. The action, replayed on film, would make a thriller few might imagine possible. And, in order to allow the oil to be transferred to the port engine, Smithy had to fly higher and cut the engine to avoid Taylor being blown away in the equivalent of a 100 miles an hour gale. Taylor would make the heart stopping transfer five times and, even then, they had to dump the mail to lighten their load in order to make a safe landing at Mascot airport some sixteen hours after take-off from Fiji.

Charles Kingsford Smith truly earned his place as an Australian aviator and world legend. In that era of competing, danger filled, record breaking flights across and around the globe, Smithy had all the tenacity and ambition to take enormous risks delivering record breaking triumphs. He also faced a number of failures along the way and seeking the money to engage as he did was a lifelong challenge. Blainey quotes from Smithy’s autobiography, explaining how he saw his job as being “to lay plans for translating transcient glory and temporary fame into terms of permanent solidarity”.

Smithy’s life was, however, one that challenged the status quo in a lot of different ways, both positively and less so. His cavalier attitude to danger saw him and his crew involved in the Café Royal incident where, having been forced to land in remote northern Australia, en route to the UK, they might have perished but for a huge search that saw his aviator friends Keith Anderson and Bob Hitchcock lose their lives. The enquiry that followed damaged Smithy’s reputation. While his charm took him forward with the crowds, in particular women, his indifference to harm – both financially and physically – sawhim skating on thin ice a lot of the time.

Ann Blainey’s life story of Charles Kingsford Smith is a great read. More importantly, it puts on the record, in an entertaining and absorbing way, the light and shade picture of a true Australian hero.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History