England to Australia in 1919

The Smith brothers covered 11,000 miles in 27 days.

Ross and Keith Smith in 1921, two years after their epic flight. (State Library of South Australia)
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On December 10, 1919, brothers Ross and Keith Smith landed their Vickers Vimy bomber in Port Darwin to claim a £10,000 prize as the first to fly from England to Australia in less than 30 days. The challenge had come from Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes, who stipulated, Phileas Fogg-style, that the flight had to conclude before midnight on December 31, 1920.

Seven teams tried, but only two made it. The Smith brothers won handily, covering the 11,000 miles in 27 days, 20 hours (the other finisher took 206 days). Ross was a pilot with the Australian Flying Corps, and Keith, the navigator, was in the R.A.F. They took along two mechanics, Australian soldiers who had flown with Ross before. Cargo space was at such a premium in their open-cockpit biplane that they carried no radio or personal belongings, devoting the weight instead to spare parts.

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First sighting in Australia of the Vickers Vimy biplane approaching the airfield in Fanny Bay, Darwin. December 10, 1919. (State Library of New South Wales)

The route took the fliers from England to Italy to Egypt, India, and Singapore. Some of the scariest moments came early in the trip, over France, when the Vimy flew through a blizzard with 90-mph winds. The clouds suddenly parted, and as Ross later wrote, "The escape through this marvelous gateway, seven thousand feet deep, that seemed to link the realms of the infinite with the lower world of mortality, was the most soul-stirring episode of the whole voyage."

The Smith brothers were knighted for their triumph, and they shared the prize money with their mechanics. Read a full account of their journey here.

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