The year was 1919. The war was finally over. Prime Minister Billy Hughes offered £10 000 for the first Australian airmen to fly home from England in 30 days. Six crews took up the challenge in planes that were as rudimentary as they were unreliable. And who won? South Australian brothers Ross and Keith Smith, backed by mechanics Wally Shiers (SA) and Jim Bennett (Vic). Their magnificent Vickers Vimy bomber can still be seen at Adelaide airport. 

The Smith Brothers

Ross and Keith Smith spent part of their childhood growing up on Mutooroo Station, near Broken Hill. They were educated in Adelaide, and in 1910, Ross joined the Australian Mounted Cadets and was selected to represent South Australia in an international tour. He enlisted in August 1914, joining the 3rd Light Horse Brigade and served in the Dardanelles and later at Romani. Following an injury he learned to fly and in 1917 he joined the Australian Flying Corps. Keith Smith joined the Royal Flying Corps in Britain in 1917.

The Flight

Prime Minister Billy Huges developed the idea for the competition with an eye to the potential of aviation technology, and how it could be used to Australia's benefit. The the Commonwealth Government provided the £10 000 prize money and the Royal Aero Club drafted the rules. The challenge was to fly from England to Australia within a period of 30 consecutive days, and competitors had to arrive before midnight on 31 December 1920.

Ross flew as pilot, Keith as assistant pilot and navigator, Wally Shiers and Jim Bennett were the mechanics. The four men left Hounslow in England on 12 November 1919. The journey was difficult, they took off in bad weather, after several delays, and struck more en route making visibility poor and at times forcing Ross Smith to fly low. They were aided in their journey by the Smith brothers' knowledge of parts of the route from their war service. They flew through parts of Europe, the Middle East, India and south east Asia to the finish in Darwin. 

The Smith Brothers and their crew were successful in the challenge, and the Smith brothers were knighted for their efforts. Only one of the five other groups to take up the challenge actually made it to Australia. 

The Commemoration

In 2019 we celebrate the men, the plane, and the centenary of a journey every bit as awe-inspiring as the moon landing. The History Trust of South Australia is preparing a series of programs and events to mark the 100th anniversary of the successful flight. There will be updates here and a dedicated website for the commemoration later in 2018. 

Leeann Friday 's picture
Leeann Friday says:

Hi Graeme, I am the daughter of Joan Shiers with Gary, Ian and Helen being my aunts and uncles. Wally Shiers was my great, great Uncle. If you would be happy to email me a copy of the photograph my Uncle Gary would love to add it to his family history collection.
Leeann (lkoesters@gmail.com)

Catherine Manning's picture
Catherine Manning says:

Thanks! I'll pass that on to the Epic Flight Centenary 2019 Committee Stephen.

Stephen Michael Barnett's picture
Stephen Michael... says:

A collector friend of mine has a good collection of halfplate glass negatives of their arrival at Northfield, etc. He also has negatives of Harry Butler from Minlaton who was a contemporary pilot.
He is happy to make them available for displays etc

Catherine Manning's picture
Catherine Manning says:

Thanks for adding that detail Peter. There's quite a bit of information being put together at the moment in the lead up to the centenary commemorations. As we add articles they'll be listed in the related content to the right of this page.

Peter Page's picture
Peter Page says:

There has been no comment re South Australian input to the restoration. The plane was damaged by fire on the low-loader transporting it to Adelaide. It was taken to Parafield airfield (Government Maintenance) where the propellers were made by hand and several metal panels remade. I worked at Parafield at that time.

Catherine Manning's picture
Catherine Manning says:

Hi Graeme, I'll e-mail you direct for more information.

Graeme McVitty's picture
Graeme McVitty says:

As a native of South Australia I have recently "dug up" from old papers from the 1930s through to the 1950s, a photograph of 5 children taken during their outing... their names are:- GARY SHIERS, IAN SHIERS, HELEN SHIERS, JOAN SHIERS and Raelene and Valda WILLIAMS, Marilyn LAMPE plus lil ole me... Graeme McVitty.... if you by chance know the names, and are interested, then if you email me at "**********" I will reply with a copy of the photo attached. Cheers now... Graeme McVitty

Catherine Manning's picture
Catherine Manning says:

Thanks for catching that mistake for us Mike. We'll update.

Catherine Manning's picture
Catherine Manning says:

Thanks Gary! That's great to know.

Gary shiers's picture
Gary shiers says:

I have donated two photos to the RSL port Noarlunga ,one is of Ross Smith funeral..and the other of Wally Shiers wedding..if you would like to follow up on these photos you will find the RSL most obliging......
Gary Shiers.

Kerry Schlotfeldt's picture
Kerry Schlotfeldt says:

Hi! I am a teacher and representing Cedar College at Northgate. We are expressing an interest re the 100 year celebrations of the historic 1919 flight, as the school is situated near the Northfield landing site and the Year 2 classes investigate the story of the flight for History. We are enquiring as to how our school might be involved in or participate in the marking of this epic event.
Regards,
Kerry Schlotfeldt.

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References: 

The Airways Museum & Civil Aviation Historical Society, 'England-Australia Air Race - 1919', http://www.airwaysmuseum.com/Vickers%20Vimy%20G-EAOU%20crew.htm, accessed 6 April 2017

History Trust of South Australia, 'Ross Smith' in A World Away: South Australia's War, accessed 6 April 2017

State Library of South Australia, Digital Collections: 'First England-Australia Flight', http://digital.collections.slsa.sa.gov.au/nodes/view/2823, accessed 6 April 2017