Authors: Peter Fitzsimons
|Charles Kingsford Smith and Those Magnificent Men|
|Harper Collins, Inc. (2010)|
To my wife, Lisa
Table of Contents
If any one man typified the Australian character at its best, with all its great qualities, as well as some of its faults, he was Charles Kingsford Smith. No other Australian was ever so worshipped by the average man and boy. He still figures in most Australian minds as the greatest native son…
He had greatness as a pilot and as a man. As the fundamental urge to his flights he had the enlightened spirit of the born pioneer whatever the risks, the way into the unknown was always an irresistible invitation to him. His rugged appearance hid a sensitive finely balanced personality upheld with a smile throughout his adventurous life by an inner structure of fine steel, that was the extraordinary combination of Smithy. It was this unusual combination of qualities which made him the great airman. He could see, feel, and predict the air vividly and accurately with his sense of personality, but whatever the conditions his steel structure had the strength to deal with any situation…
AYLOR ON HIS LONG-TIME FLYING COMPANION
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed
and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-spilt clouds—and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
up the long delirious
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark
or even eagle flew—
while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, RCAF
BY CHARLES KINGSFORD-SMITH JNR
Author Peter FitzSimons begins this eminently readable book with a quote from my father: ‘I came into the world of flying at its dawn, and what a glorious dawn…’
Everyone knows how the ‘world of flying’ has brought about enormous and profound changes affecting almost every person on the planet. As one beneficiary of these changes, I’m solidly enthusiastic about flying, its technology and the technical skill called piloting.
But for me, there is an aspect of flying just as important as the benefits it has brought. I suppose I could call it the
of flying. The quote above from my dad hints at what this is. From the earliest days—and extending to the present—aviation has exerted a tremendous hold on its practitioners: designers, builders, pilots etc. There is a fascination, both intellectual and emotional, which captures an individual, often for a lifetime. My father is a prima facie example of this total involvement.
How I would have loved to talk long hours with him about his passion, to gain more insight into what captivated him and his flying generation, and to experience vicariously his exciting adventures. But it was not to be; he was lost just before I turned three.
So how do we, in the present, experience something of that ‘glorious dawn’? The pioneers are gone and what few airplanes are left sit silently in museums. As always, when we yearn to recapture something of the spirit of the past, our best resource is a good book by a skilful author. When Peter sent me a copy of his manuscript, I read it avidly, hoping that it would turn out to be just such a book. I was not disappointed! For that reason, if you are intrigued even slightly with the ‘world of flying’, I recommend it for your insight and enjoyment.
n March 2007 I was asked to have a cup of coffee with a couple of blokes who wanted to make a documentary about Charles Kingsford Smith. They had a few extraordinary revelations they felt they could make in the doco—were gung-ho on the whole subject—and wondered if I was interested in writing a book on the aviator that might come out at roughly the same time.
The idea grew on me. For me and most Australians of my age and older, Sir Charles Kingsford Smith was an iconic figure, although that was mostly through his long-time appearance on our $20 bill and the fact that Sydney airport was named after him. Too, I dimly remember my parents and grandfather speaking reverentially about him.
he? What was the legend actually built on? After some preliminary research, the best of all possible things happened to me. I—as we writers say in the trade—got into it and was consumed by the wonder of the story.
Certainly there were many accounts of his life to learn from, foremost of which was the outstanding 1999 book by the New Zealand writer Ian Mackersey,
Smithy: The Life of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith
; and many other biographies dating back to the 1930s. I did indeed find Kingsford Smith a fascinating man the more I found out about him and yet, apart from the wonders of Smithy’s own life, I also became intrigued—my wife would say obsessed—by other aviation people of those early times. I found I loved the stories of Lawrence Hargrave, the Wright brothers, Lord Northcliffe, Louis Blériot, Harry Hawker, Anthony Fokker, Roland Garros, Charles Nungesser, the Red Baron, Sir Ross Smith, Lawrence of Arabia, Bert Hinkler, George Wilkins and Charles Lindbergh among many more.
They were all, of course, august names—at least in their own time—but even in such exalted company, Kingsford Smith could more than hold his own.
I was fascinated to find, in the course of my research, that no-one less than Charles Lindbergh himself had dipped his lid to Kingsford Smith personally, saying that what Lindbergh had done in crossing the Atlantic could not be compared to Kingsford Smith’s feat with the Pacific.
As well, when I came across the stories of the 1919 air race from England to Australia, the formation of Qantas, the saga of the
, the loss of the
, the 1934 Centenary Air Race, the story of P.G.Taylor’s wing-walking in 1935, I was stunned both by what wonderful sagas they were and by how little those stories were known by the wider public outside the aviation community, which certainly included me.
The book that I offer now, thus, is not the book I intended to write…
Starting with the narrow parameters of looking at Smithy’s life, bit by bit it morphed into the story of his life and
and of the other extraordinary figures who occupied those times. I have never enjoyed working on a book so much, from finding out more and more about these figures long gone, to travelling all over the world in pursuit of their tales. All through San Francisco, New York, Washington, London, Paris, Calais, Wellington, Christchurch and, of course, all around Australia, I traipsed through museums, over abandoned airfields, into old hotels, and regularly buried myself under piles of dusty newspaper cuttings and old letters, trying to get the feel for the times that were and the place that Kingsford Smith and those magnificent men had in them.
It is, of course, for the reader to judge whether or not I have managed to pull this off, but at least let me state my aim at the outset—that was to have Kingsford Smith and his companions
again. I wanted to take the thousand points of light represented by endnoted fact, and, by judicious and occasional use of the poetic license I keep in my wallet, to put enough colour in between that the book would have the feel of a novel, even while remaining in the non-fiction genre. This is the approach I have employed since coming under the influence of the American writer Gary Smith in the year 2000—most particularly in my books
The Ballad of Les Darcy.
In terms of ensuring that my endnoted fact was indeed
, allow me to say, it was not easy. I have never worked on a subject with such an extraordinary amount of technical detail, nor with such a vast body of archival material to trawl through. Nor, might I add, have I ever worked on a story where accounts of the same episode have been so different, sometimes from the same writer who was there at the time!
In order to do everything possible to get the detail in this book to be as accurate as possible, I was fortunate to be able to call on the expertise of many people, and draw on their scholarship in particular fields. In this regard, I warmly thank Michael Adams for help with the story of Lawrence Hargrave; Simine Short on Octave Chanute; Andrew Moore on the New Guard; Simon Nasht on Sir Hubert Wilkins; Ron Cuskelly on the saga of the
Lady Southern Cross
and on details of other people and planes—extending even to photographs of the manufacturer’s plates on the engines of the
; Mark Day on the Red Baron; Neil Cadigan on the pilot Lester Brain; Dick Smith on the saga of the
; Ron Frew and Matthew Higgins on the fate of the
; and Howard Jones on what happened to the
when it found itself in trouble over Albury.
The remaining family of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith were good to me, led by Sir Charles’s only son, Charles Kingsford-Smith Jnr, and I warmly thank him—including for his fine foreword. Early in the writing of this book, I had lunch with John Ulm, the only son of Charles Ulm, and I thank him equally for the help he gave me thereafter.
Soon after I started the project I was blessed to find exactly the person I needed: an aviation researcher with knowledge as deep as it was wide, powered by a passion that would kill a brown dog. His name is Peter Finlay, and he proved to be a godsend in terms of ferreting out fresh detail and endlessly tapping old detail on the head with a hammer to see if it sounded tinny or not. And while, of course, all mistakes that remain are my own, I cannot thank him enough for his work and dedication to the cause.