The 1919 Air Race From England to Australia

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By Mark Bennett

In 1919 the Commonwealth Government of Australia offered a prize of 10,000 pounds for first flight from Great Britain to Australia under specific conditions. In 1919 Billy Hughes, Prime Minister of Australia, and Senator George Pearce, Minister for Defence (Australia). In consultation with the Royal Aero Club, were the aircrews must all be Australian and the aircraft must been constructed in the British Empire. The teams must complete the journey within 720 consecutive hours (30 days) and be completed by midnight on 31st December 1920.

The starting point of the race was at Hounslow heath Aerodrome (for land planes) or RNAS Calshot (for seaplanes and flying boats), with two reporting stopping points at Alexandria and Singapore and finish the race in the region of Darwin.

There were six teams that started the race, the first team to take off from Hounslow Heath Areodrome was Captain George Campbell Matthews AFC as pilot and Sergeant Thomas D Kay as mechanic in a Sopwith Wallaby (G-EAKS) at 11:44am on 21st October 1919. After delays by bad weather at Cologne, Vienna and Aleppo, allso further delays due to snow at Belgrade and a cracked engine cylinder at Constantinople. Finally, on 17th April 1920, the Wallaby crashed on landing at Grokgak, on Bali.

The second team to fly off was crawed by Captain Ross Mac Pherson Smith with his brother Lieutenant Keith Mac Pherson Smith as co-pilot and mechanic Sergeant W.H. (Wally) Shiers and J.M. (Jim) Bennett. They flow a converted Vimy Bomber (G-EAOU) (the registration being whimsically said to stand for “God ‘elp all of us”). They left at 8am on the 12th November 1919. The team had a few stops along the way e.g, Lyon, Rome, Cario, Basra, Karachi and unscheduled stop in Sian, because of heavy rain. In Surabaya the aircraft was bogged and had to make use of a tempovary airstrip made from bamboo mats.

The team reached Darwin at 4:10pm on 10th December 1919. The flight distance was estimated 17,911 kilometres (11,123miles) and total flying time was 135 hours 55 minutes (131.8km/h or 81.9mph). The prize money was shared bewteen the four members of the team and Smith brothers each received a Knighthood for this exploit, and the company presented their aircraft to the Australian Government, which is on display at Adelaide Airport.

The third team that took off from Hounslow Heath in an Alliance P.2 Seabird (G-EAOX) named ‘Endeavour’, on 13th November 1919. The crew were Lieutenant Roger M.Douglas, MC DCM and Lieutenant J.S.L Ross, they crashed in an orchard in Surbiton, Ross was killed and Douglas died soon after of his injuries.

On 21st November 1919 the forth team flow off with a Blackburn Kangaroo (G-EAOW), piloted by lieutenant V.Rendle with Captain Wilkins, Lieutenant D.R. Williams and Lieutenant Garnsey St.C Potts as crew. They were forced down over France with engine problems, repairs were made and continued on with the flight, still with engine problems. On 8th December 1919, they crashed landed in Suba Bay, Crete, ending up against the fence of a mental hospital, the crew escaped without injury.

On 5th December 1919, Captain Cedric E.Howell and Lieutenant George Henry Fraser left London in a Martinsyde Type A Mk.1 (G-EAMR) aircraft. On 9th December, the aircraft disappeared near Corfu. The wreckage and Howell’s body was found offshore, but Fraser’s was never found.

On 8th January 1920, Airco DH.9 (G-EAQM), pilot by lieutenant Ray Parer, with co-pilot Lieutenant John C.Mclintosh, took off Hounslow Heath. They were the second team to complete the race, but they took 206 days to do the race. Although outside the time limit, the crew was rewarded a consolation prize of 1,000 Aus pounds, second only to the Vimy. The DH.9 has been restoed and placed on display at the Australian War Memorial at Canberra.

In a park in St Kida there is a memorial plaque in memory of Lieutenant J.M. (Jim) Bennett, who was born on 14th January 1894 in St Kilda, son of James Thomas Bennett. After schooling he trained as a motor machanic, then in 1912 he joined the militia and served for three years with the 49th Battalion. On the 14th July 1915 he enlisted in the Australian Flying Crops next year, was posted to ‘C’ Flight, No 1 Squadron, as a mechanic. He travaled the world as a aircraft mechanic.

In 1919 the Smith Brothers and Shier and Bennett went into the first airrace from England to Australia and they were the first one to reach Darwin. Bennett received Bars to his Air Force Medals. On 19th March 1920 the minister for defence announced that Bennett had been promoted senior warrant officer, class 1; six months later he was granted the honorary rank of Lieutenant in the A.I.F reserves of officers.

In 1922 the Smith Brothers attempt a round-the-world flight; Bennett and Shiers were again chosen as mechanics. They planed to take off on 25th April 1922, but on the 13th Apirl Ross Smith and Bennett were killed during a test flight at Waybridge, when their Vickers Viking Amphibian crashed. The pioneer aviators were mourned as national heroes and their bodies were bought back to Australia. Bennett was buried in St Kilda cemtery on 19th June 1922 after a laying-in-state a Queen’s Hall, Parliament House. An obelisk in his honour was unveiled at St Kilda on 26th April 1927.

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