Editor's Note: When Sir Charles Kingsford Smith disappeared while flying across the Bay of Bengal on an England-Australia flight, November 8. 1935, the world mourned one of aviation s greatest heroes. With his companions, first to fly the southern Pacific, first to fly non-stop across Australia, first to fly the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand, conqueror of the dreaded east-west flight across the Atlantic, his story is one of the great adventure sagas of modern times. Herewith Maclean’s commences exclusive publication in Canada of Sir Charles’s own account of his epic achievements in the air.
IT WAS six minutes to nine of the last day of May, 1928. In the cabin of my old bus, the Southern Cross, three youngish men sat, their calm faces not betraying the tenseness that gripped us all. I turned to take a last look at the familiar airport of Oakland, California, that had been my home for nine weary and heartbreaking months.
The three motors of the Fokker were slowly turning over, impatient to be off. A lady approached me, holding out her hand in the palm of which something sparkled in the sunshine. It was a ring, a silver ring fashioned from a French franc by an American soldier during the World War. The lady was Mrs. Eichwaldt, mother of Lieutenant Albert Eichwaldt, who had flown away from that same airport to search for missing fliers in the disastrous Dole air race to Honolulu. He never returned. She asked if I would wear it. Deeply touched by the incident, I agreed.
A moment later and that ring was sparkling on a hand gripping the controls of a plane that has since become historic, glinting in the sunshine far above San Francisco Bay. We were off Harry Lyon, the navigator, James Warner, the radio man, C. T. P. Ulm, the co-pilot, and myself; Ulm and I attempting to achieve a dream we had cherished separately for ten years, together for two years. Before us stretched almost 7,400 miles of open water, 5,000 of them unexplored as yet by airmen. Behind us stretched years of ridicule and scoffing that only more firmly fixed our ambition to conquer the Pacific.
So there we were, behind us the bitter past, ahead we knew not what—four little men in the belly of a flying monster flinging out into space for adventure.
My chief concern was with the engines, three great Whirlwinds whose concerted roar had grated on my ears in trial flights but now became a harmonious overture. On them everything depended, for our plans demanded that each one must turn an average of 1,600 revolutions per minute for three prolonged periods, which turned out to be 27 1/2 hours, 34 1/2 hours and twenty hours each. In all, the three motors turned over more than twenty-four million times on this flight.
Of the three stages, the flight from Oakland to Honolulu was the easiest. For a few minutes just before midnight of the first day out we were flying blind in a rainstorm, otherwise our worries were confined to petrol consumption and the next day to sighting land. Every few moments we would discover m island on the horizon that really was not there, but finally the real terra firma did appear and we glided into Wheeler Field at Honolulu one day and a few hours after waving farewell to Oakland.
So far so good, but that was only the first of three stages. The second and most arduous lay ahead, the longest ocean flight ever attempted and over totally uncharted airways.
The doleful predictors were on the job as usual. We were assured that the next step to Suva in the Fiji Islands would be our undoing. But we were far too preoccupied with our task to worry about what the pessimists thought and said. One of these was the selection of landing and taking-off fields.
We selected Barking Sands, a beach on Kauai Island, near Honolulu, for our take-off. When walking on the sand there, the sound of footfalls resembles barking dogs, hence the name. A gang of men had cleared a 4,500-foot runway. I calculated that with our load of 1,300 gallons of petrol we should require at least 3,500 feet to get off.
Arising at 3 a.m. the second day after our landing, we warmed up our motors in the light of a brilliant moon and at 5.20 a.m. got away. Lowell Smith, the first around-the-world flier, stood at the 3,500-foot mark as a guide for our take-off, and when we were within 100 feet from him we were in the air.
But next moment my confidence was rudely disturbed by a succession of heavy jolts, making the plane bounce and jerk in an alarming way in our heavily laden condition. They soon passed and we settled down on our long, long trail.
Everything now depended on the accuracy of Lyon s navigation. We were making a long shot at a dot on the map and that dot was over 3,000 miles away.
Troubles Never Come Singly
WE HAD been extremely fortunate on the first leg to have received radio beam signals for a short distance from San Francisco and position signals from ships we sighted at sea. From Honolulu we were to ride on a radio beam for 300 miles, beyond that was silence. Warner’s messages from the plane to shore had been perfectly received. Incidentally this was the first flight in which radio was used so extensively and consistently.
We were in high spirits, the weather was magnificent and we had one-third of our doleful predictions behind us. Life was good that June morning until Ulm suddenly nudged me, pointing to the wing petrol tank almost in line with my head. I looked and June left my heart. A slight trickle of liquid was oozing from the tank and running along the steel of the lower part of the wing. A petrol leak?
Steadily it pursued its snaky course along the wing and dripped into the cockpit. If this was petrol the possibilities were terrible to contemplate. The risk of a serious loss of fuel was exceeded only by the risk of a disastrous fire in mid-ocean.
I handed over the controls to Ulm. Then, with the fear of a man grasping at a poisonous snake, I put my finger into the trickle of liquid and transferred a drop to my mouth.
Glory be! It was only water. Air condensing round the cold petrol pipe had merely followed its natural course and become good old water. The memory of that incident dampened our high spirits.
More dampeners soon appeared. Clouds ahead looked like rain, and I could not afford to squander petrol in climbing over them. Nor did I care particularly for the idea of flying low in our heavily laden state. Then the gloom thickened.
Warner passed me a note. He had lost the vitally important buzz of the radio beam from Wheeler Field. And we were only three hours out !
Troubles never come singly, of course. At 10 a.m. Warner sent up another note to the effect that the wireless was completely out of action. Now we were cut off from the world entirely. Optimism seemed indicated, and I concentrated on the thought that he would get the radio going again. Sure enough he did. about three hours later passing up a note: “Both transmitters working O.K.”
The weather was deteriorating rapidly. Soon we were bucking rainstorms, trying to dodge them, flying around them and up through them. At times we were flying blind, absolutely cut off from even the solace of seeing the water beneath us. In blind flying, in fog or in a rain so heavy that the air becomes liquid, you can see through the windshield but not beyond it. There your visibility ends and your eyes are of no value. You are literally blindfolded.
You can hear, but hear only the roar of the engines, their continual noise making you quite deaf. So the hearing sense is valueless. Nor can you feel your way forward. There is nothing to feel.
Smell and taste are of no use. Consequently, to fly blind you must have two highly developed faculties. One is to see and correlate the meanings of a dozen or more instruments on the panel in front of you. The other is a sense of flight that aviators in America call “flying by the seat of your pants.” It is just a natural-born ability to know what your ship is doing by the reaction of your body as you sit at the controls. You either have it or you do not. It cannot be learned.
With all the difficulties, we were making excellent time. We had just begun to exult a bit with the thrill of being the first to fly these regions when we had another fright.
The starboard motor gave a sudden cough. Then another tremendous cough, a splutter, a kick, and it caught on again. It was the first time since we had left Oakland that the monotonous roar of the engines had been interrupted by even so slight a sound.
We were nearly 1,000 miles from land in mid-ocean. Until then the sea below had not been particularly attractive. But now its complexion changed immediately. It became grim and menacing.
For eight minutes, minutes that dragged by as centuries, the cough, splutter and recurring healthy roar continued. Then it ceased as suddenly as it had begun.
What caused it we do not know. Probably a case of engine indigestion brought on by a speck of dirt that slipped by the petrol filters.
Thunder and Lightning
AFTER twelve hours we had covered 1,080 miles, one-third of the distance. Night was coming on and I climbed to 3,000 feet. Then the heavens opened and the rain swept down on us again. It forced its way through the windshield and we were sodden from the knees down. We rose again to 5,000 feet, but the great, coal-black clouds still surrounded us. Round and round we went in a spiral climb, seeking to escape from their wet embrace. Precious petrol was being wasted in vertical flight when it should be going into covering miles horizontally.
Then, at 8,000 feet, we emerged from the murk and gloom. Above us were the stars. And on the port bow glittered the Southern Cross. Not for long though. Another wet belt was in our path, and all night long we rocked and tossed in a series of wicked thunderstorms.
The dawn came at last with a present of more and blacker clouds. Thunder and lightning growled and crackled all about us, the rain poured continually and wild air currents pitched us crazily about.
We had now been in the air twenty-four hours and the worst appeared to be ahead of us still. On the horizon a heavy black storm with lightning fangs working out of it loomed up to 12,000 feet. We could not climb that high, so down we went to 400 feet, but it was no better there. So we climbed again.
Besides wasting petrol, more valuable than gold to us, this dodging storms confused the navigator who had the greatest difficulty in maintaining his dead reckoning under constantly changing conditions. With air speed and directions continually shifting, Lyon’s calculation of our position as plotted at 6 o’clock that morning was more in hope than in faith that it was correct. He guessed that we were 690 miles from Suva, about seven hours flying time away. Seven hours later our log book received the entry, “Suva in sight ahead." With a man like that plotting your course, how could a pilot fail to come through in good style?
I had experienced a tiring night, so l gave Ulm the controls to steal a bit of sleep. But I was jolted awake by a change in course, and was prepared to swear at Ulm for falling asleep at the stick when I saw he was grinning and pointing.
There was a smudge on the horizon, one. of the Fiji Islands. Which one we could not know until we had an accurate charting of position, so down we went to twenty feet above water to enable Lyon to take a natural horizon sight with his sextant. While he was catching the reflection of the sun in the mirror of his instrument we looked for the island again.
It had disappeared ! This was uncanny. All four of us had seen it. Now it was gone. Why and where? The explanation soon occurred.
At our altitude, when we had seen it first our visibility was perhaps eighty miles. When we went down low we could see only a few miles. Climbing again, we soon had it in view and identified it by chart position. Then we began to look out for Suva.
I had cabled to Suva for details on the landing field. The maximum runway was only 1.200 feet, barely enough. Our load was lighter now, but my piloting ability was lessened by physical and nervous fatigue after more than thirty hours in the air. I circled the field with a tenseness that only the tired distance flier knows.
We were coming into it at sixty-five miles an hour when I suddenly saw that the edge of the landing field was twelve feet below a road. We touched our wheels halfway up the field. In front of us was a sharp rise covered with trees and thick undergrowth. To plow into that meant disaster.
So I ground-looped the plane, swinging away to the left and stopping a few feet from the brink of trouble. e had completed 3,138 miles in 34 1/2 hours, the longest nonstop ocean flight on record.
Boilermakers become stone deaf. So do distance fliers temporarily. Tired, dazed and bewildered, we were in no condition to answer the questions fired at us by an excited crowd. A gentleman approached me. holding out his hand and saying, “I congratulate you. Will you all lunch with me tomorrow?” ‘‘Yes, isn’t it?” was my non-comprehending answer. We all felt that way and welcomed the opportunity to sleep.
It was impossible to fly out of Albert Park, our landing place, with our necessary load. So next day we went out to inspect the sites for a take-off. I found that Naselai Beach offered excellent possibilities. Next morning Ulm and I, with a very light load of petrol, pulled the ship out of the park after a 400-foot run and flew to the beach, twenty miles away.
Until the tide receded we could not land, so we had to loaf about in the air. We flew hack over Suva, causing some consternation; then, the tide going out, landed at Naselai. Natives in surf boats brought petrol ashore from a launch. That was a Thursday, and it soon was apparent that we could not get away. Lyon, being a seaman and therefore superstitious, pointed out that Friday was an unlucky day to start. But we had a date for dinner in Sydney and were determined to be off.
Friday morning we wheeled the plane on the smooth sand, pointed her toward Australia and prepared to go. A party of shy Fijian maidens approached us, each carrying a bowl of the sacred Yangonga ceremonial wine. This was an ancient custom of speeding the parting guest, so to speak, so we partook, turned over the engines and were off.
Brisbane was only 1,700 miles away. We were rested, the plane was in fine fettle and the weather outlook was splendid. The distance seemed quite short to the hardened veterans we had become.
All Is Not Well
BUT WE had forgotten again that, on these distance flights, “All is well” is a phase with seldom more than ten minutes of duration.
The inevitable note came up from Lyon. “E. I. C. out of action,” it read. This was the earth inductor compass, the most valuable steering instrument we carried. And it was our own fault, as such mishaps usually are. We quite forgot to oil the instrument during our battle to get the petrol through the surf at Naselai. Lyon spent a long time trying to get the compass to function, but no use. For the rest of the flight we had to fall back on the magnetic compass.
At seven that evening the salubrious tropical night changed. It grew colder and colder. The moon left abruptly without saying good night, and inky darkness closed in. Visibility dwindled from the horizon to a mile, then to a few yards, then nothing. A rushing cascade of water hit us, drumming on the windshield, trying to break in.
Raking gusts rocked the plane so that we had to hold on to our seats as we humped and bucked through a blinding chaos of wind and water. Lightning added another terror to the night. It ripped great jagged holes in the clouds and shot across the sky in awe-inspiring flashes. Soon a crackle of blue flame began to play eerily around the spark-plug leads on all three motors.
We began to reflect on the condition of our magnetos. If they became as thoroughly wet as the wires to the plugs, they might give out at any moment.
Any attempt at navigation was useless. This was more than mere blind flying; it was stone blind. For four solid hours we endured these conditions, then it toned down a little. At 4 a.m. it was raining a little less heavily, and dawn brought some improvement. But the sky was heavy and sodden, and the sea a grey and forbidding sheet of lead.
Then came the sun. and our cramped and frozen hands came to life again. But our feet remained numb. A sight by Lyon, and we altered our course. Four pairs of eyes scanned the horizon eagerly. There was a grey vagueness. Now it was a shadow. It was a cloud. It was not a cloud ! It was the coast of Australia.
But where were we? Moreton’s Island, the airman’s mark for Brisbane, was not in sight. We swept in over Ballina, 110 miles south of our course. The failure of the earth induction compass and our stone-blind flying through the night had set us off our projected path.
As we glided down at the Eagle Farm aerodrome at Brisbane, the sun shone warmly. A police inspector, trying to stem the crowd of 15,000 exultant greeters, shouted, “Get back! This is no ordinary plane.”
He was right. The Southern Cross is no ordinary plane.
She had borne us over 7,389 miles of quite un-Pacific Ocean. She had not failed us once.
AFTER OUR first long-distance flight across the Pacific in the Southern Cross, we looked around for a flight not yet attempted. After some thought, we realized no one had yet made a non-stop flight across Australia. It seemed an easy task, and would form a valuable preliminary canter for a more difficult and dangerous flight we had in view—across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand and return.
Our American friends, Warner and Lyon, had returned to their own country, so a new team was formed by including H. A. Litchfield as navigator and T. H. McWilliams as radio man, the former an Australian and the latter a New Zealander.
Our route was from Melbourne to Perth, a 2,090-mile jump. Except for minor incidents, including a severe rainstorm, the flight was uneventful. We covered the distance non-stop, and added another record to the achievements of the old bus. The return trip to Sydney made our total 4,390 miles over Australia, and equipped our two new men with good experience for the next venture.
The Most Dangerous Passage
WE FACED one of the most difficult and most dangerous sea crossings in the world. I speak now in terms of 1928, before four-motored flying boats like the Clipper ships now in use from San Francisco to Honolulu, had been developed.
The Tasman Sea has the reputation among seamen of being one of the wildest and stormiest oceans on the globe. It is notorious for bad seas and heavy gales. One can expect no help from waters practically deserted by shipping.
Two others. Good and Moncrieff, had previously met their death in an attempt to span these treacherous seas by air. No wonder Ulm and I determined to take no risks. A somewhat lengthy time intervened between the announcement of the flight and our actual take-off, time devoted to painstaking preparation.
Persons with little knowledge of flying and less of the Tasman Sea made ill-informed criticism and foolish observations. But we were doing such things as bringing “Doc” Maidment from America to thoroughly overhaul our engines, and further training our new teammates.
Finally we were ready, and in the gathering dusk of evening we pulled away from Sydney, our nose motor pointed directly for Christchurch, New’ Zealand. 1,624 miles away. It was a perfect evening and a strong breeze gave us a gentle push, seeming to promise that the elements were going to be good to us this time.
We buzzed along very well until 11 p.m., when a long way ahead the flickering of lightning, spreading over a wide front, foretold another battle of the air. It was like the flicker of the guns at night along the Western front as seen from a distance, and the rumble of nature’s heavy artillery would have sounded like a heavy barrage being laid down before an attack, were we able to hear it.
We could detour, but the battlefront was so wide we should waste much time and petrol. Or we could fight through and run the risk of lightning. Airmen have a well-founded dread of lightning. Airplanes are not earthed and in bad electric storms one does not know’ what to expect, particularly as there is very little information available about the effect of lightning on aircraft.
In the next two hours, as we approached the storm, we climbed to 10,000 feet in the remote possibility that we might fly above it. To our dismay, we found that the storm extended thousands of feet above this height and the whole region seemed to be riddled with lightning.
The air grew bumpy. As the black clouds closed in about us, the terrific rain squalls, which we had come to fear on the Suva to Brisbane hop, tore at us from every direction. So heavy was the onslaught of these solid sheets of water, I was forced to open each engine throttle to the full to keep the engine hot. This minimized the danger of the spark plugs becoming wet and ceasing to function.
It was uncomfortable enough for half an hour, then, to our consternation, we found that the rain was changing to ice. The great wings of the Southern Cross and all exterior surfaces began to assume a glistening sheen of ice, a fatal burden to many airmen.
In a short time we calculated that the weight of this unwelcome addition had mounted to half a ton. The result was soon apparent. The engines began to labor. The plane began to sink. We were losing precious altitude.
The air speed indicator, one of the most precious instruments in use while flying blind, suddenly dropped from ninety-five miles an hour to zero.
A Fight to the Death
AN AIR PILOT trained to blind flying - learns first to rely on the information given him by his instruments rather than his senses. With the air speed at zero, I assumed automatically that the plane was stalling. I pushed the controls forward as far as possible to put the ship into a dive and build up our air speed. But nothing happened except the increasing roar of air past us as we dived into the black void. The altimeter showed a drop from 8,000 feet to 2,500 feet, over a mile. Still the air speed indicator failed to register.
Then reason came to the rescue of blind faith in my instruments. So strongly had I counted on the indicator that I had thrown away a mile of valuable altitude without allowing for the fact that it might have failed. The engine revolution indicator told me that the three motors were turning over 2,300 times per minute instead of 1,800.
We were diving at a dangerous angle and must have been moving at 150 miles an hour or more. Then it dawned on me that ice had plugged the tube at the wing edge which caused the speed indicator to register. Hastily I tried to bring the plane to an even keel.
At 2,500 feet I levelled off and cut the engines hack to their 1,800 revolutions. Now it was a fight to the death between the storm and us. Updraughts of raging air threw the plane several hundred feet straight up, then we dropped into pockets that let us down as far and not so gently. In the rear cabin our companions were rattling around like dried peas in a pod, thrown about helplessly as the plane was shaken in the fingers of the storm.
The angry Tasman Sea reached with its cold, green hands at the sky as though to tear us down. The black, chaotic upper air gave voice to screaming imprecations against our daring to penetrate its secrets, inviolate for ages. Vivid green snakes of lightning licked their furious tongues at us.
The plane was coated with ice, an additional handicap to the efficiency of the controls. Our instruments had played us false, due to the ice. It seemed as though no more could happen. Yet it did. A hasty note from McWilliams, read in the fitful flashes of lightning, said: “Lightning put both radio sets out of action.”
This was the last straw. Even though we were flying absolutely blind, the radio held out one last hope of finding out where we were. Now that was gone.
“The Extreme of Human Fright”
I THINK that night I touched the extreme of human fright. Never before had I known the meaning of absolute fear. Panic was very near and I almost lost my head. I felt a wild desire to do something, to do anything to get away from the desperate position we were in. I wanted to pull the ship around, dive it, climb it, do some bit of action with a finality toward escape. I was dazed with fear.
The only change that could come could be one for the better—at least that feeble hope was held out. The play of lightning grew worse, throttling our one ray of sunshine. With 500 gallons of petrol left, only one tiny spark was necessary to give the storm its final victory.
Not only in the air outside the ship but in the ship itself, the most weird and inexplicable static electrical effects were taking place. A ship on the water or on land is earthed by its contact, which permits the static electricity it gathers to escape. But in the air the charges of electricity cannot be dissipated, and the whole machine becomes charged like a flying battery.
A particularly vivid flash would outline the three propellers in weird blue light, flinging into the air blue rings of static electricity twelve inches in thickness. Another discharge of lightning would extinguish these arcs, then strange lights would play up and down the wing edges.
Suddenly we emerged from the ghastly blackness into three minutes of comparative calm. On each side and below us the inferno of lightning continued. We were passing between two great canyon walls of black cloud. Now my mind had a chance to recover. I saw that the lower altitude was permitting the ice on the wings to melt, slowly relieving the plane of its added weight. The air speed indicator came back to life with a start, the ice that had plugged it giving away. It now registered the correct air speed of ninety-five miles per hour.
Fate was to give us one more thrill. The engines began to vibrate noticeably. This added to our worries. Later we learned that ice particles in the air had torn chunks out of the propeller blades. The damage was so bad on inspection that new blades had to be substituted before our return flight.
We climbed back to 6,000 feet, confident that the storm was slowly left behind us. A faint glow on the port bow appeared, betokening the approach of daylight. Never was a dawn so eagerly awaited. As the glow spread over the sky and lightened the scene, Ulm and I looked at each other.
Our faces were drawn and haggard. Red marks covered our cheeks, where flying ice had stoned our faces. With the sun, Litchfield was able to get a rough bearing, giving us an approximate position.
During the height of the storm, McWilliams, with true Scotch tenacity, had tried to repair the radio sets. He had dismantled one on the cabin floor, but the jolts had thrown both him and the spare parts about in a mad scramble that forced him to give up.
Now we were practically dragging our wheels through a layer of clouds that extended to 6 000 feet and the sun was shining gaily above. We could see nothing below. Presently Litchfield passed through a note, “Watch bank of cloud on starboard bow.” It did not change shape after continued observation and we concluded that it was one of the peaks of the far distant Tasman Range poking its head above encircling clouds.
Now we should be over the 100-mile-wide entrance to Cook Strait, so Litchfield estimated. In the unbroken mass of clouds a dark hole appeared and the glint of sunlight on water could be seen.
As we looked down through the hole a long peninsula of land could be seen in the waste of waters beneath. It was Cape Farewell. We dived down through the cloud hole and found ourselves right over that part of New Zealand first sighted by Captain Cook— a remarkable testimony to Litchfield’s navigation.
The memory of the awful night passed. We were safe. We had plenty of petrol. So we decided to show our appreciation by circling Wellington. It was amusing to see people rush out from their homes in night attire. One enthusiastic gentleman took off his pyjama coat and waved it at us.
Joyfully we sped on across the Strait and down the ragged coast to Christchurch. There we landed to the deafening cheers of the most enthusiastic crowd I have ever seen. That was record number three for the Southern Cross.
Starboard Engine Stops
AFTER A MONTH of receptions and kindly acclaim from the people of New Zealand, we prepared to fly home. The three propellers had been changed and an extra 200 gallons of petrol added to our usual load to combat the strong westerly winds prevailing at this time of year over the Tasman Sea.
One night over the Tasman had been enough, so we had decided on making the return trip by day. We hopped off at 5 a.m. with the strong wind in our teeth and flew at 500 feet, just enough to allow the long radio aerial room in which to swing.
Beneath us the sea was flecked with foam from wave crests chopped off by the gale. The radio functioned well, Litchfield got his sights, and only the steady head wind was against us. In the afternoon Ulm, stiff and chilled, stood up to stretch. As he did so I was horrified to hear the starboard engine stop, dead.
Frantically we looked around for the cause. The petrol pipes leading to the motor were all right, there seemed to be no explanation.
There was only one thing to do, dump some of our petrol to save weight and turn about for the nearest point of land. I was about to tell Ulm to open the valve when I suddenly noticed that the engine switch was off, having evidently been bumped by Ulm when he stood up. I snapped it on again.
The propeller was still revolving from our onward momentum. This saved having to dive to restart the engine—a fortunate thing, as we did not have enough altitude to dive and could not have gained sufficient on two engines alone, with our heavy load.
About 11 p.m. we reached Newcastle and turned south for Sydney, only to run into fog and be forced back. Going under it to 150 feet, we headed down the coastline again and at 2 a.m. saw the welcome glow of the city lights.
Before I left the aerodrome there was a message from the Prime Minister of New Zealand: “Hearty congratulations on recrossing. Now we can all go to bed.”
The Pacific, Australia non-stop, and a round trip over the Tasman Sea were behind us. What would be next?
Early in 1929 we decided that a personal visit to England was necessary in the interest of our Australian National Airways. We both wanted to see the old country. How better to go than fly? How this flight led to the death of two gallant friends, arduous and dangerous days for others and a close call with death for ourselves, will be told in the next story of this series.
To be Continued