My Flights

Sir Charles Kingsford Smith January 15 1936

My Flights

Sir Charles Kingsford Smith January 15 1936

Editor’s Note: In this, the second installment of his reminiscences, Sir Charles Kingsford Smith describes two of his most terrifying experiences, the experience of being lost in the Australian bush for eighteen days without food and that of being lost in the air while flying through fog over the North Atlantic. Either or both may have been paralleled on the last tragic flight from which he did not return.


I WANT to tell next of the regrettable bit of fate that marred the start of a flight to England from Australia in the Southern Cross.

We were to hop from Wyndham and set out with a thoroughly overhauled plane, good weather reports and good hope. McWilliams and Litchfield accompanied us as on the Tasman Sea flight. An hour out of Sydney a little incident occurred, insignificant in itself, but as it worked out, fatal to two brave men and nearly so to us four.

In leaning out of the window to take a sight through the drift indicator, Litchfield inadvertently touched a button releasing the radio aerial, which ran right out and broke off. Without it we could not receive messages, but were still able to transmit. Rather than return and risk a landing with our heavy load, we decided to push on.

An important event occurred shortly afterward totally unknown to us. The optimistic weather conditions we had received at the start based on a forecast from Wyndham, changed abruptly. Our forecaster at Wyndham immediately wired Sydney to warn us not to leave. Sydney sent us the message via wireless, but without an aerial we could not receive it.

Our old friend, the rain, showed up again, and for hour after hour I flew on blindly, mentally chiding our forecaster for giving us a poor report. It was a bad night, with no visibility and no opportunity to learn our position. Finally we caught a glimpse of the terrain below. It was the most inhospitable section of ravines, cliffs, roaring torrents and heavy timber I had ever seen. We followed a long canyon to the coast, assuming it was the river leading to Wyndham, and found nothing at the end but angry-looking sea.

We searched for Wyndham for an hour with no luck, and three hours later were still circling. Suddenly a small group of huts came into view. We dropped a pencilled message with a weight. “Please point direction of Wyndham.”

We fully expected our ground aids to point southeast. Imagine our amazement when a number of natives came out and pointed southwest. Later we learned they failed to find the note and were trying to direct us to a place to land.

We believed they knew the country better than we. So we turned and headed back along the erratic coast line for what seemed an interminable time. The petrol was falling low in the tanks. And we were lost, undoubtedly.

With only two hours petrol left, we welcomed a glance at another group of huts. We circled again and dropped another note. “Please place white sheets pointing direction of Wyndham and mark in large figures number of miles.”

In a very short time great strips of sheeting or towels were on the ground, with natives at one end pointing vigorously. Another white patch was marked 250.

We were dumbfounded. Our consternation was extreme. The plain white strip and the natives pointed east. And 250 miles was beyond our petrol capacity.

In a last despairing effort I turned east, but soon realized the impossibility of reaching Wyndham with our failing petrol. The only resource left was to crash as gracefully as possible in that inhospitable country. Meanwhile our trials and troubles were known to all Australia, as McWilliams had been transmitting a clear and timely account of them. I headed back toward the huts of the mission station. And then the last and crudest blow struck us. The weather closed in and we could not find it again.

And instant descent was imperative. But where to land in that rough country? My eye caught sight of a mud flat and I headed for it.

Lost in a Swamp

WE STRUCK the mud at fifty miles an hour. The nose tilted forward and I thought we would go over. She sank back on a level keel and stopped. Again the dear old bus had saved us.

A hasty inspection showed the ship undamaged. But where were we? The place where we had landed was a great swamp. The wheels were fifteen inches deep in mud; a fact that had saved us, for the drag stopped us just short of a large tree. We knew the mission was somewhere within fifty miles. We were in short, lost.

We had been 28 1/2 hours in the air. Food seemed a good idea, and we opened the locker, supposedly full of emergency rations, only to find it empty. Someone hungry or seeking souvenirs had stolen our hope for life.

All night we were plagued by mosquitoes. Next morning millions of flies succeeded them. The sun came out and Litchfield took a sight, fixing our position. We were within fifteen miles of the coast, but our charts showed no mission station near by.

Just before leaving Sydney we had been asked to take a special assignment of baby food to Wyndham. This we carefully rationed out with a spoon.

There was no chance of getting the plane in the air again. Only a few pints of petrol remained and she was deep in the mud. We had little food but plenty of brackish, muddy water. The countryside was impassable on foot, the creeks swarmed with alligators. We decided to stick by the old bus, light a fire, and rig up a radio receiving station to hear what was going on.

Great crowds of flies made existence intolerable. In their midst we tried to rig up a belt drive for the normally wind-driven generator of the radio sending set. That night on our receiver we heard that a launch was searching the Drysdale River for us and a plane was out from Derby.

We supped on the baby gruel again, and turned in after a fruitless day. Next day radio messages advised us to light three big fires in a triangle and keep them going. But the fires would not bum properly, all the fuel being green.

Hunger was our main enemy. There was a flask of coffee and one of brandy besides the baby gruel. So we named this uninviting spot Coffee Royal. A small bottle of glycerine which we had brought for the earth inductor compass, was our sweetener.

Food we had to have. We could not catch fish because of the alligators and lack of equipment. The romantic condition of the desert isle of fiction did not seem to hold good here. The nearest discovery in the line of edibles we could make were snail-like creatures on trees. We ate many of them, even though they were loathsome.

The mud had dried. With the drop or two of petrol left we might get into the air long enough to set the wind-driven radio generator going; long enough to send a message of our position. But when the mud flats became dry enough to take off, our petrol had evaporated in the awful heat.

The mosquitoes and flies relieved each other at dawn and dusk with the regularity of an armed guard. To keep them out we had to cover our faces with our coats.

On the fourth day we really began to starve. Each night we could hear the radio stations talking about us. Why could they not see the great white wing of the Southern Cross there on the mud flat?

So Near Yet So Far

EACH DAY we grew progressively weaker. It was a struggle to climb the hill and poke at the smoldering green wood of the fires. The snails were giving us nausea. Then I heard the sound of the first plane. Four or five miles away it flew along. Feverishly we stoked the fires. But on its way it kept—always four or five miles distant.

I felt quite angry. Ulm and I had hacked at a tree the day before to try to jack the wheels out of the dried mud. Now we fell to with the last bit of energy we possessed. Next day we had the tree down, and we piled stones about the wheels for a lifting point.

We dug the wheel out until it spun freely, the trees and stones holding up the axle. Our plan was to fit the engine crank to the axle of the wheel, fit a friction wheel to the end of the radio generator shaft, hold this against the turning landing wheel, and generate enough electricity to send out signals.

With a penknife we finally equipped the two wheels properly. Litchfield and I turned the big wheel while Ulm held the generator against it. In our weakened condition we could turn only long enough to create half the usual power, enough for only a few seconds transmission.Then we would stop, the effort quite knocking us out.

McWilliams would send out his S.O.S., then we would drop exhausted and try again a bit later. Next day another plane came by, a little closer but still failing to sight us.

Now we could stagger only short distances. Most of our time we spent in listless stupor, hearing the tantalizing messages of the radio stations talking about us. Next day two more planes passed us by. The search was narrowing. Our powers of endurance were the only hitch in our chances of being saved.

Three days later another plane appeared on the horizon. I watched her through binoculars until my eyes got so tired I closed them. When I opened them she was gone.

On the third day of the plane Canberra’s search they found us. No one but a starving man could attempt to express our feelings as food bags hurtled down from the plane banking in short circles. John Stannage, the wireless operator in the plane, dropped a message: “Are you okay? Can you hear our wireless?”

With fresh black mud on the brown baked surface of the flat we wrote out “O.K. No. Hear Sydney.”

Then they dropped another note, “Back tomorrow,” and sailed away.

Next day they brought citronella as a mosquito preventive, hats, shoes and other things, but forgot cigarettes. After they had dropped them we wrote with our mud “CIGS.” Fortunately they had a few dozen and threw them over to us.

During the next five days we received daily visits from our rescuers. Our health improved and at the end of that time we signalled to Heath, the pilot of a small plane, that it was safe to land on the dried mud near us. We rushed across to meet him, receiving details of the search.

Next day he returned with another machine and both brought petrol. It was March 31 that we were forced down into our desert prison. On April 18 the old bus once more got into the air. In an hour and a half we were in Derby, and this gruesome chapter in our lives ended.

The Tragic Diary

IT ENDED shortly before for one of the searching pilots and his companion. Keith Anderson, who had originally intended to fly the Pacific with us, was one of the searching pilots. He disappeared on April 10.  As subsequently reconstructed, he and H. S. Hitchcock were forced down by engine trouble and, repairing it, found they could not take off again in the rough country.

Without water or supplies they tried to clear a pathway, but the bone-dry heat and exertion hastened their end. They had scribbled a diary on their wing. In the last delirium of thirst they had drunk even the alcohol from their compass.

After a few days rest we had recovered sufficiently to fly back to Sydney. We had intended to take part in the search for Anderson, but the bodies were discovered on the day we started out.

On the way back we flew over the spot. Ulm and I took turns in circling over it. We could see how the mulga scrub growing five to ten feet high all around, had kept them from getting off. The sight of those gallant men lying there affected us deeply. I look back on that day as one of the saddest of my life.

Thus our initial attempt to fly to England ended in disaster. Some said we had sought sensational publicity by a premeditated forced landing. My only reply is that men do not voluntarily starve for eighteen days for any kind of publicity. The kind of publicity that most men desire is that of successful achievement.

All these troubles did not swerve us from our original intention of flying back to England. Equipped with many additions which we had not carried on our first venture, including an emergency radio transmitter for use on the ground, we were ready to go on June 25.

From Derby we planned a non-stop flight to Singapore, more than 2,000 miles. Before leaving the Australian shore we found that one of the two ignition systems on one of the motors was smashed, so we uncoupled it rather than wait for spare parts from Sydney.

That night came the usual rude shock in the form of rain over the Timor Sea. The port motor was short circuiting, due to moisture penetration and the fact that only half its usual ignition system could function. We rounded Java Head, followed up through Sunda Strait, and cut the corner of Sumatra. When we arrived at Singapore it was with another record, the first non-stop flight from Australia.

Rangoon was 1,300 miles away. In the air next day we received a message that the races were on and we could not land on the racetrack. So we sat down at Singora in Siam.

Next day we made the acquaintance of a monsoon, and the port engine was sparking badly. In Rangoon we lost a day to repair the magneto, then on to Calcutta over the Bay of Bengal and lower Burma. In taking off from Calcutta a large bamboo raked a gash in our underbody, a head wind held us back and, knowing that we could not make Karachi with depleted tanks, we landed at Allahabad.

Bandar Abbas was the next stop after Karachi, then Shaiba, the R.A.F. depot opposite Basra, where valves in the port engine were repaired, then Bagdad.

Next day we started from the most ancient of Oriental capitals to the home of Western civilization, Athens.

At Rome our faithful engine expert, “Doc” Maidment, who was waiting for us, replaced the makeshift magneto. And next night we dined at Romano’s. 10,000 miles in twelve days, eighteen hours, another record.

Next? I had my eye on the Atlantic. The old bus was placed in the hands of the Fokker factory at Amsterdam for complete dismantling, overhaul and reassembly. I should add that it was Anthony Fokker’s native generosity that made the Atlantic flight possible.

After a hurried trip to the United States for arrangements and to Australia to supervise the start of our airlines there, I returned to England to start preparations for the flight. The directors of our new company insisted that Ulm stay at home to keep the airlines humming. So it fell upon me to secure a new crew for the project.

The Southern Cross had been completely reconditioned in the Fokker plant, and was beautiful in a new color combination representing the silver stars against the midnight blue of the sky. I invited Evert Van Dyke, a Dutch flier, to accompany me as co-pilot, John W. Stannage as radio man, and when we reached Ireland, our take-off point, Captain J. P. Saul as navigator.

It was June 23, 1930, and we were on the beach at Portmarnock. Weather reports said there were no storms over the Atlantic, but dense fog banks off the Newfoundland coast. That was good enough for me. We left at 4.25 a.m.

At Galway Bay we met up first with the prevailing westerly winds that sweep across the Atlantic, the same wind that has hampered the west-bound navigators for four centuries. Our course was the shortest, the great circle from Galway to Cape Race, a distance of 1,900 miles over open water.

Competition was dogging us a bit. Costes and Bellonte were waiting at Le Bourget to make the same flight. So, even with a thirty-mile wind to hold us back and a late message from America that the coast was fog bound, we pushed along.

Shortly after noon the first warning vapors of what lay in store for us began encircling the plane. The wisps of fog soon became a solid blanket that hid the water beneath us, although we were flying only 200 feet above the waves. I had no desire to get into blind flying with the plane in her heavily loaded condition, so dropped fifty feet more. Stannage protested immediately, fearful that his long-wave transmitting radio would strike the water and be lost.

On this flight the absolute necessity of two-way radio communication from plane to ships at sea and to the shore, was proved beyond the shadow of a doubt to be a lifesaver. From the time the mists closed in on us in the afternoon until we landed next day, our navigator was never able to get a sight of the sun to check his course, the three compasses went absolutely mad as I shall tell later, and the only means of navigation was through radio.

We carried no radio direction-finding equipment because of its excessive weight. But Stannage at the key would pound out a series of “V’s” which would be picked up by various ships. With their direction finders, they could locate our general direction from them. These bearings were relayed by ship radio to the Transylvania, which served as parent ship.

Laying off all these various bearings on her chart, the Transylvania operator would transmit all this information to Stannage, who in turn gave it to Saul. Saul plotted them on our chart, and passed up to me our own position and directions for continuing our course.

We would climb to 3,500 feet to give Saul a chance to get visual bearings, but the vind at that altitude was so stiff that it cut our flying speed to fifty miles an hour. We had to descend at once and plow along through the fog. All through the night we dew at 1,000 feet in a regular “pea souper.”

It was the longest period we had ever been forced to fly blind. Toward 2 a.m. Van Dyke and I exchanged notes. We were tired of this completely blind business. It was getting on our nerves.

The opaque wall of monotonous greyness stretching before us suggested too many unpleasant thoughts. We decided to grope our way down to about 500 feet, hoping to sight the sea and have some relief from that awful blankness.

When the altimeter showed 600 feet Stannage sent a frantic note: “No lower, for God’s sake. Aerial dragged in water twice.”

The sudden blacking out of his radio signals had given him the alarm as he listened in. As the aerial was only 125 feet long and did not hang straight down but trailed behind us in the wind, we must have been within 100 feet of the hungry waves.

After this nasty jolt we decided that flying blind was better than not flying at all, and much preferable to a watery grave. Then came the second shock.

“Why can’t you keep on course?” asked a note from Saul.

Lost in the Air

EYEBROWS raised, Van Dyke and I looked at each other. We were on the course, according to our compass. Another note: “My compass shows up to ninety degrees divergence from course, and Stannage has two radio bearings I find inexplicable.”

So far as we could guess, we were 400 miles from land. We had no exact knowledge of our deviations from our original course. We had three compasses and all three differed. The magnetic lines of variation in this neighborhood changed with extreme rapidity.

For all we knew, we might be wandering about in circles.

I began to let some of the fog slip into my thinking. I remembered what had happened to Hinchliffe, Minchin, Nungessor. I knew these men—skilled, experienced pilots. What had happened to them in those last unknown moments?

Was it the same mysterious, uncanny factor that disturbed their compasses and was now upsetting ours? Did they, too, fly around and around in aimless circles, then, petrol exhausted, sink beneath the all-obliterating waves?

From Stannage’s information we might be flying in a series of curves. If this went on much longer the tanks would run dry. The gloom in the pilot’s cockpit became as thick as the fog outside.

So we climbed again. At 3,500 feet we emerged, like the meat in a sandwich, between the dense fog beneath and a layer of lofty clouds above. It was a strange relief to be able to see once more. And then, suddenly, our three compasses returned to normal.

They all indicated the same direction. Our joy was unbounded. But our hopes of reaching the United States were gone. We had lost so much time and used so much petrol that we must land in Newfoundland.

My only explanation of what happened to our compasses is a theory of my own, partly confirmed since by subsequent observations. It is now believed that each particle of moisture in the fog belt off Newfoundland is, for some unknown reason, heavily charged with electricity.

Our continuous flight through this moisture-laden atmosphere had so charged every part of the steel framework of the plane that each had become magnetized. We were literally a flying magnet, and the effect upon our compasses was the same as placing a strong magnet near any compass.

It would seem that ship compasses would be affected the same way. But remember that a ship can drain off its electrical charges into the water, while a plane, with no earth or water contact, just keeps on building them up until overloaded, then discharges them into the air, as we did from the propellers on our Pacific flight.

Proof of this was shown when Stannage pulled out his aerial switch and a big blue flame jumped between the contacts.

At dawn we began radioing for information as to what parts of Newfoundland or Nova Scotia were free of fog. Finally a message came through that Harbor Grace was clear, so we decided to make that a port of refuge.

How could we find that tiny fishing village down under three-fifths of a mile of solid fog? Radio came to the rescue again.

Both at Belle Isle and Cape Race there are radio stations equipped with direction finders. By noting the direction of our signals, each operator at these stations passed this information back to Stannage. Saul drew the lines on our chart and where they intersected there we were.

But to know where one is on a chart and to find the land through the fog were different matters. We had been advised that the fog did not extend very far inshore. Sure enough, a rift appeared and Saul identified a rocky shore on the chart as Avalon peninsula.

We radioed for a plane to be sent up from Harbor Grace through the fog to guide us down. No plane appeared, and finally through another hole we sighted the long runway on the crest of a hill which is the aerodrome at our selected port.

Another Narrow Escape

WE HAD BEEN in the air 31 1/2 hours. I was so stiff and sore that I could hardly climb from the cockpit. In an hour we were in bed, and next morning took off for New York at the same field from which Alcock and Brown, and Hawker and Grieve had left for England.

That afternoon of June 26 we were subjected to one of those typical New York greetings. The inevitable photographers met us in planes over Boston and did not leave us until some time later the next morning, when one stole into my bedchamber and photographed me as I lay asleep.

On July 2 we continued on our westerly way. In taking off from Roosevelt Field in New York, Fokker, who was there, came out to give us an aerial farewell. He performed all kinds of acrobatics over and around us.

To his chagrin, he was arrested by the authorities for violating aerial rules and regulations. To everyone’s astonishment, it was found that this world-famous airman, who had been flying for over twenty years, had no pilot’s license. He was duly fined for the offense, and the incident has been a good joke with “Tony” and his friends ever since.

In crossing the Allegheny Mountains from New York to Chicago, I had opportunity to learn why American pilots call them the “Graveyard of the Atlantic coast.” We were clearing the highest peaks at an altitude of 500 feet when, as we approached a wooded crest, I observed that we were losing height.

I opened the three engine throttles wide and held the nose of the ship up, expecting to clear the top easily. But, when within a few hundred yards of the crest, the Southern Cross seemed to be pushed down as though by some giant hand.

We were rushing toward the treetops only fifty yards away. I banked violently to the left and veered away down the slopes until we were out of danger. I believe our wing tip cleared the taller timber by only a few feet. It was a narrow escape.

We had run into one of the dangerous down currents of air common to these mountains and which have given them their bad name.

And so through dozens of welcomes and receptions we made our way to Oakland, California. As I sighted the hangars of the familiar field where I had left on our first Pacific flight, I felt a thrill of satisfaction that I had been able to bring the dear old bus around the world. On that occasion her nose had pointed west. Now she came from the east. She had completed circling the globe at its greatest circumference. She had crossed and recrossed the equator. To me, who had been her pilot in all her long journeys, came a sense of quiet pride.

This, for the time being, was our Journey’s End.

A Solo Record

ALTHOUGH the Southern Cross now took a rest and was shipped back by steamer to Sydney, I could not rest. It took the old bus twenty-six days by boat to reach the same shores she had made in eighty-eight hours via air with her roaring motors. She occupied just a crowded place in the hold of a slow steamer, a lonely old crate preceding her master home.

I found myself in hospital with appendicitis after a return to Amsterdam and was forbidden to think of flying for six weeks at least, when I was discharged. But I crossed over to Manchester to inspect a new plane, an Avro Avian, especially equipped for the flight to Australia.

After testing her myself, I was further stricken with a dose of influenza. But I wanted to get home. For one thing I was just to be married, and another was the fact that the air route to Australia was then the centre of English interest. Bert Hinkler had set a record, and I decided to try and break it.

That was the first of two record-breaking solo flights between England and Australia. Hinkler set 15 1/2 days as his first time. My first flight from Heston aerodrome to Darwin took less than ten days.

The old Cross went out again shortly afterward to bring in a load of air mail that had crashed at Koepang. We carried the first “all-the-way-by-air mail to Australia,” then made a trip back to Akyab and brought another load.

Meanwhile Scott had broken my record from England solo; and Mollison, one of our own company’s pilots, broke the record the other way by reducing it to under nine days. So I conceived the idea of taking both records myself for the glory of Australia.

On the way to London I made my seventh crossing of the Timor Sea. Further on, about eighty miles from Victoria Point, I was forced down on the beach by rain. I taxied up near the jungle away from the surf, covered the engine with my helmet, scarf and coat, and sat shivering in the rain to await dawn. After a frigid tropical night I saw that the surf was threatening to bog down the wheels of the plane in the sand. I went into the jungle to search for wood to block the wheels, when I heard a bloodcurdling sound.

It was the roar of a tiger, identical to those I had heard in the Taronga Park Zoo. I chose the negligible safety of my wet cockpit to the open jungle, and retired in disorder without my wood.

Sixty miles out over the waters of the Bay of Bengal I had my first touch of carbon monoxide poisoning. I did not know it was such, thinking I had sunstroke. Only my subconscious brain directed me to land, for my conscious mind was completely “out” with the subtle poison that creeps back into airplane cockpits from exhaust gases let loose by leaky exhaust pipes.

All the way to London I fought the effects of that insidious poison driven back at me by the wind. Probably many of the unsolved airplane and motor-car accidents have been caused by this invisible and odorless gas. In Turkey I was forced down by it in a military zone and detained over two days. And there my hope of a record went glimmering. I pushed on again, sick and disgusted..

Leaving my plane at Heston, I returned to Australia by boat. In 1933 I had another try at it, this time in a Percival Gull, attempting to break the English-Australia mark again. From London to Bagdad I had no sleep in my desire to get through quickly. Finally on the Persian Gulf my nerves gave in. I snatched two and a half hours at a town there, and at my next stop an R.A.F. doctor, although advising me to stop, fixed me a concoction of triple bromides and strychnine pills, to help me carry on.

With a total of four hours sleep I made Australia in seven days five hours, a solo record that has not been broken to date. Not until 1934 was I again to attempt a hazardous flight, and then only because I was forced into it, as told in my next article. 

To be Concluded