Cover Image: Smithy: The Life of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith

Smithy: The Life of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith

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Smithy (1897–1935) is the unvarnished tale of one of Australia’s most famous aviators. The book tells the life story of the first man to fly across the Pacific Ocean. It begins with Charles’ humble beginnings in a large family that was constantly on the move. A fun loving kid, Charles was always the center of attention; something he carried on with his whole life.

Sir Charles was quite a character! Always on the move and trying to entertain family and friends. He served at Gallipoli during WWI. As a motorcycle runner he was almost blown up by artillery. He transferred into aviation after recovering from his wounds, but got wounded and lost part of his foot during a dogfight. That didn’t matter much to him though, flying was now in his blood.

What follows are the many tales of master airmanship, woes of politics, love and loss, wild flights and crashes (many whiles drunk), and many World Record aviation attempts. Smithy is best known for his transpacific flight, but he accomplished so much more. He had to deal with inner demons that haunted him until his dying day; demons that sometimes left him incapacitated while flying. In a day where aviators flew by the seat of their pants, it is astonishing that he was able to fly across great expanses of water without getting so lost that he couldn’t land.

A true master aviator, Smithy flew an aircraft at night in bad weather and turbulence sitting in chairs that were unattached to the airframe and no seat belts. To make matters worse, there was no lighting in the cockpit so he had to use a flashlight to fly instruments. Some of these flights lasted 36 hours! There was no verbal communication between crew-members due to the engine noise so they attached notes to a broom handle and passed them back and forth to communicate. On one flight, Smithy lost one engine over the ocean, and the other was loosing oil. While in flight, one of the crew-members had to go out on the wing and drain oil from the dead engine and then cross the aircraft to the other wing to pour the oil in the running engine. If he hadn’t accomplished this remarkable feat, they never would have made landfall.

This book was truly an inspiration to someone who has been around aviation his whole life. The tales of flying over the ocean through thunderstorms at night with just the rudimentary set of flight instruments in an aircraft with no windows and wicker chairs as pilots seats, still amazes me! As a flight instructor and instrument examiner, I know how hard it is for pilots to accomplish these feats with all the modern equipment we have today.

One of the most hilarious stories was when Smithy had his radio operator and navigator climb into the back of the aircraft so he could make a short-field landing. When he touched down, one of the unfortunate fellows fell through the fabric butt naked on the runway. Smithy unaware of this taxied away and abandoned the poor man out there in front of a massive crowd in nothing but his birthday suit!

The book covers so much more than just the fascinating flights in old cloth and frame aircraft; it also deals with the politics of the times. Not just Australian politics, but world politics; like the time when Smithy got banned from Turkey.

There is so much in this book for an aviation aficionado to delve into. I definitely recommend this book. Ian did a masterful job in his research and writing. I had never heard of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith before I discovered this book, and now I’ll never forget this aviation master and wild character! I had to keep reading merely to see what Smithy would get up to next.

He may have been a womanizer. He may have been an alcoholic, but he was definitely one hell of a pilot!
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‘Kingsford Smith’s passing signalled the beginning of the end of the romantic age of Australian aviation.’

Sir Charles Kingsford Smith MC, AFC (9 February 1897 – 8 November 1935), nicknamed ‘Smithy’ was an Australian aviation pioneer. He piloted the first trans-Pacific flight between the USA and Australia (leaving the USA on 31 May 1928 and arriving on Australian soil on 9 June 1928). He also undertook the first flight between Australia and New Zealand. 

In this carefully researched book, first published in 1998, Mr Mackersey provides the most complete biography of Kingsford Smith currently available. We also see glimpses of the man behind the legend: his messy private life and business failures. Kingsford Smith packed a lot into his brief 38 years of life.

While interested in the more complete picture of Kingsford Smith that Mr Mackersey provided, I prefer to focus on his achievements. In 1915, at the age of 18, Kingsford Smith joined the Australian Army. He later transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and was awarded the Military Cross in 1917 after being shot down. He returned to Australia in 1921 and became one of the country’s first commercial pilots after joining West Australian Airways.

After completing the first trans-Pacific flight in 1928 (California to Brisbane, via Hawaii and Fiji) he and Charles Ulm became celebrities. The other two members of the crew were James Warner and Harry Lyon. While Ulm and Kingsford Smith established Australian National Airways, Kingsford Smith had little interest in commercial endeavours. His focus was on air races and other aviation feats. While he was a brilliant pilot, Kingsford Smith had a crippling fear of water and, as Mr Mackersey’s research revealed, had a ‘compulsion for recklessness in the air when relaxed by drink.’ 

In 1935, Kingsford Smith and his co-pilot Tommy Pethybridge, in the Lady Southern Cross, disappeared over the Andaman Sea while attempting to break the record flying from England to Australia.

The research for this biography took seven years, and Mr Mackersey has listed many individuals and organisations who provided assistance, including Kingsford Smith’s widow, son and other family members. The book also includes a chronology of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith’s Principal Flights as well as an extensive bibliography.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the life and achievements of one of Australia’s best known aviation pioneers.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Sapere Books for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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