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1919 Great Air Race winners’ archive digitised

written by australianaviation.com.au | March 27, 2019

The crew of the Vickers Vimy that won the 1919 Great Air Race – Keith Smith, Ross, Smith, James Bennett and Walter Shiers. (State Library of South Australia)
The crew of the Vickers Vimy that won the 1919 Great Air Race – Keith Smith, Ross, Smith, James Bennett and Walter Shiers. (State Library of South Australia)

In 1919, the Australian Government challenged the world’s leading aviators to fly from Great Britain to Australia in less than 30 days.

Waiting for the first successful flight would be a prize of 10,000 pounds.

It was called the Great Air Race and six teams entered the contest. Three teams crashed, two fatally. A fourth was imprisoned in Yugoslavia after being thought to be “Bolsheviks”. Just two crews finished.

And there was only one winner.

On the morning of November 12 1919, pilots Ross and Keith Smith, along with mechanics Sergeants Walter Shiers and James Bennett, took off in their Vickers Vimy G-EAOU from Hounslow aerodrome in West London.


Over the next 29 days they passed through countries including France, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, India, Myanmar, Singapore and Indonesia before touching down at Fannie Bay, Northern Territory.

The realisation that it was possible to fly from Australia to Great Britain was part of the inspiration that spurred the founding of Qantas, by Paul McGinness and Hudson Fysh, in 1920.

Now, a hundred years after the Great Air Race, aviation enthusiasts and scholars around the world will be able to more easily get an insight into the thoughts of Sir Ross and Sir Keith from a century ago after the State Library of South Australia added the pair’s personal records to its digital collection.

The collection offers access to flying records and service records related to the air race, including photographs, newspaper cuttings, correspondence and the diary of Ross Smith, the State Library said in a statement on March 22.

This includes the log book for the Vickers Vimy biplane, photographs during the flight and letters written to their parents throughout the journey, as well as a letter from Dame Nellie Melba congratulating the brothers on the successful journey.

“The story of the Great Air Race, the men and the plane has strong South Australian connections with global importance,” State Library of South Australia director Geoff Strempel said.

“It is with great pride that the Library has been able to make this internationally significant collection available online and provide world-wide access.

“The website is the result of many hours of hard work involving staff across the Library and ensures the preservation of the original records.”

The digital collection can be accessed for free on the State Library of South Australia website.

In addition to digital display, the History Trust of South Australia will hold an exhibition at the State Library called Heroes of the skies: The Smith Brothers and the Great Air Race of 1919 due to open in November 2019.

To celebrate the centenary of the Great Air Race in 1919, a new Great Air Race is being held later in 2019.

The Great Air Race 2019 will be for electric-powered aircraft, with batteries to be charged using renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, or by hydrogen fuel cells, with the hydrogen to be produced by renewable energy. And competitors will have to complete the journey within 30 days.

More details can be found at greatairrace.com.au.

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