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Great Air Race 1919 exhibit opens in Adelaide

written by Mic Cullen | November 4, 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)

A century ago, the Australian government challenged the world’s leading aviators to fly from Great Britain to Australia in less than 30 days.

Now, a free exhibition celebrating the event – “Heroes of the skies: The Smith brothers and the Great Air Race of 1919” – has opened at the State Library of South Australia.

The exhibition runs for six months and celebrates the amazing 28-day achievement of two of South Australia’s favourite sons, Captain Ross Smith and Lieutenant Keith Smith, and their mechanics, Sergeants Walter Shiers and James Bennett.

On the morning of November 12 1919, the four took off in their modified Vickers Vimy bomber G-EAOU from Hounslow aerodrome in West London, and over the next 29 days they passed through countries including France, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, India, Myanmar, Singapore and Indonesia.

Some 135 hours of actual flying time later, on 10 December, the four touched down at Fannie Bay in the Northern Territory and shared a prize of 10,000 pounds.


State Library of South Australia director Geoff Strempel said the library was thrilled to be able to stage the exhibit to celebrate the feat’s one hundredth anniversary.

“We are proud to be a part of the celebrations of the Epic Flight Centenary 2019,” Strempel said in a statement on October 30.

“This flight is considered one of the world’s great pioneering aviation feats and the story deserves to be told.

“This exhibition has been made possible thanks to the donation to the State Library of the personal papers of the Smith brothers by Sir Keith’s widow Anita, Lady Smith in the 1960s.

“It illustrates the importance of donations from the public and the vital part these donations and the State Library play in the preserving and sharing of the state’s history.”

Highlights on display include the log-book and the intercom book of the Vickers Vimy, notebooks kept by Ross and Keith, a pocket compass, a magneto from the engine, a piece of Vimy aircraft fabric and a Sidcot flying suit of the day.

Photographs taken by the crew during the race are also on display, as are the rarely seen knighthood medals awarded to Keith and the “flying wings” won by Ross in the Australian Flying Corps and Keith in the Royal Flying Corps, which were taken into space in 1996 by Australian astronaut doctor Andy Thomas.

As well as forming part of the physical display, the donated archives have also been digitised to provide easy access so people from anywhere in the world can explore more about the brothers and their extraordinary achievement.

The papers are part of the Library’s Digital Collections available on the Library’s website.

A “Great Air Race 2019” featuring 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) had been planned, but had to be cancelled after being unable to gain the cooperation of countries along the route to ensure the safety of all participants.

The exhibition runs until April 5 2020 and is open daily except public holidays.

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