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The great air race of 1919 – part one

Today, a flight between Darwin and London typically takes less than two days; but over 100 years ago, it took almost a month. 

The 1919 England to Australia Air Race was a monumental feat in the early years of aviation. Prior to commercial aircraft developments throughout the 20th century, the journey to Australia took several months via ship, and saw passengers and crew navigate through dangerous seas. While overseas developments in the United States and across Europe had commercial planes flying passengers as early as 1914, Australia’s isolated location meant that the aviation industry took a little longer to get off the ground (no pun intended). This was especially true as, in the early days of aviation, a train was often said to be faster and more reliable than air travel.

At the end of the First World War, Australian Prime Minister William ‘Billy’ Hughes insisted on ensuring that Australia remained connected to the rest of the world, despite its isolation from the likes of Europe. During his time as prime minister, Hughes spent 16 months out of the country, travelling to Paris to sign the Treaty of Versailles on behalf of Australia, as well as visiting the United Kingdom, where he was born.

During his time in the United Kingdom, Hughes visited wounded Australian troops in Kent, many of them airmen. The injured airmen expressed their desire to fly their aircrafts, known then as ‘machines’, back to Australia. At that time, no aircraft had flown over oceans, and Hughes deemed the idea far too risky at first. But in February 1919, while still in England, Hughes telegraphed his cabinet in Melbourne with his grand idea. Approximately one month later, Acting Prime Minister William Watt responded, and the air race was on. The Commonwealth Government of Australia announced that a prize of £10,000 (equivalent to more than A$1 million today) would be awarded to those who completed the first successful flight from Great Britain to Australia within 30 days. 

A similar competition had been announced in 1913 by London’s Daily Mail newspaper for any aircraft that could fly between the United States and the United Kingdom, but was put on hold as the Great War commenced. On 14 June 1919, however, British aviators Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown became the first to fly nonstop over the Atlantic Ocean from eastern Canada to Ireland. This gave hope to eager aviators attempting the Australian challenge, despite several Australian newspapers branding the competition as a circus dedicated to Hughes’s own self-advertisement and political agendas. 

After the announcement of the month-long competition, rules were quickly developed by the United Kingdom’s Royal Aero Club. According to the Club, only Australian airmen were eligible to contend for the prize; British-made machines had to be self-supplied by those entering the competition; all entrants had to depart from Hounslow Heath Aerodrome near London (or Calshot near Portsmouth for any seaplanes) and had to arrive in Darwin; and the competition would be open until the end of 1920.

To read about the rest of the race, read part two.

Featured image: Prime Minster William ‘Billy’ Hughes, July 1919. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

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