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The great air race of 1919 – part two

Catch up on part one of the story.

Once the rules for the competition were announced, the race began. Overall, six Australian crews entered the race, with a seventh unofficial entry coming from French aviator Étienne Poulet. What came next was a harrowing series of trials and tribulations for all official and unofficial entrants.

Most of the aircrafts had open cockpits, which saw the aviators fly through a range of different climates, including freezing cold European winter temperatures and sweat-inducing, stormy Asian monsoons. Not only did the men have to brave the weather themselves, but had to look after their aircrafts, too. On top of this, airstrips were practically non-existent, and open fields big enough for landing safely were scarce. By the end of 1920, only two out of the seven teams that attempted the race had successfully completed the journey to Darwin.

The first aircraft to leave London was that of George Matthews and Thomas Kay on 21 October 1919. Despite their enthusiasm, the pair faced terrifying obstacles along the way – including engine troubles, relentless storms and even imprisonment in Yugoslavia by suspected Marxist Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin. After escaping, the pair would make it as far as Bali before a minor crash on 17 April 1920 ended the pair’s chance of successfully making it to Australia.

On 13 November 1919, Roger Douglas and Leslie Ross departed from Hounslow, only to spiral out of control and crash shortly after take-off, killing both men. More disaster occurred as another crew crash-landed on 8 December 1919 near Crete, the largest island in Greece. Thankfully, there were no casualties, but the team were out of the race.

Only a day later, on 9 December 1919, a second tragedy struck when Cedric Howell and George Fraser’s aircraft made an emergency landing in the sea near Greece, only for both men to drown.

The winners were South Australian pilots and brothers Ross and Keith Smith, alongside South Australian mechanic Walter Shiers and Victorian mechanic Jim Bennett. The four men had departed from Hounslow on 12 November 1919, and reached Darwin on 10 December that same year. Overall, the crew had spent 135 hours in the air. To reach this incredible feat, the crew flew without a radio receiver to save weight, which meant that weather predictions had to be guessed, and the only navigational aids were compasses and paper maps.

As for the other entrants, Poulet was initially in the lead but abandoned the race after a vulture hit his aircraft in Myanmar, while Ray Parer and John McIntosh managed to make it all the way to Australia; however, they departed from Hounslow in January 1920 – a month after the race had already been won. Parer and McIntosh defied odds, though, as their aircraft caught fire twice, they almost crashed after flying over Mount Vesuvius (where the volcano’s hot air caused the aircraft to drop more than 600 feet in a few seconds), and they had to fight off hostile forces in Syria. The journey took the pair nearly seven months. Upon arriving in Darwin, Parer and McIntosh received a hero’s welcome, as well as a consolation prize of £500 each.

Prime Minister Billy Hughes’ attempts to put Australia on the aviation world stage had succeeded. Shortly thereafter, QANTAS was founded in Queensland in 1920, and Australia’s capabilities in the commercial aviation industry grew bigger and better throughout the 20th century.

Featured image: Étienne Poulet and his mechanic Jean Benoist, 9 November 1919.

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