June 15th 2019


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Anthony Albanese: NSW left factional warlord takes charge

EDITORIAL Religious freedom: the political and legislative challenges

CANBERRA OBSERVED Will Bill Shorten emerge from the shadows again?

FEDERAL ELECTION Queensland voted for jobs, life and country

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Keating's 'nutters': Don't blame the messenger

ECONOMICS AND SOCIETY Health policy is not immune from neoliberal infection

HUMAN RIGHTS Canada accepts Asia Bibi and family as refugees

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Families keeping the faith: the Benedict and other options

IDEOLOGY Feminist claims for equality, Part 1: The context

HISTORY OF SCIENCE Faith and reason and Father Stanley Jaki, Part 3: More on science and ancient cultures

LIFE ISSUES Families, youth boost crowd at WA Rally for Life

MUSIC Muse of delight: The laugh ascending

CINEMA Asterix: The Secret of the Magic Potion

BOOK REVIEW Pioneering aviator's flights and fancies

BOOK REVIEW Catholic resistance in a forgotten war

BOOK REVIEW AFA patron's long life of public service

LETTERS

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell's appeal, June 5-6, 2019: An account from the live streaming

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BOOK REVIEW
Pioneering aviator's flights and fancies




News Weekly, June 15, 2019

KING OF THE AIR: The Turbulent Life of Charles Kingsford Smith

by Ann Blainey

Black Inc., Carlton
Hardcover: 384 pages
Price: AUD$49.99

Reviewed by Jeffry Babb

This biography is a story and Ann Blainey is a fine storyteller. Charles Kingsford Smith was a hero of the pioneering days of aviation, between the wars. He made the first trans-Pacific flight from the American mainland to Australia; the first flight across the Tasman; and the first non-stop crossing of the Australian continent.

But, in what context should we see these feats today? Qantas has a non-stop flight from Perth to London in less than 24 hours; in Kingsford Smith’s era, doing the same trip in a week was near miraculous.

Kingsford Smith was a man who pushed the boundaries. He wanted to do more, to fly further and go faster. In this, he was largely successful. Airplanes in those days were primitive things; often the pilot sat on a wicker chair that was not even anchored to the floor of the plane. Seat belts were scarcely heard of. Simply flying these contraptions was an act of heroism. When “Smithy” returned from any of his flights, tens of thousands of well wishers would greet him. He was a hero, a man with the “right stuff”.

Kingsford Smith may have been a hero, but he was not always popular. He had little time for officialdom, although tempestuous NSW Premier Jack Lang helped him out. He was conferred a knighthood only grudgingly and due to overwhelming public demand. He often did not receive the prizes that he had been promised by officialdom.

His commercial ventures rarely flourished, especially without the orga­nisational talents of Charles Ulm. His attempts to compete with Qantas failed. Public opinion is a fickle thing; hero worship can turn to vilification overnight. Kingsford Smith had no business sense; he was almost always broke.

He was a compulsive womaniser. Kingsford Smith was married twice; neither of his wives expected him to be around much. He was too busy flying.

None of this should detract from the fact that Kingsford Smith was a brilliant aviator. He could do things other pilots would not even attempt. In those days there was “no highway in the sky”. Every flight was a step into the unknown. “Flying blind” in bad weather was a skill that had to be learned; back then, flying was usually done on clear days. When “Smithy” struck turbulent winds and pounding rain, he had to hold on to his nerves and trust his navigator.

Controversy surrounds Kingsford Smith’s absence from the London-to-Melbourne air race. Little support can be found for the assertion that he was a “squib”; in other words, a coward. He simply didn’t have the right plane to enter the race. He received little support from the British, likely because he favoured Australian firms over British carriers.

Kingsford Smith struggled against “nerves”, known these days as panic disorder. “Smithy” had a long-held fear of being lost in a remote place from which he could not be rescued. This fear could trigger a panic attack. He is said to have had no real Christian belief but, when in dire peril, his thoughts are said to have returned to the faith of his boyhood.

Kingsford Smith was a brave man and a highly accomplished aviator. For all his faults, which were many, he always led the way. He did not let his fear overcome his determination to do new things and go where no man – or woman – had gone before. He was a pioneer and a trailblazer.

In November 1935, “Smithy” was attempting to set a record for a flight between London and Melbourne. His plane went down, as far as anyone can tell, off the coast of Burma (Myanmar). The remains of Kingsford Smith and his co-pilot were never found; nor was any wreckage that could be reliably verified as belonging to his plane.

This is an admirable piece of writing. Kingsford Smith was one of the best-known Australians of his age. When the pioneers move on, the businessmen take over. “Smithy” was not a businessman; he lived from one windfall to the next. Kingsford Smith is a name that has resonance, but the number of people who have first-hand personal recollections of “Smithy” dwindles ever year.

More people should know about this remarkable Australian, who, for all his faults, blazed a trail where other more commercially minded fliers followed. Kingsford Smith circumnavigated the globe, a feat, in its time, comparable with Sir Francis Drake’s sea voyage.

Kingsford Smith didn’t have to break the record for a flight between London and Melbourne; he had nothing to prove. This act of hubris resulted in catastrophe. His worst nightmare came true. He was lost, as far as anyone can make out, from a place from which he would not return.


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