Books for the New Year
"The Skies Remember—The Story of Ross and Keith Smith",
by A. Grenfell Price. 155 pp. 8 4/6 in. x 5 1/2 in. (Angus & Robertson (UK) Ltd., 54/58, Bartholomew Close, London, E.C.1. 35s.)
At a time when the BP London-Sydney air race has recently been contested, this scholarly account of the first London-Australian flight, by the Smith brothers in a Vickers Vimy in 1919, is an opportune publication. It tends to boost the Australian aspect of this great achievement—and no harm in that. It certainly emphasises the ordeals the crew of two pilots and two mechanics had to endure, the first day's flight from Hounslow to Lyons being in freezing rain and snow, in open cockpits with goggles useless, a contrast to the blazing heat encountered later on, while the fliers took no change of clothes, wearing what they set out in throughout the 28 days of their epic journey between Hounslow and Darwin.
The adventures of the Vimy's crew are well described, the bogging down of the 6 1/2-ton biplane, the engine trouble, the difficulties of navigation, take-off with mud and water flung into the high cockpits, etc. Certainly this very long flight was no easy undertaking but I cannot imagine what Rolls-Royce thought when one of the Vimy's mechanics said that "In the days of the first war their engines were not built to last, because few of the early fighters and bombers had any lengthy rate of survival"! Ross, however, praised the Vimy highly, while admitting that at times the troubles with the 30 h.p. Eagle VIII engines "had placed him in very difficult positions". It should be emphasised that the engines gave serious trouble only after the main journey of 17,060 miles had been successfully completed, i.e., on the Darwin-Adelaide route, when the heat and additional operational hours (beyond the 135 hours already flown) were too much for them.
The troubles included valve failure, a con-rod through the sumps of the port engine (possibly caused by an out-of-balance damaged propeller), faulty oil pressure on three occasions, and trouble with the epicyclic reduction gearing, gear casing and ball races in the other engine. All told the overall journey took from November 12th 1919 until March 23rd, 1920, but G-EAOU ("God 'Elp All of Us") made it. It is interesting, that whereas the book refers to "supplies of petrol by Shell", it just says "and Castrol by Wakefield", subtle compliment to an oil so well known that it does not need to be referred to as such! Apart from the story of one of the greatest of the early long-distance flights, and the subsequent career of Sir Keith Smith as Australian representative of Vickers Ltd., there is much of interest to students of military history, as Ross Smith fought with the cavalry in Egypt and at Gallipoli in 1914-15. Flying in the Holy Land from 1916-18 is also covered and the first Cairo-Calcutta flight, in a Handley-Page bomber, is described, this leading to the Australians coming to England for the flight back home which won them the Australian Government's £10,000 prize.
Motoring is almost entirely absent from the test and one is left wondering what were the cars of General Burton's which the flight mechanics Bennett and Shiers found at his vast mansion in Kent and which they rehabilitated, along with his electric power plant, as some return for the General's unselfish part (as a non-Australian) in persuading Vickers to provide the Vimy for the Australian venture?—it was examined and test flown at Brooklands, of course.
The book is quite well illustrated and the end papers carry a map of the 14,350-mile route. Incidentally, I find it a strange coincidence that Sir Ross Smith was killed at Brooklands while flying a special Vickers Viking IV amphibian in 1922, Bennett being killed with him, for in 1919 Sir John Alcock, of Vickers Vimy Atlantic flight fame, had been killed in a Viking I in fog at Rouen, en route from Brooklands to the Paris Aero Show.
This book is the stuff of the nineteen-twenties, which I, for one, find so nostalgic. The Vimy in which the first England-Australia flight was made was housed for a time in a suitable museum building but eventually the Federal Government grew tired of it, and it was siting out to make way for military exhibits. It was dismantled and left rotting in crates. Only £30,000 contributed mainly by British and Australian friends of the Smiths enabled it to be reinstated. Such things make sad reading, but here we have the same disregard for air glorious history—how many famous aeroplanes has the Government saved? And look at Brooklands Track . . .—W.B.