In 1919, four Australians became the first men to fly across the planet. They flew from London to Darwin in a rudimentary plane made of canvas, wire and wood, sitting in open cockpits with only a compass for navigation. They completed the 11,000 mile journey in 28 days.
It was an extraordinary feat of endurance and a milestone for mankind, opening the world to trans-global flight. Yet 100 years later their achievement is all but forgotten.
Astronaut Andy Thomas is intimately connected with the story. As a small boy he visited a hangar outside Adelaide Airport and saw the Vickers Vimy aircraft that made the journey. Inspired by the old aircraft and its gallant four-man crew, he would go on to pursue a career in aeronautical engineering. In 1997, he went into space on the Space Shuttle Endeavour and took with him a small metal badge – the ‘wings’ worn by the Vimy’s pilot, Sir Ross Smith.
Now 67, Andy returns to the aircraft that inspired him as a boy and finds it still largely hidden from the world in its hangar beside the airport’s long-term carpark – and with that, embarks on a trans-continental journey to retell one of the world’s greatest aviation stories.
He looks at the history of Sir Ross Smith, the outback boy who became a decorated WWI ace and pilot for Lawrence of Arabia before entering the Great Air Race of 1919. He explores the audacious race sponsored by the Australian Government, which saw six crews – plus a rogue French team – competing in hopelessly ill-suited machines. Two crews died, three more crashed out.
Aviation experts and historians help reexamine the context of the undertaking and the implications of the achievement. The narrative is supplemented by plenty of contemporary airborne action, as well as a trove of magnificent archive footage unearthed by the producers. The documentary will also explore plans to relocate the Vickers Vimy, and a program of events for the 2019 centenary including a reenactment of the Great Air Race with electric planes.
Andy Thomas and The Greatest Air Race will bring a long-lost story – as well as an aircraft of world significance – back into the light. It’s time to inspire new generations.
How does the project meet the aims of a philanthropic foundation?
‘The Greatest Air Race’ is a timely documentary, seeking to raise awareness and pride in a lost chapter of Australian history. As the centenary of the 1919 Air Race from England to Australia approaches, we are striving to create a positive social impact by inspiring a new generation with the incredible story of Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith and their pioneering flight across the globe.
We are a team of South Australians bringing this universal story of courage and endeavour back into the light. Working with respected NASA astronaut Andy Thomas, we will show rarely-seen footage of an audacious flight undertaken just 16 years after the Wright brothers’ first powered flight. We'll also look to the future of aviation and aeronautics, which is part of the Smith legacy.
To ensure the centenary celebrations achieve a lasting impact, we’re working with educators to create teaching resources that are aligned to the curriculum across key subject areas from STEM to History and English. As Andy Thomas says: “The sky’s not the limit.”
What outcomes do you hope to achieve by making this film and how will you measure its impact?
Aims & Objectives
We aim to achieve a series of outcomes by making this film.
We want Australian and global audiences to learn this story. We want the world to know the names of these men, and recognise their feat as a significant step in the advancement of aviation. This won't be easy to measure, but we'll gain a fair indication by the extent of national and international distribution and DVD sales here and abroad.
We aim to build support among politicians, 'influencers' and the wider community for the relocation of the Vickers Vimy to a prime location within the new terminal at Adelaide Airport, where it can be seen by millions of people annually. Adelaide's Vimy is one of only two surviving Vimys in the world - the other was flown by Sir John Alcock and Sir Arthur Whitten Brown in their trans-Atlantic flight in 1919. It's been on show in London's Science Museum ever since, thrilling three million visitors every year. Adelaide's Vimy is lucky to be properly viewed and appreciated by three thousand people annually in its current location, surrounded by long-term carparking at Adelaide Airport.
Just by planning to produce this documentary, we believe we are adding to the weight of opinion that this flight was significant and this plane is worthy of celebration. We can measure this impact by any new commitment on the part of state and federal politicians to fund the plane's relocation, and subsequent announcement by Adelaide Airport to make it happen.
Finally, we also aim to inspire a new generation of South Australian school children with the story of SA brothers Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith. Our executive producer Lainie Anderson is working with the SA Department for Education to achieve this aim and we'll measure this outcome by the number of schools and students who take part in state-wide competitions.
What is your education and outreach strategy?
In 2017, executive producer Lainie Anderson travelled overseas on a seven-week Churchill Fellowship to retrace the Smith crew's journey and research the significance of their aviation feat and the Vickers Vimy aircraft.
One of her goals on return was to develop an education program around the 1919 Air Race that aligned with the Australian curriculum in a range of subject areas to ensure school children across all age levels could be engaged and inspired with the story. Lainie is now on a high-level committee - the Epic Flight Centenary Committee (EFC2019) - formed under the auspice of the History Trust of South Australia to celebrate the centenary of the Air Race and the Smith brothers’ Epic Flight. As part of her role as Epic Flight Centenary Ambassador, she is continuing to work closely with teachers, teacher associations and the Department for Education to create education resources and a dynamic new website that will serve as a legacy of the 2019 centenary.
The SA Premier's Anzac Spirit School Prize will be themed around the Epic Flight in 2019 and a state-wide schools competition will seek to engage students in all age levels in subjects ranging from Science and Technology to History, English and Geography.
Lainie has written often about the Air Race in her weekly columns for the Sunday Mail, and since returning from her Churchill Fellowship has spoken regularly to community and interest groups in Adelaide and regional areas to raise awareness about the Air Race and the upcoming documentary. She already has a number of speaking engagements booked throughout 2019.