Ross Smith’s Flight from London to Australia: Approaching Sydney

Ross Smith’s Flight from London to Australia: Approaching Sydney
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From onboard the biplane, Frank Hurley films two of the crew looking down over Sydney’s harbour. He captures aerial views of Sydney’s inner harbour suburbs including Watsons Bay, Vaucluse, Rushcutters Bay, Double Bay and Rose Bay. A large crowd gathers to welcome the crew on its arrival in Sydney, with many raising their hats to the camera. Summary by Poppy de Souza.

The shot of the waves lapping up against the rocks in this clip is one of the many shots inserted by Hurley to enhance his footage. It is clearly not filmed from the air and seems oddly placed, although he probably wanted to show the harbour in detail.


Ross Smith's Flight from London to Sydney synopsis

In 1919, Australian aviator Ross Smith and his crew became the first Australians to fly between England and Australia in under 30 days. Their journey took them over the Middle East, through Asia and the subcontinent, and on to Darwin. On arrival in Australia, they toured a number of towns and received a warm reception. Adventurous cameraman Frank Hurley joined the crew for their Australian leg, filming additional aerial footage. The resulting film is a document of their journey.


Ross Smith's Flight from London to Sydney curator's notes

After the excitement and adventure of being the official photographer on two Antarctic expeditions and documenting the experiences of Australian troops in the Middle East during the First World War, cameraman Frank Hurley joined the final Australian leg of Ross Smith’s flight from London to Australia. In early 1919, the Commonwealth Government announced a £10,000 prize for the first flight by an Australian crew between England and Australia within 30 days. Keith Smith, Ross’ brother, was the cameraman for most of the journey between London and Australia, with Hurley joining the crew once they reached Charleville. Hurley had been acquainted with Smith during the First World War, and was keen to capture aerial shots of the Australian landscape – Smith’s flight was the perfect opportunity. With a crew of four – the Smith brothers plus two mechanics – the Vickers Vinny biplane left London on 12 November 1919 and arrived in Darwin in just under 28 days.

Smith’s footage, along with Hurley’s footage of the Australian section, was edited together by Hurley at Australasian Film’s Rushcutters Bay Studios. The resulting film was cobbled together from the actuality footage captured by Smith and Hurley, scenes from Francis Birtle’s expedition across Australia, war footage Hurley had filmed in Palestine and aerial still photographs of European cities taken en route. The credits at the beginning of the film imply that Hurley was on the flight from England but, in fact, he only spent a short time with the crew once already in Australia. Hurley wasn’t shy of recreating or staging scenes to enhance his actuality footage, and clip one is a good example of this.

Ross Smith’s Flight from London to Australia premiered at Sydney Town Hall on 8 June 1920. At each of the Sydney screenings, Ross Smith introduced the film. Over the next two months it toured Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth and Fremantle to enthusiastic audiences ready to embrace the achievements of the Smiths as Australian aviation pioneers.

Notes by Poppy de Souza


Education notes

This black-and-white silent clip shows footage of the approach towards Sydney of the Australian aviators Ross and Keith Smith and their crew in 1919, having successfully completed a flight from London to Australia, and the welcome they received on landing. The clip opens with two crew members looking at the scene ahead followed by extended footage of waves crashing onto rocks. Aerial shots of Sydney Harbour’s bays and coastline are interspersed with intertitles of the locations. The clip closes with intertitles and footage of the welcoming crowd.

Educational value points

  • This clip features the final stages of the Darwin–Sydney leg of the epic flight made by Ross Smith (1892–1922) and Keith Smith (1890–1955) and their two crew members. They had already successfully completed the 27-day flight by landing in Darwin on 10 December 1919 and were about to share the £10,000 prize offered by an Australian government keen to pioneer routes to and from Australia, to the first all-Australian crew to fly from London in under 30 days.
  • The cockpit scene of the two crew members standing up and pointing out features ahead and the following sequences of the coast, Sydney Harbour and surrounding suburbs would have been a tremendous novelty for film audiences. Aerial shots of familiar locations were uncommon at the time. Although probably posed, the cockpit scene drew attention to the bravery of the crew and to how exposed the four crew members were to the weather during the lengthy trip.
  • The huge crowd, shown excitedly greeting the aviators at Mascot Airfield in Sydney in a still photograph and the filmed images, had been alerted to news of the plane’s imminent arrival by a flag raised in Martin Place. Spectators flocked to the airport. The size of the crowd reflects the fact that the worst of the 1919 Spanish flu epidemic was over in Sydney, and any fears of contagion spread in dense crowds were swamped by the excitement of the occasion.
  • The plane flown by the Smiths was a Vickers Vimy, a twin-engine open-cockpit biplane that was designed as a long-distance night bomber and had already proved its strength and engine reliability by completing a successful non-stop flight across the Atlantic. Powered by twin Rolls Royce engines, its top speed was 177 km per h. In this epic journey it averaged 137 km per h despite being bogged in Surabaya and repaired en route with chewing gum and pieces of fruit crates.
  • Filmmaker Frank Hurley (1885–1962) was invited to accompany the crew on the final leg of their journey and the clip reveals the way he manipulated images to heighten the dramatic effect of the film. The sequence of breaking waves was clearly not filmed during the flight. During the First World War and the Shackleton expedition to the Antarctic, Hurley created composite photographs of scenes to add dramatic effect that led to accusations of ‘fakery’.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

William Taylor
Frank Hurley
Cinesound-Movietone Productions owns all copyright which may subsist in this footage

This clip starts approximately 34 minutes into the documentary.

We see black and white footage of two men with flying hat and goggles working at a cockpit. The clip then shows extended footage of waves crashing onto rocks. Intertitles read, ‘Watson’s Bay and Vaucluse’ on a background of sun on the water with people silhouetted as they walk along the promenade. Aerial shots of Sydney Harbour’s bays and coastline Intertitles read, ‘Cockatoo Island and the Lane Cove River’ as we see aerial footage of this area, Intertitles read ‘ We found the city whirling with excitement’. Intertitles read, ‘The crowd welcomed us with great fervour’. We then see a crowd of people filling the frame waving and smiling at the camera very excitedly.