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‘Make the world sit up’

1928: Charles Kingsford Smith flies across the Pacific

John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland 135100
1900 2000
Year level



Learning area


Use the following additional activities and discussion questions to encourage students (in small groups or as a whole class) to think more deeply about this defining moment.

Questions for discussion

1. What do you think made Smithy and Ulm want to make such dangerous journeys?

2. Do you agree with the National Museum of Australia that Charles Kingsford Smith crossing the Pacific is a defining moment in Australian history? Explain your answer.

Image activities

1. Look carefully at all the images for this defining moment. Tell this story in pictures by placing them in whatever order you think works best. Write a short caption under each image.

2. Which 3 images do you think are the most important for telling this story? Why?

3. If you could pick only one image to represent this story, which one would you choose? Why?

Finding out more

1. What else would you like to know about this defining moment? Write a list of questions and then share these with your classmates. As a group, create a final list of 3 questions and conduct some research to find the answers.

<p>Charles Kingsford Smith, 1930</p>
National Library of Australia, obj-137039028

In a snapshot

In 1928 Charles Kingsford ‘Smithy’ Smith and Charles Ulm, along with two US crewmen, became the first people to cross the Pacific Ocean by air. They did it in a three-engine aeroplane called the Southern Cross. Throughout the rest of his life, Smithy achieved many other piloting ‘firsts’, but also dealt with mental illness. When he died in a plane crash in 1935, Australia lost an aviation hero.

Charles Kingsford Smith, 1930

Findout icon Can you find out?

1. What were some of the similarities and differences between Smithy and Ulm?

2. Why was Smithy’s transpacific flight so dangerous?

3. Which records did Smithy and Ulm break together?

What led to the flight?

Charles Kingsford Smith (known as ‘Smithy’) served as a pilot in the First World War. After the war many record-breaking flights took place around the world, and Smithy wanted to be the first person to cross the Pacific Ocean by plane. At the time many thought a transpacific flight was impossible, as no plane could fly far enough. Smithy formed a partnership with Charles Ulm, who had also served in the war and shared Smithy’s enthusiasm for a transpacific flight.

Smithy and Ulm made a record-breaking flight around Australia in June 1927, which raised publicity and the money needed for their transpacific flight. They formed a great team — Smithy was a brilliant pilot while Ulm was a great organiser and money raiser.

Smithy bought a three-engined plane in the United States called a ‘Fokker’ that could fit four people, which he called the Southern Cross. He and Ulm hired two Americans, Harry Lyon and James Warner, to navigate and work the radio on the Southern Cross.

‘[Charles] Ulm … had similar ideas to mine. He was ambitious; he wanted to do something which would make the world sit up … We began to talk of some Big Feat which would bring us what we wanted, fame, money, status.’


Charles Kingsford Smith, My Flying Life

What happened on the journey?

Smithy and Ulm planned to hop from California to Hawaii, from Hawaii to Fiji, and then from Fiji to Brisbane to cross the Pacific. On 31 May 1928 the Southern Cross set off from Oakland airfield in California. To make the plane as light as possible, they used wicker chairs (made from woven plant materials) and didn’t have seatbelts (or a toilet!). The cabin and cockpit were freezing because they flew so high. The noise of the engines was so loud that Lyon and Warner had to write on pieces of paper to communicate with Smithy and Ulm.


Research task


Research the lives of Harry Lyon and James Warner. Do you think they have been given the attention they deserve?

Two newspaper photos of crowds of people greeting a landing plane.

They hit a series of storms during the flight, forcing Smithy to fly without being able to see out of the front windshield. The crew faced severe storms in their final journey from Fiji to Brisbane, which made the windshield leak. They also feared they might run out of fuel.

Warner sent messages about their journey by Morse code. In Australia these messages were read out to the Australian public over the radio.

The crew’s journey, which was 11,585 kilometres long and took 83 hours and 38 minutes, was the first flight to cross the Pacific Ocean. The Southern Cross landed in Brisbane, where the excited crowd carried the crew from the plane to waiting cars. Around 30,000 people came out to see the crew on their way to the Brisbane Town Hall. Many more saw them when they then flew to Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra on a publicity tour.

Gold cigarette case gifted to Charles Kingsford Smith by Charles Ulm.

What did Smithy and Ulm do after their journey?

Smithy and Ulm continued to break records, flying non-stop across Australia, from Australia to New Zealand and from Australia to England. Flying west along the equator, they also became the first people to fly around the world. But all these dangerous journeys affected Smithy’s mental and physical health, and he started to get panic attacks.

Ulm’s plane disappeared near Hawaii in December 1934, and Smithy died when his plane crashed off the coast of Burma in November 1935. Many other pilots felt that Smithy was the best pilot in the world, and Australians loved him. Sydney’s airport is named after Kingsford Smith, and the Southern Cross is on display at Brisbane airport.


Read a longer version of this Defining Moment on the National Museum of Australia’s website.

Findout icon What did you learn?

1. What were some of the similarities and differences between Smithy and Ulm?

2. Why was Smithy’s transpacific flight so dangerous?

3. Which records did Smithy and Ulm break together?