The Centenary of the Great Air Race from England to Australia was commemorated today, with the launch of a new eight-coin collection by the Royal Australian Mint at the Adelaide Airport’s memorial hangar by the 1919 race’s winning plane.
Guests at the launch event had the exclusive opportunity to see the new eight-coin set and the restored winning plane in the Great Air Race, the Vickers Vimy (Registration G-EAOU), flown by the famous Adelaide aviators and brothers.
The coins were unveiled at the Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith Memorial Hangar by Royal Australian Mint Coin Developer, James French; and Adelaide Author and Epic Flight Centenary Ambassador, Lainie Anderson. A group of eight Year 4/5 children from nearby Flinders Park Primary School who are currently taking part in the Epic Flight Schools Competition also attended.
“This striking limited edition coin collection tells the story of the Great Air Race with designs featuring planes from the world-renowned race, which the Royal Australian Mint is releasing today to aviation enthusiasts, coin collectors, historians and the Australian public”, said Royal Australian Mint CEO, Ross MacDiarmid.
“The 1919 Air Race from England to Australia resulted in the first flight across the world by the Vickers Vimy crew – a feat that in its day was as awe-inspiring as man landing on the moon,” said Ms Anderson.
“In recent decades we’ve sadly forgotten that these incredible Australians achieved one of the world’s greatest aviation milestones, so it’s terrific that the Royal Australian Mint has released this collection to celebrate the centenary of the Air Race, and inspire a new generation”.
In 1919, the Australian Government announced a £10,000 prize for the first Australians to fly from England to Australia in under 30 days. Six Australian crews and a pair of Frenchman took up the challenge in planes made from timber and fabric, with open cockpits and little more than a compass for navigation. Airfields along parts of the route were non-existent and only a single plane made it home in 30 days, beating the daring French who threatened to steal the glory. This achievement by the Vickers Vimy team led by Sir Ross Smith was as awe-inspiring in its day as man landing on the moon. Today, the trans-planet route they pioneered is enjoyed by millions of travelers every year.
“The coin collection strives to honour the memories of those great aviators, the aeroplanes and their stories a century later, and to bring this important, intriguing and Australian competition into people’s thoughts and conversations once again,” said Mr French.
The eight coin designs feature the Sopwith Wallaby, Vickers Vimy, Alliance P.2, Blackburn Kangaroo, Martinsyde A1, Airco DH9, Caudron G.4 and a special Great Air Race coin.
The Centenary of the Great Air Race – 2019 $1 Uncirculated Coin Collection is available in a limited mintage of 10,000 - retailing for $130.00. The coins are Australian legal tender and can be purchased from the Mint’s website or Contact Centre (1300 652 020).
Royal Australian Mint: Heather McGirr, Heather.McGirr@ramint.gov.au, 0418 164 769
The eight coin designs:
Sopwith Wallaby: The Sopwith Wallaby was the first aircraft to leave London, but pilot George Matthews and his mechanic Tom Kay made the mistake of setting course for Germany, becoming hopelessly snowbound for weeks. In Yugoslavia they were arrested as spies and held for four days on a pig farm. After their captors drank themselves into a stupor, the aviators made their escape and took off with bullets whizzing past their ears. They crash-landed in a sandstorm and survived dengue fever, before engine failure forced them down in Bali and out of the race. They were just a day’s flight from Darwin.
Vickers Vimy: Captain Ross Smith was always going to be the man to beat. One of Australia’s most experienced airmen of the First World War, he enlisted his brother Keith as navigator and air mechanics, Wally Shiers and Jim Bennett. The weather report at Hounslow on 12 November 1919 said “totally unfit for flying”. Ross Smith took off anyway – determined to catch Frenchman Etienne Poulet. The Vickers Vimy flew through snowstorms, downpours and howling gales, and was saved in Surabaya by villagers who made a runway from the woven bamboo walls of their homes. The Vimy crew landed in Darwin on 10 December 1919, claiming the £10,000 prize.
Alliance P.2: Former Queensland boxing champion Roger ‘Dodger’ Douglas survived Gallipoli and was awarded a Military Cross before entering the Air Race with his navigator Leslie Ross. Their Alliance aircraft, nicknamed The Endeavour, was considered a strong contender with its powerful 450hp Napier engine, fully enclosed cabin and a range of 3,000 miles. Yet only minutes after take-off from Hounslow, the Alliance spiralled into an apple orchard, killing both men. Douglas’s distraught fiancée Mabel Woolley told an inquest the aircraft had been damaged during trials, but the accident was deemed to be caused by pilot error.
Blackburn Kangaroo: Pilot Val Rendle must have felt cursed when oil began spurting from the port engine of his Blackburn Kangaroo bomber soon after taking off from Crete. It was another frustration in a flight so plagued with delays and mysterious equipment failures that the crew began to suspect sabotage. The forced landing at Crete brought their race to an end, with the aircraft coming to rest beside a lunatic asylum, and one of the engines damaged beyond repair. Rendle’s navigator, official First World War photographer Hubert Wilkins, went on to become one of Australia’s greatest polar explorers.
Martinsyde A1: It’s a mystery why decorated fighter pilot Cedric Howell and navigator George Fraser ditched into dark, stormy seas off the Greek island of Corfu. Perhaps they’d lost their way and the fuel tanks of their Martinsyde A1 biplane had run dry. Locals heard their cries for help, but the waves were too rough to send out a search party. Howell’s body later washed ashore, but Fraser's was never recovered. In a sad twist, Howell had been racing to catch the passenger vessel Orsova, which was carrying his new bride Cicely. No-one had the heart to inform her of the event until the ship docked in Australia.
Airco DH9: Ray Parer and John McIntosh didn’t leave Hounslow until 8 January 1920, nearly a month after Ross Smith landed victoriously in Darwin. But nothing was going to stop ‘Battling’ Parer in his Airco DH.9 – not a downdraught that nearly sucked the aircraft into Mt Vesuvius, not two mid-air engine fires, not countless crashes, broken undercarriages and propellers, nor a run-in with desert tribesmen. In Calcutta they were so broke they painted the plane with advertising slogans, and dropped leaflets promoting everything from tea to whisky. The DH.9 made it home in seven months, becoming the first single-engine aircraft flown from England to Australia.
Caudron G.4: Charismatic Frenchman Etienne Poulet wasn’t eligible to win the £10,000 prize, but he was very capable of stealing the glory. He left Paris in mid-October 1919 to honour his hero, First World War airman Jules Védrines, who’d died while preparing for a round-the-world flight. In a tiny Caudron G.4 biplane with twin 80hp engines, Poulet and his mechanic Jean Benoist made it all the way to Burma before Ross Smith’s Vickers Vimy finally overtook them. Smith and Poulet made a pact to fly on together over uncharted territory to Bangkok, but a series of engine woes ended the Caudron’s race in Burma.
The Great Air Race: Heroic endeavour or foolhardy stunt? Melbourne newspaper, The Age denounced the Great Air Race as a “circus flight”, while the New York Times said young airmen would be “throwing dice with death”. As it turned out, the scepticism was warranted, with two Australian crews losing their lives. But on 10 December 1919, when the Vickers Vimy touched down in Darwin, a different note was sounded. In Ross Smith’s home town of Adelaide, The Advertiser said the crew had achieved “the most daring feat in the history of aviation”, while King George V declared “Your success will bring Australia nearer to the Mother Country.”