From Lympne to the Bottom of the Andaman Sea
Sir Charles Kingsford Smith
Born: Brisbane, Australia 9/2/1897 – Died off Burma 8/11/1935
Charles Kingsford Smith, or Smithy as this craggy faced, quick witted Australian was affectionally known, had risen to prominence as a skilled long distance aviator from the late 1920’s until his untimely death in 1935. Smithy first came to Lympne as his chosen springboard for a flight to Australia on the 4th October 1933. His route from Lympne was Brindisi, Baghdad, Gwadar, Karachi, Jhodpur, Akyab, Alur Setar, Surabaya and Wyndham, Australia arriving on 11th October. His chosen aircraft was a Percival Gull 4 Miss Southern Cross.
On 6th November 1935, Smithy set out with his co-pilot Tommy Pethybridge, to break the 71 hour record set by Charles Scott and Tom Campbell Black the previous year. It was planned to be his last record bid as he was ill. The Lockheed Altair Lady Southern Cross, paused to refuel only at Athens and Baghdad, before flying on to India. At dusk on November 7th they left Allahabad to fly non stop to Singapore. They were seen flying over Calcutta, Akyab and Rangoon, the latter at 1.30am.
Sometime around 2.50am, another Australian pilot, Jimmy Melrose heading south from Rangoon in a much slower Percival Gull, saw the Altair overtake him over the Andaman Sea. On arrival in Singapore, Melrose was surprised to find that the Lady Southern Cross had not arrived ahead of him. A huge search in the Rangoon – Singapore route area by squadrons of the RAF, found no trace. In May 1937, a starboard undercarriage leg, with inflated tyre, was picked up by Burmese fishermen on the rocky shore of Aye Island, off the south coast of Burma, about 140 miles south east of Rangoon.
The theory grew that Smithy had flown into the top of the 460 foot jungle covered island, and his aircraft had then plunged into the sea. The wheel, had probably broken off and floated ashore. However, if Melrose had genuinely seen the Altair overtake him, they were the only two aircraft in Burma airspace that night. This being so, Smithy, would have crashed at least 100 miles south of Aye. In more recent years Smithy’s biographer, Ian Mackersey concluded that the crash site was indeed further south into the Andaman Sea.
In 1998, Mackersey went to Burma, obtaining a rare special permit from the military government to visit the prohibited southern coast. There, with an interpreter, and continually escorted by two special branch agents, he travelled to remote fishing villages on the Andaman Sea. Trying to confirm persistent reports, that fishermen had seen Smithy’s Altair descend into the sea on that fateful night, his researches paid off. He traced an elderly newspaperman, who clearly recalled the reports of a much discussed ‘big light’ that had fallen from the sky into the ocean in the vicinity of Tavoy, now known as Dawei.
So like Bill Lancaster two years before him, Smithy became another casualty after attempting an aviation record flight from Lympne.
(copyright John Simpson)