25 September 2023

King of the Air: The Turbulent Life of Charles Kingsford Smith

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Reviewed by Rama Gaind.

By Ann Blainey, Black Inc., $49.99.

The period between the two wars is known as the ‘golden age of aviation’ is a time when a flight experience became a reality. This is an enlightening portrait of a clever and perturbed daredevil of the skies.

An Australian, Charles Kingsford Smith, was one of the great heroes of this period. In three years, he broke records with his astounding and daring voyages: the first trans-Pacific flight from America to Australia, the first flight across the Tasman, the first non-stop crossing of the Australian mainland and the first circumnavigation of the equator.

It’s an illuminating portrait of a brilliant and troubled figure, Kingsford Smith was the most commanding flyer of this age of aviation. He did it all with such courage, modesty and charm that Australia and the world fell in love with him. A tickertape parade was held in his honour on New York’s Fifth Avenue. At home, he became a national hero, ‘Our Smithy’.

Yet his achievements belied a traumatic past. He had witnessed the horror of World War I – first as a soldier at Gallipoli, later as a combat pilot with the Royal Flying Corps – and, like so many of his generation, he bore physical and emotional scars. The public saw the daring hero; only those close to him knew the anxious, troubled individual who pushed himself to the edge of health and sanity.

He pushed limits of human fortitude and enterprise and his adventures ultimately ended in tragedy. In November 1935, Kingsford Smith’s plane crashed and he was lost at sea near Burma, his body never to be recovered.

Blainey, who also wrote the 2009 National Biography Award-winning life story of celebrated soprano Dame Nellie Melba, is candid. It was a sense of ‘kinship’ that resulted in her ‘enthusiasm’ that put a spotlight on ‘Smithy’.

“Perhaps that is why my book tries to focus on the inner as well as the outer man. Having been world-famous for so long, his career highlights are widely known, but his hopes and doubts, his impetuosity and patience, his courage and fears, are less well understood. And yet his states of mind play crucial roles in his dazzling success and his final disaster.”

This book also examines his relationship with fame, for Smithy was revered as the greatest aviator of his generation, and is today counted as one of the most famous Australians of all time. “Fame is a tricky companion. While Smithy rejoiced in his fame, he could never manage to master it.”

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