100 years since Sir Ross Smith landed his Vimy in Narromine

Thursday will mark 100 years since Narromine made national news when the world's most famous aeroplane landed at Frank Mack's lucerne field.

On February 13, 1920 almost 3000 spectators gathered on Frank Mack's field to watch the landing of Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith and their two mechanics sergeants Wally Shiers and Jim Bennett, in a Vickers Vimy twin-engined bomber.

It was a world first during the Great Air Race from England to Australia, and the field in Narromine was selected as a refuelling stop on the Darwin to Melbourne air route.

Only two aircraft had previously landed at Narromine.

On September 22, 1919 an Avro 504K of the Australian Flying Corps had landed on the polo ground, where Rockwall Tourist Park is now.

Crewed by Captain Gordon 'Skipper' Wilson and Sergeant Percy McNamara, it was on a 'peace loan' tour selling government bonds.

Here he comes; as this shout was heard eager eyes strained for a glimpse, and at about 10.20 am a black speck could be observed in the direction of Trangie. Gradually drawing nearer and nearer and becoming larger and larger, the machine, flying at an altitude of about 1000 feet, came on gracefully as a bird, and after circling over the aerodrome effected a neat and gentle landing at 10.30am.

Narromine News, 1920

Then later in 1919 on November 18, during the first ever flight across Australia, Captain Henry Wrigley and Sergeant Arthur Murphy landed a BE.2e biplane on Mack's field.

Curator at the Narromine Aviation Museum Michael Nelmes said the Sir Ross Smith and the Vickers Vimy was due to land in Narromine at Christmas, however a blown engine near Charleville, Queensland, delayed the flight across Australia by a month and a half.

Mr Nelmes said on the morning of February 13 hundreds of motor cars and horse-drawn carriages lined the fences of the field in Narromine.

Hoping to prevent the crowd from getting onto the landing field before the arrival, the property gate was manned by mounted police and soldiers of the Australian Light Horse.

Mr Nelmes said the landing went smoothly, apart from a puncture to one of the Vimy's four tyres.

He said hundreds jumped the fence or drove through the gate to get to the aircraft, cheering as it came to a halt.

The crew saluted and climbed out, with a fifth man Captain Frank Hurley, the famous Antarctic adventurer and photographer who had joined the crew at Charleville to take aerial photographs and movie film of the final legs of the journey.

From the makeshift platform, Narromine's then mayor William Bishop officially welcomed the aviators and a series of speeches began.

Ross Smith's reply gave credit to his two skilled mechanics who, against all odds, had kept their aircraft running throughout the journey.

Onlookers watched as the crew poured tins of benzine fuel into the Vimy's tanks, 900 litres in all. Autographs were signed and light refreshments eaten, before the five airmen were taken to a banquet lunch at the Court House Hotel.

A town dance was held that night, and it was a party to remember.

100 YEARS: The arrival of Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smiths Vickers Vimy aircraft in Narromine 1920. Photo: NARROMINE AERO CLUB

100 YEARS: The arrival of Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smiths Vickers Vimy aircraft in Narromine 1920. Photo: NARROMINE AERO CLUB

Ross Smith made brief reference to it in his account of the journey for Life magazine later in the year saying, "the enthusiasm at Narromine extended to the revision of a Christmas banquet, although we were six weeks overdue."

The next morning at 6.55am the crew took off and after circling Narromine Sir Ross followed the rail line to Dubbo, where the aircraft could still be seen as a dark speck fifteen minutes later before it descended low over the town.

The crew stayed in Sydney for several days before continuing south to Melbourne and finally, they flew to the Smith brothers' hometown of Adelaide, where the venerable Vimy is still displayed at Adelaide Airport.

According to Mr Nelmes the Great Air Race put Narromine on the London to Melbourne air route, and sparked an interest in aviation among the townsfolk which has been kept alive for a century.

It led to the formation of the Aero club in 1929, the establishment of a major RAAF training base in World War II, and the aerodrome's designation as the alternative to Sydney International Airport after the war.

For the 50th anniversary of the landing on February 13, 1970, a rock cairn was dedicated on the golf links at the original landing site.

Mr Nelmes said the legacy of the Vimy's remarkable flight, in which Narromine played a part, is all around us.

"The globe is crossed daily by passenger jets that would have amazed that gallant crew a century ago," he said.

People can see displays about the Great Air Race at the Narromine Aviation Museum.