Charles Ulm: A flying life

Darragh Christie, 3 June 2021 · #

Ulm, Charles Thomas Philippe (1898–1934) by John McCarthy

Charles Ulm in 1934, in front of his Avro X VH-UXX “Faith in Australia”. Source: SLNSW

Charles Thomas Philippe Ulm (1898-1934), aviator, was born on 18 October 1898 at Middle Park, Melbourne, third son of Emile Gustave Ulm, a Parisian-born artist, and his Victorian wife Ada Emma, née Greenland. Charles was educated at state schools in Melbourne and Sydney (after his family moved to Mosman) and began work as a clerk in a stockbroking office.

Charles Ulm with his mother and father, 1914 Source: Trove PIC/8392/1 LOC Album 1033/1

Emulating his grandfather and uncle who had fought in the Franco-Prussian War, as ‘Charles Jackson’ he enlisted in the 1st Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, on 16 September 1914: his height of almost six feet (183 cm) gave credence to his stated age of 20.

National Archives Record NAA: B2455, ULM CHARLES THOMAS PHILLIPPE “Charles Jackson”

He embarked for Egypt in December and was among the first troops to land at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. Wounded in action that month, he was returned to Australia and, as a minor, discharged from the A.I.F. at his parents’ request.

Charles Ulm in military uniform, seated on a camel near the Great Sphinx, Cairo, Egypt, 1915 Source: NLA nla.pic-vn3930594

n January 1917 he re-enlisted under his own name; while serving with the 45th Infantry Battalion on the Western Front, in July 1918 he was badly wounded and evacuated to Britain before being demobilized in March 1919.

Members of the 45th Battalion wearing gas masks, at “Garter Point” near Zonnebeke, Belgium 27 September 1917

Excerpt of National Archives record showing injuries to Charles’ body

Imbued with an entrepreneurial spirit and a vision of successful commercial airlines, Ulm had returned to Sydney with £3000 (from a £50 English investment) and backed several short-lived aircraft companies. On 20 November 1919 at St John’s Anglican Church, Darlinghurst, he married Isabel Amy Winter. Reckless and restless, Ulm probably went to Western Australia. Having divorced his wife in 1927 and been granted custody of their son, he married Mary Josephine Callaghan on 29 June at North Sydney Congregational Church.

Backed by Sun Newspapers Ltd, in 1927 Ulm and (Sir) Charles Kingsford Smith circumnavigated Australia in a Bristol Tourer in 10 days and 5 hours, more than halving the record. They acquired sufficient funds to plan the first trans-Pacific flight from the United States of America to Australia.

Charles Kingsford Smith, Charles Ulm and Bob Hitchcock round Australia flight with a Bristol Tourer biplane G-AUDJ, 1927 Source: NLA Trove PIC/3394/186 LOC ALBUM 1090/3

In a borrowed, three-engined Fokker (later named the Southern Cross) they left Oakland, California, with two American crewmen on 31 May 1928; Ulm acted as co-commander and co-pilot. Facing unknown hazards after Hawaii, they encountered severe tropical storms: they tried to fly above the clouds but were forced to descend to only two hundred feet (61 m) to avoid running out of fuel before landing at Suva on 5 June. They reached Brisbane on 9 June, after 83 hours and 19 minutes of flying time.

Top: Southern Sun flying over Sydney Harbour Bridge, New South Wales, 1931 / E.W. Searle, 1931. Source Trove, NLA PIC Album 1197/1 #PIC/15675/102 Author note This composite photo has mistakenly been identified as Southern Cross in 1928, but you get the idea. Below: Howthe bridge actually looked on June 10, 1928.

The journey made Ulm and Kingsford Smith popular heroes: both were awarded the Air Force Cross and given honorary commissions in the Royal Australian Air Force; Southern Cross became their property.

In extreme weather conditions on 10 September they made the first trans-Tasman flight, from Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand, in fourteen hours. Ulm, at last, received his pilot’s licence. He also enjoyed sailing and belonged to the Royal Air Force Club, London, the (Royal) Aero Club of New South Wales and the Legacy Club of Sydney; he was, as well, a captain in the Ligue Internationale des Aviateurs.

Faith in Australia, bogged in Ireland. Source:“SLNSW”: Charles T.P. Ulm collection of historical aviation photographs, ca. 1920-1934

Ulm after rescue

Kingsford Smith and Ulm formed Australian National Airways Ltd in December 1928 to operate unsubsidized passenger, mail and freight services. Deciding in March 1929 to fly to London to buy aircraft, they were lost for thirteen days after Southern Cross was forced to land near the desolate north-west Australian coast.

During the massive search, Keith Anderson, a former colleague, died. Although Ulm had previously made suggestive remarks, the rumour that he had arranged the incident to obtain publicity was not substantiated by the Air Inquiry Committee.

Flying over the crashed Kookaburra, 1929. Source: State Library of Western Australia Anderson and Hitchcocks’ bodies were found at and near the site found in the Tanami desert.

He flew with Kingsford Smith to London when the flight was resumed on 25 June. Henceforth Ulm devoted himself to managing A.N.A. Hit by the Depression and aircraft losses, the company went into liquidation in February 1933; Ulm bought one of the remaining aeroplanes and renamed it Faith in Australia.

In 1933 he flew this aircraft to England with (Sir) Gordon Taylor as navigator, but, after damaging the aeroplane in Ireland, had to cancel the projected around-the-world flight. Returning to Australia, they established a new record of 6 days, 17 hours and 56 minutes.

Source SLNSW Charles T.P. Ulm collection of historical aviation photographs, ca. 1920-1934

In April 1934 Ulm flew the first official mail from Australia to New Zealand; in Faith in Australia he completed the return trans-Tasman flight in 28 hours and 44 minutes flying time; he flew the Tasman eight times in all.

The Fokker tri-motor monoplane, Southern Cross (VH-USU) at Mt. Egmont, New Zealand, ca. 1933 [picture] / Auckland Weekly News Trove PIC 3394/137 LOC ALBUM 1090/2

In August he carried the first official airmail from Australia to New Guinea and back. Hoping to establish a trans-Pacific service between Australia, Canada and the United States, in September he formed Great Pacific Airways Ltd and bought an Airspeed Envoy, Stella Australis, with long-range (3800 miles, 6115 km) fuel tanks.

Stella Australis, an Airspeed Envoy monoplane, VH-UXY, prior to attempted trans-Pacific flight, Oakland Aerodrome, California, United States, December 1934 Source: Trove PIC/8392/419 LOC Drawer PIC/8392

On 3 December 1934, with a crew of two, Ulm flew from Oakland for Hawaii. Stella Australis failed to arrive. Despite an extensive sea search, no trace of it was ever found. Ulm’s wife and the son of his first marriage survived him; his estate was sworn for probate at £742.

With dark brown, curly hair and an olive complexion that indicated his French ancestry, Ulm was regarded with considerable affection by those who worked with him.

Source SLNSW Charles T.P. Ulm collection of historical aviation photographs, ca. 1920-1934

A practical visionary with a keen sense of humour, he displayed drive, energy, extraordinary precision in thought and courage in adversity. It was his responsibility to arrange the financial and administrative aspects of his flights with Kingsford Smith and his organization was impeccable.


This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990. Pictures sourced to match the text.

Follow the Charles Ulm Story:

This photograph shows the famous Australian aviator, Charles Ulm, in the cockpit of his aircraft, ‘Stella Australis’, a twin-engine Airspeed AS.6J Envoy monoplane. It was taken in December 1934 by an unknown photographer, possibly only days or hours before Ulm’s untimely and tragic disappearance. Source: MAAS Author query: Cockpit of Airspeed AS.6J Envoy?


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