Charles Ulm: flights with Kingsford Smith and P.G. Taylor

Darragh Christie, 13 August 2021 · #

Gunn’s Slides (Firm) The “Southern Cross”, Charles Kingsford Smith’s aircraft. Royal Historical Society of Victoria Images collection

Pioneering Australian aviators Charles Ulm and Charles Kingsford Smith completed the first flight across the Pacific Ocean. Ulm set several of his own flight records, before disappearing while flying from San Francisco to Hawaii in 1934.

Flights with Kingsford Smith


Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm alighting from cockpits of Bristol Tourer biplane G-AUDK, June 1927 / Sun Feature Bureau PIC/8392/339 LOC Album 1033/5

Ulm returned to Australia after the First World War with an interest in commercial aviation. He supported several short-lived aviation companies, including Interstate Flying Services with Keith Anderson and Charles Kingsford Smith.

The men aimed to fly across the Pacific Ocean. Ulm and Kingsford Smith decided to fly around Australia to gain publicity and support for their venture.

In June 1927 Ulm and Kingsford Smith completed the journey in 10 days, five hours, and 30 minutes; smashing the 1924 record of 22 days, set by Captain EJ Jones and Colonel H Brinsmead.

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 August 1927 Ulm, Kingsford Smith, and Anderson traveled to California, seeking an aircraft and further sponsorship for their transpacific flight. The team settled on a Fokker aircraft after Australian explorer Sir George Hubert Wilkins offered one of a pair of aircraft he had purchased, but found unsuitable, for his Arctic expeditions.

Wilkins’ Detroiter after it crashed in Alaska. It was later sold to Charles Kingsford Smith and renamed “Southern Cross”. Source:

Southern Cross

The Boeing Aircraft Factory assisted with alterations to the Fokker, including the installation of three Wright Whirlwind engines and extra fuel tanks. The plane was renamed Southern Cross. Anderson went to Hawaii to find landing grounds for the first stop of the journey and Ulm sought the best radio and navigational equipment.

As the workload increased, the departure date was delayed and costs escalated. A grant from the New South Wales government and backing from businessman Sidney Myer and the Vacuum Oil Company helped but by March 1928, the men’s finances were exhausted and they were faced with selling the Southern Cross and abandoning their plans.

The Southern Cross, Fokker monoplane VH-USU with crowd of onlookers, Los Angeles, California, United States, 23 May 1928 [picture] / H.B. Miller Trove PIC/8392/375a LOC Album 1033/5

A chance meeting with Californian oil magnate Captain Allan Hancock resulted in Hancock buying the Southern Cross and covering the flight’s outstanding expenses.

Across the Pacific Ocean

On 31 May 1928, Southern Cross took off from Oaklands, California, with Kingsford Smith as pilot and Ulm co-pilot. They were accompanied by American crew members Harry Lyon and James Warner, skilled in the operation of the navigational and radio equipment that was essential to the success of the flight.

Harry Lyon, James Warner, Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm in front of the Southern Cross, Fokker monoplane VH-USU with three friends, before take-off for Oakland from Los Angeles, California, United States, 23 May 1928 [picture] / H.B. Miller Trove PIC/8392/215a-b LOC Album 1033/3

After flying blind through huge banks of cloud, Southern Cross and crew arrived at Wheeler Field, near Honolulu, exhausted and temporarily deafened from the noise of the engines. They spent a day checking the aircraft and revising navigation plans, before leaving early on 3 June for the next leg of their journey, from Hawaii to Fiji.

The Southern Cross, a Fokker F.VII/3m monoplane, VH-USU being greeted by Fijians, Albert Park, Suva, 5 June, 1928 [picture] / Associated Newspapers Trove PIC/8392/97 LOC Album 1033/2

During the 5042-kilometre (3133 mile) flight from Oahu to Suva, the aviators faced radio problems, storms, a suspected fuel leak, and constant concern about fuel consumption. When they landed at Albert Park in Suva on 5 June 1928 they had completed what was the then longest flight across water.

Albert Park was unsuitable for taking off with the Southern Cross fully loaded, so the aviators sent Warner and Lyon, their supplies and fuel separately by ship to nearby Naselai Beach, where they started the final leg of their journey.

(1928). Charles Ulm under the wing of the Southern Cross, Fokker monoplane VH-USU checking sextant, watched by Fijian women and child, Naselai Beach, Fiji, 8 June 1928. Trove PIC/8392/372 LOC Album 1033/5

The final leg of the journey took Ulm and Kingsford Smith through some of their most treacherous conditions, with constant storms hammering the aircraft.

The Southern Cross and crew arrived at Eagle Farm, Brisbane on 9 June 1928, having completed the 11,585-kilometre crossing in 83 hours, 38 minutes of flying time.

Charles Ulm climbing out of the cockpit of Fokker F.VIIb/3m, VH-USU, Southern Cross, 1928 [picture] Trove PIC/3394/1193 LOC Album 1090/14

Ulm and Kingsford Smith were instant celebrities. They were entertained and congratulated by political, community, and business leaders at many events held in their honour.

Thousands of fans greeted them in Brisbane and the following day at Mascot in Sydney, before they flew to Melbourne, and then on to Canberra.

At Mascot Airport, Sydney 1928. Crowd greet the returning airmen

On 15 June 1928 Kingsford Smith, Ulm, Lyon, and Warner were entertained at Parliament House in Canberra. Prime Minister Stanley Bruce presented them with a £5000 cheque from the people of Australia.

The pilots were awarded honorary commissions in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). Kingsford Smith was appointed honorary squadron-leader, Ulm flight-lieutenant, and both were awarded the Air Force Cross.

1928: Across the Tasman sea

Ulm and Kingsford Smith were quick to plan further flights. In August 1928 they made the first non-stop flight across Australia, from Melbourne to Perth, with new crew members, wireless operator Harold Litchfield and navigator Tom H McWilliams.

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

The same crew then began planning for a flight from Australia to New Zealand for the first successful crossing of the Tasman Sea. Excitement surrounding their achievements was tarnished somewhat when former partner Keith Anderson claimed a share of the Southern Cross and gifts received by Ulm and Kingsford Smith, in unsuccessful legal action.

The Southern Cross was overhauled at Richmond aerodrome in Melbourne. Wright Aeronautical Corporation engineer Cecil ‘Doc’ Maidment, who had serviced the Southern Cross engines prior to the transpacific flight, arrived from America to assist.

Crowd watching the Southern Cross, Fokker monoplane F.VII/3m, VH-USU coming in to land at Christchurch, New Zealand, 11 September 1928 [picture] / Weekly Press Trove PIC/8392/160 LOC Album 1033/2

The trans-Tasman flight was delayed by bad weather. Amid public criticism about the delays, Kingsford Smith described the reasons for their caution:

The bad weather and the fierce gales which assail [the Tasman Sea] are notorious; it is a comparatively deserted stretch of ocean where one can expect no help, and the loss of two gallant lives, namely, Hood and Moncrieff, who had previously met their death in a brave attempt to span the sea, confirmed me in my resolve to take no risks.

This photograph captures the jubilation as crowds gathered around the recently landed plane in celebration [At Wellington] Source: Archives NZ on flickr

At sunset, on 10 September 1928, the Southern Cross and crew departed Richmond. They encountered difficult weather conditions and the aircraft was struck by lightning, but the crew completed the first trans-Tasman flight, landing at Wigram aerodrome in Christchurch, New Zealand early on 11 September.

Continued bad weather hampered plans for further flights in New Zealand. Ulm took the opportunity to complete a series of solo flights and gain his pilot’s licence, a feat that had been hampered by treatment for wounds sustained during the war.

Air Force honours

Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm standing next to their plane after their arrival in England, 1929. Source Trove

On 3 June 1929 Ulm and Kingsford Smith received their Air Force crosses from Governor-General John Lawrence Baird, Lord Stonehaven, in a ceremony at Admiralty House, Sydney.

Other aviators honoured at the ceremony included Wing-Commander Lawrence Wackett, who became a leader in the Australian aviation industry, and Squadron-Leader Garnet Malley.

Charles Kingsford Smith, Charles Ulm and Garnet Malley in their RAAF dress uniforms, following the investiture ceremony at Admiralty House, Sydney, 3 June 1929, where they received Air Force Crosses from the Governor-General, Lord Stonehaven. NMA 231624

Malley was commissioned as a pilot in the Australian Flying Corps in 1917. After the war, he toured regional Australia promoting the Peace Loan, then worked at his family’s manufacturing company in Sydney.

In 1928 Malley was appointed leader of No.2 Squadron, based at Richmond aerodrome. He was commanding the unit when Southern Cross was overhauled at Richmond in 1928 and 1929. Malley also worked as a specialist flying consultant to Kingsford Smith and Ulm’s airline, Australian National Airways.

“Southern Moon’ outside ANA hangar.

Ulm and Kingsford Smith founded Australian National Airways in December 1928. They employed Ellen Rogers, from the Atlantic Union Oil Company, to work as company secretary.

Australian National Airways offered flights in eastern Australia until 1931. The company folded in 1933.

Smithy with lady friend outside ANA hangar

Flights with Bill Taylor

Faith in Australia VH UXX. Loading test flights at Richmond, New South Wales, 1933, P.G. Taylor, Charles Ulm, Scotty Allan and R.N. Boulton Source: NLA, Trove PIC/8392/245a LOC Album 1033/3

England to Australia

After Australian National Airways folded, Ulm and Kingsford Smith went separate ways.

In 1933 Ulm purchased an Australian National Airways Avro X aircraft and renamed it Faith in Australia. A new wing, Wright Whirlwind engines, and long-range fuel tanks were fitted and the fuselage was strengthened. Ulm hoped to secure an overseas airmail contract and planned to fly around the world to prove the viability of regular commercial air services.

.A.W. Edwards, Charles Ulm, and P.G. Taylor studying charts in front of Faith in Australia, Avro X monoplane VH-UXX at Heston Aerodrome, England, July 1933 [picture] / London News Agency Photos Ltd ‘Trove”: Trove PIC/8392/257 LOC Album 1033/3

With Scotty Allan and Patrick Gordon (Bill) Taylor as crew, Ulm piloted Faith in Australia from Richmond aerodrome on 21 June, hoping to reach England in record time. After making good progress to Singapore, engine troubles and a boggy aerodrome at Rangoon delayed the journey.

Irish police lifting wing of Faith in Australia, Avro X monoplane VH-UXX after it was wrecked at Portmarnock Beach, Ireland, July 1933 [picture] / Irish Times Ltd.

Faith in Australia and crew arrived at Heston aerodrome, west of London, on 10 July 1933. They immediately began preparations for the next flight, across the Atlantic Ocean.

Securing the services of wireless operator John Edwards; Ulm, Allan, and Taylor left Heston aerodrome on 24 July, stopping near Dublin at Baldonnel aerodrome and then Portmarnock Beach, where the aircraft sunk in the sand and was damaged. Wakefield Oil Company founder Lord Charles Wakefield covered the costs of repair.

Avro Ten monoplane, Faith in Australia (VH-UXX) crashed at Baldonnell Beach, Ireland Trove 3394/602 LOC ALBUM 1090/9

Continued bad weather forced Ulm to cancel the transatlantic flight. Meantime, Kingsford Smith set a new record flying from England to Australia in Miss Southern Cross in 7 days, 4 hours, and 50 minutes. Ulm, Taylor, and Allan decided to fly home and attempt to break the new record.

On 13 October 1933, the men left Feltham aerodrome, near London, and flew to Australia via Athens, Baghdad, Karachi, Calcutta, Sittwe (Akyab), Alor Setar (Alor Star), and Surabaya. Faith in Australia landed at Derby, Western Australia on 19 October, completing the journey in a new record time of 6 days, 17 hours, and 56 minutes.

Charles Ulm and others during refuelling of the Southern Cross, a Fokker F.VII/3m monoplane, G-AUSU, Littorio Airport, Italy, 1929? / Compagnia Nazionale Aeronautica Trove PIC/8392/20 LOC Album 1033/1

Last flights

Black and white photograph of the aircraft ‘Faith in Australia’ The inscription reads “The last test flight prior to your ‘hop’ from Richmond (NSW) to New Plymouth (NZ) you were a good passenger too. Charles Ulm ‘Faith in Australia’ VH-UXX. 3rd and 4th December 1933”. Ellen Rogers Collection NMA

Trans-Tasman airmail

On 3 December 1933, Ulm piloted Faith in Australia out of Richmond to Plymouth, New Zealand, carrying his wife Jo and secretary Ellen Rogers as passengers. After a successful landing on 4 December, Jo Ulm and Rogers became the first women to fly across the Tasman Sea.

Southern Cross, VH-USU, on Gerringong Beach, New South Wales, prior to flight to New Zealand, 1933 Trove

Charles Ulm stayed in New Zealand for several weeks, promoting the benefits of aviation. He carried the first official airmail from Auckland to Invercargill and conducted joy flights in numerous towns.

Portrait of Charles Ulm, G.U. Allan, Ellen Rogers, Mrs. Jo Ulm and R.N. Boulton with Faith in Australia, an Avro X monoplane, VH-UXX, New Plymouth, New Zealand, 4 December 1933 Trove PIC/8392/44 LOC Album 1033/1

In 1934 Ulm returned to Australia, carrying the first official airmail from New Zealand to Australia on 17 February. He made a return airmail delivery in April 1934, followed by the first official airmail run from Australia to Papua New Guinea and return in July 1934.

Refuelling in New Guinea, with locals looking on

Ulm’s disappearance

In September 1934 Ulm established a new company, Great Pacific Airways, to operate an air service between San Francisco and Sydney. He purchased a twin-engine Airspeed Envoy for the venture and named it Stella Australis.

Ulm traveled to England by steamship to take receipt of the new aircraft, which was shipped to Canada on completion. On 3 December 1934 Ulm and crew, George Littlejohn and J Leon Skilling left Oakland, California, on a test flight to Honolulu. They failed to reach Wheeler Field, disappearing without trace in the Pacific Ocean.

Portrait of Charles Ulm and J.L. Skilling being farewelled in front of Stella Australis, an Airspeed Envoy monoplane, VH-UXY, by American officials prior to ill-fated flight across Pacific, Oakland Aerodrome, California, United States, 3 December 1934 [picture]. Trove

An extensive search carried out by the United States naval and military commands ended after a month.


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