Inside the Collection

Propeller from Sir Charles Kingsford Smith’s Southern Cross

Photograph of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith standing in the front of the 'Southern Cross'
Sir Charles Kingsford Smith standing in the front of the ‘Southern Cross’. Powerhouse Museum collection, P2753, gift of Austin Byrne, 1965.

I must have walked past the mounted row of wooden propellers in our large transport store dozens and dozens of times without registering what I was seeing. They are all mostly of beautiful polished timber but it’s the broken one that’s should have caught my eye. It’s from Sir Charles Kingsford Smith’s famous Fokker Tri-motor, ‘Southern Cross’. But what’s its story?

I had a visit from curator, Jennifer Wilson, from the National Museum of Australia in Canberra who’s doing aviation research. The National Museum has a piece of timber purporting to be from the same propeller and she wanted to have a look at ours to make sure that it was. It transpires that our propeller played an instrumental part in one of Australia’s most daring, heart-stopping and breathtaking acts of heroism in aviation history.


Photograph of group of propellers
Group of propellers at the Museum’s store showing the damaged propeller from the ‘Southern Cross’. Powerhouse Museum collection, B2230, gift of G.P. Brown, 1976. Photo by Jennifer Wilson.

Sir Charles Kingsford Smith (Smithy) has been a household name in Australia for setting aviation records. He was seen as a daredevil pilot and the public adored him. In 1935 he took off from Sydney in the Southern Cross, which he nicked named ‘The Old Bus’, to fly a special airmail flight carrying 30,000 letters in 21 mail bags to New Zealand celebrating the King’s jubilee. (The first airmail had been carried to New Zealand only the year before by fellow Australian aviator, Charles Ulm). On board with Smithy was Captain P.G. (Bill) Taylor as navigator and John Stannage, the radio operator. The Old Bus carried a radio, not terribly common in those days, and Smithy had planned to speak to his fans on radio station 2CH while flying over the Tasman Sea. But things didn’t go to plan…’The Sydney Morning Herald’ of 16 May 1935 tells us…

The first intimation that anything was amiss was a noise like a pistol shot. A portion of the metal on the exhaust manifold of the centre engine had become detached and the speed of the ‘plane hurled it towards the starboard propeller. It struck one of the blades, splintering the blade and breaking off a portion of the end.

This put the starboard engine out of use so Smithy decided it was too risky to continue on to New Zealand with over 1400 km to go. However…

the extra strain on the other two engines caused them to labour, and when the oil of the port engine showed indications of giving trouble Captain Taylor decided to take the great risk of draining the sump of the dead starboard engine. To reach it he had to climb out of the small window of the cockpit against a wind so strong that he risked being blown into the sea. He climbed perilously along a narrow strut leading to the starboard engine. Clinging to the strut with one hand, he removed one of the plates of the engine cowling, and then leaned into the engine until he was able to unscrew the cap of the oil drain pipe.

Before leaving the cockpit he broke the top off a thermos flask in which coffee was carried for the trip. With the thermos flask in his pocket of his flying coat and a suitcase clamped under his arm, he was able to drain the oil from the sump first into the thermos flask and then into the suit case. Then climbing back along the strut he manoeuvred his way through the cramped cabin by scrambling over the shoulders of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, who was at the controls. It was necessary to stop the port engine while he climbed along the strut to replenish its oil supply and in this way the ‘plane lost both altitude and speed.

Each time the ‘plane was within 50 feet of the sea Captain Taylor climbed back into the cockpit and Sir Charles Kingsford Smith gave the port engine full throttle to regain speed and height again. It was necessary for Captain Taylor to repeat these perilous climbs from the starboard engine to the port engine several times, as the bottom of the suitcase would carry only a small quantity of oil…meanwhile the huge monoplane was labouring on, gradually shortening the distance between it and Sydney. Stannage sent wireless messages every half-hour, giving news of their progress. Many times it seemed that the Southern Cross would plunge into the sea. All ships along the coast and on the Tasman Sea, as well as the wireless stations, picked up the dramatic messages.

The staffs at the Amalgamated Wireless listening centre at La Perouse and at the central radio office in York-street were doubled. While one operator concentrated on listening for messages from the ‘plane another operator kept in touch with all ships at sea, informing them of the ‘plane’s peril.

After Stannage had thrown everything out of the plane including cargo, petrol, food hampers, boots and spare clothing, gradually 14 of the 21 bags of the precious mail cargo was jettisoned. This wasn’t any old air mail delivery, thousands of philatelic enthusiasts had posted off special letters from all over Australia to be taken on the flight. Finally at…

‘4 p.m. the hundreds of anxious watchers at the Mascot aerodrome…were able to discern black specks in the haze over the sea across Botany Bay. At 4.10 p.m. the Southern Cross, escorted by seven ‘planes, descended slowly over the aerodrome and made a perfect landing on the runway… Sir Charles Kingsford Smith taxied the ‘plane straight into the hangar, where the crowd had assembled. Deafening cheers rose from the ground with shouts of ‘good old Smithy.’


Photograph of Jubilee air mail flight
One of the surviving letters from the Jubilee air mail flight which was not thrown out of the ‘Southern Cross’, signed by P.G. Taylor. Powerhouse Museum collection, 85/112-10, gift of Mr. & Mrs. E.A. & V.I. Crome, 1985.

To prevent souvenir hunters from getting at the famous splintered propeller, Smithy’s mechanic, Harold Affleck, removed it from the Southern Cross but not before a sliver had been broken from it and thrown to 16-year-old Victor Piper, part of the welcoming crowd. This fragment eventually went into the National Museum’s collection and achieved notoriety being taken into orbit around earth in 2001 by the Australian-born astronaut, Andy Thomas.

What happened to the Southern Cross? It was seen as so important to the nation it was purchased from Smithy only 2 months after the flight in July 1935 by the Federal Government. It’s on display in a special hangar at Brisbane airport.

What happened to the oily suitcase? It’s in the collection of the National Library of Australia in Canberra.

What happened to Captain Taylor? For his amazing act of bravery, he was awarded the Empire Gallantry Medal. He went on to make the pioneering flight across the South Pacific from Australia to Chile in 1951 in the Catalina flying boat, Frigate Bird II. That’s the huge aircraft suspended in Transport exhibition of the Museum.

What happened to Smithy? Well, after the flight he was exhausted. The Herald reported that he vowed his long distance flights were behind him but only months later in an attempt to break the England to Australia speed record in a single-engine Lockheed Altair, ‘Lady Southern Cross’, he perished together with his engineer, Tommy Pethybridge. Their bodies were never found but a part of the plane’s undercarriage, now in the Museum’s collection, was discovered in 1937 washed up on a beach of the tiny island of Aye, off the coast of Burma.

And what happened to the damaged propeller from the Southern Cross? It was presented to the Director of Posts, Harold P. Brown, in gratitude for giving permission by radio for Smithy to dump the special Jubilee air mail. The propeller was then given to the Museum by Brown’s son, and it was transported in 1972 from Melbourne to Sydney by Smithy’s old mechanic, Harold Affleck in his car with the back seat removed as he didn’t trust its journey by air!

9 responses to “Propeller from Sir Charles Kingsford Smith’s Southern Cross

  • Like your story on the prop what providence . Like you we also have a prop of the original Southern Cross No 10 made at Cockatoo dock With the papers from the NAA . We also have a replica of Southern Cross made for the series A Thousand Skies which although in disrepair we plan to restore and allow the Public to get up close and personal with to appreciate what an amazing aviator Kingsford-Smith and how special these pioneers were to bring this country into reach by their bravery.

  • I have just finished reading Peter Fitzsimon’s excellent book on Kingsford Smith I thought I knew quite a bit about him but I’d hardly scratched the surface. Having been a pilot myself I cannot comprehend what it would be like to fly on instruments only for periods of 20 hours plus I will always be in awe of such a man,It’s is if he was born with wings a fact that even the birds would agree with I’m sure

  • Your story on Smithy and P.G. (Bill) Taylor is correct until the last paragraph. P.G. Taylor did make the first crossing of the South Pacific to Chile but it was in a Catalina flying boat “Frigate Bird”. Smithy and Tommy Pethybridge were trying to set a new England to Australia record in “Lady Southern Cross” when the aircraft crashed off the coast of Burma (Myanmar) and their bodies were never found.

    • Thanks John for picking this up. For technical reasons I cannot explain, there was a large chunk of text missing at the end of the article (which was also why it ended in the middle of a sentence!). We have tracked down the issue and it now reads correctly, but thanks again for bringing this to our attention.
      Sarah Reeves, MAAS.

  • the Southern Cross VH-USU was Renovated by the Australian Air Force workshops , for the movie “SMITHY” and broken pieces from th thermos were found in the oil tank of the O/Heating engine ,from that thermos that P.G.Taylor used back in 1935. When I was about 14 yr old , the “OLD BUS” was stored in a hanger used by Butler Air Transport (Top hanger) Scince demolishedfor a bigger runway)with that big wing taken off I remember clambouring over the huge aluminium long range tank in the fuselage fitted for the Pacific flight and “pretending I was flying it , I saw the movie “SMITHY” and have the book Smithy written by John Stannage, and remember being LIVID at the STUPIDITY of the then State Govt NSW in allowing the southern cross to be taken to Qld , Archerfield where QLD (Obviously APPRECIATED IT , putting into a glass hanger, and preserving it, instead of having a PRIDE of PLACE at KINGSFORD SMITH AIRPORT !! Sydney ( where Smithy started ANA, I,m now 84 yrs old and it STILL RANKLES ME !! its rightfull home was Mascot Sydney SURELY !! at least we have Frigate Bird II I commenced an apprenticeship at Butler Air Transport in 1951, by then the “OLD BUS was GONE !!

  • I have a portion of propeller blade which my wife’s family insist is from the Southern Cross.
    Is there any way of verifying this?

    • Hi David,
      Thanks for getting in touch. This would be amazing if true! Unfortunately we are unable to assist with the verification of items that are privately held but best of luck if you decide to do further research into the propeller’s provenance.
      Sarah Reeves, MAAS

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.