In 1919, four Australians became the first men to fly across the planet. They flew from London to Darwin in a rudimentary plane made of canvas, wire and wood, sitting in open cockpits with only a compass for navigation. They completed the 11,000 mile journey in 28 days.

It was an extraordinary feat of endurance and a milestone for mankind, opening the world to trans-global flight. Yet 100 years later their achievement is all but forgotten.

Astronaut Andy Thomas is intimately connected with the story. As a small boy he visited a hangar outside Adelaide Airport and saw the Vickers Vimy aircraft that made the journey. Inspired by the old aircraft and its gallant four-man crew, he would go on to pursue a career in aeronautical engineering. In 1996, he went into space on the Space Shuttle Endeavour and took with him a small metal badge – the ‘wings’ worn by the Vimy’s pilot, Sir Ross Smith.

Now 67, Andy returns to the aircraft that inspired him as a boy and finds it still largely hidden from the world in its hangar beside the airport’s long-term carpark. He embarks on a trans-continental journey to retell one of the world’s greatest aviation stories.

He looks at the history of Sir Ross Smith, the outback boy who became a decorated WWI ace and pilot for Lawrence of Arabia before entering the Great Air Race of 1919. And he explores the audacious race sponsored by the Australian Government, which saw six crews – plus a rogue French team – competing in hopelessly ill-suited machines. (Two crews died, three more crashed out.)

Aviation experts and historians help reexamine the context of the undertaking and the implications of the achievement. The narrative is supplemented by plenty of contemporary airborne action, as well as a trove of magnificent archive footage unearthed by the producers. The documentary will also explore plans to relocate the Vickers Vimy, and a program of events for the 2019 centenary – including a reenactment of the Great Air Race with electric planes.

Andy Thomas and The Greatest Air Race will bring a long-lost story – as well as an aircraft of world significance – back into the light. It’s time to inspire new generations.

Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith and the Greatest Air Race.
Their achievement ranks with the greatest epics of the air and was in its time as remarkable a journey as that of the 1969 Apollo 11 Moon landing just 50 years later.
— Brian Riddle, National Aerospace Library, UK

Banner image: South Australian Aviation Museum image library
Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith image: State Library of South Australia: B16704