After writing the story of Bert Smithwell’s incredible flying adventure in Australian Flying Magazine (Jan/Feb 2015 issue), I thought there may be some readers who would be interested in some further background on Bert’s life. He was kind enough to share some of that with me, as we sat in the shade of his little tent up at Kooljaman at Cape Leveque in September this year.
The top item on Bert’s bucket list was to fly a little aeroplane around Australia. I asked him how that dream all started.
BS: “It had been in the back of my mind for a long time,” says Bert. “While I was working at Qantas, I’d owned a Baron and I did do a couple of trips up to the centre of Australia in that, but I never did a big trip in it. It was really strictly business as I used to fly it backwards and forwards to my farm near Crookwell. It was a wonderful aeroplane to get from Bankstown to the farm rather than the hassle of driving. I could be down there in half an hour. I just parked the plane at the Crookwell strip, which was four miles away from the farm, and that worked out very well for about 20 years.”
SR: So, was that your first aeroplane?
BS: “Actually, before owning the Baron, I’d started off with a C150. I paid the mighty sum of $3000 for it! It was advertised in the Herald and my son looked it up and told me about it. He was an instructor before he joined Qantas and he’d done a lot of instructing on C150s and said that might be interesting so I asked him would he go have a look at it for me. So he got an engineer friend of his and they both went and had a look at it, at Cessnock. Turns out it was in perfect order.
“I always had a yen to park it in front of the 747 during my Qantas years! (Laughs) When you’re instructing, which is what I was doing with Qantas for the last 20 years, you don’t get many hours flying. I’ve got thousands of hours in simulators, instructing etc, but you don’t get the hours up that a line pilot gets. My son, for example, has 24 or 25000 hours, and I wound up with about 18000 hours.”
SR: Tell us a little more about your career in the air force.
BS: “During the war, I enlisted in the air force, and the day after I turned 18 I was called up by the army, so I was plonked in there. But fortunately I’d shown interest in the air force by volunteering for the air force, done the medical and what not, and I’d also done a pre-course to set you up to do the course they set you towards your elementary flying.
“It was a very good basic course, going into maths, trigonometry and all that, whether you were going to be a pilot, navigator, air gunner or anything. I’d worked very hard at that course, and I think it stood me in good stead because the army was pretty reluctant after about four months to let me go. They sent a 1st World War squadron leader around to see the CO of the unit I was in and they weren’t too pleased that he’d come to take one of their people away. But as the squadron leader said, ‘Bert did in fact first enlist in the air force, and he has done the training.’ So, reluctantly, the army let me go.
“I did elementary training at Narrandera and service training on Wirraways at Uranquinty, near Wagga. Then came the most amazing year in my flying career! I went to Sale in eastern Victoria and towed aerial targets for a year in old Fairey Battles, the early single engine English bombers - beautifully designed, a very pretty aeroplane. It had lots of things about it which were just miles ahead of its time. Take the hydraulic system for example. The undercarriage had a wheel. The flaps and the bomb bays were in the wings, so it retracted bombs into the wings. So to put the undercarriage down, all you did was push the wheel forward and you forgot about it. And when the undercarriage was down and locked, the green lights came on and you forgot about it and the wheel came back into the neutral position.
“The Fairey Battle had some good things about it – it could carry an enormous load and was a most docile aeroplane - but at the end of the day it was too slow as a bomber. A whole battle squadron of them was lost on one particular mission. They had to attack some bridges, but the aeroplane, mooching along at around 180-200kts, was just too slow for air work in a war. That squadron was awarded the VC back in England.”
“This all happened at Sale. I flew backwards and forwards along the east coast of Victoria for a year. I must admit it was the happiest time I’ve ever had in my life! I enjoyed the flying immensely, I really looked forward to flying and I loved what I was doing. I tried to do it really well. There was an art in towing targets well for air gunners to learn on. If you were sloppy, the drogue would fly at varying levels and you really had to put your heart and soul into it.
“My objective was to get that thing sitting perfectly so that the air gunner in the old Avro Anson would have the best chance of hitting it. They’d stand off maybe 75-100 yards away from where we’d be, and the drogue flew about 800ft behind us. The drogue is a silk-like covered tube a bit over a metre in diameter and 22ft long – like a sausage. And the bloke in the Anson would be shooting at the target. The drogue went out a hole in the bottom of the aeroplane, the cable came off a drum, down around a pulley in the floor and the drogue operator, in the hatch behind, would tie the drogue onto the end of the wire. As pilot, I’d have to get the plane back to stall speed otherwise you’d bust the drogue. Then you’d say ‘Ready Ready STREAM’ and the drogue operator would chuck it out. I’d immediately have to apply power as I was right on stall speed. It had a Rolls Royce Merlin engine, was tremendously docile but very heavy.
“After a year doing that, I was then posted to Mildura to train on Kitty Hawks. And I then flew Kitty Hawks in the Pacific from Noemfoor, Morotai and across to Borneo. Mainly dive bombing and strafing was the work we were doing. The air war, early 1944, had just about finished. There were very few Japanese fighters at that stage.
“My CO, old Mick Grace, (of Grace Bros fame) hauled me in the day I was posted to the squadron and said ‘Smithy, if you should come across a Zero, and it can happen, but it’s not likely, you are not to stop and fight it. All that will happen is he will shoot you down and I will lose a perfectly good aeroplane!’ He couldn’t have cared less about me! He was a character, a jolly good bloke actually. ‘If you do meet one and you’ve got altitude on,’ he’d say, ‘by all means have a go.’ One pass on the way down – that’s all you’ll get.’
We all knew the Kitty Hawk on descent had the ability to go faster than the Zero – you could out-dive it, and providing you held the dive and presuming you were at 15-20000ft and you held the dive, by the time you got down to 1000ft, you could outrun the Zero at sea level. Being a heavier aeroplane, it just wasn’t as manoeuvrable as the Zero.
“So I did that for nine months. After nine months they pulled you out. It wasn’t necessarily stressful or frightening. It was a different war to what happened in Germany. We didn’t have the intensity that the blokes had in Germany, but there were other things that crept up on pilots that were just as bad – like being troppo. You could see blokes start to slow down, just being in the tropics, and living in primitive conditions, really primitive, and they reckoned that nine months was enough.
“By the time I got back home, the war had just about finished. Back in Australia, Qantas favoured multi-engine pilots, which is understandable, so it was a bit harder for fighter pilots to get a job with them. So I went on to fly with Qantas for 30 years, then retired, and went on to the farm.”
SR: So you took a while to get back into flying after you left Qantas and sold the Baron?”
BS: “Yes, about 15 years. And so I’m glad my son gave me the push I needed to get back into it last year. It’s exactly what I needed.”
SR: So, how are you feeling now – in the middle of this incredible solo trip?
BS: Marvellous. There are points when it’s been hard, like when weather has become an issue. But all my training has held me in good stead and I haven’t had any real problems. The thing about this trip is all the magical things that have happened, like you and Rossy, putting my pegs in.
When I got to Casino, I stopped for a cup of tea in the aero club and there were several old blokes sitting there, as you often find at aero clubs, and we got chatting and told them I’d lost a knob in the cockpit on the last leg. So one got in, found it, and put it back in. The people at Aldinga aerodrome down in South Australia were wonderful too. It makes it all worthwhile. People are just so kind.”
Read the initial story “Cameo at the Cape” by Shelley Ross, published in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of Australian Flying Magazine (available in most newsagents).