Charles Kingsford Smith.jpg

Charles Kingsford Smith’s
Historic Cowra Flight

Back in 1922, Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, and a Cowra man, Mr Ken Richards flew under the Cowra traffic bridge. The below was taken from the 7 July 1950 edition of the Cowra Guardian.

During the First World War, Ken Richards was the observer in Kingsford Smith's plane in France. After the war, Richards became the proprietor of a garage in Macquarie Street, Cowra. Kingsford Smith owned an old Avro 540 plane which he flew up to Cowra to see Richards.

He landed in a paddock near the railway station just over the Waugoola Creek. The landing received considerable publicity, and became a topic of conversation among residents throughout the town and in hotel bars since a plane was quite a novelty in Cowra in those days.

Then someone started a rumour that Kingsford Smith was going to fly under the local traffic bridge. Inevitably, others contradicted this, saying he wouldn't be game to do it; that it was too dangerous.

The story of the argument reached Kingsford Smith's ears, and he decided to try it. He asked Mr Richards if he was game to try it with him and he replied "All right, we'll give it a go. I'll be with you." Kingsford Smith pointed out that it was a dangerous thing to try but he thought he could make it.

They kept the attempt secret and next morning after breakfast they took off and circled over the town. The plane was not particularly high powered and had a fairly slow rate of climb. This meant that they would have trouble getting sufficient height to clear the trees on the bank where the river curved, after flying under the bridge. Consequently they couldn't make it a normal, straight flight down the river.

In order to get up sufficient power to climb over the trees again, they had to come down in a steep power dive from a couple of thousand feet, pull out just over the water at high speed, flick through the pylons and climb rapidly again. So, after getting sufficient height, Kingsford Smith pushed the stick forward and the plane dived down, vibrating but gathering speed.

It needed brilliant flying to level out at the right height, since if the stick were pulled back too fast, the plane would have squashed into the water in a high speed stall. Into the bargain, the plane could only just fit between the pylons.

But they made it with around 7" (about 18cm) to spare on either side. They both relaxed and the plane steadily climbed back up into the sky again. Then Kingsford Smith decided that he would try the railway bridge further up the river.  They got plenty of height and started the power dive. Richards was looking intently at the bridge when he suddenly spotted telephone lines crossing the river just beside the bridge.  He yelled at Kingsford Smith, but the latter was concentrating on his flying and didn't hear. So he grabbed him by the shoulder and gestured upwards. They had flown together during the war and had confidence in each other's judegment.

Kingsford Smith didn't hesitate. He pulled the plane out of the dive and started the steep climb. The plane just scraped over the top of the bridge. Afterwards when Richards told him of the telephone lines, Kingsford Smith said "just as well you saw them in time, Ken, or we wouldn't be alive now. A few seconds later and we couldn't have pulled out of it."

Some time later, Kingsford Smith took off again, with George Campbell as his passenger and flew up to Mr S.R. Coward's property at 'Riverslea'. Mr Campbell was the brother of Mr R.B. Campbell, a well known Cowra man at the time, and was no relation to Mr George Campbell, Cowra Aero Club instructor.

They landed in a paddock out at Riverslea. However when they went to take off again, a wheel went down into a rabbit warren, and the plane tipped up on its nose. It suffered considerable structural damage, so they left it there and came back to Cowra by ground transport.

The plane was left standing on its nose in the paddock for several weeks, then it was brought into Cowra by a lorry and dismantled. Richards stated (in July 1950) that some of the parts of the old plane should still be around Cowra.  

The last time Richards was in a plane was in 1933. Kingsford Smith has just flown the Pacific Ocean in the Southern Cross and had become a national hero. He took Richards from Cowra to Bathurst in the Southern Cross. "That was the last time I ever saw him alive," said Richards.

Other accounts of the event tell how there were people on the bridge at the time – a farmer with an empty cart and a husband and pregnant wife. When the plane flew under the bridge, the horse bolted and the wife gave birth on the bridge. Kingsford Smith was only a young man at the time and was apparently drunk when he did this – if sober he may not have even attempted it. This story is retold in more detail in Peter Fitzsimmons Autobiography.