Airdate: The Greatest Air Race

Documentary special The Greatest Air Race will screen on SBS in early December.

Produced by All of Us Productions this tells a long-lost story of when, in 1919, four Australians flew from London to Darwin in a Vickers Vimy plane made of fabric, wire and wood.

“I was astonished to find a treasure trove of vision in the National Film and Sound Archives, as well as brilliant photos of the race competitors in libraries around the country,” says Director / Producer Susan Harrington.

“It turns out the competitors themselves were given cameras by Kodak to record the race. Personal photography was still in its infancy in 1919, so Kodak capitalised on media interest in the race, and as a result, some parts of the world were photographed from the air for the very first time.”

“I think for many Australians, the exploits of Ross and Keith Smith are largely unknown,” says Thomas. “Yet it was as significant in its day as the moon landing just 50 years later. What a staggering development, to go from a fabric-covered biplane to the moon landing in less than a human lifespan.”

Before one giant leap, there was one great race. In 1919, four Australians flew from London to Darwin in a Vickers Vimy plane made of fabric, wire and wood. Sitting in open cockpits with only a compass for navigation, their extraordinary 18,000km journey took 28 days. To celebrate this pioneering feat of endurance, and the centenary of the Darwin landing on 10 December, SBS will air the new Australian documentary The Greatest Air Race in early December.

The Greatest Air Race follows former NASA astronaut Andy Thomas as he returns to the old Vimy to rediscover this all-but-forgotten achievement. As a small boy growing up in South Australia, Andy was inspired by the surviving plane and the story of its remarkable pilot, Sir Ross Smith, to study aeronautical engineering. After joining NASA, Andy flew four million miles aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour, and took with him the cloth ‘wings’ of Sir Ross and his brother and co-pilot Sir Keith Smith.

Now 67, Andy travels to Adelaide, Darwin, outback Australia and London to meet with aviation experts, historians and vintage aircraft enthusiasts to take viewers on that race once more. Of the six crews (plus a rogue French team), two died and two crashed out. When the Vimy crew crossed the line, they became global superstars.

All of Us Productions has brought together a stellar team of South Australian talent to create the film, including Director/Producer Susan Harrington, Producer Lainie Anderson, Writer/Producer Max Anderson, Oscar-nominated Executive Producer Carolyn Johnson and Walkley Award-winning Director of Photography Rob Brown. Together, they’ve unearthed incredible, rarely seen archival footage from 1919. Most notable are the intimate portraits of Sir Ross Smith and the crew, and a 1966 interview with Ross Smith’s mechanic Wally Shiers. Some of the archival footage was shot by photographic pioneer, Sir Frank Hurley.

7:30pm, Sunday 8 December on SBS.

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