Sir Keith McPherson SMITH KBE

SMITH, Keith McPherson

Service Number: Officer
Enlisted: Not yet discovered
Last Rank: Lieutenant
Last Unit: Royal Flying Corps
Born: Adelaide, South Australia, 20 December 1890
Home Town: Gilberton, Walkerville, South Australia
Schooling: Queens School, Adelaide and Warriston School, Moffat, Scotland
Occupation: Station Agent (Elder Smith & Co)
Died: Natural causes, Sydney, New South Wales, 19 December 1955, aged 64 years
Cemetery: North Road Cemetery, Nailsworth, South Australia
Memorials: North Adelaide Queens School Honour Board, West Beach The Vickers Vimy Collection
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World War 1 Service

2 Feb 1918: Involvement Lieutenant, SN Officer, Royal Flying Corps, AFC / RFC operations Western Front / Middle East

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 Sir Keith Macpherson Smith (1890-1955)

Keith Smith was the eldest of three brothers the others being Ross and Colin.  They were the sons of Scottish-born Andrew Bell Smith, station manager, and his wife Jessie, née Macpherson, who was born in Western Australia. The brothers were born in Semaphore Port Adelaide in South Australia.  Later they were resident at Gilberton and Muttooroo Station via Cockburn near the South Australian / New South Wales border. 

Ross and Keith Smith made history with their crewman Wally Shiers and Jim Bennett, being the first to fly from England to Australia in 1919. 

Ross Smith died in an air crash in 1922 with Jim Bennett preparing for another record attempt.  The third brother, Colin Smith, had died of wounds sustained at Passchendaele in Belgium in October 1917.

A joint biography of Ross and Keith Smith, by John McCarthy was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988. 

The full ADB article is HERE  ( 


Keith was member of the Adelaide Rowing Club, his details are recorded on the Club's Honour Roll.

Keith's early career was very different to his brother's, yet both were to become aviators within weeks of each other. 

Keith was initially rejected for service with the A.I.F. on medical grounds.  He does not therefore appear on the AIF Embarkation Roll.  He underwent medical treatment and later paid his own passage to England to enlist in the Royal Flying Corps.

Keith Smith did not see active service as after completing his training and being posted to with 58 Squadron, he was posted to 75 Squadron, a home defence unit where he was gunnery instructor. 

On 1 April he was promoted Lieutenant and spent the rest of the war in Britain with training establishments. He was placed on the unemployed list, Royal Air Force (R.A.F.), on 5 November 1919.

He joined up with his brother soon after the war and when news of an air race became known they planned to take part.  

Ross gained valuable experience in a pioneer flight from Cairo to Calcutta, leaving Cairo on 29 November 1918 and arriving in Calcutta on 10 December, flying as co-pilot. A further sortie from Calcutta was undertaken to survey by sea an aerial route through to Australia. This was abandoned at Timor. Nevertheless the experience gained was of great benefit in the successful attempt later undertaken with his brother Keith  to fly from England to Australia within thirty days. The prize of £10,000 was offered by the Australian government for the first aviator to do so.

They obtained a Vickers Vimy (another twin engined 'heavy' - for the time - bomber similiar to the 0/400 bomber), supplied by the manufacturer.  It was the same typ of aircraft used by Alcock and Brown to cross the Atlantic earlier in the year. With Keith as assistant pilot and navigator and accompanied by two mechanics, Wally Shiers and Jim Bennett, they left Hounslow, England, on 12 November 1919.

Flying conditions were most hazardous across Europe until they reached Basra in southern Iraq on 22 November. From Basra to Delhi, a distance of 1600 miles (2575 km), they spent 25½ hours in the air out of 54. Airflields were virtually non-existent and such open space as their was big enough to set down and take off from was often fraught with obstacles of all kinds.  A poor landing-area at Singora and torrential rain almost brought disaster on 3 December. Disaster again almost came at Sourabaya where the aircraft was bogged and had to take off from an improvised airstrip made of bamboo mats. By 9 December, however, they were at Timor, only 350 miles (563 km) from Darwin. The next day the ytook off and at 3.50 p.m. on 10 December they landed in Darwin.

The distance covered in this epic flight was 11,340 miles (18,250 km). It took just under 28 days with an actual flying time of 135 hours at an average speed of 85 m.p.h. (137 km.p.h.). Both Ross and Keith were immediately knighted; Sergeants W. H. Shiers ( and J. M. Bennett (, the mechanics, were commissioned and awarded Bars to their Air Force Medals, and the £10,000 prize money was divided into four equal shares.

Three years later another proposal was being hatched as pioneer aviators began undertaking all sorts of long distance flights.  The next proposal, to fly round the world in a Vickers Viking amphibian, ended in disaster. Both brothers travelled to England to prepare for the trip and on 13 April 1922, while Ross and his long-serving crew member Jim Bennett were test-flying the aircraft at Weybridge near London, it spun into the ground from 1000 feet (305 m), killing both.

Keith, who arrived late for the test flight, witnessed the accident. Ross had not flown at all for many months and had never flown this type of aircraft. The investigating committee concluded that the accident had been the result of pilot error. The flight was abandoned. The bodies of Sir Ross Smith and Lieutenant Bennett were brought home to Australia and after a state funeral Smith was buried in Adelaide on 15 June 1922.

In 1924 Keith had married Anita Crawford of Adelaide.  They were to have no children.

Sir Keith Smith was appointed Australian agent for Vickers and retained the connection with this British company until his death.

Smith advocated in the early 1920s to employ Vickers-built airships on Imperial air routes. A British airship had successfully crossed the Atlantic in July 1919, but projects failed to materialise, not the least because of some attributes of airship operations. Airship technology was not without risk as demonstrated by the Hindenburg disaster and the British government and policy changed following the crash of the R34, which was destroyed in a sudden and violent storm over France.

Between the wars, Vickers took little interest in the small Australian market and despite Smith's efforts, there was no sale of aircraft until the arrival of the Viscount passeneger turbo prop in 1954.

Keith remained a leading Australian spokesman on aviation matters and travelled extensively on Vickers' behalf. He held firmly to the view that Imperial co-operation was vital in aviation and looked for complete standardization of British and Australian equipment.

During World War II he was vice-chairman of the Royal Australian Air Force Recruiting Drive Committee and strongly supported the idea of an Empire air force. The Empire Air Training Scheme largely achieved this in the context of NW Europe, but Australia's involvement in the Pacific and burgeoning US influence and British indifference to the Australian market on the other side of the world undermined Smith's aspiration for Empire aviation.

Notwithstanding, he was to become vice-president of British Commonwealth Pacific Airlines, a director of Qantas and Tasman Airways and by the end of his career was in control of the many Australian-based Vickers companies.

Sir Keith Smith died of cancer in Sydney on 19 December 1955.  He was survived by his wife; they had no children. Included in his will was a bequest of £100 to W. H. Shiers, the sole remaining crew member of the England-Australia flight.

Sir Keith Smith was buried near his brother, father and mother in the North Road Anglican cemetery, Adelaide.

Footnote:   The Vickers Vimy flown by the Smith brothers, Shiers and Bennett in 1919 is displayed at Adelaide airport. However it is now languishing out of sight out of mind in a forgotten corner amidst new developments.  That such the most important aircraft of Australian aviation history should decay so ignominiously is a travesty.