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Flying With Early Sky Pilots in Australia, 1929

Langford-Smith's unconventional landing, 1930.

Excerpt from Sky Pilot of Arnhem Land's, Keith Langford-Smith, Angus and Robertson, 2nd edition, 1935, page 197. Chapter 29, “Sydney to Arnhem Land–1929.”

Agroup of friends were awaiting for us at the Mascot Aerodrome (a muddy field on the banks of Botany Bay) and as Jack and I stepped into our seats (into an open cockpit, 1932 De Havilland Gypsy Moth bi-plane) they waved a kindly farewell.  On the cowls were displayed the words; Sky Pilot, Church Missionary Society, Arnhem Land.

“Where’s Arnhem Land?” asked a small boy of his mate.

“At the South Pole, stupid; this is a missionary aeroplane.”

“But there’s no heathen at the South Pole.”

“Aren’t there just? What about Eskimos!”

“Chocks away,” I signaled (after someone hand-started the propeller), and within a few seconds the little aeroplane was in the air and winging it’s way westward on it’s journey to Arnhem Land. (2000 miles to the north west, located at the top end of the continent of Australia).

“It will be rough flying over the Blue Mountains,” my pilot friends had said, and sure enough it was. The plane bucked like a brumby outlaw; only for our safety-belts we would have been thrown out. Heavy clouds rolled up and failing to get above them, I foolishly tried following the valleys. Our ground speed dropped to little more than half what it had previously been. A veritable gale was blowing, and I felt wearied with the constant strain of fighting the controls. The weather was quite unsuitable for crossing the mountains, which rose up to 3300 feet above sea level. Even two experienced pilots who flew out from Mascot has a look at the clouds and turned back. I hung onto the joystick with both hands and reckoned I’d see it through.

Forced into a deep valley owing to the low clouds the plane refused to climb out again, owing no doubt to the strong down currents of air.  We flew round in circles for what seemed an age before gaining sufficient height to just stagger over the edge of a cliff. Once out of the valley, we shot up like a lift, and were completely hidden in clouds, flew blind for quite a time.

The weather became worse.  I managed to get beneath the clouds again near Lithgow (90 miles west of Sydney), and seeing a small recreation reserve decided to attempt a landing. The ground was small and telegraph wires were dangerously close, but after circling the ground a couple of times I side-slipped over the wires and put the Sky Pilot safely down, more by good fortune than by good flying.

Two officers in the blue uniform of the RAAF ran across the paddock a took the wing tips as I taxied to a handy shed.

“By jove, it was a miracle you got down safely,” said one.  “The weather is appalling, and we thought you were bound to pile the bus up.


I didn’t admit I had thought it was always as rough over the mountains. When they praised our pluck and skill I blushed, but thought it better not to admit it was simply ignorance.

Turning to Jack, I changed the subject.

“How’d you like the flying?”

“Oh, it’s not too bad,” drawled the stockman. “A bit rough though. I lost the stirrups one or twice when she bucked.”

Before attempting to take off from the small ground, we removed a fence and left some weighty luggage behind to send on by boat. Also, for the sake of lightness, we only put a small quantity of petrol in the tanks. There was no room to spare and we just managed to clear the wires at the end of the ground. Unfortunately, head winds delayed us, and when the petrol began to run short, I landed in a paddock at Stuart Town, where we filled up again.

Wherever possible we landed in small townships, where aeroplanes were not often seen, and without exception were given a great welcome.  I took many passengers up for free flights and in return we were entertained in fine style.

One angular woman was very keen for a flight. As she was getting settled in the front seat, the husband anxiously took me aside.  “You’ll take good care of my Mary, won’t you?” he whispered. “She talks sommat awful, But I loves her.”

When we landed safely after the flight, I thought I could see a tear in the husband’s eyes. He was evidently relieved. Once more he sidles up to me:

“Did she talk?” he asked.

“Oh, a bit, but I pulled the plug out of the earphone.”

“By Jove, that’s an idea. I must get an aeroplane!” he said as he hurried away.

After torrential rains along the way, when tired of Bourke we pushed Sky Pilot from the boggy aerodrome to a clear strip of gravel soil alongside the railway good shed and gook off from there.

Cunnamulla, our next point of call was equally muddy, and we bogged hopelessly as we landed.

“Hello,” called the Roman Catholic priest, who came over, seeing the name of the Sky Pilot. “This must be the opposition plane.”  With many willing helpers we soon pushed the plane out of the mud, and I invited both the Policeman and the Priest to come up for a joy ride.

Before getting in the policeman took off his belt and revolver. “They’re a bit hard to sit on,” he explained. I tried a few loops and half rolls just to see how the law enjoyed it.  It appears he didn’t, for he was halfway out of the plane before we stopped.

“Never again,” he spluttered.  “The ground’s good enough for me!”

“Don’t forget your gun,” said a spectator, jerking his thumb in the direction of the man’s belt and pouch, but the noise of the engine had temporarily deafened him.  “My what?” he asked.

“Your gun! G-U-N!  G for Jerusalem, U for onions and N for pneumonia!” was the startling reply.

Later, near Mt. Isa, we suddenly found the conditions changed, and once more the plane began to buck about. Jack had brought a novel to read during the trip, and had just started taking it out, and commenced to read when the rough stuff started. He hastily shoved it back again.

At the next town, a thankful traveller gave us a bottle of champagne for his free ride, and Jack took it into the front cockpit with him.

“What’s that for?” I asked.

“This rough weather is getting on my nerves,” he replied. “If the plane ever looks like a crash, I will get this into me quick-like; then you can do what you like!”

One of the port-side landing wires started to vibrate in the slipstream, and I noticed Jack watching it anxiously. He hadn’t the slightest idea what it was, but from the start had confessed that he thought these wires were far too thin.  He even suggested, half in earnest, that we might put a length or two of fencing-wire across to strengthen things up a bit in case of an accident.

A wild desire to have a little fun at Jack’s expense possessed me, and I began to move the controls and rock the plane gently from side to side.

Jack’s eyes never left that vibrating wire; so waiting until we were over good country, I suddenly dipped the port wing and side-slipped steeply for about 1000 feet, before flattening out again. Jack’s head completely disappeared into his cockpit and I wondered if I had overdone things a bit. Then there was a sudden pop and a cloud of spray; he had opened the champagne bottle in a hurry!

Note: Pilot Keith Langford-Smith eventually arrived at his destination
at Roper River in Arnhem Land in 1929, and his books tell of the adventures as he used his plane in the discharge of his duties with the mission; patients to hospital, supplies over flooded rivers, Police searches, fires, forced landings and crashes,  emergency calls and his normal patrol work.

During the 1950’s his adventures were heard on a weekly program on Radio 2CH in Sydney, when he was in the ministry of The Open Air Campaigners. He is truly one of the Australian Churches valiant adventurers, similar to BCA’s Rev. Len Daniels at Wilcannia, NSW around the same time. Keith Langford-Smith died at Kellyville, NSW, in the 1970’s and was given a hero’s funeral from St. John’s Anglican Cathedral, Parramatta, NSW.  Keith’s three books (Drake’s Drum was most popular) have been out of print for 60 years, and should be sought for on the internet, or used books shops.

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