In 1919, four Australian men in a Vickers-Vimy airplane flew from London to Australia in a world-first journey.
It was a tremendous achievement for aviation, spurred on by the promise of a 10,000 pound reward offered by the Australian government to the first air-crew to touch down in Darwin from London.
It’s the story of this crew that has brought Adelaide journalist Lainie Anderson to Narrandera. Ms Anderson has written a column for the Sunday Mail for ten years.
“Four men took 28 days to fly the plane from England to Australia. They stopped in more than a dozen countries and cities,” Ms Anderson said.
Brothers Ross and Keith Smith piloted the plane, and two mechanics, Wally Shiers and Jim Bennet, also flew with them. The men were travelling in an open cockpit, with no means of contacting the ground and with only basic navigational equipment, such as compasses, to guide the way.
The Vickers-Vimy should be in pride of place in a museum; the air race from London to Australia should be a feat celebrated by all Australians. Instead the plane now sits in a hangar in the long-term car park of the Adelaide Airport.
“Over the years I’ve had so many readers contacting me, wanting to know what’s happening with the plane,” Ms Anderson said.
“I decided that I would write a historical fiction of the plane ahead of the centenary in 2019. Then I received a Churchill fellowship last year to travel around the world researching the plane and finding out the significance of it.
“I spoke to historians around the world who said that the plane is one of the most historic, important aviation objects in the world, and also that the actual journey itself was as significant as man landing on the moon in 1969. It was just an incredible feat.
“Ross Smith was one of the top air aces in Palestine; he was Lawrence of Arabia’s pilot in Palestine. You can see how the story gets bigger and better, and there are so many elements to it that are just lovely and exciting.”
Ms Anderson’s research of the crew has brought her to Narrandera.
“Wally Shiers was living here before the war and was engaged to a local girl Helena Alford, who lived in Arthur Street.
“Wally came from Broken Hill. There was a heap of Broken Hill miners who came to the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area when it was established – they were encouraged to come down during the miner’s strike.
“He was probably living in one of the big tent towns. And every Saturday they’d come across on the train from Yanco to Narrandera because the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area was a prohibition area and they’d come across to the pubs.
“He was probably over here one weekend, maybe walking down Arthur Street from the railway station and saw Helena. They started courting and then he went off to war with the Light Horse and joined the flying corps when he was in Palestine.
“That’s how he came to be a mechanic who flew on the Vickers-Vimy.”
Ms Anderson is keen to find out as much as she can about Helena Alford and her family.
“I want to write a book that I would want to read, so it needs to have a bit of romance and colour. I’m telling the story of Wally and Helena’s romance.
“So I’ve come to Narrandera – because I’ve never been here before – to get a feel for the town. I’ve been reading lots of the books in the library, like Bill Gammage’s Narrandera Shire book.
“Unfortunately, all four of the men – including Wally and Helena – none of them had children. But I know that there’s lots of the Alford descendants here in Narrandera. Helena had lots of sisters who married.”
If anyone has any information about the Helena Alford, Wally Shiers or the Alford family, they can contact the Sunday Mail on (08) 8206 3316 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.