Charles Kingsford Smith (1897 - 1935)

A small man with a craggy face, rapid wit and speech, whose party trick was to drink beer standing on his head, his trademark was a famously broad grin around the jutting cigarettes he chain-smoked

His life was lived frenetically and often outrageously. From the horrors of the First World War, in which some of his toes were shot off in aerial combat, he emerged with a contempt for authority and a determination to live life hedonistically and recklessly.

He created for himself a world compulsively ruled by flying, alcohol and women. Yet he was universally loved and worshipped. He remained totally unaffected by fame - quite disarmingly humble and accessible, constantly drawing into his orbit men and women dazzled by his warmth, his enthusiasms and his unique charisma.

 But behind the permanent grin he wore and the stream of his repartee, behind his image of flying genius and indestructibility, there lay a more frail human being - increasingly affected by the stresses of his often terrifying flights and the awesome pressures of great fame.

Kingsford Smith beside the Lockheed Altair Lady Southern Cross

When he set out from England in November 1935 on what was to have been his last record bid, an attempt to reach Australia in under two days, he was ill. In his high-speed Lockheed Altair 'Lady Southern Cross' he and his co-pilot disappeared off the coast of Southern Burma in the early morning dark. All that was ever found was an undercarriage leg with a still inflated tyre - discovered 18 months later on an island in the Andaman Sea.   

Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and the plane

The fate of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith remains one of aviation's great unsolved mysteries. At dusk on 7 November 1935 he and his co-pilot mechanic, Tommy Pethybridge, took off from Allahabad in India to fly non-stop through the night to Singapore. They were seen to pass over Calcutta, Akyab and Rangoon - which they over flew at 1.30 am.

Sometime around 2.50 that morning, 8 November, another Australian pilot, Jimmy Melrose who was heading south from Rangoon in a much slower plane, a Percival Gull, was excited to see the Altair overtake him over the Andaman Sea. On arrival in Singapore later that day Melrose was surprised to learn that the Lady Southern Cross had not arrived.

Despite a huge search of the entire Rangoon-Singapore route by squadrons of RAF aircraft no trace of the Altair was found for 18 months. In May 1937 its starboard undercarriage leg was picked up by Burmese fishermen on the rocky shore of Aye Island off the south coast of Burma about 140 miles south-east of Rangoon.

The theory grew that Smithy had flown into the 460-foot top of the jungle-covered island and the aircraft had plunged into the sea, the wheel breaking off and floating ashore. But an Australian expedition to the island in 1983 searched the seabed without success.

However, if Melrose had genuinely seen the Altair overtake him, and they were the only two aircraft in Burma airspace that night, then Smithy would have crashed at least 100 miles south of Aye - and the wheel drifted north.