Smithy and the mystery aeroplane

Charles Kingsford Smith

Charles Kingsford Smith was and remains Australia's most famous pioneer aviator. Among his feats: the first trans-Pacific flight, in both directions in fact (1928, east to west; 1934, west to east); the first non-stop trans-Australian flight (1928); the first trans-Tasman flight (1928). It's probably fair to think of him as the Australian Lindbergh in terms of his iconic status -- and his flirtation with far-right politics (he was a member of the New Guard, an early 1930s fascist paramilitary group) -- though his entrepeneurial activties and self-promotion remind me more of Sir Alan Cobham, with his ambitious attempt (with his frequent copilot, Charles Ulm) to get into the airline business. 'Smithy' was himself knighted, in 1932; in 1953 Sydney's major airport (and hence Australia's busiest) was named after him; for thirty years his image graced the Australian twenty dollar note. Like so many of the great pioneer aviators he met an early death, in his case in November 1935 after crashing somewhere in the Andaman Sea while trying to recapture the Australia-England speed record.

All of that is well-known. But what isn't is that in 1918, Kingsford Smith witnessed a mystery aeroplane flying over the Australian coast -- what in later decades would be called a flying saucer or an unidentified flying object. I can find no reference to this incident in a quick check of three Smithy biographies (admittedly none very scholarly); as it's buried in an archive with no obvious connection to his career it's possible it hasn't been noticed before now.

Charles Kingsford Smith

Kingsford Smith enlisted in the AIF in 1915, aged 18, serving as a sapper and dispatch rider in Gallipoli, Egypt and France. In March 1917 he was commissioned in the RFC (which is to say he moved from the Australian armed forces to the British) and trained to fly; in July he was posted to 23 Squadron in France and by August had already shot down four German aeroplanes and been shot down and wounded himself. While recovering in England (where the above photograph was taken) he was awarded the Military Cross. But as his recuperation was expected to take some months he was given leave to return to Australia, arriving by March 1918.

While Kingsford Smith no doubt found Australia far more peaceful than France, as I've shown previously at this time it was undergoing a serious case of war nerves, with dozens of mysterious aircraft being reported along the coast, the majority from Victoria but with a significant number from New South Wales. These were generally presumed to be seaplanes from one or more German merchant raiders operating in Australian waters, possibly with assistance from resident foreign nationals; it took the Australian police and military some time to conclude that there weren't any aeroplanes. (In fact, they were still investigating a trickle of reports in the last week of the war.)

Terrigal beach, 1926

One of the most persistent sources of mystery aeroplane reports was Terrigal (seen above as it was in 1926), near Gosford on the NSW coast about halfway between Sydney and Newcastle:

23 March 1918: a light seen moving over the sea at 4am
5 April 1918: aeroplane noise heard around 1am
8 April 1918: strange noise heard between midnight and 1am
11 April 1918: 'a peculiar noise overhead... it sounded like a storm and there was a humming noise apparent as it died away... of about 3 minutes duration'1
14 April 1918: lights seen
19 April 1918: three people report seeing aeroplanes out to sea, flashing signals, observed half an hour
23 April 1918: aeroplane heard and seen at 5.45am, flying northwest
28 April 1918: two seaplanes seen at 2am, one circled flashing signals then flew out to sea, the other flew inland and returned at daybreak
29 April 1918: ditto but triplanes this time. Possible signal observed from the ground

That's nine separate sightings in the space of five weeks. As Sergeant Morris of the Gosford police noted in his first report,

The rumour that a seaplane was seen over Sydney in connection with the German raider "WOOLF" [sic] will be remembered and this is a likely locality for a seaplane to hover and locate ships in the harbour and elsewhere.2

There was even a plausible suspect in the form of Raymond Lhoist, described by Morris as someone who is 'said to be a Belgian but he is a German in fact and it is quite probable that he received the signals and carries the information to Sydney where he goes frequently' -- though a check of his papers confirmed that he was indeed Belgian.3

The only problem -- and one which none of the preserved correspondence between the Terrigal police and military intelligence in Sydney and Melbourne mentions -- is that all but three of these reports involved either the Moir family or Gunner McNaughton, a returned soldier (he sometimes described as driver, presumably his current role). The very first report was made by Lily Moir, a 23 year-old woman; the fourth by her mother; the sixth by Lily Moir, her brother and McNaughton; and the last three by McNaughton alone. (The second and third were made by Mrs Newman, Terrigal postmistress, and a man named Kirkness, respectively. I haven't found who made the fifth report.) That seems suspicious to me, perhaps suggesting a series of folies à deux (or trois or whatever) where the collective belief in the reality of the mystery aeroplanes mutually reinforced each other's delusions. Or perhaps it was a hoax or other form of fabrication.

This is where Kingsford Smith came in. The idea for sending an investigator to Terrigal seems to have been made by the Director of Military Intelligence in Melbourne, though whether he specifically requested Kingsford Smith is unclear (probably not, any experienced airman would have done). Captain W. S. Hinton, head of the 2nd Military District's Intelligence Section, reported on 13 May to the Director that

In accordance with your suggestion, arrangements were made for Lieut. Kingsford Smith, R. F. C. at present on sick leave to go to Gosford. He was accompanied by Driver Macnaughton [sic].4

Kingsford Smith arrived at Gosford on 6 May where he spoke with Sergeant Morris, who updated him on the various aeroplane reports (adding one about 4 weeks earlier, where Mr Wood and the whole staff and inmates of his Boy's Reformatory were 'awakened by the noise of an engine passing overhead').5 The following day he went with Driver McNaughton to interview Lily Moir, who 'impressed me as being very reliable'.6 He and McNaughton spent that night on the beach at Terrigal. This is when Smithy saw his mystery aeroplane:

At 2.30 a.m. [8 May 1918] I saw what was extremely like a white Verey [sic] light fired from a point about 3000 feet up and a mile north of us. At the same time I saw a small black object rapidly going inland. I could hear no sound as the Surf there drowns any other local noises. I would not attach any grave importance to this episode, as I know how easily one can be deceived at night by falling meteorites, and passing birds, but I certainly think it was a machine. We were not in a position to see any answering ground light.7

The following night they stationed themselves on the verandah of the Moir house, but didn't see anything unusual.

While Kingsford Smith apparently did express some doubts about McNaughton's charactor to Hinton in person:

Whilst Lieut. Kingsford Smith feels he must give credit to Driver Macnaughton's account of the seaplanes, he also stated that in small unessential matters he found Driver Macnaughton untruthful and unreliable.8

he said nothing of this in his official report, where he concluded that there was something going on which warranted further investigation:

There is most certainly a foundation for all these reports, and I think that someone should be stationed in that locality (for a couple of weeks or more) who has some experience in connection with aircraft and observation.

(Signed) C. KINGSFORD SMITH
2nd. Lieutenant.
R.F.C.9

According to Hinton's letter to the Director of Military Intelligence, Kingsford Smith was going to be that someone:

He will return to Gosford on Monday next [20 May 1918] and continue his observation.10

However, I can't find any further mention of this and I suspect it didn't happen, as Kingsford Smith's leave was up and he was soon on a ship back to Britain, where he spent the rest of the war as a flight instructor. Nor can I find any further references to the mystery aeroplanes of Terrigal, except one: on 13 May three seaplanes were seen by none other than... Gunner McNaughton.

Was Smithy drawn into a shared delusion after spending a few days with McNaughton and the Moirs? It seems unlikely: he was appropriately cautious in drawing conclusions, and reported at least some doubts regarding McNaughton. On the other hand, the 'Verey light' and the 'small black object' could have been a meteor and a bird as he suggested; but he clearly was disposed to think they were a signal and an aeroplane, as per the prevailing theory of German raiders and spies. In the end this episode is no more than a curiosity: Kingsford Smith's sighting seems to have had no bearing on the course of the (already dying) mystery aeroplane scare and probably was soon forgotten even by himself.

Image sources: National Library of Australia, here, here and here.

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  1. National Archives of Australia [NAA], MP1049/1 1918/066, W. Morris, 'Report of an aeroplane seen in the vicinity of Terrigal Haven', 14 April 1918. 

  2. NAA, MP1049/1 1918/066, W. Morris, 'Report of an aeroplane seen in the vicinity of Terrigal Haven, 23/3/1918', 3 April 1918. 

  3. NAA, MP1049/1 1918/066, W. Morris, 'Re suspicious lights seen over Terrigal Haven', 23 April 1918. 

  4. NAA, MP1049/1 1918/066, W. S. Hinton, letter, 13 May 1918. 

  5. NAA, MP1049/1 1918/066, C. Kingsford Smith, 'Report on investigations made at Gosford and Terrigal, re aircraft seen there at night', 10 May 1918. 

  6. Ibid. 

  7. Ibid. 

  8. NAA, MP1049/1 1918/066, W. S. Hinton, letter, 13 May 1918. 

  9. NAA, MP1049/1 1918/066, C. Kingsford Smith, 'Report on investigations made at Gosford and Terrigal, re aircraft seen there at night', 10 May 1918. 

  10. NAA, MP1049/1 1918/066, W. S. Hinton, letter, 13 May 1918. 

3 thoughts on “Smithy and the mystery aeroplane

  1. Certainly to compare Lindbergh with Smithy in terms of fame is a reasonable call, though Lindbergh probably has the greatest ratio of fame to pioneering achievement; and far better known globally and particularly in the US than any other golden age aviator, ironic as his achievements were far fewer than almost any of those pioneering flights in the period. His fame rests on doing something solo that several had done before him more meaningfully for enabling the extension of air routes, and people misunderstanding that he was first across the Atlantic, rather than 92nd.

    https://airminded.org/2005/07/10/across-the-atlantic-by-vimy/

    In terms of actual flying achievement prior to his death in 1935, Smithy is often argued as the person who achieved the most route pioneering of the era; Lindbergh was simply not in the same league. That said, Lindbergh's W.W.II contribution should not be overlooked. As you note, Sir Alan 'Airminded' Cobham was Smithy's closest competitor in achievement. Smithy knew the money was in airlines, but couldn't get to it, Cobham knew the mileage (~hem~) was in pioneering for later airlines.

    And a real by-the-way, the replica of Smithy's 'Old Bus' is getting close to rebuilding by HARS south of Sydney, and should be seen in the air again soon...

    Also 'Gunner' would have been McNaughton's rank (in the artillery, equivalent to private) and 'driver' his task.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunner_%28rank%29

    None of this has much to do with successfully tying Smithy to a UFO, though. Well done!

  2. Post author

    Yeah, I didn't want to say such iconoclastic things about the Lone Eagle -- there might be Americans reading this blog! :) I mostly wanted to give non-Australians a sense of his stature in Australia. Though I feel that has diminished in recent decades more rapidly than Lindbergh's probably has in the United States (though even there I wonder if he has been overtaken by Earhart). I look forward to seeing the Southern Cross replica fly!

    I probably should have known that about 'gunner'. Though I see that 'driver' was also a rank in the RA, equivalent to gunner but job-specific; as well as a rank at the same level (i.e. the equivalent of 'private') in the RASC. So the switching back and forth might still reflect a change in McNaughton's role. I'm not sure whether he was still in the Army -- he is described as a 'returned soldier' which suggests not but then strictly speaking his former rank shouldn't have been used in referring to him. If he was still in he seems to have had a lot of free time; perhaps he was on convalescent leave like Smithy (if private soldiers were ever that lucky).

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