Sir Ross MacPherson Smith (1892-1922) was born in Adelaide, the son of a pastoral station manager and his wife. After returning to South Australia from school in Scotland, Ross joined the Australian Mounted Cadets and in 1910 was selected to tour Britain and the US as the South Australian representative. He then joined the 10th Australian Regiment, the Adelaide Rifles. In August 1914 he enlisted as a private in the 3rd Light Horse Regiment, Australian Imperial Forces. He embarked for Egypt on October 22 and from there was sent to Gallipoli in May 1915. He was invalided to Britain in October but rejoined his regiment in 1916 and fought in the battle at Romani in August 1916.
In July 1917 Smith volunteered to join the Australian Flying Corps. He qualified as a pilot and during the war served mainly with Number 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, a general-purpose squadron flying a variety of aircraft in defence of the Suez Canal zone. In January 1918 the squadron was designated a fighter squadron and took part in General Allenby’s 1918 offensive against the Turkish in the Wady Fara.
By the end of the war, Ross had twice been decorated with the Military Cross and three times with the Distinguished Flying Cross. His flying experience had consisted of bombing raids and photographic flights and as a consequence he was chosen to co-pilot a twin-engined Handley Page aircraft in a pioneer flight from Cairo to Calcutta in late 1918.
In late 1919, Ross and his brother Keith responded to the Australian government’s challenge to aviators to fly from England to Australia in less than 30 days. The government had offered a prize of £10,000 for the first aviator to do so. The brothers attempted the flight in a Vickers Vimy, with Keith acting as the co-pilot and navigator and two mechanics accompanying them. They left England on November 12, 1919 in poor and hazardous flying conditions. On December 10,1919, they landed in Darwin, having travelled 18,250km in less than 28 days. Both Ross and Keith were immediately knighted.
In 1922 the brothers proposed a round-the-world flight in a Vickers Viking amphibian. The attempt ended disastrously. While Ross and his long-serving crew member Bennett were test- flying the aircraft at Weybridge near London, the aircraft spun into the ground and both were killed. Ross had not flown for many months and never previously in an aircraft of that type. The committee investigating the accident concluded that the plane crashed as a result of pilot error.
The bodies of Sir Ross Smith and Lieutenant Bennett were brought home to South Australia. Smith was buried on June 15, 1922, after a state funeral.
The flight of the Smith Brothers had an enormous effect on the community. It was less than 20 years since the aeroplane had been developed and to cover the distance from Britain to Australia in less than 30 days was seen as an almost unbelievable achievement. The flight profoundly affected Australians’ longstanding feeling of isolation from the “Mother Country”. It acted to link the northern and southern hemispheres and heralded technological advances that have contributed to the modern notion of the Global Village.
The achievements of the Smiths and their companions were marvelled at in both hemispheres, but in their home town the Smith brothers were heroes. The unexpected and tragic death of Sir Ross Smith plunged South Australia into mourning. After his state funeral thousands lined the streets en route to the North Road Cemetery, where he is buried.
Soon after Smith’s death in 1922 the Register conducted an appeal to raise funds for a statue to commemorate his life and work. An amount of £1500 was handed to the Lord Mayor, Sir Lewis Cohen, who called a public meeting in October 1922 to establish support for building the memorial. The statue was estimated to cost £5000 and the meeting decided to form a committee to raise more money.
In 1923 the executive committee of the Sir Ross Smith Memorial Fund and the council chose a site in the Creswell Gardens, between War Memorial Drive and the pathway leading to the Adelaide Oval entrance. The pedestal was erected in 1923.
Fifteen models for a stature were submitted to a design competition organised in 1924. The winner was Frederick Brook Hitch, ARBS, of Queen’s Terrace, London. The fact Little is known about Hitch is perhaps explained by the fact that sculptors working in the early decades of the 20th century with a traditional approach do not figure in the literature, which was largely devoted to experimental sculptors working in the new Modernist style. It is known that Hitch was born in 1877 and was a pupil of the Royal Academy Schools and the City Guilds Institute.
Adelaide City Council received some rather creative suggestions for the memorial from members of the public. They included an aquarium at the seaside, and a large finger with a light at the top placed on Mount Lofty.
The winning design more appropriately takes the form of a bronze of Sir Ross Smith in the ordinary flying uniform of a military aviator atop a pedestal. He is standing on a hemisphere representing the world, with one foot planted on Australia and the other on England. On his northern side is the figure of an airman, designed to represent Flight, holding a spray of palm leaves and an atlas. On his southern side an angel representing Intrepidity holds an aeroplane. The four sides of the pedestal contain representations of incidents that occurred during the flight.
The memorial cost £5000 and the contract for the construction of the foundations was let to Emmett and Sons. The pedestal was built by the South Australian Monumental Works Company.