Brisbane Airport Corporation greets millions of travellers every year. But it’s a fair bet they’ve never had a visitor quite like 92-year-old Macleay Island resident Desmond Kelly.
He’s probably one of the last remaining people alive in Australasia who can say he flew with Sir Charles Kingsford Smith – the world famous aviator, ‘Smithy.’
BAC gave Desmond special permission to go inside the Kingsford Smith Memorial just near the International Terminal, fulfilling his life-long dream to once again see the plane he flew in 87 years ago.
And the emotion of the visit brought Desmond to tears.
“They’ve kept it so well, that’s wonderful isn’t it?”
Although he was only five when he flew in the Southern Cross, Desmond remembers what he calls ‘the most defining moment’ of his life with crystal clarity.
“It was when my imagination changed and I just saw what things were like from a different perspective that I’d never dreamed of.”
Smithy was on a barnstorming tour through New Zealand, taking locals for joy rides to raise money for his next planned flight.
Desmond lived in the North Island town of Nelson when the Southern Cross flew in.
Desmond recalls, “The whole town was out to see this famous man and his famous aircraft of course.”
His dad borrowed the 10 shillings for a child’s ticket – a huge sum of money in those days; but Desmond’s mother was horrified.
“She nearly died on the spot because she knew this was a plan to kill her son,” Desmond recalled.
It certainly was a huge adventure for a young boy, one of eight passengers sitting on old church pews tied down with rope. In 1933, there were no seat belts or life jackets.
But he forgot his fears when Smithy appeared from the cockpit and said ‘g’day.’
“And I looked up and he said: we’ll go up and do a circuit over the town and show you what it’s like up there, just hang on.”
And hang on he did, as the plane started to shudder and bump across the recently cleared paddock.
Then suddenly they were in the air. And Desmond could see the crowds below, the house where he lived, the town, the sheep grazing on the ground. And it opened his eyes.
“I was a different person that went to bed that night from the one that got up in the morning. And it was all because of this experience.”
Desmond says the flight with Smithy led him to seek out adventure in his life.
“The possibilities became part of me, just grew in me. And I found that very useful in life, all through.”
He’s certainly had an interesting career path from geologist, to teacher and in his late 40s, acting. As Desmond says, “I do love telling good stories!”
Desmond had steady work in writing, radio, TV, stage and screen – both in New Zealand and Australia. He was handpicked by the director for the lead role in the movie The World’s Fastest Indian, the true story of Burt Munro, who set a world speed record on his 1920 Indian motor bike of 305.89 km/h at Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.
Unfortunately the investors wanted a ‘name’ actor and Desmond ultimately lost out to Sir Anthony Hopkins.
Desmond and wife Elizabeth moved back to Australia 15 years ago, settling on the Southern Moreton Bay island of Macleay.
He never dreamed he could relive his amazing childhood experience, until BAC stepped in.
“Lovely memories, I’m so pleased to have been able to see it again. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do throughout my life but I thought I’ll probably never get the opportunity. This is great, really great.”
Desmond’s admiration for the early aviators is as strong today.
“I don’t think they were daredevils. I don’t think they took any unnecessary risks. I think they were just people who walked to a different drum you know? Their vision was different and it called them”
Then he thought a moment and chuckled.
“Although Smithy did fly under a bridge didn’t he?”
So next time you’re heading for Brisbane airport, why not take a short detour to the Kingsford Smith Memorial? You too could be inspired by this remarkable chapter in our aviation history – and it won’t cost you a cent.