Charlie Wardrop and Smithy

Excerpt from  SMITHY The Life of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith

Ian Mackersey   Warner Books, London, 1999

p.389 . . .   Within days of hearing all this I had a phone call from another elderly Australian living in New Zealand.  Charlie Wardrop, the retired Managing Director of the Fijian company Burns Philp (South Sea), had been one of Hodder's closest friends.  'I've got something here that'll interest you,' he said.  He told me that he had in his possession one of the pieces of metal Jack had picked up on Aye Island in 1938.  In some excitement I drove next day to Whangarei, 100 miles north of Auckland, to see it.  Wardrop, now in his eighties, told me that in the early 1930s, he and Hodder had worked as young mechanics at a Sydney motor workshop.  They had spent their weekends out at Mascot where Pethybridge had taught them to fly.  'What amazed us all was that, with precious little education barely two or three years in primary school Jack was able to go on and take a commercial pilot's licence.  His writing was always ungrammatical and he needed a lot of help from his friends to scrape through his written exams.'

The piece of jagged, wafer-thin metal was about 5 ins square: it had originally been larger, but Wardrop had given half of it to a friend.  It was pitted and corroded green-brown by its long immersion in the sea, and its outline didn't, apart from a few rivet holes, immediately suggest any obvious part of an aeroplane.  Wardrop explained its history.  'Jack found just two bits like this.  He never mentioned any nickel-plated steel or blue paint on the trees.  He believed the metal had come from the engine cowling.'  By the time Hodder returned to Australia, Wardrop had gone to live in Fiji.  They were reunited in Sydney in the early 1950s.  'Jack showed me one of the fragments.  As we were parting he thrust it into my hand and said, "You keep it I've got the other."  I was quite touched.  It was the last time we ever met.

As the metal had never been scientifically identified as aluminium alloy of the Altair's type, Wardrop agreed to let me have it analysed.

Background: Pioneer aviators Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and Tommy Pethybridge disappeared between Rangoon and Singapore on 8th November 1935.  They were flying the Lady Southern Cross, a twin engined Lockheed Altair.  A wheel and undercarriage leg, subsequently identified as from that plane, were recovered from the sea by Burmese fishermen in 1937 near the island of Kokunye Kyun or Aye.   Jack Hodder, an Australian motor mechanic was working in the area and visited the island in 1938 to search for other remains.  He found a piece of steel moulding about 15 inches long and two pieces of duralium amongst the rocks on the foreshore.

The duralium was analysed and found to be of a type available to Lockheed at the time the Altair was produced.  An ex-Lockheed specialist identified it from rivet spacings as probably from the undercarriage final-closure panel

Philip Best comments: Charlie was very proud of his association with Kingsford-Smith and had quite a few pieces of information which he discussed with the author during the research for the book. What the book does not say is that Charlie had recorded some 5 hours of flying time in the Southern Cross. Before he went to Fiji in 1938 he spent considerable time with Smithy and his gang. Charlie was a very competent flyer, engineer and automotive mechanic all of which put him in good standing for his career with Burns Philp.