'Sound' Advice on Historic Trans-Pacific Flight

How Radio Nearly Killed an Aussie Icon

Oct 26, 2011, 23:03 ET from Charles Leski Auctions

MELBOURNE, Australia, Oct. 26, 2011 /PRNewswire/ -- When James Warner was born, wireless telegraphy (aka radio) was four years old.  When he died nearly 80 years later, radio had become one of the most significant and intrusive parts of our social, commercial, industrial and political lives.  It wasn't just that Warner was born into that era, the pioneering American helped to shape it for future generations.

He was also an unwitting player in the rivalry between Australia and the United States.

In 1928, James Warner joined Australian aviators Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm for the first trans-Pacific flight.  It was a 'first' for the fledgling aviation industry in other ways as well, most notably the introduction of radio communication on a long distance flight.

A remarkable archive of aerophilately and aviation memorabilia from the private collection of James Warner – arguably one of the most important collections in the history of aviation - will be offered for sale by Leski Auctions.  

This is the first time that the archive has ever been seen by the public.  It is a remarkable tribute to radio and its place in the history and development of aviation.

The aviation industry was still a generation away from sleeper beds, in-flight entertainment and sky marshals when the 'Southern Cross' took off from Oakland, California on May 31st, 2008. Trans-Pacific flight had never been attempted before and for good reason - it was considered to be nothing short of suicidal. Despite this, men like Warner were drawn to the adventure.

Warner learnt his trade as a radio operator in the US Navy prior to the First World War, becoming its chief radioman by war's end. When fellow American, Harry Lyon, announced his intention to join Kingsford Smith and Ulm as navigator, Warner did his best to convince him to withdraw. Privately, he wasn't about to let another American achieve glory, even if it meant putting his own life at risk.    

The elation of the adventure ahead was tempered by Smithy and Ulm's growing distaste for the two Americans and their belief that it should have been an all-Australian crew.  

As much as the Australians didn't want Warner or Lyon, they were even less impressed with radio. The technology of the time was cumbersome, heavy and unproven in-flight, requiring more important things like food, clothing and life-saving equipment to be ditched.

What none of them could have understood was the future role that radio would play in aviation and, more broadly, in global communications. For the first time ever, the progress, problems, challenges and drama of the aviators and their plane were transmitted to waiting media around the world. Radio reports, newspaper banners, special editions, announcements to parliament were all made possible by the transmissions from Warner's on-board equipment.

However, Smithy's criticism of Warner's equipment wasn't solely about nationalism. The flight would take more than 83 hours and cover nearly 12,000 kilometres with only two scheduled stops. It would be difficult enough to test the mettle of the crew and their craft without the extra weight that could have compromised their survival.

None of the crew was in any doubt about the implications of the historic flight or their place in it. Aviators in the 1920s, still basking in the glory of flight as a powerful weapon of war, were heroes equal to the stars of Hollywood.  

If you can remember how transfixed the world was when man first stepped on to the moon, then you can begin to understand how 40 years earlier the world waited with similar trepidation and excitement at the exploits of the 'Southern Cross'.  Being able to follow the flight via radio was no less awe-inspiring to that generation than television's role in the moon landing was to ours.

While thousands witnessed their departure, an unprecedented crowd of 25,000 lined Albert Park in Suva to witness the first landing of any aircraft in Fiji. To reach there, the crew flew 34 hours non-stop from Hawaii, enduring a massive lightening storm over the Equator.

They flew the final leg to Brisbane and then Sydney the following day where close to 300,000 people met them. The Pacific had finally been conquered and the air bridge between Australia and the United States opened. The competitive spirit between the two countries was only just beginning.

"More than 300 items are represented in the Warner collection," says Charles Leski. "While much has been written about Sir Charles Kingsford Smith from the Australian perspective, very little by comparison is available on James Warner or the American position.

"Introducing radio was a game changer for the aviation industry. There is no question that it helped to drive commercial air travel and for a country like Australia, largely isolated from the United States, Asia and Europe, it meant new and exciting possibilities for our engagement with the world. "

Items for auction from the James Warner Archive include:

  • A magnificent 4oz gold commemorative medal from gold provided by William Randolph Hearst and presented by the Mayor of Oakland still in its original presentation case. [The medal presented to Lyon is believed to have been melted-down during the Depression].

  • The original letter signed by Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm and dated 18th June, 1928 in which they write, 'As requested by Mr. Warner, we have pleasure in informing you that we, the undersigned.....are not in any way entitled to receive the whole or any portion of any gifts made to you by the Government or individuals of the United States of America........we are more than satisfied with the manner in which you have carried out the letter and the spirit of your contracts.....'.  This is in stark contrast to an agreement written 10 days before the flight:

  • Titled 'Agreement', and drafted at the Hotel Bellevue in San Francisco, it sets out the terms under which Warner (and presumably Lyon) was employed by the Australians. It contains a controversial (and ultimately abandoned) clause clearly intended to stop Warner from sharing in the glory and riches that were expected to follow their arrival in Australia. It also contains a clause that Warner will not give interviews or write articles without having first obtained their permission or until such time as he returns to the U.S.A.

  • A cigarette case, engraved 'Southern Cross', Lieutenant James Warner and dated June 11th, 1928, which was presented to Warner by the Radio Trade of Australia.

  • A magnificent composite photograph (30 x 38cm) showing the Southern Cross coming in to land with the four crew members above and with their original signatures.

  • A letter dated May 28th, 1928 from the US Department of Commerce to the Supervisor of Radio, San Francisco authorizing Warner to act as radio operator on the 'Monoplane Southern Cross on flight Pacific Coast to Australia'.  Warner has added the notation "They thought they were rid of me, J."

  • Also included are scrap books, newspaper cuttings, files, photographs, letters and transcripts from the original flight and the 1958 re-enactment flight.  

Images are available at:


The lots will be offered for sale by Leski Auctions in Melbourne on Wednesday, November 16th at 5.00pm.

The pre-sale estimate for the James Warner Archive is $125,000 - $150,000.

Leski Auctions was established in 1973 and is one of Australia's leading auctioneers of Sporting Memorabilia, Australiana, Collectibles and World Philately.

Leski Auctions is a recognised leader in the area of early photography, art, wine, cameras, books, autographs, entertainment memorabilia, medals, coins, stamps, aerophilately, cigarette and trade cards, maps, railway memorabilia, advertising artwork and posters, and the Olympics, football and cricket..

It was the first auction house in Australia to introduce an on-line, real-time bidding system 'Live Bid Online'(TM), which allows participation from anywhere in the world.  It currently runs 22 auctions per year.

Leski Auctions has sold many significant collections including Shirley Strickland, Ron Clarke and Sir Reginald Ansett. It has sold more 'baggy green' caps than any other auction house in the world. Charles Leski is a registered valuer for the Cultural Gifts Program through the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts.  He is also the valuer of the displayed items at the National Sports Museum at the MCG, Melbourne.

The company is located at 13 Cato Street, Hawthorn East 3123 Australia.  Tel +61-3-9864 9999 and www.leski.com.au

Issued by:
Charles Leski
Leski Auctions
Tel: +61-3-9864 9999

Michael Krape
Michael Krape Consulting
Tel:  +61-(0)403 135 880

SOURCE Charles Leski Auctions