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Sea Bear visits Benalla as part of Vickers Vimy recreation

By Simon Ruppert

On Thursday afternoon Benalla played its part in re-creating one of the most impressive journeys ever undertaken.

That was the flight piloted by Ross and Keith Smith from London to Darwin in their Vickers Vimy, and their subsequent tour down to Adelaide.

The major legs of that journey were completed last year to mark the centenary of the original flight.

The Sea Bear is unique in that it can hold 15 hours worth of fuel.

And last week four small aircraft stopped at Benalla to meet members of the Aviation museum and enjoy a sausage sizzle.

With the original Vickers Vimy on display at Adelaide airport, and a need for reliability, it was four modern planes that repeated the original route.

One of those was a unique, Russian-built Sea-Bear, which Captain Michael Smith said he only took delivery of weeks prior to the flight.

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“I’ve owned it since October,” Mr Smith said.

“I took delivery and I flew it from Russia to London and then from London I’ve retraced the centenary flight of the Vickers Vimy.

“I landed in all the same spots they did back in 1919, all the way through to Darwin with the exception of a few places. I skipped Syria, Iraq and Iran for obvious reasons.

The Lake Buccaneer, as the name suggests, is also a flying boat.

“That was a great trip and I managed to land in Darwin on December 10 at 3.45 pm, which was 100 years to the minute since the Smiths landed there.

“I was really determined to land on the minute.

“As I was arriving the military controllers were fantastic. They helped vector me in, they timed me and were so helpful.

“That day there was lightening going off at the end of the runway as I was landing, so they held all traffic to let me do this, and then shut the airport down.

“They were amazing.”

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Mr Smith said the journey was made possible by his acquisition of the Sea-Bear, which has an interesting story of its own.

“She’s built in Russia, in a very small factory, they only build four planes a year,” Mr Smith said.

“They’ve been building this design for 25 years and what’s incredible about it is that the factory is in this little part in Russia called Samara, which is 800 km east of Moscow.

“And it is a real aeronautical town.

“It’s the town where they build the rocket that took Yuri Gagarin into space.

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“It’s where they still build rockets today.

“They have an aeronautical engineering degree at the local University.

“The first unit of that course is flying boat design.

“And over the years what they've done is come up with really unique solution that no-one else in the world has.

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“For instance, the way you get in, is to climb up the back and enter through a door in the rear of the plane.

“The beauty of that is that there are no side doors, so when it lands on the water none gets inside.

“You see this is actually a boat. When you stand at the front you can see that distinct line of a boat hull, it looks like a ski-boat or a jet-ski.”

And while it does have all the characteristics of a sea-faring vehicle, from many angles it is very much an aircraft.

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Asked whether he describes himself as a pilot or captain, Mr Smith said he was a bit of both.

“But I go with captain. I've got my captain's jacket. I’ll throw it on for the photo,” Mr Smith said with a grin.

“The plane is called a Sea-Bear, but I call it Southern Sun.

“She has a name because all boats have names.”

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Mr Smith said he choose the Sea-Bear because his journey recreating the flight of the Vickers Vimy had similar requirements to the pilots who fly around Siberia.

“So the wheels fold-up out of the way, and of course, you can land on the water,” Mr Smith said.

“So it's incredibly versatile. And you can put up to 15 hours of fuel in the tank.

“So you can go away for a few days and not need to look for an airport.

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“So rivers and lakes are great places to land.

“But it's also got really robust landing gear so it can land in a paddock or a field easily, too.

“So we landed on the grass runway here in Benalla by choice.”

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“The Sea-Bears are very popular out in Siberia, and all across Russia, but this is the first one that’s been exported.”

Mr Smith and three fellow pilots enjoyed a sausage sizzle at Benalla Airport, put on by the Aviation Museum.

After chatting with The Ensign the group, which also included pilots of a Lake Buccaneer, another flying boat, and two modern, light-aircraft - a Jabiru and a Pipistrel - were due to set off on the final-legs of their flight.

“I am going to Melbourne tomorrow,” Mr Smith said.

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“So we are flying out to point cook air-force base this afternoon, which is the original air-force base in Australia.

“The Smith brothers landed the Vickers Vimy there this time 100 years ago.

“And then we’ll overnight at a private farm with an airstrip near Point Cook. And from there we go to Adelaide the next day via Nhill.

“The Vickers Vimy is down at Adelaide Airport. So I've organised with air traffic control that we will fly over it, then over the spot they landed.

“After that we will land at Adelaide airport and go and have a look at the plane ourselves.”

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The group will be joined on their flight to Adelaide by Benalla-based pilot Mark Carr.

“I was very happy that we could still welcome the planes to Benalla today, in light of all the anarchy going on at the moment,” Mr Carr said.

“Some of the events at the end of the journey in Adelaide have been cancelled, things like lectures and museum visits.

“But the final ceremony commemorating their arrival at Aldinga 100 years go is still going ahead because it is outdoors.

The Russian built Sea Bear is actually a flying boat.

“I am travelling on Saturday I am flying from Benalla to Nhill in my Winjeel and will meet up with the fleet there.

“Then I'm flying into Aldinga, which is south of Adelaide, for the final ceremony.

“And I will see the original Vimy at Adelaide Airport.

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Mr Smith said he had thoroughly enjoyed the journey, particularly meeting people along the way.

“A thing that hasn’t changed in 100 years is that Smith wrote in his book about the generosity of all the people they visited, and how the crowds would come out and were always there to help,” Mr Smith said.

This Pipistrel is the smallest in the fleet making its way across Australia

“And that hasn’t changed at all.

“Despite what a lot of people think, that the Middle East, and certain parts of the world are unsafe and unfriendly, I found the opposite.

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“All across the world people have been as generous as they are in regional Australia in coming out, saying hello and helping when we needed help.”

If you would like to send a letter to the editor on this, or any subject, click this link