Vale Albert (Bert) Smithwell. All at the AFAP are saddened by the news of Bert Smithwell's passing.
AFAP’s 20th President, David Booth, spoke with AFAP’s 7th President, Bert Smithwell for the AFAP's magazine. (Read this article reproduced from Air Pilot Edition 1 2018 below.)
Albert (Bert) Smithwell began flying during the Second World War when he enlisted in the Air Force as soon as he turned 18 years old. This was the beginning of a long and very successful career for Bert, as he completed training at Narrandera on Tiger Moths and Wirraways before spending a year at Sale towing targets. From there he qualified on Kitty Hawks and joined the 82 Squadron at Noemfoor, going through Morotai across to Labuan and Borneo just before the war ended.
At the conclusion of the war, Bert was employed by Qantas where he spent 30 years. He flew the DC3, DC4 and Lockheed Electra’s before Qantas brought in the B707. As Bert commented, “the 707 weren’t an easy airplane to transition onto. It was demanding. A beautiful thing to fly, built like a tank, but it required really good training.” This was at a time where basic simulators were just coming into use.
Dawn of the jet ages
After flying the 707, Bert transitioned to the iconic 747 that had a developed simulator for training.
When asked about what being on an early 747 was like, Bert remarked, “it performs, it does exactly what it says it will do and it is just a beautiful airplane to fly. The difference in the approach side is quite significant to the 707. Flight heights and what not are quite different.”
During this time Bert was an active member of the Australian Federation of Air Pilots and became President in March 1968, a position he held for two terms.
Looking after pilots in Australia
When asked about his first term as President of AFAP, Bert reflected, “Our purpose was to look after pilots in Australia. All pilots. Even from the most humble blokes doing ag work, or instructing or what not, to those that flew 747s. All were equal.”
With the mindset of protecting all pilots, Bert was also passionate about protecting pilots internationally. Speaking on his achievements and proudest moments whilst President of the AFAP, Bert says “we went to IFALPA and instituted the procedures to get higher security on the airplanes when, in the 60’s, hijacking was becoming a great problem and nothing was being done by the world governments.”
It took the Australian representation at IFALPA to move a resolution that until governments across the world took action, all pilots would stop flying for 24 hours (except for emergency flying). This threat received the desired response from governments. So much so that Bert was asked to join the Australian Government delegation at ICAO, to help formulate ideas on security improvement.
“It was a sad day,” Bert remarks about the separation of the Qantas pilots from the Federation. Retired by then, but still very engaged with the industry, Bert strongly believed that the removal of Qantas pilots from the Federation weakened both unions “United you stand, divided you fall,” he says. When asked about any final comments in regards to the AFAP, Bert urged, “I would just ask that you make every effort to get the Qantas blokes back in the fold.”
Bert is now 94 years old, but that is hardly slowing him down or keeping him on the ground. After his wife of 66 years passed away a few years ago, he found an airplane, “a real old man’s airplane,” and decided to fly it around Australia.
Bert spent 100 hours visiting all the areas that he had been interested in learning more about. A few of the places he flew to were Cooktown, because he has a keen interest in Captain Cooks’ navigation, and Mataranka because of the book We of the Never Never, which he read as a child.
The AFAP would like to say a special thanks to Bert Smithwell for his years of dedication to the AFAP and for taking the time to speak with us. You can find more information about Bert’s presidency in the AFAP history book A Federation of Pilots: The Story of an Australian Air Pilots’ Union.