No Survivor

In 2000 a CBS film crew, surrounded by secrecy and security, spent some weeks at North Queensland’s remote Kirrima Station filming the second Survivor series, then the highest-rated television series in the United States. Most likely, they then packed up and returned to the States, oblivious that another American crew had also arrived there fifty-eight years earlier, and never departed.


Kirrima’s thirty-two year old owner, Arthur Dowse Collins, was mustering cattle in the Herbert Gorge region (North Queensland) on Sunday, 31st October 1943 when he and his aboriginal stockmen came across the wreckage of an aircraft.

…from markings on the Aeroplane and other gear that was with it he judged that it was an American Air Force Aeroplane…it was in a very damaged condition…both engines had been knocked off the main portion of the Machine, which had come down in fairly heavily timbered forest Country. [1]

A B-25C from the 3rd Bombardment Group (USAAF), the same unit to which the Kirrima Station plane belonged. This photograph was taken near Charters Towers in 1942 (John F Heyn collection).

The following morning Dowse set off to report his discovery to the nearest policeman in the tiny coastal community of Caldwell, forty-two miles distant. On duty when he arrived there was forty-six year old Sergeant 2/c J E Cunneen, whose type-written report recounts how Collins ‘had made an examination of the scene and found what he took to be six skeletons of men round the main body of the machine, and that these skeletons were only small heaps of bones, and [that] they appeared to have been there for some months at least. He obtained two small identity cards and brought same to this Station and the[y] appear to have been originally possessed by Lieutenant A F CROSSWHITE and Sergeant Gardner F GALEUCIA No.110243567.’ [2]

Military officials in Cairns were immediately notified and the following morning a convoy of American military vehicles – accompanied by Cunneen – set off for the crash site, arriving around 5 p.m..

‘The force of the falling engine made a crater about three feet deep and six feet in diameter. The prop was torn from the engine and all the blades were badly bent.’ (Color photographs of the crash site reproduced here were taken in the 1990s and kindly made available by Pat Kenny, Townsville)

Investigating the crash site were personnel from Base Section No.5 USAOS (United States Army Services of Supply) in Cairns, who later described having to hike the last eight to ten miles through ‘Sparse forest with considerable open rangeland but numerous water troughs and small streams with precipitous banks together with some bog or marshland [which] make it impossible to reach the site except as here described and when the rainy season arrives it cannot be reached.’

Their full report, now available online, describes the scene in great detail, the wreckage being…


Visible through the woods for a distance of from 200 to 300 yards, depending on the direction of approach. Elevation is probably 2000/2500 feet…Debris is scattered over an area extending north south from 150 to 200 yards and east-west from 200 to 350 yards, parts of wings, fuselage, landing gear, armament, panel instruments, parachutes, etc. (main body of wreckage) fell in an opening among a cluster of trees topping two medium sized trees about 25 or 30 feet above the ground on the way down. The twisted condition of this wreckage plus the fact that numerous parts were completely destroyed rendered identification of the various parts practically impossible. All signal equipment was either destroyed completely or rendered valueless. One wheel of the landing gear was destroyed, the tire being burned, the wheel disk[sic] broken in three parts, and the hydraulic mechanism burst and twisted. One engine, with prop attached, landed almost 75 yards south of the main wreckage and borrowed into the ground about two feet, one propeller blade driving vertically into the ground and the other two describing a normal angle from the prop spindle but bent considerably out of shape. The other engine fell about 85 yards southwest of the one first described. The force of the falling engine made a crater about three feet deep and six feet in diameter. The prop was torn from the engine and all the blades were badly bent but appeared not to be broken, and some parts of the engine appeared to have been burnt. Life raft was suspended by chords from branch of a tree, about 50 feet above the ground, approximately 100 yards west of main wreckage. One tail assembly, intact, found 145 yards west of main wreckage, bore the number 113091. The other tail assembly was torn into two sections but the number 113091 was also plainly discernible on it. Still west of this a large section of wing assembly was found and farther west yet small fragments of metal were widely scattered. Six parachutes were open and stretched out on the ground, chords fully extended, all within 30 feet of fuselage, landing gear, and other parts. All chutes show the effects of long exposure to the weather.

Only a relatively small number of bone fragments were found scattered generally in the area of the main wreckage. [3]


B-25C Mitchell 41-13091 had been returning from Port Moresby to its base at Charters Towers on 15th November 1942 when it disappeared. Weather conditions at the time were poor, and the aircraft was presumed to have crashed into the Coral Sea.

It is thought to have participated, the previous day (14 November 1942), in a sustained allied aerial offensive against a Japanese naval force attempting to resupply troops in the Buna area of New Guinea…

Under cover stormy weather and darkness, the convoy anchored near the mouths of the Mambare and Kumusi Rivers, and motor landing craft began to land troops from the ships. The Japs also floated crates of supplies ashore in net fastened to oil drums. At dawn with the landing still incomplete, allied planes roared across the mountains through a drizzling rain. P-39’s, Beaufighters, A-20’s, B-25’s, and B-26’s made what was described variously as “26 bombing and strafing attacks” and “96 sorties.”…. The bombing however was not particularly successful. Visibility was poor. [4]


Allied aircraft crashes were commonplace throughout Queensland at that stage of the war, another three American bombers having been lost along the same route in the following days. [5] Whereas most that crashed were quickly located, it was uncommon for military aircraft to disappear altogether over land, especially along the heavily trafficked Queensland coastal route. 

Although transiting military aircraft would have been alerted at the time of the B-25’s disappearance, the U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) was then so short of planes that it simply could not afford an extended search for this or indeed any of its other missing aircraft.

Crash site investigators concluded the plane had been destroyed by mid-air explosion while travelling north by north-west, salvage being considered impossible owing to terrain inaccessibility and the onset of the wet season (which would render roads impassable).

Documentation recovered from the wreckage was used to identify six of the eleven crew and passengers known to have been on board at the time (being those for whom identification tags couldn’t be found). Intriguingly, a 1943 Investigation Report had not discounted the possibility there may have also been a twenty year old female passenger on board named Miss Peggy Mitchell – although some officials dismissed this possibility ‘due to place of take-off.’ [6]

Peggy Mitchell (left) and Lady (Emilie) Coote at the American Red Cross Officers’ Club, Elizabeth Bay, Sydney. This is thought to be the same Peggy Emily Mitchell whose letter of enlistment was recovered from the Kirrima Station wreck. Despite having been a well-connected business woman, occasionally photographed for the Sydney newspapers, the author has been unable to find any post-crash references to her (AWM P00561.030).

This open finding was based on the discovery – at the crash site – of an Australian Army letter dated 18th May 1942 directing Peggy Mitchell ‘to report for her medical test preparatory to going into training for service with the Australian Women[s] Army Service.’ [7] A confidential message sent to the U.S. a year later concluded that Miss Peggy Mitchell could not have been aboard the stricken plane. Curiously though no post-crash references (e.g. engagement, marriage, births, divorce, electoral roll etc.) to this person have been found to date. [8]

Miss Peggy Mitchell appears to have been a-well connected business woman with interests in both Sydney and Melbourne. She managed her own company as well as her father’s property interests, and was reportedly involved with administering personal commitments on behalf of servicemen. [9]

The final act in this tragedy played out the following year when Virginia Crosswhite (whose younger brother Alfred was piloting the B-25 at the time it crashed) wrote to the Cardwell Police Station on 4th June 1944 asking, imploringly, if someone there could help answer several innocuous, yet specific questions regarding her brother’s death…

We are very anxious to contact the person who discovered the wreckage…A letter from him would mean so much to us. We would please like to know the following:

    1. How the discovery was made.
    2. Description of the terrain.
    3. Is that particular section inhabited.
    4. Apparent cause of the crash. Did the plane crash into a mountain peak, or was it attempting a forced landing? Did the plane burn?
    5. Did evidence at the scene indicate whether or not anyone survived the crash. We would appreciate your frank opinion on this.
    6. By what means of conveyance were the bodies removed to the American cemetery

It was two months later when she finally received a brief reply from the Queensland Police Commissioner, declining for ‘security reasons’ to answers any of her questions. [10]


[1] Sergeant 2/c J E Cunneen, Report dated 4th November 1943, Kirrima Station via Cardwell – found 31 Oct 1943 – US B25 Mitchell Medium Bomber – fatalities – identity discs/cards Lieut CROSSWHITE, A F; Sgt GALENCIA, Gardner F; VANHOT, Max; OVERS, Thomas O; Staff Sgt LOUALLEN (Queensland State Archives, Item ID 2177751).

[2] Sergeant 2/c J E Cunneen, Ibid.

[3] Memorandum, 15 December 1943, page 4 (Missing Air Crew Report number 16497)

4] Watson, Richard L. Jr. USAAF Historical Study No. 17: Air Action in the Papuan Campaign, 21 July

1942 to 23 January 1943 (Washington, DC.: USAAF Historical Office, 1944): page 61.

[5] These included The B-24 Lady Ann which crashed on nearby Hinchinbrook Island; the B-25 Eight Ball Esquire which crashed into the sea north of Cooktown; and B-25 41-29706 which crashed into the ocean north of Osprey Reef.

[6] Missing Air Crew Report number 16497, folio 13

[7] Memorandum, 15 December 1943, page 8 (Missing Air Crew Report number 16497)

[8] Her enlistment folder, held at the National Archives of Australia (NAA: B883, NFX179875) would likely hold the answer to whether she was, or wasn’t on board the Kirrima Station B-25C.

[9] Runs Three Businesses During War, The Sun, 7th February 1943, page 8.

[10] C J Carroll to Virginia L Crosswhite, 4th August 1944, Kirrima Station via Cardwell – found 31 Oct 1943 – US B25 Mitchell Medium Bomber – fatalities – identity discs/cards Lieut CROSSWHITE, A F; Sgt GALENCIA, Gardner F; VANHOT, Max; OVERS, Thomas O; Staff Sgt LOUALLEN (Queensland State Archives, Item ID 2177751).



Townsville’s first aerodrome

Nothing remains in suburban Annandale to suggest that this quite suburb on the southern banks of the Ross River was once the City of Townsville ‘s only public aerodrome.

In  November 1938 City Council announced it would be constructing a new aerodrome costing £7,226. Two thousand pounds of this was to be contributed by the Civil Aviation Board, £2,500 by the Slate Government, and the balance of £2,725 is to be met by the City Council. The announcement was criticized by residents and Councillors alike, Alderman Aiken’s chief reason being ‘that the revenue from ‘planes landing In Townsville was negligible.’

(Tom Lockley collection)

Reports dating back to 1930 show that the city’s first Ross River aerodrome would routinely become boggy and unserviceable following heavy downpours, resulting in the cancellation of scheduled air services from the south. This vulnerability, combined with a lack of sanitation, drinking water and shelter eventually forced one of the site’s two commercial tenants, North Queensland Airways, to permanently relocate – in April 1938 – to the privately owned  Mount St John Robinson aerodrome five miles west of the city.

…the state of the Townsville Aerodrome in wet weather, and the condition in which the ground was left due to cars running over the wet ground at the time that the ‘Douglas’ plane [Kyilla] was bogged, caused considerable damage to the undercarriages of North Queensland Airways’ planes and great expense was incurred in the repairing of same, so much so that when the St. John Robinson Aerodrome was licensed, the company decided to make this ground their headquarters. A further reason for this decision is the fact that at the Townsville Aerodrome there is no public water supply or sanitary arrangements. At the St. John Robinson Aerodrome there are pleasant surroundings in which to await the arrival or departure of the planes, the ground being in very good order and with all conveniences. There will be no further delays in the handling or Air Mails as at the old aerodrome, due to the flood waters in the Ross River, and it is with pleasure that North Queensland Airways wish lo state that in future their total services will operate from the St. John Robinson Aerodrome. — Yours etc.. North Q’land Airways Pty. Lid., T. McDONALD, Man. Director.  (Townsville Daily Bulletin, 25 April 1938, page 10)

Airlines of Australia’s DC-2 VH-UYB, Ross River Plains aerodrome, 1938 (Townsville City Libraries).

Previously administered by a Trust, City Council only assumed full responsibility for the Ross River aerodrome in 1937 after a readjustment of the City and Thuringowa Shire boundaries. This coincided with advice from the Civil Aviation Board that aerodrome improvements (i.e. tree clearing) would be necessary if Townsville wanted to be included as a regular stopover on the Board’s proposed Sydney to New Guinea air mail service.

Model A Stinson VH-UKK, appropriately renamed ‘Townsville’, was the first aircraft to land at the City’s new Garbutt airfield on 1st February 1939.

Strong opposition from a most unlikely quarter, in August 1938, would eventually help seal the fate of the City’s first public aerodrome, at least as a site for civil operations…’The members of the Charters Towers Branch of the Central and  Northern Graziers’ Association, who  are all cattle owners, are seriously  concerned by the damage caused to  their fat cattle by the proximity of  the aerodrome at Ross River, Townsville, to the meatworks. During the year, there are about 60,000 head of fat cattle disturbed, and in many cases badly bruised by the arrival and departure or aeroplanes at such close quarters, which is definitely injurious to our chilled beef.’

Council subsequently reserved 5,661 acres for the current Garbutt aerodrome which was officially opened on 1st February 1939, coinciding with a rapid expansion there of RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) facilities.

RAAF Ross River, c.1942 (National Archives of Australia: A705, 171/19/261 Page 31 of 8).

Several satellite airfields were hastily constructed around Townsville during the early years of the Second World War, Council’s Ross River aerodrome having also been requisitioned for military purposes in March 1942. Although the Royal Australian Air Force eventually vacated the site on 11th February 1946, it took the Commonwealth another two-and-a-half years to dispose of its assets at Ross River and fully relinquish its interests there (NAA: A705, 171/106/381).

James Carey’s homebuilt Flying Flea was test flown on the Town Common in 1938, near to the present-day Garbutt airfield site. It was first flown by Carey’s friend Bill Stewart of West End who was killed just a few years later while serving with the Royal Air Force, being posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal (W J Laurie collection, Townsville Library).

A camoufleur’s art

For more than a century official war artists have helped shape our understanding of Australian military history. Often selected on the basis of their pre-war reputations, the works produced by official war artists such as Sidney Nolan, Russell Drysdale, Arthur Streeton and Albert Tucker have become staple offerings for a nation now locked into a  permanent cycle of military commemoration. 

Far eclipsing the output of these official war artists however is the great body of work produced by Australia’s unofficial war artists. Despite its greater authenticity (much official war art having been produced by non-participants, after the event), this vast output remains largely undocumented, unstudied, and unappreciated.

These unofficial artists painted, sketched, and drew for their own pleasure, depicting what they liked as they liked without the thought that their works were destined for public collections. They drew and painted to hone their artistic skills, to record their experiences, to relieve the boredom and isolation, and in the case of many, as a means of therapy, helpful in unfamiliar situations disconnected from everyday life.

Unencumbered by military directives these unofficial artists could access and observe subjects that were not ordinarily available, the informality of their art contrasting with the oftentimes formal and heroic tone of official war art.


Frank Rowland, n.d. (State Library of Queensland)


Although Australian servicemen and women were never actively encouraged during the Second World War to sketch and paint (as they were in Canada), many uniformed personnel took pleasure in doing so. While some of these unofficial artists were self-taught, others had received formal training and were so employed – typically as commercial artists – prior to the war.


This June 1943 list of official camoufleurs reads like who’s who of the Australian art world (National Archives of Australia, NAA: A649, 224/600/374 page 102).

To this last category belonged many of Australia’s camoufleurs, members of a small but prestigious group of practicing artists, photographers, designers and architects (both men and women) tasked with assisting the Army, Navy and Air Force to camouflage its facilities and equipment, and with training military personnel in the science of camouflage.  

In early April 1941 the Australian War Cabinet had approved the establishment of a Defence Central Camouflage Unit and an experimental camouflage station at Sydney’s Middle Head, both operating under the auspices of the Home Security Department. National Security (Camouflage) Regulations were approved later the same year. Recruitment began almost immediately, no more than about sixty ‘officers’ having been appointed in all.

Arthur Francis (Frank) Rowland (1912 – 1976) received his camoufleur certificate number 19  around May 1943, being initially posted to the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) newly constructed satellite airfield at Brymaroo near Jondaryan on the Darling Downs (Queensland). Seldom used by aircraft, and with no hangars and just a handful of wooden structures to camouflage, there would have been little else for Rowland to do at Brymaroo  – other than paint. It was around this time that Rowland is also thought to have joined Brisbane’s influential Half Dozen Group of Artists.


In 1943 Rowland was billeted on the Brymaroo property of Ann and Lionel Mason, this watercolor typifying the landscape in that part of the Darling Downs. Frank Rowland, n.d. (State Library of Queensland).


In a mid 1943 war art exhibition review, Brisbane’s Telegraph newspaper counted Rowland ‘Amongst the painters who rise above the depressing level…though his drawing is not perfect, [he] has a sense of character in a portrait of a CCCworker, and has captured the movement and atmosphere of a man working at a gravel-crushing machine.’

The following year he was posted to Darwin and although employed as a civilian, he continued  working for the RAAF. Only camouflage officers working in forward areas were required to wear uniforms, being issued with Air Force officer uniforms adorned with Home Security Department badges, buttons and armlets (with the letters ‘A C’).

It was only after camoufleurs in Australia’s  North-West Area had begun ‘illegally’ wearing epaulettes with the words ‘Accredited Camoufleurs,’ that the Department – in April 1943 – had issued its first official insignia bearing the correct ‘Authorised Camoufleur’ insignia.


Frank Rowland, n.d. (State Library of Queensland).


The Japanese had long since ceased attacking northern Australia by the time Rowland arrived there, the allied advance having also moved far offshore to the north-western islands. No longer a front-line combat zone, much of his art from this period is concerned with the ordinary and the routine of everyday military life.

After the war he returned to Brisbane where he resumed his career as a commercial artist, while continuing to judge, exhibit and teach art (at the Queensland College of Art). He eventually retired in 1961 after a twelve year career with the Brisbane Telegraph newspaper.

The works shown here were exhibited at the Royal Queensland Art Society’s Petrie Terrace Gallery in 2016 and remain with Rowland’s family, another thirty-two of his works being with the State Library of Queensland.


‘never…except by aeroplane’

Like other eminent organisations, Qantas too has its own foundation narrative – concerning two recently demobbed Australian airmen (Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness) who, in an epic 2,180 km overland journey in a Model T Ford, successfully surveyed the continent’s northern aerial route from Longreach (Qld.) to the Katherine River (N.T. ) railhead in preparation for the first England to Australia Air Race arrivals.

For fifty-one days they endured privation and unimagined challenges, such that ‘Every mile they bumped over the bush trails’ only further ‘emphasised [for them] the advantages of an outback air service’. Within eighteen months they had generated enough interest and capital to register a company (known initially as the Western Queensland Auto Aerial Service Ltd.), and on 3rd November 1922 pilot Hudson Fysh inaugurated its first fare-paying scheduled passenger service between Longreach and Cloncurry.

Retracing that inaugural route last year in his 1930s-era aircraft has given Mark Clayton some unexpected insights to what those first Q.A.N.T.A.S. airline passengers and pilots must have seen and experienced.

The author and his 1930s-era Luscombe Silvaire, coloured by a Longreach sunset. Although dimensionally comparable, and with similar engine power outputs, my all-metal monoplane is noticeably lighter (by 163 kg) and faster (15 knots) than the wood and fabric Avro 504 biplane used on those first Qantas services.

I picked up the Qantas route at Camooweal near the Queensland-Northern Territory border, my westward progress along the Australian coastline having been thwarted by an unexpected loss of network coverage (necessary these days for lodging mandatory flight plans and obtaining meteorological updates). Although never part of the airline’s initial service Q.A.N.T.A.S.’s first Directors were, by early 1924, actively seeking ‘an extension of the present service from Cloncurry to the new Mt. Isa silver-lead field and on to Camooweal, the front door of the Northern Territory.’  By the following decade this would form part of the Kangaroo Route,  a name (and now a Qantas trademark) used to describe the airline’s Sydney-London service via the eastern hemisphere.

The first Australian aeronautical chart, drawn by Paul McGinness during his epic overland survey in late 1919 (SLNSW FL8646890)

I stay just long enough to decant another five gallons of motor spirit into my wing tanks – as those first airline pilots would have done – thankful for the sealed bitumen runway and the rare absence of the now overbearing perimeter security which, since 9/11, has become a permanent feature at all RPT (regular public transport) airstrips throughout Australia, regardless of their size or remoteness. Even though it is late Autumn the temperatures at  ground level are witheringly hot, making for a long and bumpy climb up to my cruise altitude of 3,500 feel (above sea level) where I am afforded some relief from the continually rising and falling convection thermals. Any higher and I risk being further slowed by the howling south-easterly winds that have been blowing for a fortnight across the eastern states.

Where normally I could plan for an 80 knot (142 kms) cruise speed, my average speed across the Barkley Tablelands, on this occasion, is just 55 knots. The first Q.A.N.T.A.S. services would for these reasons take to the air long before the sun had risen, thereby avoiding the worst of the day’s headwinds and turbulence (their normally aspirated engines also delivering better climb performance in the cooler, denser, morning air). In September 1926 a first-time passenger (J.O., N.Q.), published a detailed account of flying this same route with Q.A.N.T.A.S. – albeit, in reverse:

The climb out of the ‘drome was steep. In the first curve we cleared the trees, and tracing a nobly expanding helix in the third, we were ready to sail over the mountains. Your first ride in the air is thrilling, but, when you are well up for your second, the whole thing begins to seem so obvious that you wonder how other modes of locomotion, in such a country, ever contented you. After 75 miles we were over Yelvertoft, at 5000 feet. Mr Evans then let her right out for Camooweal, sweeping down the 50 miles in one slant. The propellor, he told me, was doing 1500 revolutions, and we covered that 50 miles in 27 minutes. In September 1914, Boultbee and I rode all night, camping only from 10 to 11 p.m., and from 4 to 6.30 a.m., and got into Camooweal at 11 a.m., after 18 hours on the track…

(Townsville Daily Bulletin, 6 September 1926, p. 10.)

Winton, as it must have appeared to those first pilots and passengers. In February 1922 the Shire Council offered to pay half the cost – to a maximum of £20 – of preparing a landing strip, thereby becoming the first local authority in Australia to positively support commercial aviation (Bruce Howard Collection).

Then as now, pilots try to maintain a constant heading by using a magnetic compass, an ancient device that can be difficult to stabilise on hot days when the air is filled with invisible thermals. Navigating from Camooweal to Mount Isa however also involves keeping the Barkley Highway visible on your left (its course having scarcely altered in the past century). Never more than 10 nautical miles (17 kms) to port, it is bisected by the Buckley River which, though more-often dry, carves a very distinctive course easily discerned from an overflying aircraft. As the only habitation along this route Yelvertoft Station – also halfway, and easily spotted – has long served as an emergency landing ground and navigational reference point especially for trans-continental pilots.

The portion of the route between Carlton [sic] Hills’ letter box and Camooweal entails a flown distance of 96 miles, and the country traversed is good from a flying point of view, open spaces being frequently met with and open downs round Yelvertoft Station.

(The Longreach Leader, 17 April 1924, p.18)

Now considered a national treasure, the logbook of the first Qantas aircraft records that on 17 May 1921 Hudson Fysh took 5 hours 20 minutes to complete the 315 miles from Cloncurry to Longreach (sans passengers), the Avro 504 having carried a total of 643 passengers by then (4117, QANTAS Log Book, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Australia).

From the vantage of an overflying aircraft this western landscape appears unchanged from what those first airline passengers and pilots must have seen, almost a century earlier. Nearing Mount Isa however I can discern the mine stacks and the unnaturally large form of Lake Moondarra, the realities of the twenty-first century only fully intruding after I have shut-down my engine and stepped onto the apron. Even though it is Sunday afternoon, with no other traffic seen or heard, I am immediately challenged by the duty ARO (Airport Reporting Officer) demanding to see my ASIC (Aviation Security Identification Card). Of course he is just doing his job, and before driving off with his amber lights flashing he reminds me that it is mandatory for anyone airside at Mount Isa, for obscure health and safety reasons, to also wear a high-visibility shirt or jacket. Alone, yet surrounded by surveillance cameras, I elect to forego the restroom stop and press on for Cloncurry.

We kept curving northward, making for Mount Isa, whose range is silver to the heart. We had been an hour and a quarter on the wing when I was aware of the sensations that accompany a rapid descent in an express lift from the twelfth floor, again a queer pressure on the ears, for which you must  swallow repeatedly. The trees were growing again, and scudding between them I saw a small brown moth, which was our shadow. A flashing rectangle the size of a playing card was the roof of the Mount Isa Hotel.  We were circling, and to do this the Pilot ‘banks,’ that is, he deflects the ailerons (narrow flaps at the ends of the planes on their hinder side). The right wing with raised aileron dipped, the left with lowered aileron tilted upwards. So, we could swerve without ‘skidding.’

The trees were growing fast, and we threw the shadow of a great eagle. But where were we going to land? I could see no open space, only trees. Another swoop and the little bald patch of the aerodrome rose to meet us, and there was the white ground circle and the sausage which shows the direction of the wind. We swept and curved down steeply, got into the straight, skimmed and then made what the Pilot called a pancake landing. He raised the horizontal rudders in the tall, and that threw up Gauff’s [sic] nose and she flounced against a wave of air, gave herself a toss and almost immediately her wheels were on the earth. The sensation of landing is very like that which you get when your boat grounds and her nose runs into the shingle.  The Mount Isa ‘drome is small. We raced over its still rather scrubby surface, swung to the left about 70 yards from the fence, and went off again down the straight. There is a spike under the tail of the machine which acts as a brake, cutting a furrow two or three inches deep in the ground, and the drag of that soon pulls you up.  The landing here was a short one. A car came out to get our mails, we got the news of Mount Isa, and were off again in twenty-five minutes’

(Townsville Daily Bulletin, 6 Sep 1926, p.10)

At just 57 nautical miles (kms) the leg from Mount Isa to Cloncurry was both the shortest, and most nerve wracking – the rugged mountainous terrain here simply presenting no opportunities for a safe forced landing (in the event of an engine failure). Although mesmerizing from above this region, which geologists refer to as the Mount Isa Inlier, comprizes ‘prominent ridges of quaruite, acid volcanics and silicified fault zones [with] separate undulating valleys underlain by shale, schist, calc-silicates, basic meta-volcanics, and granite.’

A typical north-western Queensland landscape, this view having been taken north of Camooweal a few months after the devastating floods of early 2019. In 1919 the Commonwealth’s Postmaster-General, Hon. William Webster, was openly dismissive of aviation’s commercial prospects here… ‘The whole question of aerial mail is absolutely impractical as far as this country is concerned. Aero mails might be of some practical value in densely populated countries where short journeys are entailed, but here in Australia with our sparse population and long distances between big mailing centres, the whole position is as different as night is from day! …unless I am very much mistaken, Australia will be the last country in the world to require them!’

Over such a short course with the highway never more than 9 nautical miles (17 kms) to the south; and with Cloncurry almost due east of Mount Isa; navigating between the two points shouldn’t be difficult – only it can be. It all looks the same from overhead, the tortured geological forms below allowing only fleeting, occasional glimpses of the highway. It was for this reason, perhaps, that the first Q.A.N.T.A.S flights tended to follow the railway line south to Duchess, then north-east (via Malbon) back into Cloncurry, a circuitous detour that almost doubles the flight time. Thirty kilometres east of Mt Isa I pass over the headwaters of the Leichhardt River – which empties into the Gulf of Carpentaria – looking just like every other dry creek bed in these parts, its irregular flow having been dammed in the late 1950s to provide water for the now-abandoned Mary Kathleen uranium mine township.

I got into the cabin. It was built for persons not exceeding 5ft. 6in. in stature, whereas I .. .. .. but let that pass. The pilot gave me a fine leather cap and I am glad to say I had brought thick rugs. They shut the lid of the cabin, which made it necessary for me to sit lower, and left slits of windows, 18 inches deep on each side. And now comes the moment which makes you feel you have not lived in vain. The chocks are kicked away from the wheels and Gauff moves forward, gathering speed, swings in a half circle, and heads into the wind. She is seen racing along the plain at 40, and then at 50 miles p.h. You await levitation with the same kind of eagerness which fascinated you when your beautiful toy engine of early youth began to function under steam. Gauff roars with frantic impatience to get away from the apron strings of mother earth, she frets to spurn the ground, tugging with fierce annoyance against the grasp of Great Aunt Gravity. It is not easy to tell precisely when you leave the earth, the character of the vibrations does not change suddenly, but, looking over the edge of the cabin sill, you notice that the height of the wings above the ground is a little more than it was, and the movements steadying. Once you have risen clear the roar of the engine increases to its maximum, the speed of the ‘plane becomes 90 miles p.h., and the space between the wings and the earth opens out with delightful rapidity. You swim in space. You rise spirally. The first curve over the aerodrome carries you to 300 feet, and after that you climb into the sky at a great rate. The huge hangar is soon no more than a humpie. A second wide sweeping curve and Cloncurry, when I looked at it from 1500 feet, had become as a few rows of dominoes laid out on the brown plain. Soon we were on our course and heading S.W., skirting the Argylla Ranges. The Cloncurry River had become a devious ditch wandering between two rows of cabbages, which had once been trees. Two thousand, three thousand, four thousand feet, up we go. At 5000 feet the trees have become dandelions, and houses are no more than dice dropped on a red brown table cloth. The earth appears not round nor flat, but saucering slightly, through, refraction, towards the horizon, which is now a hundred miles away. Sitting in the 32in. wide cabin, at first you hesitate to move for fear of disturbing the balance of your slender craft. It reminded me of my first attempt in a racing sculler (‘phunnies’ we used to call them, elsewhere they are called ‘whiffs’). The least mistake at first sent you into the water, but presently you learned to move without endangering your balance. So, too, in a ‘plane. The pilot told me afterwards that he could feel every movement of a passenger. The ‘plane gives to it if you only lean forward to look out of the cabin window.

(Townsville Daily Bulletin, 6 Sep 1926, p.10)

De Havilland DH50A G-AUER outside the Qantas hangar at Cloncurry. With its enclosed cabin accommodating four passengers, the DH50A marked the end of the cap and goggles era for passengers (National Library of Australia, PIC 3394/531 LOC ALBUM 1090/8/nla.obj-144768658).

Like Longreach, Cloncurry has for a hundred years enjoyed unbroken prosperity as an inland aerial terminus assisted mid-century by wartime expansions and, more recently, by tourism and mining FIFO operations. Original (and identical) Q.A.N.T.A.S hangars are preserved at both centres, each proudly showcasing its connection with the national carrier. Unlike Longreach however, Cloncurry’s airport is some 4.2 kilometres north of the town, leaving me to wonder just how enthusiastic crowds were ever able to assemble there – often at short notice – for those first aerial arrivals? While geography might have limited Paul McGinness’s airport siting options at Cloncurry, the same restrictions are not evident at Winton where the airfield and township, both sited on an expansive flat plain, are inconveniently – and inexplicably – 5.5 kilometres apart.

At 177 nautical miles (328 kms) the flight between Cloncurry and Winton, with its intermediate fuel stop at McKinlay, was a comparatively long haul offering few scenic distractions during the usually prolonged dry months.

Though clearly enraptured, Q.A.N.T.A.S’s first fare-paying passenger (84 year old grazier Alexander Kennedy) was at pains nonetheless to disguise the harsh realities of what he had seen and experienced…

At present the [fuselage cabin] space is small, and the noise from the engine is a little disagreeable…In travelling our distance from the ground was about 4000 yards [sic], and as the day was hazy, we could see but little on the ground. A fence could be seen now and then, and I regret to say that all the country from Barcaldine to here is still in need of rain. I have not seen green grass since crossing the Drummond Range in the train, and all the stock seen were in low condition.

That inaugural fare-paying service averaged what would have then been a respectable 60 knots (111 km h), assisted – in one direction at least – by the prevailing winds. Although the land was parched in early November 1922, the many channels that form the headwaters of the ephemeral Diamantina River would have been easy to distinguish, the Thomson River’s unmistakable form having also served as a beacon – on more than a few occasions – for Q.A.N.T.A.S pilots who’d lost their way to Longreach.

Qantas’s first aircraft, Avro 504 G-AUBG, photographed at Julian Creek station while enroute between Rockhampton and Carrandotta station (Geoffrey T A Scott Collection, ANU Archives Program).

Back then passenger and pilot would have communicated using sign language and scrawled notes, there being no intercom or air-to-ground electronic communications. By contrast, the wizardry of my ANR (Active Noise Reduction) headset allows me to converse effortlessly, guided by multiple GPS devices that bombard me with more navigational, meteorological and communications data than I am able to assimilate. And if my engine did suddenly stop out here in the boondocks I could, simply by switching radio frequency, communicate my distress immediately to the Brisbane Flight Information Service (or any other traffic in the area). Once activated, my EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) would also allow the Australian Maritime Safety Authority – in Canberra – to quickly pinpoint my location and initiate local search and recovery operations.

The temperamental telegraph was the only form of electronic communication available when Q.A.N.T.A.S began its airline service in late November 1922. A plane’s expected time of arrival would be transmitted to the point of destination whereafter, there was a total information blackout between departure and arrival.

Aside from these wondrous technological advances I am struck, mostly, by how little the landscape and aerial journey along this historic route have changed during the past century. Although the earth appeared unnaturally green (a consequence of recent rains), the land here remains just as vast, uninhabited and captivating as it much have seemed to those first aeronauts. And although there were dozens of international flights overflying me at any point in time (at 30,000 plus feet) I never once, down low, encountered or heard another aircraft at any point between Camooweal and Longreach. It might just as well have been early November 1922.


A Mk.V Spitfire over northern Australia, similar to that which Flying Officer Morton force landed near Gundare Station in south-west Queensland (author’s collection).

In early June 1944 the RAAF’s No.457 Squadron, one of three Spitfire units recalled from Britain for homeland defence, began exchanging its near-obsolete Mk.V aircraft with more effective Mk.VIIIs. As deliveries of the latter began arriving in the Northen Territory, squadron pilots would ferry equal numbers of the former south for overhaul and re-assignment – typically to Operational Training Units or mainland fighter squadrons.

Originally from Emerald in Central Queensland, twenty-one year old Pilot Officer Alexander Henry Morton (405639) was one of ten 452 and 457 squadron pilots tasked mid-July 1944 with ferrying Mk.Vs south to No.6 Aircraft Deport at Oakie [sic] in south-east Queensland. Delayed by one day, and escorted by a Beaufort bomber, the ferry flight left Sattler (N.T.) at 0740 on July 12th on a 1,590 nautical mile route tracking via Tennant Creek, Cloncurry, and Charleville.

Only seven of the eight planes that departed Cloncurry the following morning however, made it to Charleville that day. A corresponding entry in the squadron’s Operational Record Book records…’A signal has been received that P/O A.H. MORTON, flying A58-208, is missing in the vicinity of AUGATHELLA (Q) and that a Beaufort is conducting a search. A further signal has been received stating that P/O A.H.MORTON had made a forced landing, wheels down, in a paddock near AUGATHELLA. The airplane is undamaged and the pilot is unhurt.’

NAA BP243-1, K1065 PART 1 Page 277

The senior seargent at Augathella police station takes up the story….

…at about midday on the 15th. Instant, seven fighter planes piloted by R.A.A.F. Pilots, flew over Augathella and circled the town on several occasions. All of the planes then left. Shortly afterwards two of the planes were seen to return. I then received a telephone call from R.A.A.F. Headquarters, Charleville, informing me that the two planes were off their course, and asking me to arrange for smoke signals to give them the wind direction at some suitable landing ground near the town, as it was thought that they were short of petrol.

I immediately with the assistance of other town people, hurried by Motor Truck to Holley Downs Station two miles from Augathella and had smoke signals ready. At that time the planes had gone out of view. I left men at the scene, ready to light smoke signals should the planes again come in view. I then went in the truck to Holley Downs Station Homestead close by, and contacted the R.A.A.F. Headquarters, Charleville, by telephone. They informed me that the two planes had landed safely at Charleville aerodrome, but they informed me that there was still one plane missing.

A plane was sent out from Charleville shortly after, and after circling about Augathella located the missing plane on the ground at Gundare Station, and the Pilot signalled them that he was all right. The plane had landed about 20 miles from Augathella, and about four miles from Gundare Station Homestead. Flying officer Gould, who was in the searching plane gave directions to Pilot Officer Morton, who had made the forced landing in the Spitfire Fighting Plane, of the direction to take to Gundare Homestead, and then flew back to Charleville.

Lieutenant Mines of Augathella, who is head of the V.D.C. at Augathella, was at Gandare Station at the time, and located Pilot Officer Morton on his way to the Gundare Homestead, and took him to the homestead. The pilot was none the worse for the experience, and was unhurt, and had landed the plane undamaged.

Pilot Morton contacted the R.A.A.F. Charleville and with Lieutenant Mines of the V.D.C. arrangements were immediately made for a V.D.C. guard to be placed on the plane. At members of the R.A.A.F. Charleville arrived at Augathella, Flight Officer Gould being in charge. I had a conversation with him on his arrival and he assured me that everything was all right, and that he was going out to Gundare to pick up pilot Officer Morton to take him to Charleville, also to make arrangements for petrol to be taken to the plane to have it refueled to have it flown to Charleville.

I accompanied the RAAF men to Gundare Station, where I saw Pilot officer Morton who was unhurt, and he informed me that he had sufficient petrol to get to Charleville had he known the direction, but he did not know his location, and seeing a suitable landing ground he decided to land which he did without mishap.

We attempted to get to the site of a plane, but owing to the recent rain we were unable owing to the boggy state of the ground to get to the Plane. As there was a V.D.C. guard on the plane we brought Pilot Officer back to Augathella.

Sergt. 2/C 2513
Augathella Station

(Queensland State Archives: ID 320040)

Morton completed the half hour flight from Augathella to Charleville on May 18th, departing from there at 10 am the following day for No.6 Aircraft Depot, Oakie [sic] where he landed one hour and fifty minutes later.

Having survived the out-landing at Gundare Station, Spitfire A58-208 made another forced-landing the following month (due to engine trouble) while being delivered from No.6 Aircraft Depot to 85 Squadron in West Australia.

Since he is referred to in these squadron and police records as ‘Pilot Officer’, Morton – and his commanding officers – might have been unaware that his promotion to Flying Officer had in fact been formally gazetted just a few weeks earlier (Government Gazette. 29 June 1944, Issue No.127, page 1326).

He returned to Central Queensland after the war and became a farmer at Sunny Hills, Ridgelands, north-west of Rockhampton.

Ipswich Railway Workshops

Mitsubishi A6M engine valve cover sent to the Ipswich Railway Workshops for metallurgical analysis during the Second World War (Workshops Rail Museum, Ipswich)

As a consequence of the 1939 British Air Mission to Australia, the state railways in Victorian, New South Wales, and South Australian each became involved in the production of military aircraft and aero engines.

Following a visit to Queensland in March 1939 by the Mission’s Technical Member L C Ord, serious consideration was also given to expanding the state rail workshops at Ipswich, west of Brisbane, so that aircraft and engine production could commence there.

Ord had ’empasized the necessity for spreading production of aircraft as widely as possible over industrial areas of the Commonwealth’, adding that …’It was preferable to use existing offices and buildings if a quick start were desired.’ (The Courier-Mail, 25 March 1939 Page 2)

Negotiations between the Queensland State and Commonwealth Governments commenced earnestly mid July 1939, points of difference appearing almost immediately. Ord had estimated a minimum floor space requirement of 30,000 square feet, only 10,000 of which was then available. Although the Commonwealth was prepared to fund the expansion, it insisted on being ‘reimbursed the salvage value of such provisions or alterations when the buildings are no longer required for the purpose.’ This proposition was rejected outright by the Queensland Premier in a letter to R G Casey (Minister for Supply & Development) dated 14 July 1939:

‘…the Queensland Government does not regard with favour the proposition that it should spend £30,000 on buildings that are not needed for the State’s own requirements and may never be used.’ (Queensland State Archives Item 267150)

The Commonwealth responded the following month by sending the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation’s General Manager (the unfortunately named – Mr Clapp) to Ipswich, the latter finding ‘that the facilities available in the Ipswich railway workshops, as well as in private engineering establishments in Queensland, were incompatible with the carrying out of the work which it was originally tentatively proposed should be allocated to Queensland.’

The Ipswich facilities which Ord had described in March 1939 as ‘impressive’ were, barely five months later, deemed by Clapp to be ‘incompatible’. The latter’s findings effectively put an end to the proposal, triggering an immediate recall of the four Queensland Railway employees who had been sent to England mid year for production aircraft training (a fifth trainee, Toolmaker Wood, remaining in England to complete his training).

Although during the war the Ipswich Workshops were mainly producing munitions they did, by virtue of their of their metallurgical expertise, occasionally have some limited involvement with military aviation.

Vince Preston, who worked in the Tool and Gauge Room at Ipswich during the war, recalled how these engines pieces – recovered from a Japanese Zero fighter aircraft – had been sent to Ipswich for metallurgical analysis (hence, the drill holes)….’we were under a lot of pressure to provide quick and accurate results.’

Toy Story

Yesterday I visited – for the first time – both the historic Evans Head airfield in northern New South Wales, and the co-located museum run by the Evans Head Memorial Aerodrome and Aviation Association. Although filled with heavy – and light – metal of the kind you’ll see replicated in similar museums throughout the continent, I was awestruck nonetheless that a small group of regional volunteers should have achieved so much, in such short time.

The highlight for me however was not the macho gas-guzzling production machinery but rather, a seemingly insignificant bespoke item encased in the gloomy shadows of a girder column, its all-too-brief caption revealing only that it had once belonged to an RAAF Aircraftwoman. Here possibly, at last, was a personal story – the real stuff of aviation.

Never before had I seen a more charming wooden model aeroplane, let alone a hand-carved RAAF Anson so finely detailed as to even include a serial number and a place of origin (viz. Cootamundra). But what most intrigued me was the suggestion that this curio had once been owned, possibly even carved, by an Aircraftwoman – so much of our military history and heritage having been written and shaped by men. Here’s some of the backstory to that model.

Born in Sydney on 7 August 1922, Joan Mary Stevenson was 19 years old when, on 29 September 1941, she presented at the No.2 Recruiting Centre (Sydney) and signed up for a twelve month stint with the Women’s Auxilliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) – serving initially as a W/T Operator, then later as a Telegraphist.

She commenced her initial training at Malvern, before being posted to No.1 S.T.T., subsequently serving at the Melboure W/T Station and Eastern Area H.Q (1942); RAAF Nowra (September 1943); then No.1 Air Observer’s School at Cootamundra (August 1943).

The following year – on 14 August 1943 – she married Sgt. John Strachan McCormack (VX80179) of the 1st Australian Parachute Training Regiment (Richmond), the WAAAF granting her four days leave – presumably for the wedding and honeymoon.

At just 5′ 4″, her youthful appearance and diminutive stature may have belied what the Air Force – fortunately – recognized as obvious leadership potential. Although she’d only had the benefit of an ‘intermediate’ education, and had only previously ever performed clerical duties at David Jones, her conduct assessments were consistently exemplary such that within five months of joining she’d been promoted to Corporal, receiving her sergeant stripes in August 1944. That future promise, however, was never realized.

At 0745 on 11 September 1944 a military aircraft crashed at Glen Innes (N.S.W.) – during a training flight – killing all five crew members, including newly promoted – and married – Sgt. Mary McCormack. It was a 1 AOS Avro Anson (LT781) from Cootamundra, just like the little model found later amongst her personal effects.

NAA. A9186, 380 Page 128

Eye-witnesses state that the plane had previously circled over the locality at a good height. When it was returning an explosion was heard. The plane then crashed into Eimer’s [unoccupied] house, a short distance ahead, and flames immediately shot into the air…The tragedy occurred within 150 yards of the home of Mr. and Mrs. John Noble, parents of the late Flight Sgt. Noble, one of the victims of the tragedy, and fragments of the fabric from the plane were scattered in their yard. (Glen Innes Examiner, 12 Sep 1944, Page 1)

A Court of Inquiry subsequently found that the aircraft may have suffered structural failure while pulling out of a low drive.

Joan’s husband, John, died in South Australia in 1990 aged 72, seemingly having never remarried.

NAA: Ah705, 166/12/100 Page 45 of 45