Clipping of a 1940 article from The Sun newspaper published in New South Wales


NLA news article 230915951
Date made
Place made
Sydney, New South Wales

Copyright expired - public domain


Fairbairn, Street, Gullett In Air Crash


Sir Brudenell White, Six Others Dead


CANBERRA, Tuesday.

Three Federal Ministers, two high army officers and five others were killed near Canberra today in Australia's most appalling air disaster. All 10 in the plane were burned to death as fierce flames drove off rescuers. The victims were:

The Minister for the Army , Mr. Street; The Minister for the Air , Mr. Fairbairn; The Vice-President of the Executive Council, Sir Henry Gullett; The Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Brudenell White; Lieut.-Col. F. Thornthwaite, of Army Headquarters; Mr. R. E. Elford, Private Secretary to Mr. Fairbairn; Flight-Lieut. R. E. Hitchcock , 38, married, of Laverton; Pilot-Officer R. F. Wiesner, 28, married, of Laverton; J. F. Palmer, 29, wireless operator; Aircraftman C. J. Crosdale, 30.

The plane left Melbourne for Canberra at 9.29 a.m. and crashed at 11.30 a.m., about a mile from the Canberra R.A.A.F. aerodrome. The plane was seen to circle the drome and then rise again and head southward. It dipped suddenly, going into a spin behind a tree-dotted hill, and then people on the aerodrome heard an explosion. A great sheet of flame shot into the air, followed by a dense cloud of smoke.

Immediately an emergency squad from the Canberra R.A.A.F. Squadron set out for the scene of the smash. The squad had to drive along the Queanbeyan-road for about three miles and then speed across rough, open country for about another mile.

Guard Placed On Road

When they arrived, the plane was blazing fiercely, and it was impossible to approach within 50 yards. The men were forced to stand by and watch the flames destroy the machine.

The Canberra Fire Brigade and Canberra and Queanbeyan Ambulances in addition to several Air Force tenders were on the scene shortly afterwards, and fire extinguishers were played on the blazing wreckage. After about half an hour, when the blaze died down, a terrible sight confronted the rescuers. The entire undercarriage, wings and structural supports of the plane had been ripped away and were a smouldering mass, in which could be seen the charred bodies of those on board. The rudder and tail, pointing in the air at an angle of 45 degrees, were all that was left intact of the plane. A charred tree was in the middle of the wreckage.

As soon as possible, ambulance officials and the emergency squadron drew from the wreckage the unrecognisable bodies of the victims.

An armed Air Force guard was placed on the main road near the scene of the crash to keep back the hundreds who streamed from Canberra as soon as the disaster became known.

The office staff of the Minister for the Army looked out of the window of the Minister's office in Parliament House when the plane was circling overhead, and said to each other, "The Brigadier will soon be here."

They saw the plane circle over the drome and then disappear again. Shortly afterwards came word from the aerodrome that the plane had crashed.

The private secretary to the Prime Minister (Mr. Tritton) and the private secretary to the Minister for the Army (Mr. Hayter), and the assistant private secretary to the Minister for the Air immediately drove to the scene of the crash to try to identify any of the bodies. This was impossible. They returned to Parliament House to notify the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) of what they had seen.

Flying conditions were almost ideal when the machine arrived from Melbourne on schedule, and after a preliminary circuit of the drome evidently to ensure that all was clear headed out to the south-west to make a final glide into the drome.

The sky was almost completely clear of cloud and there was only a moderate breeze. The personnel of the machine must have had a clear view of the landing ground and the machine appeared to be functioning perfectly when after a circuit of the 'drome it headed south-west.

"Then it came down into the wind," said an eyewitness. ''We saw it glide away towards the hills near Queanbeyan, and then it turned in a normal manner for the final glide on to the aerodrome It was in full view of all those who were working in the open.

"As it approached the aerodrome from a distance of two or three miles, we saw the wing flaps let down for the final landing and heard the motors throttle back. We thought the plane would land in another minute or two

"Suddenly, just as It was above the last of the low hills on the Queanbeyan boundary of the aerodrome, the machine suddenly made a turn to the right and flew away from the aerodrome.

"At the time. It appeared to be between three and four hundred feet above the hills

"This sudden turn was completely abnormal, and there appeared to be no reason why It should have been made.

Nose Of Machine Dipped

"Hardly had the turn been completed when the nose of the machine dipped; and we were horrified to see it spin with terrific force down behind a hill," said the eyewitness

The plane was in an almost vertical dive when it disappeared behind the hill. A split second later there was a loud explosion, followed by a huge burst of smoke and flame. The aerodrome ambulance, which was standing by in accordance with, routine of an aerodrome, was promptly manned and rushed to the scene of the crash. It was followed by a line of Air Force tenders, hurriedly manned by personnel who had witnessed the crash.

The turn away from the aerodrome which preceded the crash has mystified those who witnessed it. This manoeuvre appeared to be completely unnecessary, as the machine was gliding normally, and even.

Mr. Menzies's grief, tributes of nation to dead men, and sketches of their careers, on Page 3.

If an engine had failed, the machine had sufficient altitude to have cleared the boundary fence and landed on the aerodrome.

Two other Ministers, Senator McLeay and Mr. Fadden, had been asked to travel in the plane but declined.

"I was lucky not to be on the plane." said Senator McLeay. "I was phoned yesterday in Melbourne and asked whether I would care to go but I had an important conference on the train with the Controller-General of Customs, so I declined." he said.

Mr. Fadden said that he was asked yesterday by Mr. Fairbairn whether he would care to fly to Canberra in stead of going back by train.

"I had no particular reason for refusing," Mr. Fadden said. "However, I had booked my berth on the train, and rather than go through all the formality of cancelling, I decided to come back here by train."

After a memorial service at Parliament House tomorrow, the remains of the victims will be brought to Melbourne by train, arriving on Thursday morning.

A State procession will be held from Spencer Street railway station to St. Paul's Cathedral, where a special service will be held. Subsequent funeral arrangements will be made according to the wishes of the relatives.

Federal parliament will sit tomorrow for the purpose only of hearing the formal announcement of the death of the three Ministers and of placing on record their distinguished service. Parliament will then adjourn until next week, probably Tuesday.

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