In October 1938, a plane crash on Mount Dandenong became Australia’s first major air disaster. The aftermath would change aviation in this country.
In the 1930s, air travel was a work in progress.
The medium itself was still new; Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first manned flight had taken place in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, only in 1903. The first flight in Australia had occurred in 1910 when stage magician Harry Houdini, touring the country, flew his own plane just outside of Melbourne (read more about this here).
Early air travel was exceedingly dangerous.
‘Flyers braved great peril in less than substantial craft. The ‘Vickers Vimy’ (an early aircraft) was little more than a box kite with a motor.’
– Bill Bryson, ‘One Summer, America 1927’
Plane trips were undertaken by adventurous thrill seekers. Crashes, and fatalities, were frequent.
The first commercial passenger service started in 1914, in Tampa, Florida.
Others followed suit, mostly across America and Europe. These early services were limited, usually connecting a few cities in close approximation, and the planes often took off and landed on water.
Australia’s first passenger service, Qantas, commenced operation in 1920.
With a handful of wooden biplanes, that could each carry one pilot and two passengers, Qantas linked remote mining and agricultural centres across Queensland and the Northern Territory.
Technological advancements soon produced bigger and safer aircraft.
In the late 1920s, planes evolved from wood to metal. These were heavier but far sturdier, lifted by more powerful engines that could carry a bigger payload. Better planes lead to new applications; air mail, commercial freight and the military, among them.
Passenger planes improved as well, driven by two trend setting American companies: Boeing and Douglas.
Their signature planes – Boeing the 247, Douglas the ‘DC’ 1 and 2 – were cutting edge for the era. Each had a metal fuselage, an enclosed cabin, and modern conveniences like bathrooms and food and drink service.
But while plane travel advanced rapidly, and became more popular, in other ways it remained rudimentary.
The cabins were not pressurised, so passengers had to bring warm clothing. And navigation was basic to a degree that is hard to imagine; radar was not invented until World War II, so pilots in the 1930s navigated using a compass, charts, and visual landmarks they could spot through the window.
It was like sailing an airborne ship.
Douglas launched the DC-2 in 1934.
It had twin propeller engines, a cabin 1.6 metres wide, and the capacity for 14 passengers. With a maximum speed of 340km/hour, and a range of 1 600 km, the DC2 allowed for more comfortable travel, and a wider range of passenger destinations.
It arrived in Australia in 1936, when two were purchased by ‘Australian National Airlines’, on the largest carriers in the small local market. Based in Adelaide, they operated a service between their home city and Perth, and another to Melbourne.
The plane on the Melbourne route was named, ‘Kyeema’.
On October 25, 1938, the ‘Kyeema’ set out from Adelaide on its run to Melbourne.
The route and the DC2 had proved popular; the trip was fast and the plane comfortable. The passenger list of 14 was made up of business people, two winemakers, a couple on their honeymoon, and Charles Hawker, Parliamentary Representative for the South Australian seat of Wakefield.
The flight departed Adelaide at 11.20am.
The first part of the trip went smoothly. The weather over South Australia was clear, conditions good for flying.
But approaching Melbourne, the pilots ran into bad weather; thick, low cloud and fog blanketed the city. Relying largely on their own eyesight to navigate, this presented a significant challenge.
The Kyeema’s destination was Essendon airport, in Melbourne’s north western suburbs (today’s main airport, Tullamarine, would not be built until 1970). The pilots counted on being able to find it easily, as it was close to the city which was visible from a significant distance.
But in the heavy cloud, they now miscalculated their position.
Forced to use guess work based on manual calculations, they flew significantly past, and too far north, of their destination.
When they reduced altitude and emerged from the cloud cover, they were on a fatal collision course with Mount Dandenong. It is likely they only had seconds to react.
The plane hit the mountain at high speed, careening through the thickly wooded area.
The propellers cut through the tops of the trees, sheering them off for fifty metres, before the wings were ripped from the fuselage. The plane then crashed to a halt, throwing several bodies through the windows, and exploding into a fireball.
Debris scattered across a wide area, and the surrounding forest caught alight, the blaze visible across the surrounding area.
First on the scene were two labourers, identified in the press as R.Lowden and A.Murphy, who were clearing timber nearby.
‘I heard the plane circle low overhead at half speed. Then it seemed to bank and dive straight into the hill.
We rushed to the plane but it had burst into flames. We were kept back by the heat.’
– R.Lowden, quoted in ‘The Daily News’
There were no survivors.
The crash sent a shockwave through Australia’s fledgling air travel industry; safety had been billed as one of the DC2’s primary features.
A public enquiry was held to determine the cause of the crash, and restore public confidence. Hearings were conducted in Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building, commencing October 30.
Human error was quickly established. The pilots had not only been thrown by bad weather over Melbourne, but had been off course prior to that, likely confusing the rural town of Hepburn Springs with one closer to the city, which skewed their subsequent calculations.
It was also discovered that Essendon airport already had a radio beacon, installed some eighteen months before the crash, that was not in regular use. The beacon emitted a powerful pulse, that could be detected by planes, and help them zero in on their destination without relying on visibility.
The beacon had not been turned on the day of the Kyeema crash, as a cost cutting measure.
At its conclusion, the Kyeema investigation made several safety recommendations, that would help reshape Australian aviation.
Chief among these: responsibility for the oversight of civilian air travel would transfer from the Department of Defence, where it was not given a high priority, to a standalone body, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). The new body would be given increased resources and enforcement powers.
The CAA would instigate a reform of Australia’s Air Traffic Control system, moving towards instrument based navigation in an attempt to reduce human error. Navigation by line of sight was no longer appropriate, in an era of mass air travel.
A network of radio beacons, similar to the unused one at Essendon, would be deployed at airports across Australia, and their use mandated.
Radios would also be required on all aircraft, to allow air traffic control to communicate with approaching planes; at the time of the crash, some planes carried radios, but this was not compulsory.
Australia was one of the first countries in the world to enact such far reaching air safety regulations.
In the end, only 200 DC2’s were manufactured by Douglas. It was superseded in 1939 by the more advanced DC3, which became one of the most successful passenger aircraft in history.
Near the top of Mount Dandenong, a small sign commemorates the location of the Kyeema crash.