Connair: The early days of Australian Aviation and Exploration

Distance Travelled: 43,011km
Date: 9th May 2012

In an attempt to write something short and quick, I thought I’d tell you about what I discovered yesterday. It’s taken me half a day to write it. Although to be fair, much of that was while I was bored on a plane.

On my way to visit the Desert Park in Alice Springs, a desert built in the desert, I stopped off at the Araluen Cultural Precinct. This was mostly to see the fossilised skeleton of Stirton’s Thunder Bird in the Museum of Central Australia.

An Emu, as context

There were also a few cool aboriginal exhibits, although apparently the vast majority are culturally sensitive, and kept out of the sight of the public.

Left to right, then top to bottom: Stone Pick. Hooked Boomerang. Hunting Boomerang. Fighting Boomerang. Wooden Club.

While I was there, I stumbled across one of the hidden gems of Alice Springs (of which there are many, largely because the town is so out of the way that virtually everything about it is hidden from the rest of the country). This was the Central Australian Aviation Museum, the site of the original airstrip in Alice Springs, and the home of Connellan Airways. The latter is shortened to Connair, a fact I found endlessly amusing.

Connair was the airline serving the center of Australia, mostly used by ranchers and their families, as well as for the odd surveying mission. It was often commissioned by the Royal Flying Doctors Service, which used Connair planes and pilots to reach people in remote areas. It operated from the late 1930s until 1980, when they were bought out.

One of the first RFDS owned planes

The hangars had been out of service since 1968, and by 1970 there were houses along the old runway. Hidden among the old engines, navigation equipment and artefacts only of interest to enthusiasts were some of the most incredible stories of exploration, bravery and endurance to be found anywhere, as airmen struggled to visit and explore the great ‘never never’.

By this time, the interior of the continent had been penetrated and crossed by the great explorers of Australian history – men like Giles, Stuart and Gosse, but the sheer size of Australia meant that only a minute fraction had been seen.

The Tragedy of James Knight

James Knight was an experienced airman and navigator, living in Melbourne in the early ‘60s. On the 13th of January 1962, he left Melbourne for Perth. Refueling at Ceduna, some 750 miles from Melbourne at the head of the Great Australian Bight, he flew onward into the desert, never to be seen again.

Knight’s Wackett VH-BEC

One of the greatest searches ever conducted in Australian aviation history was conducted, covering 26,000 square miles, and lasting for 19 straight days. Eighteen planes were involved, racking up 750 hours of flight time between them, as well as numerous ground searches.

The blue area is the ‘area of probability’, where they thought he’d be, around his projected route. The black area is the area that was searched. That line going north is the direction that Knight actually flew in.

Over three years later, his aircraft was discovered during an unrelated geological survey. Knight had kept a diary on the dorsal panels of his plane, allowing us to know what had happened in his final days. He also scratched out his last will and testament. In it he mentioned his fiancée, who in a poignant twist of fate had moved on, and was being married on the same day as Knight’s plane was discovered.

Upon leaving Ceduna, Knight’s primary compass had malfunctioned. In his diary he tells of his despair at finding the front compass had a 30 degree discrepancy when compared with the rear compass. It was later calculated that he had been off course by 42 degrees.

Trusting implicitly in his instruments, Knight flew hundreds of miles off course, heading straight into the deserts of central Australia. The terrain was monotonous sandhill country, and there were no landmarks to alert him that he was well off course.

At ten past four in the afternoon, utterly lost and running low on fuel, he made a precautionary landing between a pair of sand ridges in the Great Victorian Desert. Vainly waiting for a rescue that was never to arrive, he turned the plane around ready to fly out when more fuel was made available. He ran out of water long before that. His body was never found.

Knight’s Wackett VH-BEC lined up for the take-off that never came.

The Famous Kurt Johannsen Propeller

On Wednesday the 25th October 1950, Kurt Johannsen took off in a de Havilland Moth, The Tiger, from Mt Lyell Brown in the Ehrenberg Range, west of Alice Springs, with Jimmy Prince, his partner, for a mineral survey around Mt Butterfield, north of the Rawlinson Range, WA. They landed successfully on Lake Hopkins to refuel from jerry-cans. During a turn while taxiing, one wheel bogged, tipping the Tiger on its nose and breaking about 15 inches from each end of the propeller. “So there we were, nose in mud, tail in air, without a propeller or any ‘minties’ for a moment like this!”

Using the propeller for a shovel, Johannsen dug down a metre through salt crystals until he struck brine. Using twin jerry-cans, he made a freshwater condenser, which yielded 6 litres a day. He then balanced the propeller on a screwdriver after chipping away with the tomahawk to affect a perfect balance. Lightening the Tiger of all gear, he left Prince with the still and most of their supplies. The takeoff track zig-zagged past soft crust and the Moth staggered into the air after hitting a washout and bouncing into the air.

With the engine doing 3300 RPM (1400 above that regarded as permissible) the semi-stalled Moth clawed at the air 2 metres above the Mulga. Eagles showed him where thermals were. Johannsen made for these and soon attained 100 metres above terrain. As he thermalled, he was able to throttle back to 2700 RPM and maintain height, finally landing back at the Ehrenberg base camp. He flew another Moth out and picked up Jimmy Prince. After fitting another propeller to his well tried engine, the expedition returned safely to Alice Springs.

The Kookaburra, and the Coffee Royal Affair

Leaving the main Aviation Museum, I came across the last resting site of the Kookaburra. At one time the most famous and sought after object in Australia, it now sits largely forgotten in a quiet memorial building in a corner of the cultural centre. The Kookaburra went down in the desert while looking for a missing pilot by the name of Charles Kingford Smith.

Kingford Smith was the greatest Australian airman of his generation, and arguably the greatest aviator ever. Just a year after Lindbergh’s historic solo flight across the Atlantic, Kingford Smith became the first to cross the Pacific – an ocean that’s not only on a much larger scale, but one with far more dangerous and less understood air currents. After ten men had died in a race to be the first to get a plane to Hawaii, a trans-oceanic crossing was widely held to be impossible and insane. But Kingford Smith managed it in a cloth covered 1920s Fokker that was so basic that the seats weren’t even bolted down.

Kingford Smith wasn’t travelling solo, and always had a navigator and a radio-man with him, so it is unfair to compare him to Lindbergh, but he did take on tougher challenges. After the Pacific, he became the first man to fly from Australia to New Zealand and back, the first to cross the Atlantic east-west (against the Jet Stream), and the first to cross the Pacific going the other way. He also held numerous records for fastest flights between Australia and England, and various other legs.

Which brings us to the Kookaburra. In March 1929, with a crew of three, Kingford Smith took off from Sydney on their way to England, and into a controversial episode in Australian aviation history. En route to Wyndham, on the Kimberly coast of Western Australia, they hit bad weather and got hopelessly lost (somewhat predictably, as all they had by way of navigation equipment was a couple of admiralty charts and a map of Australia torn from a standard Times Atlas).

28 hours after takeoff his plane, the Southern Cross, sent out a short radio message: “We are about to make a forced landing in bad country.” The nation waited – there was no further message.

They had made a landing, unhurt, on coastal mudflats. They had almost no fuel left, and were hopelessly short on supplies. Stranded with no radio contact with the outside world, Kingford Smith brewed coffee and laced it with brandy, to make a Coffee Royal. Thus what followed became known, somewhat darkly, as the Coffee Royal Affair.

Despite the lack of preparation, the Southern Cross had come down in an area which had plentiful freshwater, and enough food to keep the crew alive for a while. Mud snails mostly, but in that situation you can’t be picky.

Convinced that the official search was concentrated in the wrong area, five days after the Southern Cross sent out that fateful distress call, Keith Anderson and his mechanic Bob Hitchcock flew out from Sydney on a privately funded search for his downed friend. He flew the Kookaburra, recently purchased with the help of a generous gift from Kingford Smith.

The little Kookaburra was barely equipped for such a hazardous trip. The compass was faulty, there was no radio, and it only had a limited toolkit. In their haste to depart, it was only stocked with three litres of water, a handful of sandwiches and some cake.

Anderson and Hendricks, with the ill-fated Kookaburra

An airworthy scale model of the Kookaburra. It was constructed at 25% scale by Bob Vigar, and has flown for 30 minutes.

Leaving Alice Springs on the 10th of April, on what was supposed to be the final leg, the Kookaburra drifted off course and the engine began to sputter and backfire. They were forced to make an emergency landing.

They landed in the parched emptiness of the Tanami Desert, a place that unlike Kingford Smith’s location offered no succour. Attempting to clear a runway with a penknife and their bare hands, they eventually resorted to attempting to clear some space by lighting a fire. This having failed too, they sat back to wait for rescue.

They were dead by the third day.

Almost the same time as they were wretchedly expiring, a de Havilland search plane, the Canberra, spotted the Southern Cross and sent the message: “Found. Found. All Safe.” Later, the relative ease of the survival of Kingford Smith and his crew led to widespread accusations of the whole thing being a staged publicity stunt, although a tribunal cleared them of any wrongdoing.

The relief at the rescue of Kingford Smith and his crew was tempered by the realisation that the spotlight of tragedy had shifted to Anderson and Hitchcock, now long overdue at Wyndham airfield.

Five planes had been searching the Tanami Desert for about a week before the Atlanta spotted the downed plane. Seeing a prostrate figure under a wing but being unable to land, the pilot dropped water and radioed the location to the other RAAF searchers.

It wasn’t for another week before a ground party was able to reach the site. There they found the bodies of the two men- Hitchcock under the wing, and Anderson several hundred meters from the plane. They were buried where they lay, and the RAAF planes dropped wreaths on the site. Seeing as they had wreaths in the planes, they clearly knew what they were likely to find.

The tragedy of Anderson and Hitchcock dismayed the country, and under public pressure the government brought their bodies back. Hitchcock’s family opted for a quiet family funeral in Perth, but Anderson was given a state funeral in Sydney. For days beforehand people in their thousands stood in line to view the coffin, and thousands more lined the roads to watch the cortege or gathered at the burial site. It was the biggest funeral that had ever occurred in Sydney.

The Kookaburra was destined to lie in the Tanami however. The little plane was still airworthy, and an airstrip had been cleared, but it was decided that there wasn’t enough time to fly it out. It was swallowed by the desert.

In the late 50s reports that one of the members of the search exhibition had discovered gold some 22 kilometres from the Kookaburra began to surface, and the hunt to find it was on again.

It remained lost until 1961, when an unrelated surveying party stumbled across what was now only wreckage. It was then lost again, and numerous attempts to find it failed until Dick Smith, equipped with 4WD vehicles and a helicopter, found it again. It wasn’t returned to Alice Springs until 1982, ending up 150 metres from the point it took off 53 years before.

You can see how hard it would’ve been to find in the desert.

Gold was never again found in the same area.

Kingford Smith was fated to die in 1935 off the coast of Burma, on his way back from England after setting yet more records. Sydney airport is named for him, but he is elsewhere only fitfully remembered. Anderson and Hitchcock are completely forgotten, aside from this small memorial, which seems to attract no attention whatever.

The wreck of the Kookaburra.

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One Response to Connair: The early days of Australian Aviation and Exploration

  1. Sally says:

    There are still historians and others interested in the story of the Kookaburra and I hope that it will re-surface. Sergeant Pilot Eric Douglas my father was part of the RAAF search party

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