The Air Disaster Memorial

A visit to the Air Disaster Memorial, Canberra Australia

On Saturday, my family and I took the trek up to the Air Disaster Memorial at the Fairbairn Pine Plantation in Canberra. I have wanted to visit the memorial for a number of years as it is the site of a tragedy that became a turning point in Australia’s political and military history.

When you first arrive at the base of the hill near the Canberra Speedway and the Paintball sports ground it feels like you cannot possibly be in the right place. The splat of the paintball guns and the hollers of the revellers seem distinctly out-of-place. A small white plaque not much bigger than a credit card attached to a dark green post guides you to the trail that you will follow to the memorial nestled far away in the trees.

Within moments of leaving the car park, and starting up the hill the noise below disappears, cut off by the trees and the loan moan of the wind. A kangaroo or two will cross your path, or a flock of choughs; their white wing-fans flashing against their black bodies.

The road changes from ochre, to grey stone, and back again to ochre as you progress; a steady walk of a kilometre or so, up and down a couple of small hills. The entire time you are surrounded by pines; their branches rattling in the wind. You pass the edge of the Defence firing range, its large white signs on high wire fences warning of the dire consequences of trespass. Here lies unexploded ordnance.

The path goes up another small hill, a turn to the right, then onward. A break in the trees on your left reveals a low cement plinth in the shape of an aeroplane wing stretching toward you. At the far end a grey metal plaque has been erected on an aerodynamic lectern, its surface weathered by hard Canberra winters.

Behind, is the older memorial, erected on the site of the crash in 1960; a single monolith of stone with a metal plaque. For many years, this monolith was the only memorial to a disaster which changed the course of the war for Australia, and was partially responsible for the fall of the Menzies government.

On 13th August 1940, three Commonwealth ministers, the Chief of General Staff, two of their staff and four crew members flew in a RAAF Lockheed Houston aeroplane from Melbourne to Canberra to attend a Cabinet meeting. They never made it. On the approach to the RAAF airbase at Fairbairn, it lost altitude and crashed through the eucalypt trees into the top of the hill. The loss of so many men vital to Australia’s war effort was a severe blow to the country.

There has been ongoing debate over the years as to the cause of the crash and even some conjecture as to who was flying at the time it crashed.

The site itself is not particularly impressive unless you stop to contemplate the magnitude of what happened here 77 years ago and its effect on our nation in a time of war. The three ministers killed were the Minister of state for the Army, the Minister of State for Air and the Vice President of the Executive Council. Along with the Chief of the General Staff, General White, we lost four of our top Military experts in one terrible accident.

The site is hemmed in by the pine plantation and some of the native eucalyptus trees that still survive from the time of the accident. The silence is sometimes punctured by the distant sound of gunfire from the Defence firing range or the passage of helicopters and aeroplanes flying over from the nearby airport. It seems fitting that these sounds intrude; linking the past to the present.

Visiting the site after dark is not for the feint hearted and there have been a ghost story or two associated with the site over the years. In some circles, the night time trip to the memorial is considered a rite of passage.

This remote and slightly eerie site would make a good setting for a scene in my next book, and I am contemplating a meeting between Clio and Renee occurring here for a number of reasons.

Whether you are a history buff, a nature lover, or an exercise junky, the trek to the memorial is one to add to your bucket list. You may even see a kookaburra or two.

For further reading, check out the following links:

National Archives of Australia fact sheet 142
ABC News 75th anniversary of the disaster
Wikipedia entry