Senator Alan Eggleston


I rise tonight to record the relevance to the parliament of a recently published book about a tragic air crash that changed the course of Australian political history. The book is Air Disaster Canberra: the plane crash that destroyed a government by Andrew Tink.

The crash of a Hudson aircraft as it came in to land in Canberra on 13 August 1940 was a particularly momentous event in Australia's political history in that it started a chain of events that eventually led to the bringing down of the Menzies government, giving Australia a Labor government under Prime Minister John Curtin for the duration of the Second World War.

The crash, which ended in a fiery inferno, killed all 10 on board. Its passengers were coming to Canberra from Melbourne for a cabinet meeting. The plane carried three cabinet ministers and the chief of the war staff. The three ministers killed were the Minister for the Army, Geoffrey Street; the Minister for Air, James Fairbairn; and the Vice-President of the Executive Council, Sir Henry Gullett; and also the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Brudenell White, who in World War I was the first Australian to achieve the rank of full general during wartime.

Their deaths destabilized the wartime Menzies government. In the general election that Menzies brought forward by a couple of months, one of those killed was replaced by an Independent who initially sided with the government but who later crossed the floor, effectively bringing down the government the following year. So as a direct consequence of the crash, the conservatives lost government and Western Australia's John Curtin gained power and subsequently was written into the history books as Australia's wartime Prime Minster who turned to the United States over Britain to assist in the defence of Australia after the fall of Singapore. While Australians have been generally unaware of the tragedy or its impact, we now have the benefit of this very detailed account of the crash and its consequences for the first time. It is a very important book and very interesting to read.

Andrew Tink is an award-winning author—a barrister who took up writing when he stepped down from his career in New South Wales politics, having been shadow Attorney-General and Leader of the House for many years. His third book, Air Disaster Canberra, was officially launched last month at New South Wales Parliament House by New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell. The launch was also attended by former Prime Minister John Howard.

As a Western Australian and a believer in justice, I want to bring it to the notice of the Senate that, from his painstaking research, Andrew Tink has come to the conclusion that an injustice has been done to the ill-fated plane's pilot, Bob Hitchcock, who, as it happens, was a Western Australian. In the four inquiries that followed, it was determined that the crash was the result of pilot error by the designated pilot, Bob Hitchcock. The plane—a Hudson bomber converted for passenger travel for use by the then Minister for Air, James Fairbairn—was in good mechanical order, and it was fine, clear weather around Canberra that day.

There was no explanation as to how Hitchcock could make such a fatal error in landing the aircraft when he had graduated in Hudson flying in the previous July, after 49 hours of solo practise, and had accrued 107 hours in flying Hudsons. Hitchcock had previously landed at Canberra, and so he understood the idiosyncrasies of Canberra airport, having to come in over the hills. Also, he had landed perfectly at Essendon Airport that morning, after flying in from the RAAF's Laverton airfield to pick up his passengers in the Hudson.

There were rumours at the time of the crash that Bob Hitchcock had not in fact been piloting the plane on landing, that it was James Fairbairn, the Minister for Air, who was flying it, after having insisted on changing places with the co-pilot, Richard Weisner, who was not trained in Hudsons but was sitting in the cockpit of the dual-control plane on that day only to observe. Andrew Tink says that, using his legal mind to examine the available evidence, he has come to the conclusion that Minister Fairbairn was in fact flying the aircraft. His exoneration of Bob Hitchcock is so vitally important to the Hitchcock family and to Australian history that I believe it should be recorded here, in the Senate, as it is in this book by Andrew Tink.

Tink bases his judgment on several pieces of evidence that were not known, or not raised, in the four inquiries following the crash. First, though, it needs to be noted that Fairbairn was a distinguished pilot and something of an aviation hero. Tink provides evidence that Fairbairn, who was not formally trained to fly Hudsons, was keen to learn and to take every opportunity to practise flying the Hudson because it had a unique landing style. Unlike other aircraft, the Hudson did not glide after lowering the flaps; it required a hard and fast landing, driving the plane into the ground on a steep angle and pulling up the nose at the last minute, because a low and shallow approach would stall a Hudson.

According to Tink, it was revealed only much later that Hitchcock's squadron leader had given Hitchcock a verbal direction before the flight 'that he was quite happy that Fairbairn could have a touch of the controls'. Also, Tink points to the Hudson stopping for an unexplained 14 minutes after taxiing out to Essendon airport's runway—a time when, Tink concludes, Fairbairn tapped the co-pilot on the shoulder and switched seats so that he could land the Hudson at Canberra. He says Hitchcock's obedient 'old soldier' attitude would have ensured his acquiescence to the assertive air minister, who would have had an almost hero status in Hitchcock's eyes.

John Curtin gave a tribute to Bob Hitchcock in Parliament after the disaster:
Bob's father lost his life in a gallant work of rescue— which actually involved Kingsford Smith— during the beginning of Australian aviation. It was my lot to assist Bob to join the Air Force, and I shared with his family their pride in his rapid promotion, and flying was in his blood. Our sympathy must go out to his mother, who has now lost a husband and son in the cause of Australian aviation.

It is important to note that Andrew Tink is not critical of Fairbairn, saying it was not unknown for the most senior officer in the RAAF to fly a plane that he was not strictly certified for. By way of a memorial to the crash, there is a simple granite cairn and plaque that was placed by Sir Robert Menzies at the crash site on a hill overlooking the Canberra airport and its RAAF component, known as RAAF Fairbairn. This event was still considered so important 43 years after Menzies' memorial that a second memorial in the shape of the plane's wing was placed there 10 years ago. It was unveiled by the then Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government, Wilson Tuckey—also a West Australian.
The site is under the control of the ACT government, but some years ago the ACT government decided to block access to it. Signs along the forest tracks indicating the way to the site were taken down and two heavily locked gates blocked the road into the forest. Only now, because of some media action, has the ACT government started to re-erect signs to indicate the way to crash site and to make a clear walking track it. This work started in May and is not yet complete. The memorial is still, however, out of bounds to anyone who cannot walk three kilometres or more. I hope that this memorial will be open to the public soon. I must say that I am very pleased to have recorded in Hansard this event in Australia's political and wartime history and the fact that the details are now readily available through Andrew Tink's book.

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