Saturday, 2 August 2014

The Mount Dandenong Aircraft Disaster

For some years I’d been aware of an aircraft accident on Mt Dandenong and I always made a mental note to read up on it. Well I finally did and was amazed at the relative closeness to home and the major effect it had on Australian aviation in the areas of safety and administrative control of the Australian airways.

 25th October this year will mark the 76 anniversary of the Kyeema Airline disaster. When a Douglas DC2 crashed in the Western face of the Mt Dandenong killing all aboard. At the time it was Australia’s worst aviation disaster. Aboard were fourteen passengers and four crew consisting of a pilot, copilot, an airhostess and a cadet pilot. Among the passengers were Federal politician Charles Hawker and prominent South Australian winemakers Hugo Gramp Tom Hardy and Sidney Hill Smith as well as several barristers; and a young couple on their honeymoon.
The Kyeema was heading to Canberra from Adelaide via Essendon airport The flight took off from a clear-skied Adelaide at 11:22. As it entered the area around Melbourne, it came across a heavy cloud layer making landmark navigation difficult. As a result, the flight crew mistakenly identified Sunbury as Daylesford through a gap in the clouds, leading them to believe that they were 32 kilometres behind where they actually were on their flight plan. Had the flight crew cross-referenced their ground speed with previous landmarks, they would likely have realised that they were not where they thought they were. Instead, they overshot Essendon and, unable to see through the heavy fog, crashed into Mount Dandenong a few hundred metres from the summit at 1.45 PM.
As reported in The Argus the next day:
“The propellers of the great Douglas machine sheared the tops off trees for about 50 feet before the wings were ripped from the fuselage on the trunks of trees, and the machine crumpled on the rocky hillside. It burst into flames at once, and all except four of its occupants, who were thrown clear, were burned beyond recognition.”
 Straight away Officials of airline companies and pilots on the regular services were unanimous in their strong criticism of the Civil Aviation Department for its failure to put into regular service the wireless beacon which has been installed at Essendon for approximately 18 months. This immediate outcry and because of public demand a Royal Commission was established before the week was over. The Kyeema crash was a watershed in Australian aviation. At the time navigational radio beacons were in place that could have prevented the accident. They just hadn't been turned on.
This is even more damning when it was revealed the disaster was blamed on a combination of the presence of a heavy fog and the use of an outdated navigational practice, which relied solely on landmarks to determine position.



The Kyeema inquiry, large enough to be held in Melbourne's Royal Exhibition Building, would eventually confirm that human error had caused the crash. Navigating largely by landmarks, as was normal at the time, the second pilot in the plane had confused the rural town of Daylesford with a town much closer to Melbourne, most likely Sunbury or Gisborne. This meant that the crew thought they were further away from the city than they were, leading to the fatal overshoot. But while the investigation would confirm that this navigating mistake had lead to the crash, it would also make important safety recommendations that would reshape Australian aviation. Responsibility for the oversight of civilian aviation would move from within the Department of Defence, where it was not given a high priority, to a standalone body, the Civil Aviation Authority. The new body would be given increased resources and policing powers. The revised CAA would instigate a reform of Australia's Air Traffic Control system, moving towards instrument based navigation in an attempt to reduce human error based accidents. Ironic since - as mentioned earlier - Essendon airport already had a powerful radio beacon, installed some eighteen months before the crash, was not in use.
If you are like me and want a more precise place where the plane crashed rather than the Western face, I’ll try and give you a better idea. If you are facing the mountain while standing on the intersection of Liverpool Road and Glasgow Rd and look at the tower on the right.
It hit just below that.
When I discovered this I had the realization that if it happened today I could see it happen from my kitchen window. Though at the time it was Australia’s worst aviation tragedy sadly these days it doesn’t even sit in the top five. If you include Military related accidents it doesn’t even get in the top fifteen. But it was probably the most significant civil aviation accident in Australia’s history for the far-reaching organisational changes it prompted to make Australia’s airways safer.
 Local aviation historian Macarthur Job has written the definitive book on the subject “Disaster in the Dandenongs” and the site and monument to the crash are accessible via the Kyeema track from Mount Dandenong observatory.

 References: 
 ARGUS 26Oct 1938 
The Age 26 Oct 1938 Wikipedia. 1938 Kyeema crash 
www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8JlS37Jb9I 
www.marvmelb.blogspot.com.au 
www.spiritsofansett.com

(c) 2014 Danny Nolan Originally published in the Boronia and Basin Community News  August 2014 edition