55th Anniversary Dakota Crash at Duntroon (Senate Adjournment Speech 20.03.2012)


This chamber is a place of words words that may represent ideas or ideals, but all too often words that once uttered are gone. The news cycle reinforces the short term nature of much that is spoken of in this place, but I want to tell a story of how some words which had their genesis here 5 years ago, have linked the lives of a number of people hitherto unknown to each other and which had a sequel this morning at a commemorative service at the Royal Military College Duntroon.

Almost to this very moment in time 55 years ago, 4 young men lost their lives in a fatal air crash in the grounds ofRMS. All were members of the RAAF operating from theFairburn Air Base who were on night training landing and take off exercises in their Dakota aircraft No. A65-112 of the No. 86 Transport Wing of the Royal Australian Air Force

5 years ago, on the 50th anniversary of that terrible accident, I spoke about it in this Senate. One of those young men, the captain of the aircraft, was my brother Flying Officer Neil Macdonald. The other crew members wereSecond officer Flight Sergeant Noel Charlton, Navigator Sergeant Ian Mackrill and Signaller Sergeant Maxwell Coombe.

They were ordinary young men, 2 with wives and one of those was eagerly anticipating the birth of his first child in 36 days. For the crew of this aircraft what started out as a normal training exercise ended in tragedy. But for the selfless action of the pilots that night the accident could have involved the loss of many more lives of men, women and children in the married quarters at the Royal Military College at Duntroon.

Since that time, through a series of events and actions, in particular the efforts of the daughter of Flt Sgt Charlton, the families of those young men have become linked

When I spoke 5 years ago I said I had raised this matter not just to commemorate the lives lost in 1957 but also to pay tribute to all those men and women in Australias military history whove lost their lives while serving their country away from a combat zone. As I said then, all service men and women who volunteer for service in our defence forces are at risk from the very nature of their work. They work in an area where there is greater risk to their health and safety, and indeed, their lives than in most other occupations in the community. We all owe our service personnel a very high debt of gratitude and it is important that from time to time we remember those who gave their lives in the service of their country.

I also quoted a statement made to the House of Representatives on 20th March 1957 from the then Minister for Air and Civil Aviation, the Hon Athol Towney MP who broke the news of the accident to the Australian Parliament and concluded by saying

these men themselves gave their lives while training for the defence of their country and have earned the reverent gratitude of this national parliament and indeed of all people of Australia.

The words spoken that night in the Senate touched a chord with Andrew Bolt the respected and well known columnist who wrote in a blog on 21st March 2007, that he had heard my speech while driving home from a function the previous evening. He saw fit to write generously about the speech and the incident and in fact kindly included in his blog the full text of my speech that night.

As fate would have it, a couple of years after I made that speech, a lady by the name of Kim Best was using the internet as part of a research project into her father who she had never known, who had died just 36 days before she was born. She came across my speech and immediately made contact by email. She told me her father Noel Heathcote Charlton had been the 2nd Officer on the aircraft, and that her mother Clare died a few years later. She has lived her life without any knowledge of her father and with only a very brief time with her mother and as Senators can appreciate she felt the emptiness of those who have had no connection with their parents. As Kim said to me when she first contacted me I am trying to discover for the first time as much as I can about my dad I have one aunt and uncle left that is the sum total of my family so I do not have much to go on.

When Kim Best contacted me I was able to put her in touch with my sister-in-law Alma, who had always been very much a part of our family, and from that point onward Kim has done a considerable amount of research, so that through her efforts, she feels that she has at last connected with the parents she never really knew.

Kim tracked down the Court of Enquiry transcripts and has made contact with many people who were associated with her father prior to his death.

As a result of her dedicated research Kim has located a younger brother of Sergeant Mackrill, Douglas Mackrill and also a Mrs Irene Windsor whose father was a cousin of Sergeant Coombe.

In August last year I received an email from a 72 year old by the name of Noel Hutchins a 20 year veteran of the RAAF who recounted how at the time of his recruit training he was at RAAF Canberra but had never been in the air. His Officer Commanding had arranged for him to have his first flying experience with some flying crews doing training exercise around Canberra. He remembered going with my brother and his crew on a number of occasions but on the night of the crash he was away from Canberra as a volunteer, fighting fires as fate would have it. He told me that he recently googled to see if he could find any information on the crash he had remembered, and came across my speech in the Senate in 2007, and subsequently made contact with me. Kim Best has been corresponding with Mr Hutchins and had actually met up with him for lunch just before Christmas.

One of the bloggers who responded to Andrew Bolts writings said this

__I remember that crash 50 years ago very well being a staff cadet at Duntroon at the time and was called out to do what we could which wasnt much. There was much discussion at the time how the pilot had successfully avoided not just the married quarters but all the accommodation areas at Duntroon and for which we remain eternally grateful. It was posted by Peter of Greys Point.

All of these people are linked by their experience of that tragic event 55 years ago and in different ways, are drawn together by some words in this Chamber 5 years ago.

That speech had its sequel this morning when a small group of people gathered at the memorial which now stands on the exact place where the aircraft crashed, and they remembered those who had given their lives in the service of their country. The small group included my brothers widow Alma, Sergeant Charltons daughter Kim, Mr Doug Mackrill, the younger brother of Sergeant Mackrill and his wife Barbara, my brother Jim who has worked with and encouraged Kim in her quest for information, as well as myself and my wife Lesley.

Also in attendance were the Commandant of Royal Military College, Brigadier David Luhrs CSC and representing the Chief of Air Force, Group Captain Ken Robinson and other senior officers and Warrant Officers. The Chair of the Duntroon Heritage Committee, Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) John Bullen who was coincidently a young cadet in college rooms at RMC when the Dakota went overhead in its final moments in 1957, and was one of the first on the scene, was also in attendance.

Also there this morning was Mr.Ross Howarth the Duntroon Archivist was and is the originator and driving force behind the concept of a plaque to mark the previously unrecognised site of the crash, and has been a wonderful advisor and friend to Kim, and through her to all of us the families of the air crew who lost their lives on that fateful day 55 years ago.

The Service was conducted by the Duntroon Chaplin, Air Commodore Doctor the Reverend Royce Thompson and Padre Robyn Kidd. We thank them too for the friendly sensitive manner in which they performed their duties.

The presence of these significant Defence Force Personnel there this morning is a tribute not only to those four young men who died all those years ago but also to others in Australias Defence Forces, who similarly have given their lives for their Country.

While this story is close and personal to me, it reflects the wider reality that many men and women from all walks of life, pay the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country. Were it not for their willingness to take the risks associated with being in the Defence Forces, either in combat zone or in duties away from warlike activities, then you and I and our children and their children, could not enjoy the life which we as Australians are privileged to call our own.

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