RAAF Accident, Canberra 1957 - Adjournment Speech


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (22:41): This speech is dedicated to Mrs Alma Shaw, Mr Jim Macdonald, Mrs Kim Best and Mr Doug Mackrill, who sat in the gallery of this chamber last night to join me in this speech, on a night which had particular importance to them but when the speech, unfortunately, was unable to be delivered because of the speaking guillotine in place. This chamber is a place of wordswords 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 in this place, but I want to tell a story of how some words which had their genesis in this chamber five years ago have linked the lives of a number of people hitherto unknown to each other. This had a sequel yesterday morning at a commemorative service at the Royal Military College at Duntroon.

At 8.20 pm on last night's date, but 55 years ago, four young men lost their lives in a fatal air crash in the grounds of the Royal Military College. All were members of the RAAF operating from Fairbairn Airbase who were on night training landing and take-off exercises in their Dakota aircraft, No. A65-112 of No. 86 Transport Wing of the Royal Australian Air Force. Five years ago, on the 50th anniversary of that terrible accident, I spoke about the accident in this Senate. One of those young men, the captain of the aircraft, was my brother, Flying Officer Neil Macdonald. The other crew members were second officer Flight Sergeant Noel Charlton, navigator Sergeant Ian Mackrill and signaller Sergeant Maxwell Coombe. They were ordinary young men, two with wives and one of those 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 actionsin particular the efforts of the daughter of Flight Sergeant Charltonthe families of those young men have become linked.

When I spoke five years ago I said that 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 Australia's military history who have 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. 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 20 March 1957 by the then Minister for Air and Minister for Civil Aviation, the Hon. Athol Townley MP, who broke the news of the accident the night before to the Australian parliament and concluded by saying:

The 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 the people of Australia.

The words spoken that night in the Senate five years ago touched a chord with Andrew Bolt, the respected and well-known columnist, who wrote in a blog on 21 March 2007 that he had heard my speech while driving home from a function the previous evening. He saw fit to write generously about that 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, whom she had never known and who had died just 36 days before she was born. She came across my speech and immediately made contact by email. She told me that her father, Noel Heathcote Charlton, had been the second officer on the aircraft and that her mother, Clare, had 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. As senators, we can appreciate that 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 dadI have one aunt and uncle leftthat 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 inquiry 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 the 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 exercises 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 volunteerfighting fires as fate would have it. He told me that he had 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 has subsequently made contact with me. Kim Best has been corresponding with Mr Hutchins and actually met up with him for lunch just before Christmas last year.

One of the bloggers who responded to Andrew Bolt's writings said:

_ 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 wasn't 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.

All of those 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 five years ago.

That speech had its sequel yesterday 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 brother's widow, Alma; Sergeant Charlton's 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 my wife, Lesley, and me. Also in attendance were the Commandant of the Royal Military College, Brigadier David Luhrs CSC and, representing the Chief of Air Force, Group Captain Ken Robinson, and other senior offices and warrant officers. The chair of the Duntroon Heritage Committee, Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) John Bullen, who was, coincidentally, 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 yesterday morning. Also there yesterday morning was Mr Ross Howarth, the Duntroon archivist, who was the originator and driving force behind the concept of a plaque to mark the previously unrecognised site of the crash. He has been a wonderful adviser and friend to Kim and, through her, to all of us, the families of the aircrew who lost their lives on that fateful day 55 years ago.

The service was conducted by the Duntroon chaplain, Air Commodore the Venerable Dr Royce Thompson, and Padre Robyn Kidd. We thank them for the friendly, sensitive manner in which they performed their duties. The presence of these significant Defence Force personnel there yesterday morning is a tribute not only to those four young men who died all those years ago but also to others in the Australia's Defence Forces who similarly have given their lives for their country. We, the families of the four young men, were honoured to receive yesterday lapel pins presented to us on behalf of the Chief of Air Force in recognition that our loved ones, who were valued members of the Royal Australian Air Force, died in service. We will, as the Chief of Air Force said, wear the pins in remembrance and with pride.

Whilst 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 Force, either in the combat zone or in duties away from warlike activities, 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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