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WWII crash mystery solved

The mystery of Canberra's second World War II air crash has been solved. On June 15, 1942, an RAAF Wackett Gannet operated by No.2 Air Ambulance Unit crashed just under a kilometre short of the Canberra aerodrome.

According to the unit's operations record book, the crash occurred ''on take-off'' at Mount Russell (actually the slopes of Mount Ainslie) at 1325 or 1.25pm.

The plane, A14-5, was being piloted by Flight Lieutenant Bruce Graham. The four-man crew included the radio operator, a nursing orderly and an aircraft mechanic. Graham broke an ankle and the orderly broke a shoulder blade. The radio operator was treated for shock and the mechanic escaped injury.

Bob Piper, a Canberran who works with Military and Aviation Research Services, told me that while his organisation had been looking at RAAF and civil plane crash sites in the area for the past 30 years, he had initially been unaware of the incident Gang Gang reported on Monday.

Dave Wheeler had told of us an adventure involving his uncle, Bill Guard, during the war years. Bill, a bit of a larrikin, and his mates were playing hooky near his Mount Ainslie home when they heard a plane in trouble.

They rushed to where it had put down, only to be told to remove themselves from the vicinity by some unwelcoming RAAF types. Dave tells the story in full detail on his website, acanberraboy .blogspot.com.au.

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Bill returned to souvenir an engine identification plate. It was the details from this plate, which identified the aircraft as one of a very limited range of RAAF planes fitted with the De Havilland Gipsy Six Series II engine, which made it possible to solve the mystery. An on-site inspection determined that A14-5 was ''not repairable'' and it was written off for parts. Mr Piper said the cause of the accident was engine failure. ''The port engine failed and it was not possible to stay up on one,'' he said.

Gang Gang was contacted by numerous people in regard to Bill Guard's adventure. Most, like myself, suspected the plane was a De Havilland 86A, a larger four-engined aircraft also used by No.2 Air Ambulance Unit and which also used the comparatively rare Gipsy Six engine. Unlike the De Havilland, the Gannet was Australian-designed and Australian-made. It was the brainchild of Lawrence Wackett and originally built by Tugan Aircraft, a company taken over by the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation in 1937.

The RAAF bought six Gannets off the production line as air ambulances and pressed others of the type into service when the war broke out.

Small and underpowered, even by the standards of the day, Gannets weren't built for either comfort or for speed.

An amalgamation of metal, timber and fabric construction, A14-5 would have suffered significant structural damage as a result of its forced landing. With an empty weight of 1.5 tonnes and the same load capacity as a Holden one-tonner, the Wackett Gannet could max out at 240 km/h and cover 885kilometres before refuelling.

A14-5 was not the only Gannet to die young. The prototype crashed, killing its pilot and passengers, shortly after initial flight testing in October 1935. Two of the other planes used by the RAAF crashed while on active service, A14-6 on May 19, 1942, and A14-4 on August 25, 1944.

The crew of A14-6 survived a crocodile attack, hordes of mosquitoes and acute hunger when they crashed in Arnhem Land. Eventually rescued by local Aborigines, they were returned to their unit a month later.

The men aboard A14-4 were less fortunate. Their plane crashed at Exmouth, Western Australia, killing everyone aboard.

Canberra's Gannet crash occurred just short of two years after the Hudson bomber crash on August 14, 1940 that claimed 10 lives including three cabinet members: Geoffrey Street, Sir Henry Gullett and James Fairbairn.