Since opening in 1965, a visit to Dickson Pool has become a Canberra summer tradition. Being one of Canberra's few outdoor pools, I especially like churning out a few laps of backstroke, watching the clouds and contrails of passing aircraft overhead.
However, unbeknown to most who plunge into the pool's cooling waters, the area surrounding the pool and much of the Dickson CBD was once part of Canberra's first aerodrome. Really.
The Canberra Aerodrome operated for just two-and-a-half years in the early 1920s and its only tangible reminder is a 1986 plaque located right next to the return slot at the Dickson Library.
However, if you were to stop and read the plaque while sending your overdue books down the chute, you'd also discover that a double fatality occurred at the aerodrome on the morning of February 11, 1926.
Oneperson who believes this tragic opening chapter of Canberra's aviation history deserves to be toldis Jane Goffman of Dickson. A heritage enthusiast and urban planning specialist, Jane has dug up photos, maps and official documents relating to both the aerodrome and the crash.
"It's an interesting and poignant story and it really hooks you in", says Jane. "The fact that the aerodrome is now buried under suburbia and that nobody actually recognises what was once there triggered my curiosity. Those historic layers and stories make a place especially memorable.''
The plane that crashed was a De Havilland DH9 two-seater biplane, serial A6-28, piloted by Flying Officer Philip Mackenzie Pitt from the RAAF No.3 Squadron's Richmond aerodrome to Canberra to take part in a reconnaissance of the Murrumbidgee Valley for the Federal Capital Commission, reports Jane. Also on board was RAAF photographer William Edward Callander, who would be taking aerial photos of the Murrumbidgee River.
"After doing a test flight to check that repairs undertaken overnight on the plane were OK, Pitt took off from Richmond at about 8.30am with his aerial photographer in the back seat", says Jane.
According to Pitt's obituary which appears in the Royal Military College of Duntroon (RMC) Journal of 1926, "his machine stalled and crashed" while attempting to land at the aerodrome.
"It would have been a confronting site for those who first arrived on the scene of the crash," says Jane. "Photos show smoke still rising, and reports mention Pitt could only be identified by a peculiar formation in his front teeth".
Callander was rushed off to hospital with ''terrible wounds'' where he later died of ''burns, shock and internal injuries''.
But the story doesn't end there. Callander was buried in St John the Baptist's graveyard in Reid and despite a military funeral, his grave was left without a headstone until St John's secured funding for a headstone in 2010 (unfortunately with his name misspelt along with incorrect age and rank).
As for poor Pitt, as there was no Catholic cemetery in Canberra at the time, he was buried across the border in the Roman Catholic section of the Queanbeyan Riverside Cemetery. Like Callander, Pitt was buried with full military honours and then also forgotten. However, unlike Callander, Pitt's grave is still without a headstone.
Especially disappointed at the lack of a headstone to mark Pitt's final resting spot is Richard Lamb, who regular readers may remember as the man who is digitising many 20th century RMC Duntroon Journals (October 5, 2019).
"The first aeroplane crash fatality in the ACT, killed as a young man on the job and no recognition," remarks Richard. "It's just not fair".
Richard also discovered an eerie link between Pitt and Flying Officer Francis Charles Ewen, the airman who tragically died in the crash at the opening of Provisional Parliament House on May 9, 1927 (and was incidentally buried in St John's Church graveyard just a couple of plots away from Callander).
"They were both in the same class of 1920, both on the Royal Military College of Duntroon First XV Rugby Team of the same year, and both died after flying over their old stomping grounds at Duntroon and both were buried in the district," reports Richard.
Unfortunately, the three photos held by the National Archives of Australia of Pitt and Callander's crash have them incorrectly labelled as Ewen's crash on May 9, 1927.
"I think it's time the cataloguing be corrected so that anyone looking into this in the future isn't dealt a red herring," says Jane, who, using her skills as a planner, with the assistance of James Oglethorpe, webmaster for the RAAF No. 3 Squadron Association, an airforce veteran's group, has managed to narrow down the location of Pitt and Callander's crash.
"James and I have spent a lot of time studying the archived records and eyewitness accounts, photos of the crash and maps and surveys of the period to help us pinpoint where the crash site actually was. It was in the north-west corner of the aerodrome, very close to the r junction of what are now Blacket Street and Lea Place in Downer," reveals Jane. "The hills you can see in the Mildenhall photo are Black Mountain and Little Black Mountain.''
Both Jane and James are most appreciative of Richard's valuable work digitising the RMC Journals. "This has enabled association members and researchers to look more closely at two of their early colleagues and obtain photographs and details not previously available," says James.
Earlier this week, using Jane's map, and dodging houses, roads and shops, your Akubra-clad columnist walked around the perimeter of the old aerodrome.
It's hard to believe that the Dickson CBD, now a cosmopolitan hub of Canberra, was home to our city's first aerodrome.
Oh, and next time I jump into the Dickson Pool for a few last laps of backstroke, and look up at those contrails, I'll reflect on the day the lives of two young men were tragically cut short in the 1920s.
I don't know about you, but I think it's high time the Mildenhall photos were correctly labelled, and more pertinently that Pitt's final resting place in the Queanbeyan Riverside Cemetery be officially marked with a headstone.
CONTACT TIM: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter: @TimYowie or write c/- The Canberra Times, 9 Pirie St, Fyshwick.
The tragic tale of Canberra's first aerodrome
Canberra Aerodrome: The Canberra Aerodrome became operational in March 1924 and was used by military and civilian flights until November 1926, when a new lease was obtained near Majura Lane. In 1928 and 1929, two RAAF aircraft were attached to RMC Duntroon for training purposes, based out of the new Majura landing ground. This is now the western half of the current Canberra airport.
Pitt and Callander's crash: James Oglethorpe, a retired Qantas engineer and webmaster for the RAAF 3 Squadron Association, an airforce veteran's group, has extensive files on the crash.
Did You Know? A farm-hand, Walter Johnson, who was ploughing about 60 metres away, was one of several people to witness the crash and rushed to the scene. By the time he arrived the De Havilland DH9 had burst into flames. Seeing Pitt was beyond help, he used his bare hands to break off pieces of the plane, dragging Callander from the blazing wreckage. In a brief period of consciousness, according to some reports Callander apparently murmured ''get my mate''. Sadly, his mate was already dead. Johnson (who appears in the black-and-white historical photo of the crash scene, 3rd from the right with his hand bandaged) received a Bronze Medal Bravery Award from the Royal Humane Society of Australasia for his efforts.
Crash remnant: The Canberra & District Historical Society HQ in Curtin has a brass object framing a portrait in their display cabinet, made from the original bombsight located in the floor of Pitt's plane. According to Jane Goffman, "It was mounted between the pilot's feet, so he could look through the lens below that and tell the observer when to take the series of photos that made up the survey run."
Did You Know? The RAAF recently remembered Pitt, Callander, Ewen and another peacetime death in Canberra, that of Flight Lieutenant G. J Edwards, in the unveiling on February 11, 2016 of a No.3 Squadron Memorial Cairn and plaque in the RAAF Memorial Grove, on the Federal Highway. Edwards died on September 15, 1949 while attempting to bale out of his Mustang A6-89 after a mid-air collision over Fairbairn Base. This unveiling took place to the day and hour on the 90th anniversary of Pitt's death along with an F/A-18 flypast.
WHERE ON THE SOUTH COAST?
Cryptic Clue: One of the Sapphire Coast's better-known stone beaches
Degree of difficulty: Medium
Last week: Congratulations to Leigh Palmer of Isaacs, who was first to correctly identify last week's photo as the old Davidson Whaling Station on Twofold Bay.
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to email@example.com. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday January 4, 2020 will win a double pass to Dendy - The Home of Quality Cinema.
Rock piles on Gossan Hill
Judith Ducker is mightily impressed with the dedication of rangers who, almost daily, are keeping a check on the illegal attempts by a persistent local to rebuild the rock tower atop Gossan Hill in Bruce.
"Every morning dozens, if not more, rocks reappear in the location of the former tower, and then within a day or two the rangers have scattered the rocks again.''
This daily ritual has been going on now for almost six months. I wonder who will give in first?
While most of us head straight to the beach on coastal holidays, Matthew Higgins believes there's also merit in exploring the south coast's many creeks and rivers, including the Bega River.
"The discovery of a platypus population in the Bega River Anabranch is welcome news for the biodiversity of the Bega area", reports Matthew. "So far I am confident that I have observed nine individuals going about their feeding routine, diving to the bottom then returning to the surface to grind their food and breathe before diving once again."