The extreme weather of the Snowy Mountains has claimed a number of aircraft over the years.
One was an RAAF plane, the Dakota A65-50, that in 1954 went down at Cowombat Flat, near the head of the Murray River on the NSW-Victoria border.
The plane took off from the East Sale RAAF Base on August 24, bound for Bathurst and Richmond. Crewing the plane were pilot Flight Lieutenant Laurie Hawes, co-pilot Flying Officer Bernie Mullen, navigator Flight Lieutenant Eric Walker (all three had war service), and signaller Pilot Officer Frank Howie.
During the flight, the starboard engine lost power. Hawes flew the plane satisfactorily on the port engine. A65-50 landed at Canberra where the passengers were offloaded and RAAF groundcrew thoroughly tested the faulty engine.
Next morning, Wednesday August 25, the crew took off for Sale. Strong westerly winds were blowing.
About 11am, just before reaching Mt Kosciuszko, the starboard engine began faltering again. Soon the Dakota was falling rapidly and being buffeted by severe turbulence. The only option was to try to make a forced landing. Just at that point Cowombat Flat, nestled between The Pilot and Mt Cobberas No2, came into view. It was the only open flat in a sea of forested mountains.
Laurie Hawes told me some years ago that RAAF training inculcated a consciousness of the risk of engine failure, and of the need to be prepared. "Your eyes were always open for the paddock," he said,"especially over wild country."
He and Mullen struggled with the disabled aircraft and headed for the flat. Howie urgently sent out distress signals.
"We were all realistic and experienced enough to realise that our chances of putting the aircraft down successfully and surviving were pretty slim," he said.
It was not service policy to have parachutes on board this type of aircraft, but there were seat belts - except for Howie. So now he lifted his knees up and braced himself against the radio equipment.
A65-50 circled Cowombat and made its approach. But there was a ridge, and the gully of the fledgling Murray River, together with the powerful turbulence, and only one engine. Hawes in the remaining seconds decided to stall the plane into the timber on the side of the flat.
One of the trees was further forward than anticipated. The Dakota hit the timber and skewed around. A large eucalypt wiped away Bernie Mullen's starboard side of the cockpit. One of the blades of the starboard propeller sliced through the floor of the signaller's compartment; it's hard to ruminate on what might have eventuated had Howie not had his feet braced up in front of him.
When the plane finally came to a halt, said Laurie, "the silence was deafening". He, Frank and Eric, fearing an imminent explosion, hurriedly dragged unconscious Bernie Mullen away from the wreck. Little could be done for Bernie. Suffering a fractured skull and multiple other fractures, he died within minutes.
Laurie, Frank and Eric all had injuries. They set about finding some shelter on the wintry flat.
The distress signals transmitted before the crash had been picked up. An hour after the accident the first RAAF search aircraft sighted the three survivors at Cowombat. Through a series of weighted paper messages dropped from the search planes to the survivors, the Dakota's crew were able to communicate with their rescuers.
The search planes dropped food, blankets and other equipment to the survivors.
Meanwhile, two ground search parties were on the move. The first was led by 43-year-old Omeo policeman Lionel Baddeley. Sale's Commanding Officer, Group Captain W.N. Gibson, was in charge of the RAAF search party.
Sleet and strong winds made the flat miserable. The three survivors sheltered in the chimney of an old stockman's hut ruin.
Lionel Baddeley's party pushed on through the bush and next day arrived at Cowombat, to the relief of the aircrew. Then the 15-kilometre trek back out to the vehicles began. The airmen, stiff, sore, tired and stressed, found the trip arduous. Mullen's body was carried out on a bush stretcher.
Just before nightfall the group reached the vehicles. Gibson's RAAF searchers had also now arrived. They travelled back to Sale via Benambra. Major newspaper headlines relayed the Dakota story.
The RAAF soon held an inquiry to discover what had caused the starboard engine's failure and the plane's loss of height. Mechanical issues, as well as Hawes' handling of the aircraft were looked into. Mechanical tests were inconclusive. The court found Hawes was not culpable for the crash.
The other main theme of the inquiry was the role of the weather. The phenomenon of hill-standing waves, or topographic waves, was closely considered. These air waves are formed when a strong airstream hits and rises over a mountain range, forming a series of waves downwind which can drastically affect aircraft.
The court questioned a range of witnesses about whether standing waves contributed to the crash. One of the major results of the Cowombat crash was the realisation of the need for greater understanding of standing waves.
The RAAF brought back parts of the Dakota. A little later in the 1950s, Snowy Scheme workers used the plane's fuselage for a kitchen at their camp at the site.
Souvenir hunters took their share of the plane, but parts still remained at Cowombat when I visited in 1992.
When A65-50's crew took off on August 25, 1954, it was little more than a routine flight. Little were the airmen to know that by the end of the journey they would be in the headlines and a part of history.
- Matthew Higgins is a former Canberra historian and his most recent books are Bold Horizon: High-country Place, People and Story and Seeing Through Snow.