Just shy of a couple of kilometres walk into Fairburn Pine Plantation, between Canberra Airport and Queanbeyan, is a little known and little visited (outside the odd ghost tour) memorial.
While the memorial itself wasn’t erected until 1960 it marks the spot where three Australian Government War Cabinet Ministers, the head of the Australian Armed Forces (Chief of the General Staff) and six others were killed when their Royal Australian Air Force Lockheed Hudson plane crashed, and burst into flames, on its approach to landing at the nearby military airport on 13 August 1940. There were no survivors. Luckily, two other Cabinet Ministers scheduled to be on the same flight had decided to take the train to Canberra instead.
The cause of the accident has never been determined and flying conditions on the morning of the crash were described as ‘ideal’. It has been speculated that the Minister of Air, the Hon. James Fairburn, a former WWI pilot, may have persuaded the RAAF crew to allow him to fly the plane into Canberra. Rather ironically, at least, he had earlier commented on the stalling characteristics of the Lockheed Hudson.
‘From what I have been told, a pilot coming in to land can find himself, suddenly and without warning, in a machine that is no longer airborne, heading straight to the ground … Personally, I think it’s only a matter of handling your throttles wisely’.
If indeed he was at the controls, he didn’t handle his throttles wisely on the day of the crash.
The ministers and head of defence, a major component of Australia’s WWII War Cabinet were on their way from Melbourne to Canberra for a cabinet meeting. Menzies’ United Australia Party government never managed to recover from the disaster and it was arguably a contributing factor to John Curtin becoming Prime Minister the following year.
Such a loss of high ranking officials was unparalleled in the short history of the Commonwealth of Australia and particularly bad as the country had not long since entered WWII. The Canberra Times newspaper summed up the feeling at the time:
‘These losses to Australia come at an hour when least of all we can spare the services of those who can lead and direct us through hours unparalleled in their significance for the future welfare of this people’.
Canberra detractors (those who were still against Canberra – ‘in the middle of nowhere’ – being the capital of Australia) were quick to jump on the tragedy as the inevitable outcome of the ‘impossible travel itinerary’ imposed on Ministers at the time which had them travelling regularly to Canberra. They were quick to argue that Government Administration should occur in, essentially, Sydney or Melbourne.
The walk to the memorial is a pleasant 3.2kms return. Allow yourself an hour and a half and do not veer of onto the army shooting range on one side or the paintball area on the other as you make your way to/from the memorial. Don’t worry, both are well signposted and present no danger.
The memorial comprises two components, a granite monolith (with a plaque listing the names of the dead) and another part in the shape of an aircraft wing, added in 2003. The original memorial was dedicated in 13 August 1960 by Prime Minister R G Menzies who, as noted earlier, had also been Prime Minister 20 years earlier, on the date of the crash.
The nearby military airport (which shares runways and other facilities with the civilian Canberra Airport), the pine plantation and the near by road were named after the Minister of Air, the Hon James Fairburn, one of those who died in the crash. Visitors will also note that while 99% of the trees in the area are later planted pines there are a handful of native eucalypts around the memorial. These are said by some (unlikely though it seems to me) to be the remains of the original forest covering the hilltop.
If you choose to visit after dark do watch out for various ghosts that are said to haunt the forest. Even the official signpost at the beginning of the walk cautions – ‘Preferred visiting times are during daylight hours’. The haunted forest story has as much to do with its association to the unsolved murder of Keren Rowland, whose body was found near the Air Disaster Memorial on May 13, 1971 as it does to stories of the ghosts of the crash victims or nurses who went in after the crash hoping to tend to the injured as apposed to finding them all dead. If you wish to properly explore the ghostly side of the memorial you do need to go in alone, after dark!
Should you be incapacitated and unable to walk in, I understand vehicular access can be arranged (during the day!) by calling ahead on 13 22 81.
Address: Fairbairn Pine Plantation, Pialligo Avenue, Majura
Directions: On your left, a few kms past Canberra Airport en route to Queanbeyan in neighbouring New South Wales.