79th anniversary of aircraft drama at Old Bonalbo
IT IS 79 years ago to the day that the Southern Sky - the aircraft making the inaugural Australian National Airways (ANA) flight from Brisbane to Sydney - made an emergency landing on a property at Old Bonalbo.
Luckily, no one was injured, but the events of the next 16 days have gone down in history.
Founded by aviators Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm, ANA began its inter-city services on January 1, 1930. The Southern Sky, a tri-motored Avro X aircraft, set off on New Year's Day as scheduled.
Pilot Jack Shephard and co-pilot Charles Ulm set off from Eagle Farm with a full complement of passengers and mail.
Shortly after take-off, the aircraft flew into torrential rain, drastically reducing visibility and buffeting the plane badly.
In an effort to rise above the bad weather, Shephard climbed to 8000 feet, without relief.
He then turned south-west looking for better weather, but the buffeting and poor visibility continued. At this point Shephard decided to look for a possible landing place.
Flying low among mountains and trees, he sighted a small, cleared paddock on the Old Bonalbo property of George Minnis.
Hearing an aircraft in trouble overhead, Minnis grabbed some bed sheets and waved them at the aircraft to attract attention and placed them in an area he considered best to land.
With a great deal of skill, Shephard put the Southern Sky down at 10.20am. The pilot learned that he'd put the plane down on Ulidia, in Old Duck Creek Road.
The relieved passengers disembarked and were transported to Casino. Just 24 hours later, E H Chaseling flew the mail to Sydney in a Gypsy Moth from Ballina.
For financial reasons, it was essential to get the Southern Sky flying again as quickly as possible.
On January 3, Chaseling flew F W Hewitt, ANA's chief engineer, to the landing site. He decided that the Southern Sky could be repaired where it was and flown out. Hewitt recruited J J Crossett, a young local mechanic, to help fly parts in from Sydney.
On January 16, Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm arrived in a Gypsy Moth and surveyed the site.
Hoists were erected over the aircraft and the centre engine and propeller replaced. Over previous days the undercarriage had been repaired and refitted.
All passenger chairs and excess items were removed and the aircraft was turned around with a tractor. Locals worked to clear the paddock for 90 metres and the tail was roped to a log. The aircraft was made to face down an incline and a bag of sand positioned on the tail to weigh it down for take-off.
At 1pm on January 17, 1930, Smithy slid behind the controls.
Full throttle was applied and on a signal from the great aviator, John McKee took an axe to the rope that Dave Hamilton was holding on to the log as the revving plane began to lift.
The repaired Southern Sky began its run along the improvised airstrip.
Surrounded by trees and hills, it was airborne in about 85 metres, with just five metres to spare.
Smith banked to tip the sandbag off the tail and pointed the aircraft skywards. There was enough fuel to make it to Coffs Harbour, where the seats were refitted.
• Information supplied by David Hancock, J J Crossett and Riki Mason.