Survival, rescue and high politics in the Queensland wilds
It was not a hunch that made Bernard O’Reilly set off into the rainforest in the early afternoon of Saturday 27 February 1937, eight days after an Airlines of Australia Stinson aircraft went missing on a flight to Sydney from Brisbane’s Archerfield Aerodrome. A believer, he was comfortable with the possibility that he had been chosen for the mission. Having ‘spent most of his life in unwittingly fitting himself out for such a job’, O’Reilly thought it ‘quite natural’ to find inspired within him ‘the reasoning and initiative which would send that man out on his own accord’, a sign that there was ‘a clear purpose behind it all’.1
O’Reilly did not believe such a thing as a hunch existed. The evidence eventually seemed clear enough, once he assembled it on the Friday after the plane’s disappearance. The official search had centred mainly around Newcastle and the Hawkesbury River, hundreds of miles south, where dozens of witnesses reported seeing and hearing the plane. At a time when aeroplanes were still unusual, a steamer off Barrenjoey Heads entered a sighting in its log. The postmaster at Davistown, on the Hawkesbury, reported he saw the Stinson pass overhead just after 5 pm—‘Knows the plane well and is certain of this’, declared the local police, who investigated and ‘Place every faith in this message’. Navigational tools were primitive, black box recorders were decades away, and investigators deduced the pilot had charted a course down the coast to avoid a dreadful storm inland and been lost at sea.
Yet many people living below the McPherson Ranges, on the border between Queensland and New South Wales, told O’Reilly they had heard the aircraft pass overhead at the same time it did each day. These observers in the Kerry Valley, including O’Reilly’s brother Herb, knew the 1 pm flight from Brisbane and some recalled seeing the distinctive blue and red Stinson disappear into low stormy clouds. In Lismore, around 75 miles (120 km) away, where the pilots were scheduled to pick up passengers on their way to Sydney, people had waited for a plane that never arrived.
O’Reilly said later he ‘got a ruler and drew a line across the map, across the mountains … from … over Gordon Stephens’s—that was the last place that I had knowledge of the plane being heard’. From there to Lismore, the line crossed four high points in the border ranges. ‘From what my brother told me I formed the opinion that it was quite possible that the plane never got over our range.’ O’Reilly lived in the high country and remembered the force of the storm the previous Friday, when
… there was a very violent cyclone raging over our mountains; that made it extremely dangerous to go into the timber anywhere near my home. All work was suspended on our place that day; it was impossible even to yard the cows; also visibility at our place was practically nil practically all day.
That type of weather was ‘common to the whole of the range, and it would exist for some miles along the range’.
Packing tea, sugar, a billy, a pound of butter, two loaves of bread and six onions, O’Reilly set out to take a look. He rode a horse to Mt Bithongabel, then sent it home and continued on foot through jungle ‘so dense that it lets in only an occasional chink of sunlight on a bright day’. Visibility was ‘limited to ten yards by a tangle of tough green vine as dense as wire netting, and covered with murderous thorns’. The day was not bright and navigation required other clues, such as differences in the patterns of growth on more exposed northern and more sheltered southern sides of the landscape and the trees. Variations in the phases of bloom for particular species or in the nesting of particular birds could reveal higher and lower altitudes. ‘All nature is willing and anxious to help if you will only take the trouble to notice.’
After a cold, wet night, he pressed on the next morning, Sunday, into country where he had never ventured, although various landmarks had European names. From the top of Mt Throakban, a brief break in the clouds allowed him to survey the high spurs where he suspected the Stinson may have crashed. Away to the south-west, amid the endless green, he noticed a light brown treetop. This would have been common enough in the fresh growth of spring but not in late summer. Fires didn’t occur naturally in this rainforest. Lightning strikes did, but it would be quite a coincidence at one of the precise points where the Stinson’s route to Lismore crossed the high spurs. Estimating from his map that the brown tree was eight miles (13 km) away, O’Reilly pushed on through the jungle towards it, managing about one mile (1.6 km) per hour.
Around three miles from the spot he was aiming for, he heard two faint human calls, ‘Coo-ees’, the distinctive, long-then-short, upwardly inflecting call used in the Australian bush to attract attention or indicate location. Thinking it must be other searchers and that answering ‘might prove confusing to that other party’, he stayed silent but ‘proceeded in the direction from whence the ‘Coo-ees’ came’. Crossing a gorge and climbing to the top of what the map said was Point Lookout, he then called ‘quite a few times’ but ‘did not hear any reply’. He walked back 200 yards along the plateau and called again very loudly. A response came ‘so clear and close, that it had the effect of a physical shock’. He answered and headed towards it, now exchanging calls. Soon, he saw ‘where a big tree had been cut off’, then ‘where the whole trunk of another tree had been scorched by fire’, a ‘mass of smashed and charred metal’, then two men.
Born in 1903, Bernard O’Reilly did not get to see Queensland’s forests until 1918. By then, five older brothers, Tom, Herb, Norb, Mick and Ped, and cousins Pat, Luke and Joe had already moved there, after it became clear their land in the Blue Mountains could not support the growing family. Once established, they planned to bring the rest of the O’Reillys from New South Wales.
The men had taken up eight ‘selections’ in 1911, small blocks of land offered by ballot to aspiring farmers. Schemes like this operated all over Australia. The size of blocks varied, along with the improvements the ‘selectors’ were required to undertake, but the overall goal was the same—to ‘unlock the land’ for agricultural use.
Land in Australia had not been treated as ‘locked’ because Indigenous people occupied it. European settlers declared it terra nullius, ‘empty land’, which could be taken without permission or payment, a legal fiction that endured until overturned by the High Court in 1992. Nor had land in the high country of Queensland’s border ranges been locked by ‘squatters’, the primary target of the ‘unlocking the land’ movement elsewhere. These were pastoralists who simply drove cattle and sheep onto vast tracts of the Australian continent in the nineteenth century, treating the land as their own. Apart from a few timber leases granted from the 1870s, the inaccessible, densely forested mountain country where the O’Reillys took up selections was locked because, by the early twentieth century, English/Australian law had been imposed over it, the state held title to it, and few had asked for it.
Just as the O’Reillys moved in, the idea of locking up the land again—this time in a ‘National Park’—was gaining momentum. A pioneer pastoralist in the Beaudesert area and one-time member of the Queensland Parliament, Robert Collins, had publicised the region’s special qualities since the 1890s. He is said to have been converted to the concept of national parks after visiting Yellowstone (declared in 1872) on a trip across North America in 1878, but he did not use the term and it is more likely he went to Yosemite, a state park until 1890. Collins spoke of the ‘South Eastern Highlands’ as a site of economic and spiritual opportunity, ‘an undeveloped source of wealth … which may not be won by gambling, nor even made by work, but which is the free gift of Heaven alike to man as to the “lily of the field”’. He took the governor of Queensland, Lord Lamington, there on horseback for several days and lobbied for tracks to be cut to allow others to see the ‘bold grandeur’ of the country. John Buchanan, a local settler, was paid to cut them.
A State Forests and National Parks Act passed in 1906 enabled the government to regulate the cutting and removal of timber. State Forests would stem ‘the wanton waste that goes on now in connection with our timber industry’, explained the secretary for Public Lands; National Parks would be places where holiday-makers would ‘know that they will get pure air, good scenery, and country life’.
‘I am pretty hazy about what followed immediately’, O’Reilly said of the moments after he arrived at the Stinson crash site. ‘I lost my head a bit.’ That was how Joseph Binstead and James Proud remembered it too. According to Binstead, O’Reilly ‘seemed to break up. He couldn’t talk.’ Proud thought he was ‘very agitated’. Binstead remembered asking him his name. When he replied ‘Bernard O’Reilly’, Binstead said he and Proud cheered ‘“Hooray for O’Reilly” and drank his health with a mug of water’. O’Reilly, recalled Binstead, said ‘You poor bastards,’ then apologised. ‘I didn’t mean to call you that. I could have been here six days ago.’ Binstead decided to ‘cheer him up’ and offered to give him £50. O’Reilly had different memories. He recalled Binstead asking ‘“What have you got in your bag?” I think I said “Some tucker”. I got some bread and butter out for them. They did not seem to relish it very much.’
Mountaineers celebrate warily at the summit, understanding the hardest part is still to come. O’Reilly knew from the two men’s condition that he may be too late to save them. He had got to the crash site around four o’clock on Sunday afternoon. By then, Proud and Binstead had been in the forest for nine days. Proud was unable to move, his leg broken, a contused fracture sustained in the crash and made worse when he jumped from the plane. The two had drunk only the water Binstead had been able to collect in a metal thermos flask knocked free of the plane, and eaten only the berries he gathered that both men decided to risk eating. The water came from a creek three hundred yards away, a near vertical drop through thick jungle. Binstead’s final journey there had taken five hours.
Binstead and Proud had already scratched final messages across the Stinson’s fuselage. O’Reilly’s discovery turned their desperation to instant optimism but transformed him from an intrepid local with nothing to lose into the sole agent of their slender prospects. The optimists may have sensed O’Reilly’s unease. Proud recalled encouraging him to ‘make the most of the hour of daylight left’. The already exhausted bushman was trying to work out how best to use it. He decided not to return the way he had come but to try a shorter, quicker route to a doctor.
‘It is like a dream now, that wild run,’ he wrote of his Sunday evening dash down Christmas Creek towards the township of Lamington. He first heard rifle cracks from a shooter, told him the news, borrowed a horse and then a utility truck to get to John Buchanan’s farm and telephone. They found the home number for Mr Robinson of Airlines of Australia in the Brisbane telephone directory. Robinson
… seemed rather dazed or slightly dis-believing. I told him I could organise the rescue party and I asked him would I go ahead, or would he come up and attend to it, but I suggested that I go ahead, as I was on the spot and knew all about it. He said ‘Go ahead and make any arrangements you like. We’ll ring Sydney immediately.’
O’Reilly and Buchanan decided to organise two separate parties. O’Reilly himself would go straight back up the treacherous creek to the crash site with a small team plus ‘the Doctor and supplies and nourishment’. They assembled about 2.30 am, boiled the billy, left an hour before daylight and got back to the crash site around 11 on Monday morning. At dawn Buchanan and his larger party were to start clearing a path over a longer but gentler route up to the Lamington Plateau, reopening a route he had first cut decades earlier. Proud and Binstead would be carried down that track if they were still alive. Buchanan would take as many people as could be mustered; Hillview postmistress Gracie Silcock helped gather more than a hundred.
Bewildered by the distant location of the official search over the previous week, volunteers from the local area now had a job to do. They did it. Binstead and Proud spent one more night in the forest, at last on stretchers, in a small tent and with medical attention. At first light on the Tuesday an exhausting march down from the plateau began, carefully keeping the stretchers level on treacherously steep slopes, along the 14-mile path cleared the previous day while the survivors’ condition had been stabilised. They were in Beaudesert Hospital by nightfall. Proud’s leg and both men’s lives were saved.
In 1908 the first national park declared under the Queensland legislation was an area of 324 acres (about 130 hectares) on Tamborine Mountain, not far from the selections the O’Reillys took up three years later. Collins envisaged a larger area, perhaps 1000 acres (about 400 hectares), for a national park in the nearby high country.2 A much more ambitious plan for an area of around 50,000 acres (about 20,000 hectares) was proposed by Romeo Lahey in a letter to the minister for Lands in June 1911.3 Lahey became the main campaigner for this larger park, encompassing all the timber reserve land in the Nerang, Coomera, Canungra, Cainbable and Christmas Creek watersheds. These boundaries were close to the ones ultimately proclaimed in 1915, two years after Collins’ death.
Like the O’Reillys, Romeo Lahey’s family came to south-east Queensland to cut down their share of its forests. Leaving Ireland in the early 1860s, choosing Australia ahead of war-torn America as a new home for their family of 11 children, Romeo’s grand-parents Francis and Alicia established a farm at Pimpama south of Brisbane to grow arrowroot and cornflour. Their sons built sawmills in Canungra and Beaudesert, below the McPherson Ranges. ‘Come up to Canungra where the mountains are black with pine,’ they were advised.4 By 1900 Lahey’s Canungra mill produced 2.5 million superfeet of it.
When the best technologies for felling, hauling and milling timber were axes, cross-cut saws, bullock drays and strong men, clearing was slow and wastage minimal. As the population and demand grew and processes were mechanised, the prospect of ‘wholesale destruction of forests’ loomed. Romeo Lahey wrote newspaper articles and lobbied anyone of influence to promote the beauty of the region and the public benefit from a large national park. He cited Lord Kelvin’s warning about the depletion of oxygen that would result from deforestation—human life would be ‘no longer sustainable’. Lahey’s most important reason to establish national parks in Queensland was sentiment: ‘Only a very stolid, soulless sort of human creature can go unmoved among big trees. In hours of sorrow and trouble men and women turn to the soothing and comforting solitude of the scrub with its sheltering silence and protection.’
A ‘split second’ after Bernard O’Reilly first saw the wreckage of the Stinson, before he saw the two men still alive, he smelled four who were dead. The two pilots and two passengers on the starboard side of the plane all died when the Stinson hit the trees and the mountain or in the fire that followed. On the port side, Proud, Binstead and a young Englishman, Jim Westray, survived, helping each other from the wreck in the few seconds before the fire overwhelmed the aircraft. Westray was the last one out. The blaze continued for a quarter of an hour, according to Binstead—Proud thought half an hour—but the rain and clouds were heavy, night came, and the immediate search was focused elsewhere. They had matches and got a fire going. It burned well into the night until rain put it out. Then, according to Binstead, ‘we just sat around in the rain. It rained all night and until about ten o’clock next morning.’
According to Joe Binstead, William Guthrie (‘Jim’) Westray had very little to say during the single night he spent in the forest with him and Proud. Binstead was a company director and wool broker from Manly in Sydney who booked himself on the Stinson flight under a false name, ‘J. Barnett’—‘My reason for doing so was a family one.’ Westray was a 25-year-old insurance underwriter and son of a shipping broker, who had married two years earlier and was now living in the London suburb of Kensington. Before the Stinson flight, he had been in Australia for a month, after spending three in New Zealand.
Binstead remembered Westray’s demeanour in the plane just before it crashed: ‘very nervous, by the look of him’; his size: a ‘little chap and there was no difficulty getting him out’ of the plane window; his silence about his burns: ‘he did not complain’; and just one thing he said: that ‘he was due at a reception tonight—“Quite a big affair,” he said, “white ties and long tails”.’ About 6.30 in the morning, Saturday, Binstead recalled, the Englishman stood up and said, ‘I see a farm down there with some sheep on it.’ Binstead told him ‘there was no farm and no sheep’ but Westray said ‘I think I’ll beat it.’ Binstead and Proud ‘had no arranged plans and we advised him not to, but before we could say anymore he was gone’. Thirty seconds later Westray was out of sight in the jungle. He said he would call out twice and did. Binstead and Proud then heard nothing more from him.
Proud, an unmarried mining engineer from Wahroonga on Sydney’s wealthy north shore, remembered the Englishman differently. They had talked the previous afternoon while Binstead went to see if he could spot a farmhouse Proud remembered seeing from the air, shortly before the crash. Proud, who couldn’t move because of his broken leg, had suggested Binstead go: he ‘appeared to be the most intact of the party’. While he was away, Proud had ‘discoursed with Westray most of that time, over who he was’. Westray told Proud he had ‘a young wife in Sydney’, where the Stinson was headed, and should have arrived the previous evening.
Binstead, according to Proud, returned from his reconnaissance after about an hour:
He said that he did not see the farm house that I spoke of but that he had seen all sorts of things, such as farms with cattle grazing on them but when he went over to them they turned out to be bushes. When he came back he seemed to be quite alright and seemed to have gotten over the shock.
On the Saturday morning Proud also remembered a different farewell from Westray: ‘I see a farm down there—I’ll get help.’
When O’Reilly eventually got to the crash site, Binstead asked him: ‘Did you see the lad?’ ‘What lad?’ O’Reilly responded. ‘The young English chap that went out to get help for us’. Binstead said Westray had left on the morning after the crash. Hearing that, O’Reilly ‘sort of had it in my own mind that that man was not alive but I did not tell them that’.
Leaving the two survivors to try to get help, rushing down the range towards Lamington, past the spot where Binstead had been collecting water each day, O’Reilly ‘followed the tracks of a man’. The tracks, he said:
… went from the plane straight to the gorge. It was very dangerous country, broken by cliffs and long slopes of loose earth ending in a cliff. Whoever went down there and made those tracks showed a great deal of skill and common sense, or bushcraft, in avoiding those cliffs. It was dangerous country even for a chap who knew how to go there. That man must have used a good deal of gumption because he went the right way, the shortest way into the gorge, and having reached the gorge he took the shortest way to civilisation, along the gorge. That led down to Christmas Creek.
About half a mile down the gorge, O’Reilly came to the top of a 40-foot-high waterfall:
There were sheer cliffs running round on either side of the hills for some distance. I had to go around very wide there to avoid them. The tracks went around there too … There was a spring or a sort of soakage going over the edge of a cliff, and there were some high lilies and reeds growing close on either side of this. The rock itself was steep and sloping and was covered with slimy mud. I saw tracks that convinced me that somebody had slipped over this edge. I saw the imprint of where a hand had gone down—finger marks in the mud, about 7 or 8 feet down … I looked over this cliff. The distance to the bottom … would be about 20 feet. At the bottom it was mostly broken basalt rock, sloping away at a very steep angle. It was my opinion at the time that a man falling over there would be killed outright.
Scrambling down, O’Reilly saw ‘that something had fallen onto these rocks and had rolled some short distance. Ferns and moss round the rocks were disturbed.’ Continuing, O’Reilly picked up the tracks again at ‘intervals on down the gorge, here and there’. Nearly a mile further, he saw what he was expecting. Shown a photograph of Jim Westray at the inquest, O’Reilly said ‘I could not honestly say that I would recognise him from that. He was something like that … I did not examine that body closely.’ Westray’s body
… was in a fairly natural sitting position, with the back against the rock. The position was so natural that I thought he would be alive when I found him. The body was slightly decomposed. I noticed that the left eye was missing; the back of his right hand was red and looked as though it had been severely burned. I did not notice any other injuries. The body was clothed in a dark suit—it seemed to me to be a dark brown type of suit. There was no hat. One of his shoes was off, and was nearby on the ground. I looked in the inside breast pocket of his coat, and found a wallet, which I opened and I found papers to indicate that the man was Westray, and some money. I did not look to see how much, but I saw a ten pound note. I took possession of the note and contents. I then proceeded down the creek.
Once he made it to Lamington and planning for the rescue was underway, O’Reilly went into the Hillview Hotel where he ‘asked the publican to check up in our presence on the contents of Westray’s wallet’. As well as ‘certain … cards and papers which helped to establish identity, it contained £17 10s 10d in cash, a Bank of England Certificate for £5 and a letter of credit on the New Zealand Bank for £300’. O’Reilly handed it over to Gracie Silcock at the Hillview Post Office for safe keeping. Some hours later, returning to the crash site in heavy showers, O’Reilly and the local doctor came again to the rock in Christmas Creek. ‘The Doctor then examined the body, which was moved back from the stream to higher ground,’ remembered O’Reilly. ‘We continued on …’
Jim Westray was and remains buried on that higher ground, a young man with a young wife, in a hurry to get to Sydney, an Englishman who took on the rainforest of Queensland’s border ranges and came so close to narrating the story himself.
Like the pastoralist Collins and the timber-getting Laheys, the O’Reillys came to the mountains for commerce but saw ‘another factor’ once they got there. According to Bernard O’Reilly, ‘this new country, ruthless and terrible though it was, was the most magnificent they had yet seen’. Coming from the Blue Mountains, ‘then regarded as the scenic wonderland of Australia’, that was something.
If Romeo Lahey’s campaign had been successful, the O’Reillys would never have got there. His 1911 letter to the minister for Lands proposed that blocks already offered for selection in the proposed park area be withdrawn, or that the terms for further ballots be changed so he and his friends could select them then donate them to the park. In October that year, most of the blocks were withdrawn, but not the O’Reillys’, and they began clearing the timber. ‘One may now picture those young men’, wrote Bernard in the early 1940s, ‘measuring with their eyes those trees which would have to be cut down, burnt and cleared, before even one blade of grass would grow; measuring too their own hard muscles and thinking “Can we do it?”’
Lahey convinced the local member of parliament to allow a kind of popular vote. By 14 June 1915 he had 521 signatures on a petition, an absolute majority of the district’s electors in favour of the park. About six weeks later, the government proclaimed an area of 47,000 acres as the Lamington National Park. The O’Reillys’ selections became islands inside it. Without further selectors moving to the high country, the government was unlikely to invest in a new road or other infrastructure to service their properties. But if Lahey had expected the O’Reillys to surrender their holdings in the forest, he was wrong. Unable to agree on a deal with the government to resume all their blocks, the O’Reillys stayed. Their dairy business faltered—‘we know now that it was a task that should never have been attempted’, Bernard later conceded—but they found themselves hosting an increasing number of visitors, informally at first, then from 1926 at a small guest house built for the purpose.
At the northern edge of the park, Romeo Lahey was a founding investor in a company that began building another resort, Binna Burra, in the 1930s. Workers from Lahey’s Canungra sawmill built drop slab huts that still survive. A guest house the family had run in Canungra was dismantled and rebuilt up in the mountains. Among the timber roads the Laheys constructed, one up Mt Cainbable became the route to the O’Reillys’ new business as well, carrying its first motor car to the guest house the year the Stinson crashed. For the Laheys, the road was a significant engineering achievement but not a financial success. In the 1930s, 15 million to 20 million superfeet of hoop pine was taken out along it; in 1941, it was sold to the government and reclassified as a tourist road.
Pressure to log the park during the Depression was resisted. Romeo Lahey wrote: ‘Merely to cash our capital to provide temporary employment by selling the magnificent pine trees of our National Parks to sawmillers would be a very poor business alternative to selling the same trees over and over again to tourists and so providing greater and increasing employment for all time.’5
The O’Reillys cut walking and riding paths to scenic spots and Lahey used his engineering and road-building expertise to begin constructing graded walking tracks at Binna Burra. From 1937, extending these tracks was the primary job of a large park workforce. Within a few years there were nearly a hundred miles (160 km) of them, including a 13-mile ‘Main Border Track’ linking the two guest houses.6 The Laheys’ timber and sawmilling interests, in an ‘inexorable downward slide’ since the Depression,7 were sold after the war. The O’Reillys eventually gave up their cows.
A century is not long for mountains, but it is long enough for a pastoralist to become the father of preservation, a sawmiller’s son to become the architect of a forest park, and for bushmen to become stalwarts for new industry.
At Tamrookum, below the McPherson Ranges, a church celebrated its centenary in 2015 along with the National Park. Built mainly of red cedar and blue gum gathered from Robert Collins’ land and milled at Lahey’s sawmill in Beaudesert, All Saints Memorial Church remembers a ‘pastoralist, parliamentarian and pioneer’.8 Along the Lamington National Park Road stands another memorial, to Romeo Lahey, unveiled in 1967 shortly before his death. Up in the mountains, at the guest house now called O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat, visitors can see a full-sized replica of the aircraft that didn’t make it over the ranges in 1937. It was built for Kennedy Miller’s 1987 telemovie The Riddle of the Stinson and stands near a statue showing the moment when Bernard O’Reilly, played by Jack Thompson, found the two survivors. At the end of his wartime memoir Green Mountains, O’Reilly wrote that the Stinson rescue was ‘a re-enactment of the old pioneer shoulder-to-shoulder spirit, without which the Australian bush could never have been conquered’.
It is that which makes bushmen neglect their crops and cows to search for some lost child they have never seen. It is the spirit that draws men into a voluntary army to fight their common enemy, bushfire, and which makes them give of their strength and skill to restore the homes of neighbours who were burnt out. It is the urge which makes men plough a neighbour’s farm and plant his corn when a sudden operation takes him to hospital.
O’Reilly stood shoulder to shoulder not just with the rescuers and the survivors, but also with the two pilots buried alongside two of their passengers at the crash site. Binstead and Proud both told the coronial inquest they thought the plane was flying much too low. Binstead had flown with Boyden before and thought him a ‘good pilot’, but that day, ‘I certainly would say that the weather conditions … were such that would cause the pilot to fly much higher than usual.’ He was also sceptical of claims that the plane had been caught in a big down-draught. ‘I did not feel any noticeable air bumps just before the crash. From what I noticed that plane was flying in pretty still air just before the crash.’
While generously praising the ‘Spartan endurance of Proud’ and the ‘heroic faithfulness of Binstead’ and expressly avoiding comment on ‘men who had to give evidence under oath—naturally they were compelled in conscience to tell the truth as they thought it to be’—O’Reilly rejected criticism of the pilots Boyden and Shepherd. Boyden ‘learned his lesson in that hardest of schools, the Great War’, the same school that claimed one of the O’Reilly brothers, Norb, at Menin Road. ‘Men who went up in those flimsy crates and faced von Richthofen’s guns were not wanting in either courage or skill.’
The Stinson, according to O’Reilly, had been lost to ‘Queensland’s oldest and greatest enemy, the cyclone’. Evidence from Gordon Stephens, the last person to see the plane, convinced O’Reilly that it was already at 5000 feet and, by the sound of the engines, still climbing. That would have been more than enough to clear the ranges. O’Reilly was satisfied the plane had been caught in a massive down-draught on the northern side of the range, caused by winds hitting the mountains from the south. It was ‘a cowardly and despicable thing’ to suggest otherwise, for ‘irresponsible, ill-informed people’ to ‘attempt to fasten blame on a man who cannot come forward to give an account of his stewardship’.
The Beaudesert coroner did not linger over the investigation. Less than two months after the crash, the day after Bernard O’Reilly concluded his evidence, the inquest closed. Pushing the limits of his investigative role, the coroner identified
… a pressing need for improved methods of ground organisation, centralised control and supervision at the aerodrome of pilots and their duties, the supply of up-to-the-minute weather reports on air routes, the establishment of reporting stations and the utilisation to the fullest extent of radio aids. Tragic fatalities should not be awaited to provide generating reasons for the institution of improvements to safeguard human life.
Bernard O’Reilly had a specific plan: ‘We all know that the safety of aviation has been built upon the lessons of a thousand disasters.’ The lesson from this one was not about pilot error, but:
There should be at each great aero-drome a disinterested official (preferably a government official) with full knowledge of wind and air conditions along immediate air routes. This official should have the power to ground a plane if, in his opinion, the occasion warrants it.
The young pioneers of aviation should press on but they would need to be constrained. As human beings learned more about the consequences and challenges of this novel enterprise, the state would have to act to shape it. Just as a law had been passed in 1906 and a park proclaimed in 1915, a reconciliation was now required. Commerce would need to bend to nature, people to their planet.
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