Anxious nation? — III

Aircraft don't have to be military to be a threat to the nation. The ability to simply fly over frontiers makes them attractive to anyone who wants for some reason to enter a country without observing the legal usual formalities -- smugglers, for example. Or at least, that seems to have been a widely-held belief among non-flying non-smuggling people. Where threatening mystery aircraft are not interpreted as belonging to a hostile foreign power, they have often been seen as smugglers, as happened in Scandinavia and Britain in the 1930s, for example. The smugglers theory was also briefly considered as one possible explanation among many for the Darwin mystery aeroplanes in 1938.

Smuggling was very much the frame used to understand another mystery aeroplane incident nearly a decade before the Darwin sighting, this time at Broome on the Western Australian coast. On 20 November 1927, aeroplanes were seen over the sea by two separate groups of people, the crew of a pearl lugger and a couple at their holiday house, but 'there are no 'planes in Australia which tally with the description of the machines seen in the West'. 1

Towards evening on a day in the middle of November, said Mr. [G.] Nelson, one of the coloured members of the crew of a lugger on which he was working turned to him, and said: "Look, very big bird." Mr. Nelson saw a dark object in the sky direct west from the lugger, and towards the setting sun. For a few moments it appeared to remain stationary, but when it changed its course to the north Mr. Nelson saw that it was a large aeroplane or a seaplane. As a lieutenant with the Imperial Forces during the war, Mr. Nelson was accustomed to estimating the altitude and courses of aeroplanes, and he judged that the machine was flying at a height of between 2000ft. and 3000ft. The machine was too far away for Mr. Nelson to detect the hum of the 'plane's engine. At the time the lugger was working at a point about seven miles south-west of Broome lighthouse. 2

The other people to see it, Mr and Mrs Percy, were also connected with the pearling industry, and the first to see it also initially thought it was a large bird. When they reached their holiday home at Gantheaume Point, the Percys grabbed binoculars from the old lighthouse there.

A few minutes later they saw a 'plane coming from the sea towards the land, but it was too far away for them to distinguish any markings. Soon afterwards they saw another 'plane flying round. Percy says the 'planes were three times as large as those used in the West Australian air service, and, in his opinion, they were taking observations of the coast line. 3

Although Percy was of the opinion that there must have been a mother ship out at sea, a West Australian Airlines pilot flying in the area the same day saw no vessels which could have served in this capacity, which 'discounted the possibility of the 'planes having been used by a foreign Power for the purpose of military observation, and strengthened the belief that they had come from an island in the vicinity of Java, or one of the adjacent islands, on some private mission' -- that private mission being somehow 'confirmed' by Nelson's statement as 'a scheme to smuggle opium into Australia'. 4

Across Australia, nearly all of the headlines for this story included phrases such as 'Theory of opium smuggling', 'May be opium smugglers' or 'Opium smuggling suspected'. Where this theory came from is unclear: one report said that 'The general opinion seemed to be that the aeroplanes were being used to smuggle opium into Australia', which sounds like it was idle talk rather than any expert opinion. 5 Customs officials were publicly rather dismissive, with the Comptroller-General of Customs saying 'he did not regard as serious the suggestion that the aeroplanes were engaged in smuggling opium', and a local customs officer pointing out that 'there was no evidence to show that any contraband goods had been landed'. 6 But almost no attention seems to have been paid by the national press to a report that defence officials were 'alarmed' by the mystery aeroplanes, with the RAAF carrying out its own investigation separate to that of Customs. 7 A columnist for the Perth Western Mail didn't feel forced to choose between the two theories, contending that

The incident goes to show how defenceless we are against reconnaissance by hostile aircraft [...] The immensity of Australia's coastline means a bigger air patrol problem than faces most other nations, but face it we must. Civil aviation does much already, but it is not enough. 8

So on this reading, to defend against one aerial threat was to defend against the other: more airpower needed.

Errata: most of the years in this post, which I incorrectly had as 1928 instead of 1927!

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  1. Advertiser (Adelaide), 23 December 1927, 15.[]
  2. Brisbane Courier, 22 December 1927, 13. See also West Australian (Perth), 14 January 1929, 16, for what seems to be another report from the same man.[]
  3. Brisbane Courier, 31 December 1927, 15.[]
  4. Brisbane Courier, 22 December 1927, 13.[]
  5. Western Argus (Kalgoorlie), 27 December 1927, 14.[]
  6. Argus (Melbourne), 24 December 1927, 16; Sydney Morning Herald, 30 December 1927, 9.[]
  7. Advertiser, 23 December 1927, 15.[]
  8. Western Mail (Perth), 5 January 1928, 6.[]

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