A miscellany of Australian mystery aircraft, 1903-1940 — II

Queenslander, 8 March 1928, cover

Continuing this miscellany, on 23 August 1913 the Maitland Daily Mercury published a letter from the Reverend G. W. Payne reporting that he, his wife, and a Mr and Mrs Preston had seen 'an aeroplane with searchlight hovering fairly high over Newcastle and the Hunter Valley'.((Maitland Daily Mercury, 23 August 1913, 4.)) This was just before 4am on 22 August 1913, though Mr Preston had also seen the light at 2am on 21 August. What they were all doing at such an early (or late) hour is unclear, but it was 'A reflection of the light on the still waters of the lake' (presumably Lake Macquarie) which first caught their attention:

The four of us watched it traversing a line from the direction of Newcastle north and west. Though at a considerable distance from us and fairly high in the air, the nature of the light was quite unmistakeable. It passed away in a westerly direction after loitering some time over the Hunter Valley.((Ibid.))

Payne added that 'We have speculated a good deal as to who the enterprising aviators are', unfortunately without actually including any of those speculations.((Ibid.)) An article in the Sydney Evening News noted that 'these intrepid navigators of the air travelled westward, so it is said, probably to spy out the loneliness of the great interior of Australia'; but who said this is not stated, and as the tone is sceptical and amused it probably shouldn't be read literally.((Evening News (Sydney), 25 August 1913, 6.)) More concretely, a question was asked in Parliament (as reported in the press; I can't find it in the online version of Hansard) which was framed as being about 'The possibility of hostile aeroplanes spying out Australia':

Mr Fleming (NSW) inquired whether the attention of the Minister for Defence had been drawn to a newspaper report, that an aeroplane, carrying a searchlight, had been seen crossing the Hunter Valley on Friday at 2 am. He remarked that this was not the first time strange aircraft had been seen in the early morning.

Mr Kelly, amid laughter, asked for notice of the question.((Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 27 August 1913, 9. Fleming was presumably William Fleming, while Kelly must be Willie Kelly, who was not defence minister but would have been standing in for Edward Millen in the Senate.))

The reference to earlier sightings is intriguing, but they don't seem to show up in Trove. And as the question doesn't ever seem to have been returned to, there the matter ended. The Evening News suggested that the Reverend's party had seen Venus, but while that did rise in the east-north-east just after 4am, it wouldn't have looked 'fairly high in the air', nor would it have been visible at 2am. A better candidate is the pairing of Mars and Saturn which were in conjunction (i.e. close together in the sky), about 20 degrees above the north-east horizon at 4am, heading west, and fairly bright (magnitude 1.0 and 0.4 respectively).

Jumping forward a decade and a half, and a long way north, in the early hours of 24 February 1928 there were reports of a mysterious aeroplane from a very localised area in Cairns:

several residents of McLeod and Sheridan-streets distinctly heard a noise which sounded like an aeroplane engine or motor bike or motor car engine with open exhaust.((Cairns Post, 27 February 1928, 4.))

A terrestrial explanation might seem fairly likely here, but an unnamed 'lady' reported that

while closing a window at about 2 am, there was a vivid flash of lightning; and she distinctly saw an aeroplane in the mist in a northerly direction, and in a subsequent flash it was again visible.((Ibid.))

An engineer at the nearby ice works, William Bryant, heard the 'throbbing' noise a couple of nights later and was 'positive that it was a plane':

The machine was either of high power or was flying at a low altitude. It was travelling from north to south.((Cairns Post, 28 February 1928, 4.))

Well, perhaps an aeroplane was not so mysterious in 1928 -- after all, Queensland's favourite (aviation) son Bert Hinkler (see above) had just landed at Darwin after his record-breaking solo England-Australia flight a week before, and at the time of the mystery aeroplane sightings was making his way home to Bundaberg (over 1300 km south of Cairns, so not responsible here). But the Cairns Post explained that

Nothing is known of an aeroplane in this part of NQ [northern Queensland] at this time, and it is most unlikely that an aviator would choose the darkness of early morning for unofficial or experimental flight.((Cairns Post, 27 February 1928, 4.))

Furthermore, 'officials of the Air Force' reported that 'that no Government planes are in the locality [of Cairns] at present'.((Daily Examiner (Grafton), 9 March 1928, 4.)) So what was the explanation? A few letter-writers made suggestions, possibly not entirely seriously (a motor boat; a 'motor' at the Cairns Bowling Club which runs constantly, to the annoyance of neighbours -- who presumably would be used to it, then).((Cairns Post, 28 February 1928, 4; Northern Herald (Cairns), 7 March 1928, 6.)) But the main theory offered in the press was smugglers:

There is much speculation regarding its identity and mission, and in some quarters the visit is connected with the recent find of £1500 worth of opium near Fitzroy Island.((Geraldton Guardian, 28 February 1928, 3.))

This makes this mystery aeroplane one of a pair with the one seen just three months earlier at Broome, on the other side of the continent, which was also conjectured to be connected with opium smuggling. That generated some official interest, but here the only trace of that I've found is a RAAF statement that 'Investigations are being made'.((Daily Examiner (Grafton), 9 March 1928, 4.))

Image source: Garnet Agnew, Queenslander, 8 March 1928, cover (via State Library of Queensland).

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://airminded.org/copyright/.

2 thoughts on “A miscellany of Australian mystery aircraft, 1903-1940 — II

  1. Pingback:

  2. Pingback:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *