War Time Plane Crash, Bylands, Vic. 1943

By Liz Pidgeon

Australia was well into World War II by early 1943.  We had fought the Japanese on the Kokoda Trail but 15,000 Australians were prisoners of war building the Burma Railway after the fall of Singapore. Darwin had been bombed in February 1942 then Japanese submarines attacked Sydney harbour in June.

Tom and Ann Comans and family, c.1943

Meanwhile,  grazier Tom Comans, aged 32, and wife Ann, 38, were busy with their young family and managing their farm, ‘Homewood’, at Bylands, about seven kilometres south of Kilmore, Victoria.  As a grazier, Tom was working in a protected industry during wartime.

Homewood, Bylands, Vic. [Photo: Tom Comans, private collection]

In the years leading up to the war, many countries including Australia were making attempts to arm themselves before the conflict ahead.  Air Power had been neglected.  Aircraft were imported from Great Britain and the United States of America.

In 1935, businessman and steel maker Essington Lewis visited Germany and Japan.  He returned to Australia convinced that we were heading towards a world war.  With the assistance of Laurence Hartnett, he was able to convince the government for the need of an aircraft industry.  Six Australian companies formed the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (C.A.C.) in 1936.  An American design was chosen to produce a war plane, which would become known as the Wirraway.  Construction took place at Fishermans Bend.

In 1939, eighty Australian engineers and technicians were sent to England for training at the Bristol Aircraft Company.  Australia obtained the licence for production of the Bristol Beaufort Bomber.  Production soon commenced, using British supplied parts until Australia gained the necessary manufacturing skills.

Wackett Woomera, A23-1001 Protype. Pilot appears to be 251382, Flight Lieutenant James Herbert Harper (Photo: Australian War Memorial)

The Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation could see a successor to the Beaufort, so staff started work on what would emerge as the C.A.C. Wackett CA-4 Woomera Bomber.  This was a twin-engine aircraft, more advanced than anything previously known in Australia, and somewhat complicated.  Allocated prototype Serial No. A23-1001, the first test flight of the Woomera took place on 19 September 1941.

In November 1942, A23-1001 suffered an undercarriage failure during a demonstration in front of the Prime Minister and senior Defence Force personnel.  Other than surface damage no structural damage was reported.  Modifications were subsequently made to the wing slats.

Two months later, on the afternoon of Friday, 15 January 1943, a further test flight was conducted.  The purpose of the flight was to assess the power plant performance and evaluate the aerodynamic effects of the fixed leading-edge slats that had been installed to overcome the problem of the wing centre section stalling.  It carried 315 gallons of fuel distributed into six tanks.

The plane was flown by Flight Lieutenant (later Squadron leader) James (Jim) Herbert Harper with two observers, C.A.C. test pilot Jim Carter in the second pilot’s seat with dual controls and power plant manager, Lionel Dudgeon who sat in the rear navigator’s compartment.

The flight left Fishermans Bend heading north to Kilmore where Harper completed the tests and undertook several high-speed turns over the township.  Harper then turned the Woomera back south towards Fishermans Bend which would have taken the plane directly over the ‘Homewood’ property at Bylands.

Jim Carter was the first to spot the leak in the Pratt & Whitney R-1830 engine according to testimony later given by Harper. A stream of petrol mist was observed emanating from vent holes on the side of the port engine.

“I closed the port throttle, increased the power of the starboard engine, re trimmed the rudder, and went to put my finger on the port airscrew feather switch.  Then there was a large explosion, which stunned me and made me unable to remember whether I had actually operated the feather switch or only placed my finger on it.   The actuation of the feathering switch caused an explosion and uncontrollable fire.”

He then managed to release his aviation harness and bail from the plane before it exploded beneath him.  Whilst descending he observed the red glow of the crash of the airframe.

The aircraft crashed on the ‘Homewood’ property at Bylands.  Nearby resident Mary Clancy assisted the downed pilot, Jim Harper.  The other two occupants, Dudgeon and Carter, died in the crash. Doctor Loorham from Kilmore and the Kilmore Police arrived on the site.

Damage to the shed at Homewood from the crashed plane [Photo: Ann Comans, private collection]

The Kilmore Bush Fire Brigade was called to put the fire out – luckily, they quickly succeeded in this task as an out-of-control bush fire could have quickly escalated.  It was only three years since the devasting 1939 Black Friday bushfires had ravaged Victoria.  Daylight savings had been introduced the year before as a wartime economy measure and this probably assisted operations in the immediate aftermath of the accident.

The plane crashed literally metres from where two of the three young Comans children were playing.  Tom Comans was not at home when the incident occurred, attending the weekly Elders livestock sales in Kilmore.

Impact damage from the plane [Photo: Ann Comans, private collection]

The wreckage was recovered by a crew of at least eight men of the No. 26 Repair and Salvage Unit the following Monday.

A formal Court of Inquiry immediately followed the crash.  Twelve witnesses including technical statements by C.A.C. employees relating to the condition of the plane, and the pilot gave evidence to the Court.

Ann Comans was listed as the seventh witness.  It is not surprising to imagine how horrifying the incident must have been at the time for Ann.  She stated in a written statement prepared by (Kilmore) Police Constable Harding on the 16th of January:

“.. at 5.10 pm I was in my kitchen when I heard the noise of a plane.  I then heard a loud explosion as if a bomb had gone off, I ran outside and saw the plane on the Kilmore side of our house and travelling straight towards my home.

I saw a man jump from the plane and the next instant flames issued from the sides and top of the machine.  I ran over to my children who were playing near the garage and the next moment the plane crashed through the roof of the garage and hit the ground beyond it.

I did not see any other man jump from the plane.  My little boy said that he saw another man jump from the plane when it was over the road and fall into the haystack.  Thinking this was merely fright that caused him to say this, I did not go and look.

The plane was travelling at a very fast speed nose down and appeared as if it would hit the house”.

It was clear early in the investigation that the plane crashed due to a fuel leak.  Unfortunately, this was a known concern with the aircraft “ever since its manufacture.”

The official cause of the accident was “An explosion within the fuselage, possibly due to an electrical short igniting petrol vapour”.  Inquests for Carter and Dudgeon cited cause of death as “aeroplane accident”.

Impact damage to the property at Bylands [Photo: Ann Comans, private collection]
Wreckage of A23-1001 in the yard at Homewood [Photo: Ann Comans, private collection]
Wreckage of A23-1001 in the yard at Homewood [Photo: Ann Comans, private collection]

Ann took photographs with her box brownie camera the following Monday when the clean-up crew arrived.  They certainly document the severe impact the crash had on the property.  Friends of the Comans family in more recent times told the story they believed Ann may have saved the parachute and repurposed some of the material for petticoats and the like.  Ann’s daughter June agrees that this may have been possible.

Clean-up crew at work recovering wreckage of A23-1001 at Homewood, Bylands [Photo: Ann Comans, private collection]

On April 15, 1943, Tom Comans wrote to the Royal Australian Air Force (R.A.A.F.) requesting compensation for the death of a vealer following the crash.  It is not known what the ultimate outcome was of Tom’s claim.  The Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation, the Department of Air, the Department of Aircraft production and the R.A.A.F. all continued to pass on responsibility for liability.

Two young men were killed in the crash.

Lionel Adrian Dudgeon was born in Elsternwick on 2nd May 1910.  He left behind his family in Elwood consisting of his wife Phyllis, known as Pat, and two children, Suzanne and Ian.  He was one of six children born to Arthur and Florence Dudgeon.  He qualified as a draughtsman and was the power plant manager / draftsman at the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation.  On the day of the accident, he was acting as flight observer. Dudgeon was 32 years old.  His family later donated a photo album to the National Library of Australia.  Lionel was a keen sportsman and amateur photographer.  He took many photographs during his bushwalking, skiing, and sailing activities.

James Ogilvie Carter was born January 19, 1911 and died four days short of his 33rd birthday.  He grew up in Sunderland, Durham, England and attended the Durham School.  He joined the Royal Air Force in September 1933.  He resigned his short service commission on 1st June 1935 and in October 1935, he migrated to Australia via Adelaide aboard the Ship “Oransay”. He joined the R.A.A.F. Flying Training School until his discharge on 3 Sep 1941, after which he took up employment with the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation as a test pilot.  A colleague described him as an “unsung hero and a gallant English gentleman”.  James is commemorated on a plaque in the Durham School Chapel.

Royal Australian Air Force Test Pilot Flight Lieutenant James Herbert Harper was left initially suffering from shock and then only slight bruises and abrasions from his ordeal.  He was aged 26 and single of Toorak at the time of the accident and was the only crew to survive.  He had joined the R.A.A.F. in June 1938.  Prior to this event he had been recommended for an Air Force Cross, the citation reading “Keen intelligence & enthusiasm testing aircraft”.  He was presented with the insignia in 1944 by the Governor of Victoria.  He was later appointed the first head of the Air Safety Investigation Branch.  He died in 1986.

Tom Comans and his Cessna 150D on his Bylands property, late 1960s [Photo: Ann Comans, private collection]

Twenty three years later, Tom Comans obtained a private pilot license and purchased his own plane, a Cessna 150D which he used in managing his property at Bylands and another at Avenel, some 32 miles away. In a sad twist of fate, early in the morning on August 4, 1972, he took off to fly to Avenel  but lost power shortly afterwards and crashed in a steep spiral dive.

Following Tom’s death, the property was broken up up into smaller lots and gradually sold off, the homestead, ‘Homewood’ however remained in the Comans family until it was sold by auction on November 18, 1989.

On February 10, 2014, a bushfire went through parts of Bylands.  The shed, which had been repaired in 1943 following the plane crash was destroyed.  The house, ‘Homewood’ was saved – again. No further visual evidence remains of what happened that fateful summer day in 1943.

Homewood property, Bylands, Vic. (Google Earth image Jan. 2014)
Homewood property, Bylands, Vic. (Google Earth image Feb. 2014)

Letter from Ireland, 22 February 1850

The following is a transcription of a letter (including spelling) from Sophia Proud to her daughter, Eliza Pidgeon, wife of Nathaniel Pidgeon. It was post dated Enniscorthy, February 22, 1850 and over-stamped three times on February 23, 25 and lastly the 29th in London. No envelope; just two sheets of notepaper folded inwards and sealed with sealing wax and another stamp; JU = 1850 Ship (unintelligible)

Background Note: Sophia Proud (nee Koehler) was the mother of Eliza Proud (24/7/1822-30/6/1902). Eliza married Nathaniel Pidgeon (16/8/1803-17/2/1879) on 24 July, 1839 at St Mary’s, Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland. Nathaniel, Eliza and their five month old son, Richard William Pidgeon (8/1840-1890) along with 13 other family members emigrated to Sydney, N.S.W,, Australia departing Liverpool on 6 January, 1841 on board the Orestes, arriving Sydney, 14 May, 1841.

Subsequent research has revealed that Sophia, her husband William Proud, son William Koehler Proud and daughter Sophia Proud migrated to New York in June 1850 aboard the ship London.  It is highly doubtful Sophia ever saw her daughter, Eliza or grandchild Richard again. Eliza and Nathaniel went on to have eight further children. One died at age two and their last died at age 6 weeks

 

Mr Nathaniel Pidgeon, Cabinet Maker,
Care of Sidney Post Office, New South Wales
Enniscorthy
Feby 22 1850

Dearest Eliza,

We received your letter with the power of attorney on the 31st of January at which we were all pretty delighted. I should have answered it sooner but I have been very ill the last three weeks and had to keep my bed for six days but thank God I am now well. I wrote to you last August which letter I hope you received. I promised then to write soon again but in September your dear father got a very bad finger which at one time was so bad that we were apprehensive of mortification. It turned out to be a felon on the middle finger of his right hand so that for three months he was quite unable to dress or undress himself and if it was not for the good care he got his constitution would have sunk under it but he is now thank God quite well with the top of one joint but is not able to do anything yet. This is my reason for not writing according to my promise that time.

I told you in my last that your Uncle James went to America last May and that if we sold my share of the property we intended to follow him but it appears to me providence has ordered it otherwise for after we got an offer and accepted of it and went so far as to send up the papers to a solicitor in Dublin to have it all settled the person went back of his proposal without giving any reason for doing so. We even left the papers in Dublin for several months after expecting to get another offer but got none so I withdrew the papers. I am quite determined to try what providence will put in our way and see if we got a reasonable offer for all our shares together in which case we are determined to go to Sidney but I know it will take some time to accomplish as money is so very scarce in Ireland it is almost impossible to sell any property especially house property so that like yourself I fear the indulging the thoughts of our meeting again least I might be disappointed tho I sometimes think providence is sparing me for your sake and in answer to your prayers we are all in good health at present although many are falling on our right and left. Your Aunt Fanny is living here again with Richard. Isabella has come to live here again. She has one son lately and one daughter alive. Frances is settled for life in Wexford. She is as comfortable as she need wish and has a small family of two boys and two girls. She has had eight in all. We had two letters from Uncle James. He gives no great encouragement to go to America however we will do all we can to go to Sidney. Willy is wishing of all things he says to be in partnership with Nat but he says if we cannot go to you that he will try to get to America if possible without selling the property but I would much rather sell and go to you. I sometimes think I would be satisfied if I could just get out and leave my children altogether and see you settled that I could then say Lord none latest this servant depart in peace for my eyes have seen thy salvation but the Lord knows what is best. Ah may he open our providential way and may I be enabled to say not my will but thine be done. Tell Nat that Jim Bolger is still living. I heard him some time back pray in the Chapel. John Butan (Britain?) died of cholera last month so that all the old members except Jim James are gone. There is no one to ring on the claxon now but him and Uncle Goodwin a most miserable society now and very poor congregation. I am not pleased with Nat that he wont write a few lines to Willy or some of us.

I have no strange news only the country is in a state of bankruptcy with poor, etc and no employment for the people but there is a great alteration in provisions within the last three months. We have now (as long as it lasts) ? lb 12 oz best ? bread for 6 pence yet poverty and starvation is going on to a great extent. Thank God we have had our bread and water sure to the present. Willy has been kept in work all the winter at 9 shillings a week but no other earning coming in only what Mary can give us. The property is going to pay debts and house rent, taxes, etc but I expect after this summer we will be out of debt and if we cant get out to you I will be able then to send you something which I intend doing if the Lord spares me and leaves my family free of those trying calamities which we have been going through in past years. May the blessing of heaven descend on both of you and the dear children. My heart goes to …. Oh may the Lord grant I may yet clasp them to my bosom. Father, Brother, Sisters and all friends join me in love to you, Nat and the dear boys wishing you long life and happiness. I am your ever affect mother.

Sophia Proud

(and at end a special letter to Richard)

 

My Dear Grandson Richard,

Enclosed I send you bit of your Grandpaps and your Irish Grandmama’s hair (as you were pleased to call me). You may kiss it and keep it for my sake and when you look at it think of what I am going to say to you. I am glad to hear you are growing a fine boy and I hope you will grow to a finer man, be very dutiful to your parents and be very loving to your brothers and pray to God daily to bless you and make you a blessing to all your relations and dot forget to pray to God for your Grandmama and if it is His will to bring her out safe to Sidney and then we will have some chat together about old Ireland. I expect you will now be able to write me a letter as I suppose you are going to school. Give a kiss to Papa and Mama and to each of your brothers for me. I will you off with kisses when I see you. May God bless you is the constant prayer of your loving and affectionate Grandmama.

Sophia Proud

Tell Mr James that his family are all well.

Sophia Proud (nee Koehler), most likely in New York, c.1850s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thirza Pidgeon’s 1937 World Tour – 10 Dec: Auckland, sick

Friday, 10 December 1937

Invited Maude, Mill and Hilda into town for afternoon tea, but too sick to keep this appointment. I just layed on the bed.

 

[This was Thirza’s last entry in her journal apart from various notations of Bridge wins and losses, names and addresses and accommodation expenses for North American road trip. It is not known exactly when Thirza returned home to Sydney from Auckland. I have not yet been able to locate any travel record for 21 December. Adding to the confusion are some photographs of family members upon which is written Christmas Day 1937. Given that these were Thirza’s negatives it is suspected that she revised her travel plans home from 21 December till some time after Christmas Day.]

Family members in New Zealand. John Gay Butterworth in centre. T
Family members in New Zealand. John Gay Butterworth in centre. To his left, wife Sarah Elizabeth (Lizzie) Butterworth (nee Wild), their son John Benjamin Butterworth and possibly their youngest son , Aubrey Butterworth. Possibly John Frederick Strange on left with wife Grace Strange (nee Anderson) holding daughter Beverly Ann’s hand and Thirza Jane Strange (nee Wild) behind them – most likely Xmas Day 1937, Te Aroha, New Zealand

Family members in New Zealand. John Gay Butterworth in centre. T
Family members in New Zealand. John Gay Butterworth in centre. To his left, wife Sarah Elizabeth (Lizzie) Butterworth (nee Wild), their son John Benjamin Butterworth and possibly their youngest son , Aubrey Butterworth. Possibly John Frederick Strange to the right of John Gay Butterwortht with wife Grace Strange (nee Anderson) holding daughter Beverly Ann’s hand and Thirza Jane Strange (nee Wild) behind them – most likely Xmas Day 1937, Te Aroha, New Zealand

John Gay Butterworth in hat - most likely Xmas Day 1937, Te Aroh
John Gay Butterworth in hat – most likely Xmas Day 1937, Te Aroha, New Zealand

Family members in New Zealand, Thirza Pidgeon on left and Sarah
Family members in New Zealand, Thirza Pidgeon on left and Sarah Elizabeth (Lizzie) Butterworth (nee Wild) on right, unkown in centre – most likely Xmas Day 1937, Te Aroha, New Zealand

Family members in New Zealand. John Gay Butterworth on right wit
Family members in New Zealand. John Gay Butterworth on right with wife Sara Elizabeth (Lizzie) Butterworth (nee Wild). Other two persons unknown – most likely Xmas Day 1937, Te Aroha, New Zealand

Thirza Pidgeon’s 1937 World Tour – 8 Dec: Auckland

Wednesday, 8 December 1937

Very wet this morning. Bus called for me at 7, arrived in Auckland at 11, Hubert came to meet me in his baby Austin, drove me out to Mt Eden. Maude [Smith] is not too good. We just sat around and talked all day. After tea Perc drove us around water front to St Heliers Bay, then out to call on Millie. She looks well and the home is a picture. Got back home about 10.

[From the list of addresses in Thirza’s journal, Maude Smith, 5 Eglinton Avenue, Mt Eden S1, Auckland]