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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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 September 1978. It was sold again in May 1990.
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.