Like overtaking on a blind corner and hoping nothing is coming the other way

In 1941, during World War Two, as a nine-year old, I was living in England with my 55-year old Uncle Alf and his wife Annie. Alf was a member of the Royal Observer Corps and I helped him spot and report on German enemy aircraft flying over our village. He was a keen carpenter and made me a wooden model of the Mosquito which had just entered service as a fighter-bomber with the RAF. Alf had carved the model out of solid wood using photos and drawings handed out to the Observer Corps outposts because of its likeness to the familiar German Junkers 88 bomber. Alf told me to keep my model under wraps because, at that stage, they were told it was a secret bomber. Of course, I was terribly impressed.

In 1948, one year after migrating to Sydney in Australia, I was 16 and living in Camden, working as a general hand with the Herald Flying Services (HFS). It had a couple of freighter DC-3s and Hudsons. The manager of the HFS was former Wing Commander Harry Purvis AFC. The chief pilot (called Flight Superintendent in those days) was Doug Swain DFC. Doug won his DFC flying Mosquitos over Occupied Europe during WWII. Harry was also an engineer by trade and had been the chief engineer of the Australian pioneer pilot Sir Charles Kingsford Smith. During the war Harry Purvis was the RAAF chief Lockheed Hudson instructor. He took the surrender of several thousand Japanese troops at Surabaya in 1945. His was an amazing story.

DC-3 HFS
A DC-3 for dropping newspapers? In Australia it was an efficient tool.

I did my very first flight in an aeroplane of the Herald Flying Services. It was Hudson VH-SMK at Camden, NSW, in 1948 on a test flight following an engine change. The pilot was Harry Purvis. There were no seats since it was a freighter. I sat on the bare metal floor along with several other employees. There were no seat belts either. These Hudsons and DC-3s were used for the airborne dropping of newspapers to Northern and Central NSW.

In 1953, there was an England to Australia Air Race. Another former Mosquito pilot was Aubrey Oates who won a DFC flying against the Japanese. Oates ran a pub at Campbelltown near Camden. Known as “Titus” Oates after the story in 1705 of an English crook, Aubrey Oates was loaned a RAAF Mosquito from storage by the federal government to take part in the air race.

Doug Swain acted as the navigator. During the positioning flight to England prior to competing on the air race, the aircraft ran into monsoon weather over the Indian Ocean and ditched off the coast of Burma. Both crew survived, but that was the end of their air race attempt.

I visited Doug Swain a few months later, where he was now a clerk in the head office of The Sydney Morning Herald at Hunter Street in Sydney. He was by then 37 and the Herald Flying Services had closed down a few years earlier. He was unhappy working in an office and not flying. I was in the RAAF at the time and in uniform when I dropped in to see Doug, who was one of my idols when I was at the HFS. I look back now and realise how he must have felt to see a youngster like me wearing RAAF wings and telling him about flying Mustangs and Vampires when he was in a dingy little office shuffling paperwork – when only ten years earlier he had risked his life over Europe. It was insensitive of me at the time, but I was so proud of myself and I thought Doug would be happy for me too. After all, I had been just a floor sweeper at the Herald Flying Services when he was chief pilot. The ball was now on the other foot I suppose.

At the time I visited Doug in early 1954, he told me he had succeeded in convincing SMH management to restart the Herald Flying Services. He also related the story of the Mosquito ditching in which he was involved. He said that Aubrey Oates, who was the pilot in command, was a loud-mouth type and both had strongly disagreed with each other on the course of action that they should take when they were lost in weather with lack of navaids and getting low on fuel.

That was the last time I saw Doug Swain until reading the newspapers a few weeks later of his disappearance in the Hudson he was flying. It was the inaugural flight of the new service and the commercial pressure to make a success of that first flight must have been on his mind. In the event, it was later found he had been scud running though the hills of the Barrington Tops range near Dungog, NSW, en route Sydney to Taree. The terrain was dangerous and covered in mist and rain. At the time the aircraft had not received DCA licence approval for IFR flight.

The Hudson wasn’t located until 15 months later. By coincidence, the aircraft that first spotted what turned out to be the missing Hudson was flown by another former pilot of the Herald Flying Services when I was there in 1948. His name was Bill Jenkins. I liked Bill very much as he was always kind to me. Bill eventually became a Qantas captain. If still alive now, he would be about 94.

Doug Swain
Doug Swain, an idol with an amazing but tragic aviation story.

Many years ago, I was contacted by Richard Swain, a son of Doug Swain. He was just four years old when his father was killed in the Hudson crash. I think he must have seen one my stories published in an Australian aviation magazine. I gave him some photos I had of his father as well as my recollections of him.

From my reading of the original accident report, combined with what I knew about Doug Swain’s flying and the risks involved with getting the newspapers to their destination almost regardless of weather, I recall trying to explain to Richard Swain (he was in his 50s by then) how that sort of accident could occur. Commercial pressures would have been strong to get the newspapers to their destination on time. So many pilots have lost their lives for similar reasons.

Recently I came across the following story by Richard Swain about his quest to locate the crash site of his father’s Hudson. He quoted a conversation I had with him when trying to explain the circumstances of his father’s crash. I must have said that scud running in low cloud and poor visibility was analogous to overtaking on a blind corner and hoping nothing is coming the other way. On reflection that is not a bad description.

This is what Richard Swain wrote:

Ghost of the past finally laid to rest

It has taken him more than 50 years of looking, wondering and waiting, but on a remote ridge high on the Barrington Tops in New South Wales, Australia, Richard Swain has finally come to terms with the life and death of the father he never knew.

It was 15 September, 2007, when he and his sister Suzanne Rose unveiled a commemorative plaque on the hillside where their father, Douglas, died in an aircraft crash.

“I know it’s an overworked word… this is some sort of closure, though,” Mr. Swain says.

Richard was four and his mother was pregnant with Suzanne when Captain Swain, his co-pilot and a passenger went missing on the afternoon of September 14, 1954.

They were on a regular “milk run” from Mascot in a Lockheed Hudson, owned by the Herald, delivering newspapers to Taree, Kempsey, Armidale, Glen Innes, Inverell and Bingarra.

An intensive land and air search of rugged bush country north of Dungog failed to find the plane, call-sign VH-SML. It was not until 15 months later that the crew of a Butler Airways Heron flying over the Barrington Tops spotted something, presumed metallic, glistening below in the bright sunlight.

Within 24 hours a police party, guided by the pilot in a Tiger Moth, found the wreck at about 900 metres on the Mountaineer Range, near Wangat, 40 kilometres from Dungog. By chance, the pilot of the Tiger Moth was Aubrey Oates who had ditched with Doug Swain in their Mosquito in the Burma Sea in 1953

The bodies of the three men – Swain, of Dee Why, Alistair Cole-Milne, of Neutral Bay, and David Burns, of Hawthorn, Victoria – were removed; inquests, funerals, air crash inquiries held.

Of the crash, Richard Swain, his brother and sisters were told nothing. “I don’t remember precisely when we found out,” he says. Of his father, who was 37, he has no recollection.

“My personal memories of him, his face, are from photographs.”

Though he had appeared in the newspapers at the time, bravely celebrating his fifth birthday as the search for his father wound down, he was quickly packed off to a Baulkham Hills boarding school. “We didn’t even go to the funeral. It was a generation thing, I suppose. We lived in an age when … such matters were quickly pushed out of the way and everyone moved on.”

Decades passed. The crash site was reclaimed by the bush. His mother remarried. A sister emigrated. A brother died in a motorcycle accident. Mr. Swain, now 57, ran away to sea, joined the merchant navy, ran a pilotage company. But he never forgot his father. Or his fatal accident.

“I always wanted to know more. I would start then get distracted.”

Five years ago, following a stroke, he suddenly found time on his hands. He began studying official reports, combing newspaper cuttings, talking to his late father’s friends, trying to relocate the crash site, to recover a life lost.

He learnt that the aircraft had crashed in heavy rain, obscured by mist. A friend, John Laming, says VH-SML’s last movements were probably comparable to “overtaking on a blind corner and hoping no one’s there”.

Commercial pressures to deliver newspapers on time – a risky venture involving low-flying “drops” through a hatch in the fuselage, or rapid ground handovers – were intense. Three other fleet aircraft had previously crashed.

The inquiry hinted at paperwork anomalies, technical troubles. Whatever the reasons, the aircraft “ploughed into the mountain from the south, cutting a swathe nearly 50 feet [15 metres] wide through heavy timber”.

“Wreckage was strewn over 100 yards [90 metres]. About 20 trees, some of them up to two feet in girth had been sliced cleanly through.”

Last March, Mr. Swain drove to the Barrington Tops in search of the site. With the help of a parks ranger, Peter Beard, local experts and forestry workers, they eventually found it in dense forest.

“We went for a bit of a trek, poked around, disappeared in the scrub. Came back out. Had another go. It was hard going, but, suddenly – bang – there it was. Unbelievable.

“Bits of the whole plane are still there. You can feel its oil sticky on your hands.”

And what of Captain Swain? His son’s research reveals a brave, handsome man, a turner and fitter who went to England, flew Mosquitoes and Anson reconnaissance planes in World War II, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Mike Bayon, who was Swain’s navigator during the war, wrote from England that he was “heroic, generous, quick to laughter, quick to anger … but never mean or vindictive”.

Mr. Swain and his sister say there are still gaps in the short life of their father. “I just wish my mother could have sat down and gone through it all with me,” he says.

On return to Australia after the end of World War Two , Swain became manager and chief pilot of the Herald Flying Services fleet of Lockheed Hudsons and Dakota DC-3s.

A ceremony was conducted at 2.50pm yesterday, September 14, the precise time of the crash according to a watch that stopped on impact and was later found in the wreckage. It was an emotional, tearful occasion.

“I feel a huge sense of achievement,” Mr Swain says.

“After all these years it was so important for me to know it was a job well done.”

Mission accomplished.

6 Comments

  • John Laming, by way of introduction Doug Swain was my grandfather with Rick Swain being my uncle. His memory is kept alive with articles such as yours and it is so very pleasing to have someone of your calibre sharing your experiences and stories to the next generation (akin to Rob Mundle in the world of yachting). I also had the pleasure of walking to the wreck of the Hudson with Uncle Rick and associated family members. The terrain was closed in and rather rough – it was a moving experience. So, John, I applaud your article and so very pleased that Uncle Rick has pursued his father’s story and legacy, so I can pass it on to my children. Great article and thanks again.

  • This very personal story of tragedy contains several lessons gifted to our current generation of pilots by Capt Swain through the memories and research of Captain Laming and Captain Swain’s son, Richard Swain. It’s sad that such lessons are only learned by some pilots through their own experience rather than from stories of others who, like that Captain Swain, have gone there and perished. Thanks for sharing Captain Swain’s story.

  • Nice story John. My grandmother was married to Bill Jenkins’ father . I seem to remember he started out in Qantas as a Navigator. I do recall that on his first trip as Captain on the 707 that there was an attempted hijack.

    • Mark.
      Although Bill Jenkins eventually became a Qantas pilot, the Captain of the 707 Hijack event was Bill Selwyn. I presume you meant the extortion bomb threat in 1971 where the extortionist called himself “Mr Brown” and who called Qantas in Sydney saying there was a bomb aboard the 707 timed to explode at a certain altitude unless Qantas paid up several thousands of dollars. The NSW Police caught the crook as he picked up the ransom.
      See: https://www.crimetraveller.org/2017/12/qantas-bomb-hoax-australias-greatest-heist/

      By coincidence Bill Selwyn was a pilot with the Herald Flying Services about the same time as Bill Jenkins was. Bill Selwyn flew Wellington bombers with the RAF during WW2. As a 17 year old I flew as a passenger with Bill Selwyn in the Herald Flying Services freighter DC3. My job was to throw out the newspapers

  • Mark.
    A footnote to your comment that Bill Jenkins started as a navigator with Qantas. In those early days, pilots joining Qantas had to have a navigators licence. There were also several dedicated navigators working for Qantas used on certain sectors. These were former RAAF navigators. I knew three of them well since they were in my squadron at Townsville on Lincoln bombers circa 1953. Their names were Ivan Pretty, Bill Woods, and Gerry Geary

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