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Sacrifice During the Survey of Canberra
- 11 February 1926.
All that was left of 3 Squadron's DH9, serial A6-28. [Photos by W. J. Mildenhall. National Archives of Australia.]
From The Richmond and Windsor Gazette, Friday February 19th, 1926:
Two Aviators Killed
Flying-Officer Philip Mackenzie PITT, and his observer, [Air Mechanic/Photographer] William Edward CALLANDER, both attached to No.3 Richmond Squadron, lost their lives in a crash near Canberra on Thursday morning the 11th Feb.
After crashing, the plane burst into flames and Flying-Officer Pitt was burnt to death. Observer Callander was terribly injured and died in the Canberra Hospital a few hours after the accident. Mrs. Callander hastened to Canberra when she heard of the dreadful accident, but when she arrived her husband was dead. The machine, which was a De Havilland [DH9], left Richmond aerodrome at daylight on Thursday morning, 11th Feb., to make aerial surveys of Canberra for the Federal Capital Commission. Flying at an altitude of about 150 feet, the plane was about to land at Ainslie, near Canberra, when it nose-dived, and crashed to the ground. A farm-hand, named Walter Johnson, who was ploughing 50 yards away, saw the smash, and rushed to the scene. By the time he arrived the aeroplane had burst into flame. He saw Pitt was beyond help and after a gallant effort succeeded in dragging Callander from the blazing wreckage. In a brief period of consciousness the mechanic murmured, "Get my mate." But his mate was dead.
CLOTHING BURNT OFF.
While someone telephoned for the Canberra fire brigade, Johnson tended the injured mechanic. The brigade arrived in quick time, and the fire was extinguished. From the twisted iron and splintered wood the remains of the unfortunate pilot were recovered. So terribly was the body burned that not a stitch of clothing could be seen. It was not until Captain MacGillicuddy of Duntroon College arrived that the identity of Pitt was established. Pitt had been a student there and Captain MacGillicuddy recognised the body by a peculiar formation of the front teeth. Callander was hurried to Canberra hospital, but he died at 8 o'clock on Thursday night from burns, shock and internal injuries.
LOST FLYING SPEED.
With the pilot and the observer dead, the cause of the disaster probably will never be known. Onlookers who saw the smash say the machine, when about to make a landing, seemed to lose flying speed and nose-dived to the ground at a terrific rate. Flying-Officer Pitt, who was 26 years of age and a single man, graduated through the Royal Military College at Duntroon, as an officer of the Australian Military forces, in December, 1920. He was attached to the Royal Artillery in England, undergoing instruction, for 12 months and on January 27, 1925, was seconded from the staff corps for duty with the Royal Australian Air Force for three years. He graduated as a pilot at the Flying Training School at Point Cook, Melbourne, on October 31, 1925, and was allotted for duty to No. 3 Squadron, at Richmond. His father is Mr. P. M. Pitt, who is attached to the Agricultural College at Gatton (Queensland). The Minister for Defence and the Military Board have sent messages of sympathy to his parents. Callander, who was 26, had been at Richmond aerodrome for three years. He was married and had two children.
An inquest on the victims was held on Friday when the opinion was reached that the crash was caused by an error of judgment on the part of the pilot. Expert evidence was given by Flight Lieutenant Hepburn, Director of Works and Buildings, R.A.A.F., Melbourne. He said that he had instructed the two men to report to him at Canberra at 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, and the machine was sighted shortly after that time. It appeared in good order, but passed the landing ground that had been mapped out [in the suburb of Ainslie, near the Yass Road] and attempted to land from a north-westerly direction. When the pilot shut off the engine the aeroplane stalled. It spun in the air and dived about 100 feet to the ground. He was unable to recognise Flying-Officer Pitt's body. The cause of the mishap, in the opinion of witness, was an error of judgment. The majority of aeroplane accidents are due to the same cause. The machine was valued at £3,000.
Dr. John Alexander James, of Canberra Hospital, was satisfied that the pilot died before the aeroplane burst into flames. Callander died from extensive shock and severe injuries to the right side of the chest. The only evidence of Flying-Officer Pitt’s identification was given by Captain MacGillicuddy. A finding of accidental death was recorded.
The melted aluminium engine block.
MASS AT ST. MONICA'S.
On Sunday last a Mass was celebrated at St. Monica's Church, Richmond, for the repose of the soul of the late Philip Mackenzie Pitt, who was a fervent member of the church. Rev. Father Darby made feeling reference to the loss the Church, and Australia, had sustained by the death of one whose life was so exemplary. He offered his personal condolences and those of the congregation to the late officer's family, and Sister Phillipa, his sister, of the Convent of Mercy, Ipswich. Deceased was a pupil of the Christian Brothers' School, Brisbane, from which he graduated to Duntroon College.
From Queanbeyan Age and Queanbeyan Observer, Tuesday February 16th, 1926:
THE FATAL AEROPLANE DISASTER AT AINSLIE - OBSEQUIES OF THE VICTIMS.
The remains of Air-Mechanic William Edward Callander, who was killed at Ainslie, Canberra, while flying with Flying Officer Pitt last Thursday, were buried in the cemetery at St. John the Baptist's, Canberra, on Saturday. Full military honours were accorded, the gun-carriage moving from the Canberra Hospital at 3 p.m.
The Military and Air Forces were represented. The pall bearers were three airmen and three military men. S.S.M. Chumleigh, of the R.M.C., Duntroon, had charge of the funeral arrangements. The chief mourner was Mrs. Callendar, deceased's widow. Rev. F. G. Ward officiated at the service in the church and also at the graveside. Mr. W. H. Mason, of Queanbeyan and Canberra, conducted the funeral.
The coffin was a beautiful oak one with silver mountings. Floral tributes were sent by the following:- Deceased's Widow and children; Flight-Lieut. Hepburn; Flying Officer Duncan; Air Board, R.A.A.F. Melbourne; Officers No.3 Squadron R.A.A.F., Richmond; Vacuum Oil Co.; R.M.C. Duntroon; Airmen No. 1 Mess, Point Cook; N.C.O.s and Men No.3 Squadron, R.A.A.F., Richmond; Staff Employees S. M. Mess, R.M.C. Duntroon; Staff Corps Officers' Mess, Sydney.
The funeral of the late Flying Officer Phillip MacKenzie Pitt took place at Queanbeyan on Sunday with full military honours. At first it was supposed that Pitt's relatives, who reside in Northern Queensland, would desire the remains to be sent thither for interment. However, being an ex-student of the Royal Military College, Duntroon, there was a strong desire to have him buried as near as possible where he had his military training. Flying Officer Pitt was of the Roman Catholic faith, and there being no burial place of that or any other religious denomination, except the Anglican Church, within the Federal Capital Territory, it was decided to choose as his last resting place the R. C. section of Queanbeyan General Cemetery. From the time of the inquest the body of Pitt remained in charge of the undertaker, Mr. W. H. Mason.
The coffin was a beautiful oak one, with silver mountings, lead lined and hermetically sealed. On Sunday morning the coffin was taken to St. Gregory's Church, the funeral being fixed for 3 p.m. that day. The ceremony attracted a large crowd. The full strength of the R.M.C. Cadets, bringing with them a gun carriage drawn by six horses, assembled at the Church, outside of which were parked a considerable number of motor cars. The burial service for the dead, according to R.C. ritual, was impressively read by Father Haydon, who was visibly affected during the ceremony.
Cadets, including the firing party, led the procession on leaving the church. The coffin, draped with the Union Jack, was placed on the gun carriage, which immediately followed the Cadets. Then came others from the Duntroon College, taking the place of the chief mourners, followed by numerous cars containing the general public. Crowds lined the footwalks of the streets along the route to the cemetery. At the cemetery there was an immense crowd of people present. The service at the graveside was comparatively brief. Having recited the impressive prayers of the burial service, Father Haydon said:
"Before the earth closes in upon the mortal remains of Flight-Officer P. M. Pitt, I would like to say just a few words. On behalf of this vast concourse of people, I wish to assure the parents and sisters of this brave young officer of our very sincere sympathy with them and of our deep respect for the memory of their son and brother.
I knew him well. Years ago as a Staff-Cadet at Duntroon he impressed us all with his scholastic ability, with his prowess as the champion athlete of the College, and particularly with his attention to his religious duties. I feel proud to be able to inform you that in after years he never faltered in this latter respect. Last night Father Darby, attached to the Richmond Aerodrome, informed me that our young friend received Holy Communion just a week ago. While this gives deep satisfaction, it occasions little surprise to those who knew the stern, loyal stuff of which Flight Officer Pitt was made. It is hard for a young man on the threshold of a great career to end his life abruptly. It is hard for a young officer to give in his sword just when the years of glory for which he has long prepared are awaiting him. I think it must have been doubly hard in the case of Flight Officer Pitt. Sailing so serenely, like the very eagles of heaven, through the wide blue pathways of the sky, he and his comrade saw the glory of Australia unroll itself across the hills and plains below. What a pride and what an honour to serve this country so shining with such resplendent beauty!
It was indeed hard in an instant to have to close one's eyes on the splendour and glory of it all. Still it was a home-coming for this young graduate of Duntroon. Within sight of the College which for years had been the scene of his many triumphs, he gave his pure young soul to God. In a wider sense it was a home-coming of inexpressible beauty, for, as he fell, his clean brave heart passed out along the blue lanes of our earthly sky and through the long white avenues of the clouds and beyond the furthest star to be enfolded in the tender kindly arms of Our Blessed Lord. You who worship at other altars will cherish his memory. You will think of him in terms of how a Christian should live and die. You who are Catholics will emulate his example, and will pray for the repose of his soul. May he rest in peace. Amen."
Following this the firing party, who so far had stood with arms reversed, fired three volleys over the grave. This was followed by a bugler sounding the Last Post. Then the earth, thrown into the grave, hid from view the second of the victims of the never-to-be-forgotten Ainslie aeroplane tragedy. As the funeral cortege wended its way along the streets, and whilst the impressive ceremony at the grave side was being proceeded with, an aeroplane was to be observed circling overhead at heights varying from 1,000 to 300 feet or less. The occupant was Flight Lieut. Hepburn, who in this unique manner desired to pay his last respects to his unfortunate subordinate officer - poor Pitt. Not while the present generation lives will the circumstances of the the terrible death of these unfortunate airmen, and especially the solemnities of Flying Officer Pitt's funeral, be effaced from the public mind. It was a unique circumstance that a fateful providence should so appoint that he should come back to the neighbourhood of the college where he received his military training, to end his promising career.
S.S.M. Chumleigh, of the R.M.C., Duntroon, had charge of the military arrangements in connection with the funeral. Beautiful floral tributes from the following were laid on the grave: Mother, Father, and Sisters; Flight Lieut. Hepburn; Mr. S. Isles; Mr. L. W. Litherland; Mr. and Mrs. Pitt; Officers' Mess No.1 Station, Point Cook; Major and Mrs. Berriman; Miss Kathleen Hayes (Babe); N.C.Os and Men R.A.A.F., Melbourne; Officers and Airmen R.A.A.F., Richmond; Air Board, R.A.A.F. Richmond; Staff Corps Officers' Mess, Sydney; Officers' Mess R.M.C., Duntroon; Officers' Mess No.3 Squadron, R.A.A.F. Richmond; Duntroon Graduates South Australia; First Battery R.A.F.A.; Jean & Co., florists, Sydney; Mr. and Mrs. T. S. Kenyon. The funeral arrangements were carried out by Mr. W. H. Mason, of Queanbeyan and Canberra.
According to the Melbourne Argus, this was only the third fatal crash suffered by the Royal Australian Air Force in the five years since it had been constituted in March 1921.
A plaque at the Dickson Library records this as the first aviation fatality to occur in the Australian Capital Territory.
The site of the old Northbourne Aviation Ground is now occupied by the Dickson shopping complex, Dickson Library and nearby playing fields.
A plaque on the Library wall recalls this crash, although unfortunately the date shown is incorrect (it should say the 11th of February 1926).
Flying Officer Philip Mackenzie PITT was born in Queensland on 21 August 1899. He was named after his father. His mother's maiden name was Lucinda (Lucy) O'Hea.
Pitt had joined the RAAF after several years in the Army, including an exchange-posting to England. His RAAF Personnel File is available online. Although Pitt was officially part of No.3 Squadron on its foundation day (1 July 1925), in fact he was attending a flying course in Victoria at that time and did not participate in the incident-packed movement of the Squadron's aeroplanes from Point Cook to Richmond.
The Inquiry Report into the crash of aircraft A6-28 is included in Pitt's file, commencing Page 7 (but missing one page, mentioned below, found in Callander's file). The full report reveals interesting personal tensions within the 3 Squadron maintenance organisation, and a disagreement about whether the aeroplane was serviceable on the day before it flew to Canberra. A major overhaul had been completed only in the early hours of the morning that the aircraft departed. (Although Pitt had conducted an acceptance flight at Richmond before he left for Canberra.)
The final conclusion of the Inquiry was that the crash was due to an error by the pilot. No weight was given to evidence that the aircraft may have left with a broken lock-wire in the rudder control rigging.
Pitt is buried in the Roman Catholic Portion of Queanbeyan NSW Riverside Cemetery, Section 3, Row K, Plot 30.
Air Mechanic William Edward CALLANDER, aged 27, of Richmond NSW, was born near Sandringham VIC. on 2 September 1900, the son of Edward and Annie Callander. He had married Violet Barry in Perth and they had two children.
He is buried in St John's Churchyard, Reid, ACT, Row No. A7, Plot 303. No headstone exists.
Callander's RAAF File is also online. (At Page 35 it includes an important page of Inquiry eyewitness testimony by Lt Hepburn, which is missing from Pitt's file.)
Callander's brother Alex had been killed in Belgium in 1917. Their mother placed the following couplet on Alex's war-grave headstone: "He gave his life, his all, in answer to freedom's call."
The farm-worker Walter Ernest JOHNSON, who had to break off pieces of the smashed plane with his bare hands in order to pull Callander from the flaming wreckage, received a Bronze Medal bravery award from the Royal Humane Society of Australasia for his efforts.
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