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Fatal Crash of a 3SQN Aircraft during the Opening of Parliament House

- 9 May 1927 -

A dramatic incident from 3 Squadron’s early history...
- During the opening of the original Canberra Parliament House by the Duke and Duchess of York, No.3 Squadron participated in “The RAAF’s first mass fly-past”, directly overhead. 
(The boys even managed to drown out Nellie Melba’s singing of the National Anthem…! )


A photograph taken during the flying display by the Canberra photographer W.J. Mildenhall.

However,  things then went horribly wrong when an S.E.5a fighter, serial A2-24, of 3 Squadron’s ‘B’ Flight, suddenly stalled and crashed in front of the stunned crowds, fatally injuring the pilot…

Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a
A2-24 
Point Cook
Photo via Ken Rowland
The silver-finished S.E.5a fighter, A2-24, newly taken on-strength by 3 Squadron from Point Cook for the celebrations.  This photograph was taken at Canberra shortly before the tragic incident.

The Canberra Times takes up the story [Friday, May 13, 1927]:

AIR TRAGEDY

Plane Crashes during Review

PILOT DIES IN HOSPITAL

Tragedy again clouded a day of celebration and rejoicing – a day that of all others should have passed free of blemish.  During the Royal review on Monday afternoon Flying Officer Francis Charles Ewen, piloting a small one-man plane known as a Scout Experimenter, lost control and crashed to earth.

Horrified spectators hurrying to the scene of the disaster found Ewen still alive, but terribly injured, in the debris of the wrecked plane.

The tragedy occurred at about 3.20 pm and the scene was the small hill fronting Parliament House, about three-quarters of a mile distant, and quite close to the YWCA marquee.  A number of people were in the immediate vicinity at the time and as the machine came hurtling earthwards, they scattered in panic.

The crash was tremendous.  A cloud of dust and a sheet of bluish flame rose in the air.  The machine was a total wreck.  Ewen was quickly carried to the Telopea Park School emergency hospital, but there was no hope for his recovery and he died at about 7 o’clock in the evening.

 

AT THE CORONER’S INQUEST

An inquest was held on Tuesday afternoon at the Canberra Hospital by the District Coroner (Mr. John Gale).  Dr R. J. W. Malcolm, temporary medical officer, said that when brought to the hospital, Ewen was conscious but suffering severely from shock.  There were compound fractures of the right and left arms and left thigh, the ribs were fractured and there was a large wound on the chest and lacerated wounds on other parts of the body.  His death, which occurred at 7 o’clock, was due to shock following his injuries.

 

THE VERDICT

The Coroner said that he could arrive at no other conclusion than the fall was one of those inexplicable things that happened, and could never be accounted for, even by the experts.  In this case the victim, through shock from his injuries, had been unable to reveal the cause of the accident, and had died taking the secret with him. 

[The Coroner] found that the death was due to one aeroplane, accidentally nose-diving, and that nobody was to blame for its occurrence.

Arthur Poole-Lawrence, Director of Medical Services, RAAF, gave a similar opinion as to the cause of death.

 

PLANE IN GOOD ORDER

Flight Lt. Ellis Charles Wackett, RAAF, said that from the review ground he saw Ewen’s machine leave the formation and fall steeply before it disappeared from his view.  He afterwards examined the wreckage of the plane to ascertain if there were defects in the controls but there was nothing to show that the disaster was due to a defect.  There might have been several reasons for the crash, but he could not say what the cause was.  The machine was in perfect order, and had been thoroughly overhauled about a week ago.  Ewen was a qualified pilot, a strong man and of sober habits.

 

UP 1,000 FEET

Flying Officer Sidney James Moir, No.3 Squadron RAAF, said that he was flying slightly above Ewen at an altitude of just over 1000 feet.  They were turning into squadron formation to give the salute.  Ewen’s plane left the formation and suddenly dived to earth.  He had no idea of the cause of the accident.  If Ewen had had engine trouble, he had ample room into which to right his machine.

Flying Officer Howard Howden Fletcher, also of No.3 Squadron, said that he had noticed Ewen’s machine leave the formation in a stalling turn, which was continued in a further half turn to the ground.  Under ordinary circumstances he had every chance to pull out.  Ewen had been in the air for about two hours, and after that length of time in the air a pilot was apt to grow tired.

The Coroner: “Is it true that that particular machine, or any of the planes, were rebuilt from those used in the Great War?”

Witness: “That I could not say.  They have all been rebuilt, and they are overhauled regularly.”

Det. Sgt. Thornley, Sgt. Anderson and Const. Robinson also gave evidence.

Flying Officer Ewen, who was 28 years of age, was a New Zealander and had graduated at Point Cook.  He was formerly a student at RMC Duntroon.


Ewen's crashed S.E.5a in front of Parliament House.  This aircraft was one of those received from Great Britain as part of ‘The Imperial Gift for the foundation of the RAAF. 
The crash site was on a small hill formerly known as ‘Cork Hill’, which was removed in the 1960s to improve the view of the lake from the steps of the provisional
Parliament House.  (The earth from Cork Hill was used in the foundation of the current Kings Avenue Bridge.)

MILITARY FUNERAL

Full military honours attended the dead airman’s funeral on Wednesday morning in the old cemetery of the Church of St John the Baptist.  High overhead, three aeroplanes circled the cemetery and wreaths were dropped by the graveside – a final tribute from the dead man’s comrades.

Marching with arms reversed, the funeral procession, comprising several hundred men from each arm of the sister services, was headed by the RAAF Band, which played the Dead March from Saul.  Officers of the Citizens Air Force acted as pallbearers.  The service was conducted by the Bishop of Goulburn (Dr Radford), who was assisted by Canon Ward and the Rev WA Fletcher.

No greater loyalty, said Dr Radford, could have been displayed than the attendance of so many of the late officer’s comrades.

A volley fired over the grave concluded the ceremony.

Wreaths were sent by their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of York, the Prime Minister (Mr. Bruce), the Commonwealth and Dominion Governments, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the President of the Senate and the RAAF.

Advocate [Burnie, Tas. 11 May 1927]

The King's Sympathy.

MELBOURNE, Tuesday. - His Excellency the Governor General (Lord Stonehaven) has received the following message from His Majesty the King:-

''I am grieved to hear of the death of Flying-Officer Ewan, from the result of Monday's accident.  I deeply sympathise with his family in their sorrow, and also with the members of the Royal Australian Air Force in the loss of a comrade. - (Signed) George R.I."

 

Postscript

Francis Charles EWEN was the son of Francis and Lilian Ewen.  He was born at Kamo, New Zealand on 27 July 1899 and attended the Royal Military College, Duntroon, as a military cadet, graduating in 1920.  [His RAAF personnel file is available in the National Archives.]  After flight training in New Zealand he later transferred to Point Cook, Victoria, becoming Adjutant of No.1 Flying Training School.  He had travelled from Victoria to participate in the RAAF display in Canberra, flying a 3SQN S.E.5a for the day.  Ewen was buried in the historic churchyard of St. John the Baptist, Canberra, with full military honours, on 11 May 1927. 

- This pretty 19th Century church is an unexpected historical asset within modern Canberra City.  It is located on Constitution Avenue, less than 200m from the national military memorials of Canberra’s Anzac Parade.  


The historic St Johns church, located only a few blocks from the Australian War Memorial and the Civic Centre of Canberra.

- Flying Officer Ewen’s own memorial is in the unusual form of a lovely marble bench.


Ewen’s memorial in St John’s churchyard.

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