CRASH OF AN AVRO ANSON
NEAR RIVERSTONE, NSW
ON 28 APRIL 1939
Avro Anson A4-32 of 6 Squadron RAAF left Richmond airfield at 12:40 pm on Friday 28 April 1939 on a flight that was expected to last less than 3 hours. This was part of an Air Navigation course they were being trained in. The particular exercise for this flight was a wind finding direction course over the sea. The weather was clear and fine and weather conditions in no way contributed to the crash which ultimately happened.
After leaving Richmond Airfield the Avro Anson was flown out to sea in the vicinity of Smith Head, Sydney. The crew maintained constant radio communication with the airfield and the flight proceeded without incident until approximately 3:30pm. At 3:27pm a radio message was received from the aircraft to the effect that the aerial was being reeled in preparatory to landing. At that time the aircraft was within a few miles of the airfield and within a few minutes of landing. This was the last message received from the aircraft.
At 3:30pm Avro Anson A4-32 crashed into the ground. There were several eye witnesses. It would appear the aircraft was flying in normal level flight at about 1,000 feet when eye witnesses heard some spluttering from the engines along with the noises of backfiring and puffs of smoke were seen coming from the aircraft.
The nose of the Avro Anson dropped to an angle of 30 degrees and it started to lose height. Eye witnesses then indicated they could hardly hear the noise of the engines but they then made a sudden roaring noise and the nose pulled up again.. But then it went into a steeper dive and crashed directly into the ground with its engines roaring.
The following four crew members of Avro Anson A4-32 were killed instantly:-
Pilot Officer Maxwell Leonard Hickson (Navigator)
Pilot Officer Lloyd George Harness (Pilot)
Aircraftman Raymond Duncan Knight (Wireless Operator)
Aircraftman Harrie Clarke (Fitter Armourer)
WINDSOR AND RICHMOND GAZETTE, Friday, September 1, 1939
The Coronial Inquiry into one of the worst tragedies associated with the history of the Richmond Aerodrome, the fatal crash of the Avro Anson bomber at Riverstone on the afternoon of Friday, April 28, when four airmen attached to this station, Pilot Officers Maxwell Leonards Hickson and Lloyd George Harness and Aircraftsmen Raymond Duncan Knight and Harrie Clarke, were killed, was held at the Windsor Court House on Tuesday, the Hawkesbury District Coroner, Mr HS Johnston, JP, returning a verdict of accidental death, adding that as to what caused the aeroplane to crash, the evidence before him did not enable him to say.
During the hearing of the evidence, one witness, a girl of 17 years, after describing how she had seen the machine make its fatal dive 70 yards from where she was standing, stated that she had run to the scene and had tried to extricate the body of one of the unfortunate victims from the wreckage, but found that the body was too mutilated for her help to be of any avail. Her heroic effort was commented on by Sergeant FB Forde, who assisted the Coroner, the sergeant stating that such an action – especially when it was made by a girl of such youthful years, in the face of a shocking scene, was deserving of the very highest praise. The coroner also paid a tribute to this young witness, stating that her action was most commendable, and had proved her to be a lady possessing outstanding courage and character.
PILOTS “ABOVE AVERAGE”
Lyle Charles Holswich, Flight-Lieutenant of the RAAF, Richmond, stated in the course of his evidence that he was a member of No 6 Squadron, to which Pilot Officers Harness and Hickson and Aircraftsman Knight and Clarke were also attached. Witness had flown with each of these men on different occasions, and knew that each was fully qualified to fly Avro Anson machines, each having about six months experience with that class of machine. Aircraftsman did not in any way concern the flying or control of a plane, though the wireless aircraftsman might assist in really bad weather in obtaining bearings for the navigator. Harness and Hickson were both First Pilots, fully qualified to take charge of any Avro Anson. In their 18 months flying experience Harness had completed 60 hours as a First Pilot and 54 hours as a Second Pilot, while Hickson had completed 49 hours as First Pilot and 60 hours as a Second Pilot. The officers of the Anson on this occasion were engaged on a navigational reconnaissance course which involved wind finding exercise at sea, up to approximately 100 miles out, and were in constant communication, reporting their position each 30 minutes of the flight. There was no unusual occurrence reported during the flight, and the last message received, at 3.27 pm, when the Anson was within 3 or 4 minutes of the aerodrome, was that the aerial was being reeled in preparatory to landing, and no forced landing signal was received.
Both pilots had done their regulation 40 hours day qualifying to qualify as First Pilots, witness continued and altogether Harness had a total of 220 flying hours, and Hickson 234 hours, both being “above average” pilots. Witness visited the scene of the Anson crash, at Riverstone, at 11 am on April 29, and was able to identify the plane by its engine numbers and numbers on the fabric parts. The machine was a complete wreck, and from statements witness received from eyewitnesses, he would estimate that the height of the aircraft prior to the crash was between 800 and 1200 feet. Witness had been flying a Gypsy Moth around the aerodrome on the day in question, and it was a good day for flying, being calm, and with practically no wind. The Avro Anson concerned had been flown in England for 1 hour 10 minutes prior to being issued to No 6 Squadron at Richmond in August 1938. There it had a 1 hour 15 minutes test, and since then had completed 226 hours 50 minutes flying. It had not been involved in any previous crash, and the records showed that it was serviceable for leaving the ground on April 28. The plane was due back at the RAAF Station on that date at 3.50 pm. Witness was present at the RAAF Station at about 8 pm when four bodies from the crash were brought to the mortuary there by the Air Force ambulance, and he was able to identify three of them by various means, subsequently identifying them to the Coroner.
EVIDENCE OF AIRWORTHINESS
In reply to questions by Sergeant Forde, witness said that there was in the hands of the Court conducting an inquiry into the crash, a form which gave a record of the inspections carried out on the machine, and the times that it had been flown. This form was signed by the officers who carried out the work and also by the pilots, who signed it before taking the machine in the air. This record would show the machine as being in good serviceable conditions.
Dr GP Arnold, Windsor, said that at 9.30 pm on April 28, at the Hawkesbury District Hospital, he examined the remains of four men, who were identified to him as the four deceased, and in his opinion death was caused from extreme violence.
John David Furze, wireless operator attached to No 6 Squadron, Richmond, stated that he had been associated for a considerable time with Knight before the date of the fatality, and last saw him on that day when he was preparing for the flight. Witness went out at the same time in a similar type of machine, and was on the return journey when he saw the other plane out at sea, approximately 10 miles of North Head. Witness subsequently returned to the aerodrome with his machine, and heard that one machine had a forced landing. Later witness identified the body of Knight, who was a very cool, level-headed man of very temperate habits.
Nelson William Edward Hartnett, aircraft hand, Richmond, gave evidence of having identified one of the bodies as that of Harrie Clarke, who had been a quiet, reserved type of man, not excitable in any way. Leonard Bathurst Hickson, clerk, Kensington stated that the deceased Hickson was his son, and was 22 years of age at the time of his death. He was a normally healthy man of sober habits, and was a native of Sydney. His life was insured, and he left a will.
ROUTINE INSPECTIONS DESCRIBED
Gustav Charles Wenesmius, leading aircraftsman, Richmond, stated that he saw the subject Avro Anson bomber on April 28, and assisted in removing it from the hangar just prior to lunch. After lunch the machine was started, and the engines were run for about 15 to 20 minutes, and then the airman took control. Witness examined the port engine during the morning, before the machine was removed from the hangar, and everything was quite satisfactory. He had spent approximately an hour examining the port engine of the machine that morning. Witness saw the machine take off, and saw the crew, which comprised the four deceased, leave in the machine. Witness had previously completed a “20-hour inspection”, which was a thorough inspection after 20 hours flying, this inspection being completed on April 27, and it had taken about two days work. The flight on April 28 was the first flight after that inspection. Witness was satisfied that the engine was in a serviceable condition. He was a fitter, and had served his apprenticeship with the Clyde Engineering Co, at Clyde.
Kenneth George Paul, leading aircraftsman, Richmond, stated that he was attached to No 6 Squadron. The subject Avro Anson bomber was also connected to that squadron. Witness saw the machine in the hangar before it went on a flight on April 28. During the morning, as a rigger he completed a daily inspection of the aeroplane, during which inspection he went over the controls too see that they were working freely, and also the fuselage, undercarriage, the main planes and the tail-plane unit. This work took about an hour, and everything was found to be satisfactory. At about 11 am on the day in question the machine was removed from the hangar and taken out for a flight, after which he went over all of the inspections again, and signed the daily inspection form.
Joseph Webster, aircraftsman Class 1, Richmond, stated that he knew the plane that crashed at Riverstone on April 28. He saw it prior to its going out on that flight, and he carried out a fitters daily inspection, whilst it was in the hangar, of the starboard engine and installations, switches, magnetos, petrol gauges, tanks, oil and petrol. He was engaged about one and a half hours on that work. At about 11 am the machine was wheeled from the hangar, and then at about 12.35 pm it was started and the engines warmed up. He saw the machine take off, and he was the last one to leave it. Witness signed the machine off at its departure, where everything was running smoothly and it was serviceable. The petrol and oil were checked by witness, and the tanks were full, Pilot Officer Harkness, who took the machine off, signed the necessary chart. Later witness went to the scene of the crash at Riverstone and checked up the engine numbers, and found that the crashed plane was the Avro Anson bomber in which Pilot Officer Harkness and crew had left Richmond that day.
James Edward McLean Boyes, gardener, Schofields, stated that on the day in question, at about 3.30 pm he was in a paddock near his house when he saw an Avro Anson bombing plane passing over his paddock, the plane flying at a height of about 1,000 feet. As it passed over there was a snapping noise from the plane, but the engines appeared to be running perfectly and he could not account for the other noise. Witness watched the machine and it was traveling evenly, when suddenly the engines appeared to increase their speed, and the airplane to rise, then it nosedived straight down, and witness heard a crash. “It was a dull thud like an explosion”, added witness. Nothing dropped from the machine, it went down intact, falling in a paddock about 400 yards away from witness. Before it crashed it was flying in a direct line, in a north-westerly direction. Witness had seen Avro Ansons pass over his property frequently prior to the day in question, and sometimes the machines back-fired, but there had never been any noise similar to the snapping noise he had heard on this occasion.
Charles Edmund Fisher, baker, Riverstone, gave evidence that at about 3.30 pm on April 28 he was on his property at Neville Road, Riverstone, engaged in ploughing operations, when his attention was attracted to a plane traveling from Schofields and going towards Richmond. He was spelling his horses at the time, and was watching the plane. “The first thing I noticed that I thought it was in trouble”, he added, “was when it was doing a nosedive very fast, then it temporarily righted itself. The engines were running well at the time, then after that the plane veered to the left that would be towards the south – then I lost view of it through the trees. I heard the crash”. When he first saw the plane it would have been about 800 feet in the air. It lost altitude and came fast towards the earth, then it was righted, and picked up speed, to then nosedive straight down. Witness saw a little smoke from the engines, but they appeared to be running perfectly. The spot where the plane crashed would be about a quarter of a mile from where he was. Witness later went to the scene, but found that he could not do anything for the plane or for the occupants.
To Sergeant Forde, witness said that it would be approximately 15 seconds from when he first saw the plane until it nosedived.
David James Wagner, signal ganger, Granville stated that at about 3.30 pm on April 28 he was standing on the platform of Riverstone Railway Station, and saw an aeroplane, at a height of about 800 feet, coming in the direction of the aerodrome. It appeared to be traveling at an angle of about 45 to 60 degrees below the horizontal, and for about 1.5 seconds witness could not hear the engines. Then the engines “roared terrifically” for about 2 to 3 seconds, when witness lost sight of the machine behind the hotel. He could hear the roar of the engines for about a second after the plane disappeared behind the hotel, then the roar ceased, and he heard a thud, but did not hear any explosion. The machine did not come to pieces in the air, as it was intact when it disappeared from witness’ view behind the hotel. Witness asked the Station Master the time, and was informed that it was 3.32 pm.
YOUNG WOMAN’S COURAGE
Dorothy Dobson, single woman, Riverstone, stated that about 3.30 pm on April 28 she was walking along Carnarvon Road, Riverstone, when she saw an aeroplane, the noise from which at the moment was quite normal, and which was flying in the direction of the aerodrome, from Sydney, at an average height. While she watched, it glided down, and at the same time turned to the left and dipped a little on the left wing. Witness then heard “two bangs”, and saw dark-coloured smoke come from the plane in two streams, one from each wing. The engines roared immediately afterwards, and the machine leveled off, when its nose appeared to rise slightly, then, with its engines still roaring, it dived straight towards the ground at a spot about 70 yards from where witness was standing. As soon as it crashed witness ran to the scene, where bits of the machine were scattered about, and, seeing the body of one man in the debris, tried to drag it clear, but saw that it was so mutilated that life must be extinct, and desisted from her efforts. She could see other bodies in the wreckage, and had started to move away to get assistance when three men came to the scene, and, in answer to their inquiries, witness informed them that the bodies of the crew were in the wreckage of the machine. She then started to wall to a nearby house but “felt giddy and fell”, and was taken to the house.
Cecil Badenham, contractor, Schofields, stated that he leased a property at Carnarvon Road, Schofields, owned by Mrs Edith Owne. On April 28, at about 3.25 pm, he was at the bottom of the property, at about 200 yards from Mrs Owne’s place, when he saw a plane approaching from the direction of Sydney, at a height, he thought, of about 1000 feet. While witness was standing there, a man named George Hurst came up to him, and remarked “Another one of our bombers”, and when witness had answered in the affirmative, the wing of the plane dropped sharply, and the machine nosedived straight down, the engines roaring at full speed. The engines continued at full speed until the machine crashed. Witness and Hurst went to the scene, and he noticed that there was petrol dripping from the tops of the tress through which the machine crashed. Witness could see plainly the body of one man, two others were buried in the bank of the water hole, and the fourth was buried well in the mud. At about 5.45 pm witness saw Sergeant Daws and asked him for assistance to keep people off the property. One man spoke to witness, stating that he intended to take photos, and witness told him that he could not. Later witness met two reporters at Mrs Owne’s gate, and they asked for a formal statement, but witness refused. The reporters were from the “Daily Telegraph”, and witness gave them a verbal account of the occurrence. To Sergeant Forde, witness said that he had the machine under observation for about one minute prior to noticing anything wrong, and during that time it appeared to be flying in a normal course.
Constable Percy Oliver Pike, Balmain, said that on April 28 he was stationed at Riverstone, and at about 3.40 pm on that day he received a telephone message that an aeroplane had just crashed in the creek near Carnarvon Road. He telephoned the Richmond Aerodrome and advised them of the crash, and telephoned the Parramatta police, requesting the latter to send the Parramatta Ambulance. He then communicated with Dr Rich’s locums tenens, who arrived at the scene of the crash at the same time as witness. The doctor looked at the wreckage and said “There is nothing I can do, they are all dead”. The Air Force ambulance arrived soon after, as also did Sergeant Dawes and Constable Davis, from Windsor. There were quite a number of people about at that time, and witness, assisted by other members of the police force, set about guarding the scattered portions of the machine, keeping persons from coming too close to the wreckage. Flight-Lieutenant Wright, of the RAAF then arrived, and requested the police to keep the people away and to prevent photographs being taken of the wrecked plane. While the bodies were being removed, witness was engaged keeping the crowd back, and after the ambulance left Sergeant Dawes and witness removed all persons from the paddock, at the request of the lessee. On April 29, at 8.30 am, witness went again to the scene and was present when the Riverstone fire engine pumped the water out of the creek, where the wrecked plane was, and he was also present when the Coroner viewed the wreckage.
Detective-Sergeant John James Flint, Parramatta, stated that at 4.20 pm on April 28, in consequence of a telephone message received, he went with Constable Power to the scene of the crash, where he saw that the machine had been completely wrecked, and he was informed that there had been a crew of four in the plane when it crashed. Rescue work was then being carried out by members of the Air Force, and, after obtaining the particulars, witness telephoned these to the Coroner at Windsor. He was present at the aerodrome at 8 pm when the deceased were identified to the Coroner. On the following day witness again viewed the scene of the crash, and directed the taking of police photographs of the scene (produced). He was present when the members of the Air Accidents Investigation Committee visited the scene on the same afternoon, and had later made exhaustive inquiries, interviewed numbers of people, and obtained statements from those able to give evidence in connection with the matter. At the request of the Coroner, witness produced, as evidence, statements from several people.
This concluded the evidence, and the Coroner returned a verdict to the effect that the deceased had died from the effects of injuries accidentally received through an aeroplane in which they were traveling crashing, but as to what caused the aeroplane to crash, the evidence adduced did not enable him to say.
I'd like to thank Graham Clayton for his assistance with this web page.
Can anyone help me with more information on this crash?
© Peter Dunn 2015
This page first produced 13 April 2009
This page last updated 31 August 2015