CRASH OF A QANTAS DE HAVILLAND
AT THE FOOT OF MOUNT PETRIE,
NEAR BRISBANE, QLD
ON 20 FEBRUARY 1942
Photo:- Civil Aviation Historical Society courtesy Phil Vabre
A very nice photograph of VH-USE - location unknown
Photo:- via John Lovett
DH-86 VH-USE, "R.M.A. Sydney" at Darwin in the Northern Territory
On the 20 February 1942, the day after the large Japanese air raid on Darwin, a Qantas de Havilland DH-86, VH-USE, "Sydney", was scheduled to take off at 06:30 am. After some delays it finally took off from Archerfield airfield at 8:30am and flew over The Redlands area on a trip to Darwin via Mount Isa with seven wartime priority passengers. It apparently developed some structural problems. It was raining at the time, with low cloud and poor visibility.
Image number: 169987 State Library of Queensland
DH-86 VH-USE, "R.M.A. Sydney"
Only a few minutes later news was telephoned to the airport that the aircraft had plunged out of control from heavy cloud, crashing vertically to destruction amongst trees on the slopes of Mount Petrie near Belmont on the outskirts of Brisbane. All on board were killed instantly.
Tom Blunt and his father at the Redlands heard the noise of the aircraft and went out to investigate. They saw a four-engined aircraft hurtling towards the ground. They initially thought it was headed for their house but it then seemed to straighten up and turned back towards Archerfield airfield. Half a minute later they heard a dull thump as the aircraft slammed into the foot of Mount Petrie. Mr. Blunt walked straight to the crash site with the aid of a compass. Everyone on board was killed which included the crew of three and six passengers which included one American soldier and one Australian RAAF officer.
Picture:- via Alan Close
Photographs of the wreckage of VH-USE.
fellow in the foreground is Alan Close's father
Picture:- via Alan Close
Photographs of the wreckage of VH-USE
With the country's pre-occupation with the bombing of Darwin the accident was largely overlooked. One source indicated that when the investigators from Department of Civil Aviation Head Office in Melbourne arrived late the next day it was found that the wreck had been deliberately burnt on the authority of local DCA staff about 8 hours after the crash. John Lovett told me that the wreckage had not been burnt on site but had been removed from the site. Metal fittings had been cut from the wreckage with axes and taken to Archerfield airfield. Apparently the site was covered in oil, petrol and battery acid after the crash.
Several portions of VH-USE's fin were found almost a mile from the crash site on Mr. T. R. Blunt's property. Clearly it had been detached from the fuselage in the air. When one of the investigations from the south, John Watkins, arrived the following day, Mr. T.R. Blunt produced a few more pieces of the fin that he had found. This then meant that almost three quarters of the fin had been found quite some distance from the main wreckage of the aircraft. The subsequent official inquiry into the loss was inconclusive.
This aircraft was registered on the 22 January 1935 and named "R.M.A. Sydney". It was struck off the register in March 1942.
The nine people killed in this tragic crash were:-
Captain Charles Henry Cecil Swaffield (39yrs old)
Chief Officer Lindsay Stuart Marshall
Mr Claude Thorne Seccombe from Longreach
Mrs Georgina Rhoda Seccombe from Longreach
Mr. John Lyall Stewart
Mr. Robert Bruce Reid (33 yrs old)
Mr. John James Anderson, of Kadanga Avenue, Ashgrove (38 yrs old Master Butcher)
Flight Lieutenant Philip Montague James, RAAF Headquarters, Melbourne
2nd Lt. Herbert Hughes Hayden, U.S. Army Air Forces, Service # 0-429795, based in the Rockhampton area
Initially I was not able to find the names of the two military personnel killed in the crash. I did a search of the Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour Database to see who may have been killed in accidents on 20 February 1942 and came up with the following two military personnel. Note that one entry states that the person was killed in Australia so neither could be confirmed as being involved in this crash:-
Flight Lieutenant Philip Montague James (Service No. 2413) of RAAF Headquarters, Melbourne
Place of Death: Brisbane
Cause of Death: Accidental
Private John Edward Withers (Service No. Q90727) of 1 GRN BN (Army)
Place of Death: Australia (not necessarily in Brisbane area)
Cause of Death: Accidental
My initial guess was that the RAAF Officer on board was Flight Lieutenant Philip Montague James and the American soldier was a Captain Baron Brodine as Barbara Spann had told me that her father had been killed in an aircraft crash in Brisbane on that same day. However I was advised by John Godfrey of the Belmont and Districts Historical Society on 17 July 2005 that the American killed in this crash was 2nd Lt. Herbert Hughes Hayden (from Los Angeles) who was based in the Rockhampton area. His body was embalmed and was buried at Lutwyche Cemetery in Brisbane. He was eating an orange at the time of the crash as it was still found in his mouth. His mother Mrs G.R. Hayden, was living at 512 North Irving Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA at the time of her son's death. (I would like to make contact with any members of the Hayden family). Mrs Hayden wrote to the Blunt family after the war. 2nd Lt Hayden's body was exhumed and returned to Hawaii and was buried as follows:-
Buried at: Plot F Row 0 Grave 10
I subsequently discovered that Captain Baron Brodine was killed in the crash of a P-4-E Kittyhawk at Dinmore, Ipswich on 20 February 1942.
2nd Lt. Herbert Hughes Hayden
There were a total of fifteen DH-86 aircraft operated in Australia. VH-URN was lost in Bass Strait in 1934; VH-USG lost near Longreach on delivery flight in 1934. VH-URT was lost near Flinders Island in 1935 as well as VH-USE. The design and construction of the DH-86 was completed in the near impossible duration of 4 months. The design was initially flawed and the British should never have issued the initial Certificate of Airworthiness. When Australia lost the first DH-86 Britain denied there was a problem. Australians did their best to overcome the problems without assistance from De Havilland's or the British Air Ministry. It was only after the sixth loss of a British registered DH86 in 1936 that the Air Ministry took decisive action which resulted in the DH86B which solved most if not all the handling & stability problems. Aeroplane Monthly of April 1984 tells the unflattering story.
The Telegraph, 20 February 1942
9 KILLED IN AIR LINER CRASH NEAR BELMONT
Nine Persons, including one woman, were killed when a DH86 aircraft crashed in the Belmont district this morning. Among the victims were men well-known in the pastoral industry.
The machine, a civil aircraft, was owned by Qantas Empire Airways Ltd., and had left Archerfield at 8:30am bound for Longreach, via Roma.
The nine persons killed including seven passengers and two members of the crew.
Among the passengers killed were:-
MR & MRS C.T. SECCOMBE, of Longreach;
Members of the crew were:-
CAPTAIN C.H.C. SWAFFIELD, first pilot of
plane, Wharton Road, Moorooka;
Residents of the Belmont district saw the machine losing height, and later heard a crash.
They organised a search party, and early this afternoon the wrecked aircraft was located in forest country, about four miles from the Belmont Post Office. All of the occupants, were dead when the searchers arrived.
When the machine crashed it did not catch fire. The search party had to traverse two and a half miles of heavily timbered country before it found the wreckage of the plane.
3-Hour Search in Rugged Hills before Wrecked Plane Found
Scouring the rugged hills of the Belmont district, a search party of about 50 men, including police, army men, and local farmers, split up into several small bands, and it was three hours before they located the wreckage of the air liner which crashed this morning.
The searchers were hampered by dense scrub, which in most parts limited visibility to less than 100 yards. The climbing of the colony of mountains between the Old Cleveland Road at Belmont and Mount Gravatt was difficult. Several of the searchers themselves, unable to keep up with their comrades, were lost for a time, but frequent blasts on motor horns guided them back.
The machine, a De Haviland 86 was reduced to a crumpled mass of debris, and parts of the tail assembly and one of the heavy landing wheels were strewn over the neighbourhood about 50 yards away from the main wreckage.
Victims of Crash
Mr. J.J. Anderson, one of the victims of the smash, was known throughout Australia as one of the principals of Anco Meat Company, wholesale and meat exporters of Brisbane. It was a stroke of misfortune that he came to be on the aeroplane to-day. He had booked to leave for the central west last week, but he was unable to secure a seat until this morning. He was beginning a buying tour in the central-western districts on behalf of his firm.
Mr. J.L. Stewart, who came from Perth, was Australian general manager for the owners of Northampton Downs and Alice Downs in the Blackall district. He was flying to Blackall to be present at Northampton Downs during shearing, and to inspect both properties.
Mr. and Mrs. Claude Seccombe lived at Kenya station in the Muttaburra district and were returning to their home after a holiday visit to Southport. For many years Mr. Seccombe had been prominent in Central Queensland as a keen sheep and thoroughbred horse breeder. He came to Brisbane some weeks ago to secure medical attention.
Mr. R. B. Reid was well known throughout Queensland. He was a son of the owner of Arrollah Downs in north-western Queensland, and was about 40 years old.
Captain C. H. C. Swaffield was an experienced airline pilot. He had been with Qantas for about six years, and flew the company's aircraft in many parts of the State. He made extensive flights in outback Queensland.
He gained his A class licence in Rockhampton. Selling a taxi which he operated, he bought a plane and went barnstorming. When he had sufficient flying hours, he qualified for the B class licence and joined Qantas.
John Godfrey of the Belmont and Districts Historical Society advised me on 17 July 2005 that a Memorial Ceremony was being held at 2:00 pm on 31 July 2005 at the Carindale Shopping Centre to dedicate a memorial plaque to remember those who were tragically killed in this accident.
John Lovett believes he has pinpointed the approximate location of the crash based on the map used in the inquest and matching the locations from photographs taken of the wreckage. John used a metal detector to try to pinpoint the exact location but was unsuccessful.
I was contacted by Mandy Hensel, the grand daughter of John Lyall Stewart on the 25 June 2008. Mandy told me that John Lyall Stewart was a well known station owner and manager in north west Australia and a keen horseman and race horse owner.
Can anyone confirm the exact location of this crash?
The following file is held in the National Archives Australia.
Title: Registration & Airworthiness - DH 86 Aircraft
Series number: MP113/1
Control symbol VH/USE
Contents date range: 1934 - 1942
Access status Open
Barcode no 336803
Has anyone ever accessed this file?
I'd like to thank Alan Close, Grahame Higgs, Chris Ward, Barbara Spann, John Godfrey , John Lovett and Darryl Gibbs for their assistance with this home page.
I'd also like to thank Craig Polkinghorne for providing me with a copy of the newspaper article on the crash from The Telegraph.
I'd also like to thank Eddie Coates and Phil Vabre for their assistance with this web page.
Can anyone help me with more information on this crash?
"Australia @ War" WWII Research Products
© Peter Dunn 2015
This page first produced 15 June 2002
This page last updated 02 February 2020