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Air Crash - Mataranka - 1956

The following is a transcript of the report by Constable A.J. Gordon following the search and rescue (SAR) of the pilot following this crash. His report provides an insight into SAR operations in 1956 and the paucity of equipment available at the time.

Police Station


11th October 1956

Officer in Charge

Northern Division


REPORT OF: Constable A.J. Gordon

RELATIVE TO: Plane crash 28 miles S.W. from Mataranka and search for Pilot, Roy Moffatt.

I have to report that at about 6pm on Friday 5th October 1956 I received information from S/Sergeant Smythe of Katherine that an aeroplane, piloted by Roy Moffatt,had crashed about 28 miles south west from Mataranka and that Charles Miller, who was flying in another plane with Moffatt, reported that Moffatt appeared to be uninjured when he circled Moffatt’s plane after the crash.

Arrangements were made with Mr. Eric Swaine, Works Supervisor of Works Department, Katherine, to take me out to the crash in his departmental Land Rover. An RAAF Lincoln flew into the area about dusk on Friday night but failed to locate the plane. It was then arranged that Mr. Swaine, Lance Carew of Mataranka, and myself would drive along an old fire ploughed road heading south west from Mataranka and there wait for the Lincoln to circle us and advise us where the wreck was situated.

At 5.30am on Saturday 6th inst. We left Mataranka and proceeded about 10 miles down this old road from Mataranka and, as arranged, we stopped and lit a fire to attract the attention of the Lincoln. We waited there for about three hours and although we had a fire going we failed to attract the attention of the Lincoln so we returned to Mataranka.

On arrival at Mataranka Post Office Mr. R. Rattley informed us that the Lincoln had located the wreck and that we were to proceed to the Railway bridge at the Warlock Ponds and the Lincoln would direct us from there. We proceeded to this bridge and set fire to an old motor tyre which sent up a good column of black smoke. This fire was well out in the open in the bed of the creek which is about 200 yards wide. The Lincoln came down and circled the road bridge several times but the pilot apparently did not think to come down and circle the railway bridge which is only three miles away. This went on for about an hour and a half and then Dr Stanbury arrived from Mataranka with the information that the Lincoln could not find us. At this stage the Lincoln finally came down to the Railway bridge and spotted us and dropped emergency flares and code signals and also gave us the direction to proceed.

We commenced to move on at 11.30am. At intervals the Lincoln would fly over and drop us a message telling us the compass bearing to travel on. It appeared they had great trouble in locating us on each occasion and valuable hours were wasted. At sundown the plane left us for the night and returned to Daly Waters. Before they left they dropped a

message stating the wreck was 175 degrees five miles away, and at daybreak next day we were on the move and covered the five miles and waited for the Lincoln to find us. When they did so they dropped a message saying the wreck was 10 degrees 3½ miles away. This proved their message of the previous evening was wrong. 175 degrees is almost due south and 10 degrees is only 10 degrees off north. So to travel south for five miles and almost north for 3½ miles proves we were not far from the wreck at our night camp. Speaking to C. Miller at Mataranka next day he informed me that they could not locate the wreck when they dropped the message to us on Saturday night, so apparently they only guessed where it was, so once more, valuable time was lost.

However, we eventually arrived at the wreck at about 10am on Saturday 6th inst. We pulled up and I instructed the two natives to approach the wreck first and circle around looking for tracks. The only track they could find was one foot mark heading in a south easterly direction. This did not mean that Moffatt had left the plane heading in the direction as it may have been a track he left when he ran out to wave to Miller when he circled after the crash. The two natives and Lance Carew then made a wide search around the wreck but failed to find any trace of a track. The ground was as hard as concrete and light rain had fallen the previous night. The Lincoln then dropped a message telling us that two way radio equipped Army Jeeps were moving into the area and asked us to light a fire to help in locating the plane, and they were leaving us to guide the jeeps in.

On this information I await the arrival of the Army Jeeps and conduct a systematic search from the wreck. I sent Dr Standbury and Lance Carew and a native back to Mataranka with instructions to keep a look out for tracks on the way in. They left the wreck at about midday.

I made a cursory inspection of the wreck. The plane was not extensively damaged. It appeared to have come down heading in a NNE direction and the port wing hit a tree which spun it around and this wing then apparently hit the ground and spun the plane further around and it finished up facing in a south west direction with the nose in the ground and the tail up in the air. The bottom port wing was smashed, under carriage broken off, air screw broken and engine broken from its mountings. The fuselage and tail appeared to be intact. Both cockpits appeared OK. I noticed oil adhering to the under part of the fuselage reaching from the engine nearly to the tail. This may indicate the oil leaked out in mid air. The compass was still in the plane. There was no sign that Moffatt had been injured in any way. The ignition switches had been switched off. The petrol tank was empty. There were two petrol cans, a sugar bag containing tools and an empty Gladstone bag lying on the ground near the plane, also a red four gallon petrol tin and in the rear cockpit I found an empty one gallon Shell oil tin. In the compartment at the rear of the rear cockpit I found a grey sports coat. No other personal belongings could be found. I could find no message written anywhere indicating which direction Moffatt had taken. I found only one map and that was one of South Australia. No map of the local area could be found.

At about 1pm the Lincoln flew over and dropped the following message: “Aircraft being withdrawn. Inspector Bowie directs Constable Gordon to use own discretion. Control on search now under NT Police. Regards and good luck”.

No mention was made in this message of the Army jeeps and, thinking they may have been recalled too, I decided to proceed in a zig zag course to the bitumen and try and locate Moffatt’s tracks.

We left the wreck at about 1pm and, after proceeding 10 miles east, we hit the old fire ploughed road we started out on earlier in the previous day. Thinking Moffatt may have followed this road we followed it back to Mataranka but failed to find any tracks. On arrival at Mataranka I was advised that the Army jeeps were still out bush heading for the wreck. Had I known this definitely I would have waited at the wreck for them. I telephoned Inspector Bowie and advised him of what had taken place and asked for portable radios to be supplied if possible. He informed me that a DCA utility was coming down with a portable radio, also Captain Slade would come down in the Drover medical plane to assist in the search.

Early next morning Mr J. Caston and D. Cole of DCA arrived with a portable radio. Captain Slade arrived with the Drover and landed at the Mataranka tourist resort. Mr Caston agreed to lend me the radio so I could contact Katherine air radio and also Captain Slade. I made arrangements for Stock Inspector McCracken to assist with his Land Rover, also Mr Ryan of Welfare Branch agreed to lend his Land Rover and Mr Swaine of Works Department again made himself available with his Land Rover. Sergeant Smythe patrolled to Gorrie Station and made arrangements with Mrs Fordham to supply a horse plant. As there was no water in the area I made arrangements with M Swaine for a truck to cart water in drums for he horse plant.

Sergeant Smythe made arrangements with Mrs Fordham for me to meet the horse plant at Williams Yard. At about 1pm I left Mataranka with my party to proceed to Williams Yard. In the party were Mr Peter McCracken, Val King, Ken Hewitt and Sailor Bennet from Darwin, Mr Swaine and myself and three natives.

We arrived at Williams Yard at about 4pm and as we had to wait for the horse plant to arrive. Two of the Land Rovers made a search until dark but found no trace of Moffatt. There was some confusion as to whether we were at the right yard or not. Williams Yard, which was shown to me on the map, was about 12 miles further up the creek, but an old native we had with us assured us that we were at Williams Yard. To clear the matter up, I radioed Katherine to send Captain Slade over in the Drover to locate Fordhams’ horse plant to make sure they were heading for our camp. This was done and in a very short time Captain Slade informed me over the radio that the horse plant was heading our way about 10 miles distant. This proves the value of being equipped with radio. The truck arrived at 8.30pm with the water and the two Fordham boys, George and Norman, arrived at 9pm with the horse plant.

The next morning, the 9th inst., I radioed Katherine to send Captain Slade out in the Drover to make a close inspection of Western Creek and all the tributaries as I thought Moffatt may have reached this creek and followed it up looking for water. My party then moved off in formation, heading in a westerly direction towards the crashed plane. Mr Swaine and I were in he centre and we had a Land Rover and a horseman each side of us with a native following behind with the spare horses.

After we had travelled about nine miles, Mr McCracken galloped up and informed me that he and Val King had found bare foot tracks. I proceeded to the spot and found that the tracks were heading towards Mataranka following a track made by the Army jeeps. Peter MCracken and George Fordham followed the tracks on their horses and the rest of us followed along behind them.

At 10.30 I had to pull up and radio Katherine as I had arranged a sked for that time. When I had finished with Katherine Mr McCracken galloped back and reported he had found Moffatt about half a mile further on and that he was still alive. The rest of us moved up and found Moffatt lying under a tree. He was naked and in a very exhausted state. His mind appeared to be quite clear however, as he asked us to pour plenty of water over him before we gave him a drink.

While the rest of the party rendered first aid to him I radioed Katherine and reported that we had found him and asked for medical advice from the Katherine doctor. The doctor advised to wrap him up in wet blankets and only give him a sip of water at a time, increasing the quantity of water gradually. I also contacted Captain Slade who was flying in the area and he located us and I requested him to land at Mataranka Tourist Resort and we would bring Moffatt in there for him to convey to hospital.

After Moffatt had revived sufficiently, and after we had watered the horses, (we had three 44 gallon drums of water with us) we returned to Williams Yard and left the Fordhams there with their horses and we then proceeded to Mataranka Tourist Resort, arriving there about 1.30pm. Moffatt was placed in the aircraft and taken to Darwin hospital. The rest of us then returned to the Mataranka Post Office.

I did not question Moffatt as he was very weak and my main concern was getting him into hospital. He did tell us that he thought he was only four miles from the bitumen when he crashed, that is the reason why he left the plane. I asked him what happened to his plane and he said the engine failed. Apart from that I don’t know where he had been since he left his plane. He was only about 12 miles from his plane when we found him, so it would appear he had been walking around in circles. Fortunately he struck this Jeep track and followed that towards Mataranka. Had he not done so we may not have found him in time. I don’t think he would have traveled any further. Apart from the water the rain gave him, he had no water to drink for four days. He also drank his own water when he was able to produce some.

Whilst at Mataranka, Inspector Bowie instructed me to submit a comprehensive report on this search and to point out any faults I found, and to offer any suggestions to improve the efficiency of any further search parties of this nature. I am very pleased I have been instructed to do this because I intended to do so in any case.

First of all, the Lincoln Bomber used by the RAAF appeared to be quite the wrong type of aircraft for this work. I don’t wish to cast any slur on the RAAF personnel them selves, but they certainly had great difficulty in locating our party at all times and a lot of valuable time was wasted. One thing I will say against the RAAF and that is I think they should have picked Charles Miller up when they first went out to the crash to show them where it was. Had they done so they may have located the wreck on Friday night.

Miller wanted to go with them but they refused. Next morning they went out again and still failed to locate the wreck and finally they had to return to Katherine and collect Miller. Inspector Bowie informed me that the RAAF do not like carrying civilians in their planes. This maybe alright in normal times but in a crisis like this, such regulations should be wiped and, as it was, they had to take him in the end. Once more valuable time was wasted. The Lincoln appears to be too cumbersome. Captain Slade in the Drover aircraft had no trouble in spotting us at any time.

Secondly, I wish to stress most earnestly, the hopelessly inadequate equipment this poverty stricken Police Force of ours has to contend with. The search for Moffatt was the responsibility, and under the control of the Police. The Police conducted the search, and yet there was not one item of equipment in the whole show that was owned by the Police. Even the compass I used to guide us to the plane was my personal property, and without it our job would have been even more difficult. There were three Land Rovers in the search owned by the Welfare Branch, Animal Industry and the Works Department, and Dr. Stanbury used his on our first visit to the crash. I had to borrow a portable radio from the Department of Civil Aviation. All branches of the NT Administration have portable radios in their vehicles in the field except the Police. I maintain that ALL police stations in the Territory should have portable radios in addition to the transceivers installed in the various outback stations. The Police should have their own radio network. The Works Department have their own network and why shouldn’t the Police? The Police are the most important of all the Government Departments because without the protection of the Police nobody would be able to live in the country. The Police should be well ahead of all other Departments instead of miles behind them.

In this search, for instance, had I been able to muster a couple of Police Land Rovers with two way radio and with Captain Slade in the air in radio contact with us, I have no hesitation in saying we would have been at the scene of the crash about midday on Saturday instead of about 10am on Sunday. Then we could have conducted a systematic search and if necessary radioed in for a plant of horses to come out and meet us at a given point, and any other assistance we required could have all been done from out bush instead of us having to come into Mataranka to make contact with anybody.

When we started off on Monday with three Land Rovers and a radio we felt that we were really getting somewhere. Before that, with no radio, it was just one frustration after another. Until the powers that be in Canberra realize the importance of the Police and make enough funds available to provide necessary equipment, the residents of this Territory will never receive the full protection of the law to which they are justly entitled.

When war breaks out the fighting services have priority over everything and the less important services have to go without. Maintaining the peace, which is the duty of the Police, is just as important as fighting for it, and like the fighting services, the Police should have first priority on all things. I have stated above that all police stations should have portable radios. It maybe said this would cost too much and that such expenditure would not be warranted. If one person’s life was saved by the use of them, then they would have paid for themselves. A human life is priceless, so any amount of money that is spent for the protection of life is not wasted, and our citizens are entitled to the FULL protection of the Police.

Asking a member of the NT Police Force to perform a 100% efficient job is like asking a mechanic to overhaul a bulldozer and only giving him a screwdriver to do it with.

Regarding the organization of future search parties. I understand from Inspector Bowie that until the ground party reached the crash, it was the responsibility of the RAAF. After that the responsibility fell on the Police to find Moffatt. At this stage I think it would have been better had Inspector Bowie moved to Mataranka and controlled things from there.

Just before I left Mataranka on Monday, the Army jeeps returned from the crash and I overheard the Major in charge ringing his headquarters and said, “Nobody seems to be in charge here, everything is in a shambles”. As I was just on the point of leaving I did not enter into a discussion with him but I told him where we were going and asked him to go down the old fire ploughed road I mentioned previously for about 25 miles and work west and north from there and we would work south and west from there. He did not do this as he set up his headquarters down near the Warlock Ponds on the road to Williams Yard. I’m not suggesting for one minute that the Major did not want to co-operate with the Police. As I said, I did not have time to go into a lengthy discussion with him, but had Inspector Bowie been on the spot he could have done this. Also there are always a lot of well meaning people offering assistance and if there is nobody in authority there to guide them they can become a liability rather than an asset. Inspector Bowie of course should have had a radio and been able to keep in constant touch with me in the bush.

A good supply of maps is another thing that should be readily available. I did not have a map of the locality when I first visited the crash. I signaled to the Lincoln to drop a map at the scene of the crash and they dropped a note saying they would advise Darwin that I needed one. I thought they would have had a few spare maps in the aircraft but apparently they didn’t.

Another item of equipment that should be on strength at all police stations is a prismatic compass. Of all the police stations I’ve been to I’ve never seen one. Now that recruits in this Force are receiving some training, I think they should receive some elementary training in the use of a map and compass. My knowledge is very elementary bit it proved very valuable on this trip.

Fortunately it is very rarely that anybody does get bushed up here, but it is a thing that can happen at any time and the machinery to conduct an efficient search party should be ready to put into operation with a minimum of delay. It is only by the Grace of God that Moffatt was still alive when we round him. Had it not rained on Sunday night I doubt if we would have found him alive. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of valuable time was wasted in the early stages of the search. Moffatt must have a very strong constitution to stand up to what he stood up to. A lot of people would not have lasted as long as he did, therefore it is imperative that a search party should be well organized and put into operation without any waste of time.

Another point I wish to mention is the necessity for Police Officers to be conversant with their district. This can only be accomplished by regular routine patrols both by horse and motor vehicle. Routine patrols now seem to be a thing of the past which is detrimental to the efficiency of Police in the bush. For a Police Officer to know his district thoroughly and everybody living in it, is half the battle. I know very well had I known the country in the area of this air crash, it would have made my job a lot easier and saved a lot of time. Apart from anything else, routine patrols have a good moral effect on the community and also prevent a lot of crime from taking place.

The last suggestion I have to make is the necessity for a helicopter to be based at Darwin. I don’t know how many of this type of aircraft are in Australia, but if any part of Australia needs one, it’s the big open spaces of the north. A helicopter based Darwin could be used for the whole of the north of Australia for search and rescue work.

Finally I would like to make mention of the people who rendered valuable assistance to the Police in this search.

First of all there is Mr Reg Rattley of the Mataranka store and Post Office and the two Misses Desailey. Their place was like a hive of bees during the whole of the search as it was used as a centre of operations for all concerned in the search. Mr Rattley spent nearly all the time on the telephone and rendering any other assistance he could in the way of organization and the two ladies performed sterling work in the kitchen and store, attending to the needs of all those who swarmed around the place. These people have always been a great help to the Police and without them there the policing of Mataranka and district would be very difficult.

Then there is Mr Eric Swaine of the Works Department, Katherine, who placed himself and Land Rover at my disposal the whole time. Mr Peter McCracken, stock inspector of Katherine gave assistance with his Land Rover on the Monday and Tuesday. Mr McCracken is an excellent type to have on a search of this nature. He is a good bushman and good horseman, and I very much appreciated his services. Mr Ron Ryan of Welfare Branch at Katherine was too sick to join the search himself but he willingly made his Land Rover available and Mr Val King of the Works Department, drove it. It was Mr King who actually first found Moffatt’s tracks. Ken Hewitt and Sailor Bennet from Darwin were also in our party.

Dr Stanbury and wife were in Mataranka on the Saturday morning and they accompanied us out to the crash. Mr Lance Carew of Mataranka was also with us on that occasion, also Mr Froggatt of Mataranka cattle station. Thanks are also due to Captain Jack Slade for the fine work he performed in the Drover aircraft. As I mentioned earlier in this report, with a radio in the truck and Jack Slade in the air we felt we were really getting somewhere. It was only a matter of asking Captain Slade to fly over and assist, and he was there without any delay.

The Fordham brothers, George and Norman, assisted with their horse plant. It is unfortunate they were not available at the time of the crash, but they were out on the run mustering and could not be contacted. They knew every inch of the country and they would have been very useful in the early stages of the search.

The Reverend Stewart Laing of Katherine also placed himself at my disposal on the Monday. His vehicle was not suitable for going bush with, but he had a radio and I asked him to remain at Mataranka in case I needed him. He then teemed up with the Army as their radio was on the blink and he rendered valuable assistance there.

The Army personnel did a good job. It is quite likely they saved Moffatt’s life as he was following their jeep tracks when we found him. Had it not been for that jeep track we may not have found him in time. It is unfortunate that the radio equipment the Army had was not in good working order. The ideal portable radio is the one put out by Traeger, and if all Police Stations had one it would make our work a lot easier.

I forgot to mention that Constable Browning from Katherine was also in the search. He accompanied the Army Jeeps on their visit to the crash and he was in our party on the Monday but had to return to Katherine on the Tuesday so he was not with us when we actually found Moffatt.

I would also like to thank Mr J. Caston and D. Cole of Department of Civil Aviation for the use of their portable radio. I think I have now mentioned all those who assisted.

I am still living in hopes that some day the Northern Territory Police will be a self contained unit that will be able to function efficiently without having to beg and borrow equipment from other sources.

(Signed) A.J. GORDON

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