The 1936 Plane Crash in the Brisbane Ranges

January 1991 News article provided by Jim Gordon.


Just a tick over sixty years ago Baccus Marsh's emergence from the Great Depression was tempered by war clouds gathering over Europe. Crystal sets crackled with the news in Marsh homes, cars were becoming more common on the Avenue of Honor, the masses had been thrilled by Jessie Owens at the Berlin Olympics and the Darley military camp was just a paddock.

Towards the end of that Olympic year, Monday 14 December 1936, dawned a dull grey day in Baccus Marsh. Skies were leaden with a hint of drizzle.

Several miles to the south-east at 8am, the daily meteorological flight was about to take off from the new RAAF base at Laverton. Pilot Officer Vernon Read was warming the engines of the Bristol Bulldog single-seater biplane fighter preparing for a flight to 16,000 feet, pausing every 2000 feet for two minutes to record instrument observations on his knee pad.

It was a normal takeoff for Bulldog A12-7, as it moved through the cloud barrier for its four-sided 30-minute flight. Each side would take five minutes with a concluding eight-minute westerly descent back to somewhere over Laverton.

The low cloud base at 1000 feet cleared between 2000-4000 feet but turned to solid cloud at 16,000 feet forcing Read to fly by the most basic of instruments provided on a 1929 model craft. Then unexpectedly the westerly wind swung round to the south-east accompanied by rain squalls and turbulence. Descending to the break in the cloud at 3000 feet the young Hobart flying officer performed a series of figure eight turns to warm the Jupiter nine-cylinder radial engine in preparation for landing.

Continuing the descent through the lower level cloud, he was keeping a keen watch for the flat Port Phillip plains. Instead, when he broke through the cloud he found himself in a deep-sided ravine. Tree tops were almost brushing the tips of his wings. Instinctively he applied full-power but the lower left wing clipped a tree top ripping away the fabric of its leading edge.

The rudimentary instruments were sufficient for him to realise he was in a spin. Desperately trying to right the aircraft, the right wing clipped a large tree at 120 miles an hour, sending the aircraft into its final dive. Read blacked out. Some 60 minutes had passed since he left Laverton.

Ten minutes or so later he came to, trapped and horribly injured with broken bones in his left ankle, right leg, left index finger and upper jaw. But remarkably he was alive, and mercifully his machine had not caught fire. Resourcefully he set the broken finger with two twigs and some cord from the cockpit combing, and spat out the remains of five broken teeth.

He had no idea where he was but believed he might have been in the Dandenongs. Without food, he trapped some drinking water using a magneto switch cover fastened to a twig and settled down to a long wait. Night fell, and there was no hope of rescue until morning.

Meanwhile the word went out to all district police stations seeking reports of aircraft in their area. In those days of few aircraft, messages soon began filtering in that a plane had been heard in the Baccus Marsh district. Then the news that a plane had passed low over a farmhouse at Balliang, narrowed the search area to the Brisbane Ranges. This rugged, heavily timbered area with steep east-west blind gullies opening to the plains below had just one road. At best an unmade cart track, Mount Wallace Road is now renamed Reid's Road after a local farming family.

There were a few foot tracks, notably Thompsons, which followed the shoulder of the range southwards, and it wasn't long before local people from the Balliang and Parwan districts formed search parties to scour these tracks. Low cloud prevented an air search of the area for some 27 hours after the Bulldog went down but soon after noon the following day a searching Hawker two-seater Demon fighter sighted the wreck scattered over the top of a ridge on the northern part of the ranges.

The Demon pilot, Flying Officer Wiley, circled the wreck but saw no sign of life. Undeterred he flew back to Laverton and returned to the crash site in another Demon aircraft where, lining up the wreck, he dived down along the gully delighted to find the downed Tasmanian pilot waving from the cockpit. Returning to Laverton he flew back to the Brisbane Ranges in a Tiger Moth with Lieutenant Dalton. Landing in a paddock on 'Greystones', Wiley, armed with bolt cutters and a hacksaw, took off on foot for the crash site guided by Dalton in the Moth. Local search parties also followed the Moth and a group of Balliang farmers including Mrs Kerr and Mrs Bird came across the wreckage about the same time as Wiley.

Cutting the injured pilot from the fabric-covered high-tensile fuselage, he was placed on a makeshift stretcher improvised by passing straight poles through overcoats for the journey out. After several agonising hours blazing a trail through rugged terrain, the rescue party finally arrived at the search base camp at dusk. Transferred to a waiting RAAF ambulance, Pilot Officer Read was rushed over local bush tracks to Caulfield Hospital, but the news wasn't good.

The admitting medical officer believed the injured pilot would not last the night.

Undeterred, orthopedic surgeon, Dr Gordon Shaw, proceeded to set the injured airman's fractures, and slowly but surely Read recovered. Five months after entering Caulfield Hospital he was discharged and after a further four month convalescence he was back in the air flying Demons.

Pilot Officer Read went on to fly for his country in World War 2 and later joined the Department of Civil Aviation. He now lives at Sorrento in Queensland and admits to "an ache or two" from his unexpected adventure in the Brisbane Ranges.

The engine and other useful parts of the wreck were recovered by the RAAF ground party at the time using a horse dray. But the remains of the fuselage were left on both sides of Aeroplane Road where it starts to drop down into Sapling Gully until recently when it was gathered by a Lara collector who intends restoring it to a non-flying replica.

Mr Geoff Hine, secretary of the Baccus Marsh Historical Society was a small boy living in Melbourne when the plane went down. But he had a link and a fascination with he crash through his grandmother who lived at Rowsley. Thirty years ago he ventured along Aeroplane Road where he found the wreckage and removed some "bits and pieces" as a keepsake, some of which he has sent to Read, who has a clock mounted in a Demon prop in his collection.