Sunday, 6 November 2011
The Archerfield ghost: why compile your own material when you can steal someone elses?
"I was walking across one of the airfields on my way back to a group of friends when I spotted a man dressed in what appeared to be World War II flight gear. I can remember him vividly, right down to his flight jacket, goggles, and cap. As there were a number of wartime aviation buffs visiting the airfield that day, I thought nothing of it - must have been someone getting into the spirit of things by turning up in costume. We passed each other and the friendly chap acknowledged me with a gesture and a nod, as did I to him, and I continued to walk back to rejoin my friends. When I arrived back, I asked my colleagues who the chap in the World War II flight gear was. It was at that point that one of the more knowledgeable of our group told me that I had just met the ghost of Archerfield!"
The above is an excerpt from the Australian chapter in the Encyclopedia of Haunted Places: Ghostly Locales From Around The World, compiled & edited in 2005 by no other than Jeff Belanger, the current day guru on ghostly phenomena. Furthermore, aside from one segment written by Jeff about Monte Cristo Homestead in Junee, N.S.W., I was responsible for writing the Australian chapter for the encyclopaedia - including the section on the ghost of Archerfield Aerodrome. The excerpt above was taken from an interview I conducted many years ago with an old ex-pilot who claimed to have experienced the ghost of Archerfield first-hand. So...imagine my surprise when I recently stumbled across an article written by John Simpson in the Southern Star, entitled, "Eerie claims haunt airport." Imagine my added surprise upon reading that "Sunnybank Hills-based ghost chaser and author of Haunted Brisbane: Ghosts of the River City, Jack Sim," had allegedly submitted the encyclopaedia entry himself!!
The article was clearly a promotional piece drumming up interest for "Jack" Sim's book, which at the time the article was published in the Southern Star in March 2009, was only a few months away from hitting store shelves as a second print edition - the first print edition had only seen 2000 copies produced, & was released in October 2005. Here, we expose the ridiculousness of the claim in the newspaper article, as the Encyclopedia of Haunted Places was also released in October 2005 - why would a first-time author of a book about Brisbane's ghosts, relying on self-promotion & destined for a severely limited print run, submit highly useable material to another ghost book being compiled by a world-renowned author, destined for a massive print run & ongoing international distribution...with an identical release date?? Needless to say, I was less than impressed!
Additionally, Haunted Brisbane: Ghosts of the River City, is emblazoned with statements on the back cover such as "extensively researched" & "haunted historian" & "haunted heritage." Given the numerous historical inaccuracies that cheapen every chapter of the book, I not only felt insulted at having my historically accurate material in the encyclopaedia linked with "Jack" Sim's name, but also felt insulted as a graduate professional in historical archaeology & cultural heritage at having my material used to advertise a book written by an unqualified salesman plugging gimmicky tours based on fictionalised "heritage". For the record, I have attempted to locate contact details for the author of the Southern Star article without success, & have contacted both the Chief Editor for Quest Newspapers & the Editor for the Southern Star in order to discern who provided them with the information for the article - to date, I have received no replies. Ultimately, given that my name accompanies each section & photograph in the Australian chapter of the encyclopaedia, their journalistic capabilities in researching & cross-checking leave much to be desired!
So, poorly sourced journalism aside, let's delve further into the real history of Archerfield & the possible origin of the ghost tale of Beatty Road. I have spoken to multiple people over the years who claim to have possibly spotted the ghost of Archerfield Aerodrome, however only 3 of these witnesses during this time observed the anomaly for more than a split second & were considered credible on interview. Of these 3 witnesses, the observations of the "pilot" match: a man, dressed in a leather flight jacket with possible overalls under (waist down), & peaked cap with raised flight goggles sitting just above the peak. One account took place towards the southern boundary of the airport, & two along Beatty Road also towards the southern boundary in the proximity to Mortimer Road. Amongst these accounts, observations of a deployed parachute do not exist, as published in the Southern Star article - of the airmen that tragically lost their lives in pursuing their duties at Archerfield around the time of WWII, not one had the luxury of deploying a chute prior to the crash of their craft.
So, where does this ghost fit into history? It is likely that one incident that occurred at Archerfield gave rise to the apparition - at the time, the event was deemed the worst air disaster in Australia's history. Even now, after almost 70 years, the accident still ranks as the 10th worst aviation disaster in Australia.
On the 26 March 1943, a C-47 Douglas Dakota touched down at Archerfield Aerodrome, after having taken off from Townsville earlier in the day loaded with essential radar equipment destined for Sydney. Upon landing, both the pilot & flight engineer advised the ground crew that the plane merely required refueling, which was carried out & the aircraft hangared. At 5am the next morning, under cover of darkness with a chill in the air, the crew of four took charge of the machine & carried out a very brief pre-flight check in anticipation of completing their final run to Sydney. The C-47 hastily taxied out towards the runway, stopping briefly to take on board 19 passengers who waited patiently in the brisk predawn air - 2 U.S. Army personnel (including a Major), an Australian Army Lieutenant, 13 R.A.A.F. personnel (mostly Signals Unit staff from Townsville) & 3 unauthorised W.A.A.F. personnel who had convinced the pilot to grant them a passage to Sydney. Whilst the passengers embarked, a Lockheed took advantage of the available runway & accelerated down the flare path, only to abort the take-off & return the the hangars - a thick fog bank had developed at the southern extremity of the aerodrome runway due to the prevailing conditions.
Anxious to get in the air, the C-47 threw caution to the wind & accelerated down the runway following the flare trail at 5:11am, radioing through to the control tower as they left the ground with the simple message of "departed now" before disappearing into the fog bank...at 5:15am, the aircraft careened into the bush just south of the aerodrome & slammed into the ground in a ball of fire, in complete ignorance of personnel who had just watched the aircraft take off. Given the prevailing darkness & fog obscuring the southern boundary, further minutes passed before aerodrome controllers were notified that an explosion had been heard south of the runway. Shortly after, upon investigation, the very worst was revealed - the C-47 had gone down with the loss of all on board. It became apparent that after crossing the southern boundary of the aerodrome, the plane had banked steeply to the left. In doing so, the left wingtip had come in contact with the top of a tree, sheering through the wing & dragging the plane over into a nose-down position - gravity & engines under full throttle had done the rest, plowing the aircraft into the undergrowth.
Sergeant James Nicol, of the Moorooka Police Station, attended the scene of the crash at 6:45am to begin civilian investigations - wreckage was strewn over a large area & the bodies of the unfortunate passengers were located nearby the front of the aircraft once the fires had been extinguished - all 23 passengers had been so badly burnt in the resulting fuel fire, that only one had been identifiable. An immediate Inquiry was launched by the Air Minister into what had become the worst air disaster in Australia's history. On the 31st of March, the issue was raised in the House of Representatives by Air Minister Arthur Drakeford, with Prime Minister John Curtin adding that, "To the extent it was possible for the Government to make accidents less probable, the House could be assured nothing would be spared." As a result, the civilian Inquest was begun alongside the R.A.A.F. investigation.
The battle lines were drawn throughout the Inquest period - the Police Force accused the R.A.A.F. of withholding information critical to the investigation, & the R.A.A.F. accused the Police Force of excluding them from the Coroner's Inquest. After some wrangling, the R.A.A.F. applied for a successful ajournment in order to complete their investigation, the evidence from which was tendered to the Coroner's Inquest. Ultimately, the R.A.A.F. found the pilot at fault - it was postulated that by flying into the fog bank, the pilot was forced to switch immediately from visual to instrument navigation, during which he was distracted by the reflection of the craft's headlights on the fog. An unexplainable non-regulation turn made at low altitude then caused the left wingtip to hit trees. The resulting collision stripped away a section of the left wing & dragged the body of the plane downwards into the scrub, resulting in complete loss of life. The R.A.A.F. denied that the crew had failed to maintain the aircraft & carry out a full pre-flight check prior to the takeoff in Brisbane, even though doubts had been raised by American engineers based at Archerfield.
The Coroner held the final say - the maintenance schedule of the C-47 was immediately called into question. With testimony produced by American Airforce personnel stationed at Archerfield, the necessity for continual maintenance & full -pre-flight checks were reinforced - two factors seemingly lacking prior to takeoff of the fated flight. Unfortunately, evidence to prove both procedures had been undertaken (or not) were destroyed in the crash when the logbooks burnt & the flight engineer was killed. Furthermore, the Coroner called into question the reasons behind the steep bank of the aircraft after takeoff - it had been argued that this steep turn resulted from the pilot's attempt to turn the craft around after suffering mechanical failure, as some witnesses claimed to have heard engine backfires just prior to the crash. American engineers testified that under chilly conditions, condensation could form in the fuel tanks causing engine failure, which could have been avoided had a full pre-flight check been undertaken by the crew - again, little could be proven given the condition of the wreckage. As a final note, the Coroner stated that overall, given the prevailing foggy conditions on the morning, the plane should never have been allowed to take off. With that, the Inquest closed, with a number of recommendations for the R.A.A.F., & the death of 23 fine servicemen & women.
So, next time you find yourself driving along the outskirts of Archerfield Aerodrome & around the corner into Bowhill Road, spare a thought for the 23 servicemen & women who tragically lost their lives that foggy morning back in 1943...& if you're lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of the fabled airman who is rumoured to have been a passenger on that fateful flight.