Thursday, July 16, 2009

The "Southern Cloud", lost in 1931, wreckage found in 1958...a magneto comes to light in 2009....

Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm are two names in aviation in the 1920's and 1930's that bring to mind long distance aviation record attempts in the London to Sydney and the cross Pacific Ocean flights.
Both died in these pursuits sadly, but this blog is not about their exploits, rather an aircraft that was one of a fleet of several Avro 10 Trimotors made under license to Fokker, named "Southern Cloud" and Australian registered VH-UMF, it was similar in appearance to Smithy's favourite aircraft "Southern Cross", itself a Fokker Trimotor.
Smith and Ulm had formed the fledgling airline ANA...Australian National Airways in 1929.
The following two photos are of "Southern Cross", VH-USU with a poor photo of "Southern Cloud" taken from another aircraft and a pic of a painting of a model made much later of "Southern Cloud" in country around the Southern Alps of Australia.
Credit for these following photos goes to Ian Mackersey from his book "Smithy", the life of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, published by Warner books 1999 edition ISBN 0 7515 2656 8, and information from articles by Mathew Higgins, senior curator People and Environment, titled "Another Piece of Southern Cloud laid to rest" in Friends magazine, Vol.17,No.3, September 2006 and "Into the Abyss and back" by Macarthur Job, published in Flight Safety Magazine, July-August 2006.
And photos of the crash site and Tom Sonter, from the website of the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, ACT. NMA Homepage/Collections/Southern Cloud clock. These photos by Matthew Higgins.
Left click on the images to enlarge....

The "Southern Cloud" took off from Sydney's main airport of the time, Mascot aerodrome on the morning of March 21st 1931.
In those days there was little in the way of meteorological information to help pilots, and many actually referred to the morning newspapers isobar chart on a map of Australia... based on information from the previous 24 hours and and some educated scientific guesswork.
The weather bureau initial forecast had been for wind with heavy rain.

Some hours after the plane had taken off the weather bureau revised its forecast for the Southern Alps to conditions bordering on cyclonic and with no radios fitted in those days there was no means of communicating with the pilot Travis Shortridge, who undoubtably was a skilled pilot, having survived WW1 aerial warfare....
The co-pilot was Charles Dunnell and there were six passengers two of whom were women.
By Goulburn, some 120 miles south of Sydney, the aircraft would likely have run into the edge of the closing weather and Shortridge would have had no idea of any changed wind direction, speed and drift... a receipe for disaster.
The reverse flight from Melbourne to Sydney, another ANA aircraft "Southern Moon" that left also that morning experienced tailwinds of 160kph plus...It arrived safely in Sydney following a buffetted, rough, albiet fast ride.
"Southern Cloud" never arrived at Melbourne's Essenden airport and a large search was mounted with ground parties, aircraft from ANA piloted by Smith, Ulm and others, all to no avail.
A court of enquiry was convened and if nothing else, air safety went up a notch with the recommendation that all aircraft have radios, which became compulsory for commercial passenger aircraft.During the 1950's Australia embarked on a major hydro-electric program in the Snowy Mountains in the Southern Alps and large numbers of workers were employed.
One, a carpenter, Tom Sonter, who liked to bush walk and take photographs on the day off they likely had each week, was bush walking on Sunday 26th October 1958,when he stumbled onto the wreckage of a crashed aircraft. He went for help and returned with co-workers and later Police and air crash investigators. One of the co-workers was Morley Robson, father of the wife of my best friend, Jim Day.
The wreckage was that of the ill fated "Southern Cloud"....after 27 years, she had finally been found and for the loved ones of the deceased on board closure could occur.
The following photos show the type of terrain, the site and a memorial plaque at the site.

Various parts of the aircraft which had crashed were salvaged and with bushfires having burnt through the area in the many years since the crash there would be damage to items on the site. Some of these form parts of a memorial display as you leave Cooma on the road to Jindabyne and Thredbo in and around the area near the crash site.
Other items are held by the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, ACT and the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.
On 26th October 2008, 50 years after the discovery a memorial service was held. The discoverer, Tom Sonter attended.
He is pictured below at the site during the memorial service.

Sadly Morely Robson is long dead, but he had salvaged items, unknown by official sources, and held for years in an old sugar sack, a sack I believe may have been used to transport them from the site all those years ago, and some items were wrapped in newspaper. He gave this sack to Jim Day, his son-in-law and who held it tucked away on a shelf in his shed for more years. Jim had dragged one item out several years back, a damaged magneto from one of the three aero engines to show me. We discussed donating it to the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, who have an excellent section of early aviation items, including many engines from WW1 onwards.
The opportunity occured on Saturday 11th July 2009 when we attended an open day at the museum's aircraft repository at Castle Hill.
Following a conversation with the curator, Ian Debenham, Jim by now having flown to the USA to participate in this years US Velo Club's annual Rally/ride, I took the sack to Ian's office with details of the family etc and its method of discovery.
Had an interesting comment via email from a motorcycling friend, Dave Blissett after reading this blog...seems his father's brother, Bob Blissett was a policeman stationed at Cooma during the period the "Southern Cloud" was discovered and accompanied the first investigating party to go to the crash site.
Small world....
Before I left home in the morning I laid out the contents of the sack to photograph and two photos follow of the contents.
This was the first time I had observed all the items.

The damaged old newspaper proved an invaluable was dated... "The Sunday Telegraph 26th October 1958", the day they found the "Southern Cloud"....
Poignent reminders of the personal tragedy of the families of the crash victims can be seen with the metal clasps of a womens purse, some shards of glass likely from a womens compact.
As well there are spokes from the wheels, several spark plugs and of course the magneto, covered in dirt off the crash site from all those years back.
The Powerhouse museum will conserve these items and they will in due course form part of a display with full credit to Morley Robson and his family.
With the current spate of civil aircrashes fresh in our minds...Air France off South America, the Russian aircraft tonight in Iran.... little has changed with time, the anguish of those left behind in such tragedies remains heartbreaking.....


Jorge Pullin said...

Wonderful post!

Tarsnakes said...

Dennis, I came across this excellent blog whilst searching for some info on the Southern Cloud, having just visited the roadside memorial near Tooma a week ago. Congratulations on an excellent blog. Cheers Jules (AKA Tarsnakes)

Leonie said...

My Great Grandfather was Captain Travis Shortridge the pilot of the Southern Cloud. I came across your blog tonight...It's great... I climbed up to the wreckage with my daughter 7 at the time in 2008 with Tom Sonter and many relatives of the crash victims..

I am interested in the whereabouts of personal items that were discovered from the wreckage and delivered to the Cooma Police Station in 1958..Where did they end up over the years? In particular the whereabouts of Travis's gold watch he was wearing..and his thermos which was discovered with liquid still it it..Are these items hiding in a sack in someone's shed just as the ones on your blog once were? Do you know where they might be?

Thank-you again for your wonderful blog.
Leonie Balderstone

Anonymous said...

So interested in your article. My Dad worked for Charles K S and Charles Ulm. He sprayed the canvas on the plane wings with tar. He inadvertently left his tools on Southern Cloud when it set off for Melbourne that day, thinking he could retrieve them on its return. I'd like to know where I could contact to see if tools ever turned up. Thnaks for your article. Lyn

The Velobanjogent said...

Contact me via email...see to the upper RHS of my blog for my email address.
The chap, Tom Sonter who found the "Southern Cloud" is still alive and emailed me several months ago.
I could put you in contact with him.
Dennis Quinlan.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that's really cool. I Googled the Southern cloud it came up with this my friend always talks about it.

Stuart Fletcher said...

Id like to comment that my father Ernie Fletcher has only recently blown us away with his details of the finding of the Southern Cloud. He too was working with Tom Sonter on the Snowy Mountains project and when Tom came back to the work huts shouting he had found something and showed dad and others of his finds they all went back to the wreck site, it was my dad and others who then recived the title of the "Ghouls of Cooma", for collecting, identifying on a sketch the bodies and what they were wearing in the wreck and then bagging of the jewellery etc. they found that went to the police station to prove identification. They saw a news reel in Sydney later deplicting themselves with the Ghouls title.
Id like to hear from others of course and perhaps contact for Dad to discuss.
Stuart Fletcher

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Great post and colection.Abig salute to them.Thanks for giving knowledge regarding the older aircrafts.