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For the public by and large, civil aviation was initially perceived to be a dangerous business.[i] It was associated with warfare as well as the daring escapades of pioneering aviators, significant numbers of whom died in accidents and other misadventure that were widely reported in the media. In 1933 Bert Hinkler was killed when he crashed into the Italian Apennines; Charles Ulm died the following year in a crash in the Pacific Ocean; and Charles Kingsford Smith’s plane disappeared over the Bay of Bengal in 1935.

Although deaths in civil aviation were not numerous, there were several high profile disasters in the 1930s that captured the public’s attention. On 19 February 1937, a Stinson plane crashed into the Lamington Ranges in Queensland. Of the seven on board, four were killed instantly. A search failed to locate the wreckage but a Beaudesert grazier, Bernard O’Reilly, famously used his bush skills to locate the wreck and two survivors.[ii] The story stunned the nation. In the following year, eighteen people, including the Federal MP Charles Hawker, died when their aircraft crashed into Mt Dandenong in a fog. This was a catalyst for the creation of the Department of Civil Aviation.

The Kyeema Memorial cairn just above the crash site, Wikimedia Commons

Australia had ratified the International Convention for the Regulation of Aerial Navigation on 13 October 1919. The Commonwealth Air Navigation Act, 1920, came into being to give effect to this Convention. In turn, this Act prompted the Tasmanian Commonwealth Powers (Air Navigation) Act of 1920, the 1928 Commonwealth Arrangements Act (part 3) in Victoria and the Commonwealth Powers (Air Navigation) Act of 1920 in South Australia.

A High Court challenge in 1936, however, found that the Commonwealth did not have constitutional power to make general legislation for the control of air navigation. (It had legislated to implement the Convention via the ‘external affairs’ section [55, xxiv] of the Constitution.) The Court also ruled the regulations invalid as they differed in some ways from the Convention.[i] They were repealed and replaced by those in the Air Navigation Regulations.[ii] These were to be temporary until the outcome of a referendum to amend the constitution to allow the Commonwealth to legislate for air navigation generally. The High Court Challenge originated on 1 November 1934 when Henry Goya Henry was charged and found guilty at Sydney’s Central Court under the Air Navigation Act of breeching a number of regulations at Mascot Aerodrome in September 1934. He was fined £1 with costs.

The referendum was held on 6 March 1937. Some newspapers reported that ‘the only serious opposition comes from railway quarters, particularly in New South Wales and Western Australia. In these quarters’, the Cairns Post noted, ‘the view is held that if the Commonwealth has complete power of regulation over the air it will prevent any state from taking action to co-ordinate air and railway transport in connection with air services which are confined to the state’.[iii] Of all voters, 53.56% supported the amendment. But it failed to gain a majority of states and was thus rejected.

In an article in the British magazine Flight, Edward J. Hart, former editor of the Australian paper Aircraft, told his readers:

Between sunrise and sunset of March 6, 1937, the whole aspect of civil aviation in Australia changed from national acceptance of the Air Navigation Act (1921) to what Australia’s Prime Minister terms “absolute chaos” – and back has swung the pendulum to the disastrous pre-control era of 1918-20 when a pilot was free to break a neck without breaking an Act…

 …In 1918 two so-called commercial aviation companies were registered; one with a nominal capital of £150,000. Twelve others were born in 1919, and fourteen more in 1920. Also there were several private owners – some wholly untrained. Most of these enterprises were short-lived – literally. For three years there was no semblance of official control.[iv]

 In response to the failed referendum, a conference of Ministers of the commonwealth and states, chaired by Robert Menzies, agreed to introduce uniform legislation in each state with administrative responsibility resting with the commonwealth. During the proceedings, Menzies said that he would put a request from Tasmania to the federal cabinet for a comprehensive inquiry into civil aviation. Tasmanian Premier Ogilvie, ‘suggested that the appointment of a royal commission or some similar body was essential to restore public confidence, particularly in Tasmania. His State had a severe experience from aviation disasters’. A new Air Navigation Bill was introduced into federal parliament later that year. During the second reading, Attorney General Albert Bussau alluded to air safety issues for which new provisions had been developed. These related to ‘flights over the sea; smoking on aircraft; imperilling the safety of aircraft by interference with the crew or by disorderly conduct; carriage of persons on the wings or under-carriage of aircraft; the carriage of intoxicated persons on aircraft; and parachute descents’.[v]

Before 1927, accidents were investigated by individually appointed boards of inquiry. Public disquiet led in that year to the establishment of an Air Accident Investigation Committee. Most civil aviation investigations related to minor incidents involving light planes. In 1936-37, for example, the Committee dealt with 107 minor and 15 major accidents.[vi]

There was a rapid increase in internal air travel from the 1950s to 1970s in Australia. But fatalities in civil aviation have been relatively low and reasonably constant, considering populations increases, from the 1960s. The majority of accidents still involve light aircraft. More accidents and incidents, however, occur more frequently than is commonly understood. In 2002, for example, ‘107 accidents, 195 serious incidents, and over 7,300 incidents’ were reported to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.[vii]

The agencies, departments and organisations currently responsible for civil aviation safety are Airservices, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, the Department of Infrastructure and Transport and the Bureau of Meteorology. And they have both national and international roles to play. As the Royal Aeronautical Society (Australian Division) has observed, Australia ‘is located in what will soon be the largest aviation market in the world. Whilst Australia may be a relatively small player in the global sense, it is recognised internationally for its high technology and safety standards… Australia is… in a strong position to develop aviation policies and operational practices appropriate to our region’.[viii]

Heritage Resources 

In general terms, the preservation of material associated with aviation maintenance and support services appears to be quite limited, and there may be significant gaps in holdings. QANTAS holds a substantial amount of historic servicing gear, and the Airways Museum at Essendon holds equipment used for the maintenance of aviation related electronic systems.  At present these collections have limited documentation, and little information is available to the public. Various ground vehicles, such as air stairs, ground tractors, petrol tankers and fire equipment are individually held by museums across the country. 

Museums, Collections & Archives

National Archives of Australia, ACT

Documents, papers and other documentary ephemera regarding aviation safety such as manuals, guidelines and legislative papers regarding civil aviation safety.

National Library of Australia, ACT

Documents, photographs and other ephemera that relates to aviation safety such as manuals, political cartoons and pictures such as aviation fire brigades and ANA’s Southern Cloud.

National Museum of Australia, ACT

John Boddington and Frank Proust Collection holds material from the Southern Cloud air disaster in 1931. Operated by Australian National Airways it crashed into the Snowy Mountains enroute to Melbourne. The collection includes photographs and objects such as the dashboard clock and the tachometer. The Sir Roland Wilson collection consists of a damaged propeller blade from Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Lockheed Hudson aircraft A1697 that crashed at Canberra on 13 August 1940 killing all on board.

Powerhouse Sydney, NSW

A collection of material from the wreckage of the Southern Cloud that crashed into the Snowy Mountains in 1931.

Qantas Heritage Collection, NSW

A collection of historic servicing gear and ephemera regarding safety on Qantas flights.

Queensland State Archives, QLD

A small collection of photographs depicting a Civil aviation safety display at the Queensland Industrial fair.

South Australia Aviation Museum, SA

A fire tender used in aviation rescue and safety and a fire water bombing display.

Airways Museum, VIC

Significant collection of documents and objects relating to aviation rescue and firefighting. It has in its collection manuals and other documents relating to aviation safety. A small collection of wreckage from the Amana Skymaster DC4 air disaster of 1950.

Museum Victoria, VIC

Collection of aviation safety gear such as helmets, googles and parachute used by early aviators.

Beverley Aeronautical Museum and Information Centre, WA

Nose wheel from the 1950 Amana Skymaster DC4 which is part of a memorial to that disaster.


Air Disaster Memorial, Pialligo Av, Oaks Estate, ACT

The site of the 1940s air disaster that killed several of Prime Minister Menzies wartime cabinet.

Southern Cloud Memorial, Sharp Street, Cooma NSW

A memorial dedicated to Australia’s first major air disaster. A significant air disaster that was the impetus to the introduction of radio into all aircraft to improve its safety.

Connellan Airways Hangar, NT

Occupied by the Central Australian Aviation Museum, it was the location and operating base of Conellan Airways.

Qantas Hangar, Longreach, QLD

The site of Qantas’s first hangar. Currently on the National Heritage List and is leased by QFOM.

Kyeema Memorial and environs, 9 Eyre Road (off Ridge Road),Mt Dandenong, VIC

The Douglas DC – 2 Kyeema crashed into Mt. Dandenong in 1938. This resulted in the introduction of regulation to ensure the safety of subsequent flights.

Van Emmerick Air Crash - Site of, Hawkstone Peak, WA


The crash site of a Royal Flying Doctors Service flight in 1956 that resulted in the death of all its occupants.

 People & Organisations

Airservices Australia

A statutory authority which provides safe, secure, efficient and environmentally responsible air traffic management and related services to the aviation industry.


The government statutory body that is responsible for regulating civil aviation.

[i] R. v. Burgess, 1936, 55 CLR, p608.

[ii] Commonwealth Gazette, 26 November 1936; see also 10 December 1936 for the extension of powers generally to trade and commerce with other countries and among the states.

[iii] Cairns Post, 13 February 1937, p12.

[iv] Edward J. Hart, ‘Chaos in Australia’, Flight, 25 March 1937, p312.

[v] The Argus, 27 August 1937, p13.

[vi] Ian Leslie, ‘A History of Aviation Accident Investigation in Australia’, nd, <http:www.airwaysmuseum.com/Accident%20investigation.htm accessed 26 February 2014.

[vii] Australian Transport Safety Bureau, ‘Aviation Occurrence Staistics 2003-2012’, 2013 <http://www.atsb.gov.au/publications/2013/ar-2013-067.aspx> accessed 26 February 2014.

[viii] Royal Aeronautical Society (Australian Division) http://www.raes.org.au/industry-participation ‘Aviation Emissions and Climate Change Position Paper’, accessed 28 February 2014.

[ix] Mark L.J. Dierikx, ‘Struggle for Prominence: Clashing Dutch and British Interests on the Colonial Air Routes, 1918-42’, Journal of Contemporary History, vol 26, no 2, 1991, pp337. See also Terry Gwynn-Jones, ‘It’s been 80 years since a Vickers Vimy opened the door to intercontinental air travel’, Aviation History, vol 11, no 3, p70.

[x] The Argus, 27 August 1937, p13.