Tracing the nation's remarkable record of safety in the skies

5 February 2016

An ARC-funded study will explore pivotal aviation developments between the years 1938 and 1968.

The pilots escaped after their biplane crashed in Western Australia in 1929. Image: Charles Daniel Pratt/State Library of Victoria

The pilots escaped after this biplane crash in Western Australia in 1929. Image: Charles Daniel Pratt/State Library of Victoria.

On a cloudy morning in October 1938, the Kyeema smashed into the western slopes of Mount Dandenong, killing 14 passengers and all four crew on board.

Prominent South Australian vintners and a federal politician were among those to lose their lives on the Australian National Airways DC-2 aircraft.

A Royal Commission into the Kyeema crash later revealed navigational radio beacons had been installed but left inactive at nearby Essendon Airport. They could likely have averted the disaster.

The government — still stunned by the loss of a young MP in the disaster — was forced into action and major technical and operational reforms soon followed.

The history of our skies

Now a new University of Sydney research study will explore the legacy of Kyeema and other pivotal aviation developments that eventually led to Australia’s remarkable modern-day flight safety record.

Dr Peter Hobbins (MMedHum '09 PhD (Research) '14) will spend the next three years researching Australian aviation technology and air safety between 1938 and 1968, the latter being the last time Australia experienced a major fatal aviation disaster.

“It's worth being clear that Australia is intrinsically one of the safest places in the world to fly. Despite long distances, we live on a largely flat continent, which minimises the risk posed by mountains, while we are not especially prone to extreme weather events, such as hurricanes or blizzards,” said Dr Hobbins, from the Department of History.

“Against this background, aviation technology has been a double-edged sword. Being able to carry more passengers, and to fly faster and higher, has helped reduce congestion and collisions, while avoiding much of the potentially dangerous weather and obstacles at low altitudes. On the other hand, flying at 1000km per hour means that human decisions can have rapid and dramatic consequences.”

Towards flight safety

While Kyeema is seen as a watershed moment, several air disasters between the 1930s and 1960s would result in industry-changing improvements.  

Dr Hobbins points to the 1940 crash of a Royal Australian Air Force Lockheed Hudson bomber near Canberra, that killed its crew of four, along with two senior military officers, the chief of the general staff and three cabinet ministers — one of whom was the Minister for Civil Aviation.

And then there was the unexplained loss of a Trans-Australia Airways airliner near Mackay in 1960. The crash claimed 29 lives and is one of Australia's worst civil air disasters. But it led to the mandatory installation of cockpit voice recorders on all commercial airliners, making Australia the first country to impose this rule.

By casting an historian’s eye over a key era in Australian aviation safety, Dr Hobbins hopes his research will tease out the beginnings of public trust in flying.

“One of the most absorbing, but also the most vexing, aspects of aircraft crashes is that they are rarely caused by a single item or event,” he said.

“There is usually a staggering series of complex connections and mishaps that conspire to transform a minor 'glitch' into a tragedy. Like most events in history, you can offer a simple answer or one that fills a book.”

Dr Hobbins was the 2014 recipient of the Rita and John Cornforth Medal for PhD Achievement. 

Luke O'Neill

Media and Public Relations Adviser (Humanities and Social Sciences)