Alpine Observer - North East Regional Extra

The cloud found at World’s End


DEEP within the densely timbered, mountainou­s terrain of the Snowy Mountains, the rugged rock faces, tumbling streams and towering alpine ash eucalypts held tight a secret for 27 years.

On March 21, 1931, pilot Captain Travis ‘Shorty’ William Shortridge and co-pilot/ engineer Charlie C. Dunnell checked the weather report in the Sydney Morning Herald they could expect some wind and rain on their flight that day.

Shorty was an experience­d World War I flyer with more than 4000 flying hours under his belt and was due to take six passengers from Sydney’s Mascot aerodrome to Essendon, Melbourne in the VH-UMF Avro 618 Ten tri-engine aircraft known as the Southern Cloud.

Owned by Australian National Airways (ANA), which was founded in 1929 by Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm, the Southern Cloud was one of five airplanes which made daily flights between Brisbane, Melbourne and Launceston in the 1930s.

The six passengers included businessma­n Hubert Farrall; accountant Bill O’Reilly; American theatre producer Clyde Hood; electrical engineer Julian Margules; artist Clara (Claire) Stokes and maid Elsie May Glasgow.

With its passengers, luggage and cargo on board, the Southern Cloud took off at 8.10am and was expected to arrive in Melbourne at 1.30pm.

An hour after it left, an updated meteorolog­ical report arrived at ANA headquarte­rs in Sydney, indicating that the Southern Cloud was headed into driving rain, strong winds, low clouds and cyclonic conditions.

The Southern Cloud was not equipped with a radio so there was nothing the team on the ground could do to warn Shorty and Charlie of the impending dangerous weather.

They also couldn’t tell them that they had organised extra fuel to be sent out should they need to make an emergency landing or refill at the Bowser airstrip just outside Wangaratta; they simply had to wait to hear the aircraft had landed safely in Bowser or Melbourne.

Meanwhile, up in the air, with no modern navigation equipment and poor visibility, which was deteriorat­ing with each passing minute, Shorty and Charlie fought to keep their plane on its intended path.

The formidable Snowy Mountains lay exactly between Sydney and Melbourne and though the pilots knew they would be behind schedule due to the weather, they may have thought they were already past the peaks - some of which reached more than 2000 metres into the air.

Visibility was low due to driving mist and rain, an iced-up windscreen and the swirling 150km/h gusts of wind.

The Southern Cloud’s top speed was 160km/h so for long minutes they made little headway and it is possible that Shorty took the plane lower to get under the clouds.

Suddenly, the mountain was right in front of them and Shorty and Charlie banked steeply with full power to starboard but it was no use, they had seen the danger too late and the starboard flank smashed into the mountain.

The force of the impact twisted the strong metal struts of the fuselage, the wings broke away and the three engines embedded themselves deep in the mountainsi­de.

The Southern Cloud was 25km east off course and flying in a north easterly direction - the opposite direction they should have been going.

When the Southern Cloud failed to arrive in Essendon searches were sent out, with Charles Kingsford-Smith, Charles Ulm, other ANA pilots, RAAF personnel, private flyers and ground parties taking part.

Reports came in from across the state from prospector­s, schoolchil­dren, shepherds and a community postmistre­ss about sightings of the missing Southern Cloud, including one saying it circled Bowser, then turned away in the direction of Benalla but failed to make an emergency landing.

The Southern Cloud disappeara­nce made headlines and pushed news of the Great Depression off the front pages but after 18 days with no sign of the missing plane, the majority of searches were called off and the Southern Cloud was listed as ‘lost’.

It would be another 27 years before family, friends and the public learned the fate of missing plane, and it was quite by accident.

On October 26, 1958, Tom Sonter, a carpenter working on the Snowy Mountains Scheme in Tooma River Valley west of Cabramurra, was enjoying a day off and left his camp 15 miles from Happy Jack’s to climb Blackjack Mountain.

He soon realised he had not left himself enough time to reach the summit and doubled back to photograph a spectacula­r gorge instead.

Near Deep Creek on the south west side of the densely timbered mountain ridge of Kosciuszko National Park, in a place known as World’s End, Tom came upon a mound of earth that was a different colour to the surroundin­gs and went to investigat­e.

Young trees grew through the fuselage and wings while 40 foot variants grew around the rusted, twisted metal and the few bones still inside the plane.

Tom had found the remains of the Southern Cloud - a mystery he had never heard of until investigat­ors confirmed what he had found from the fuel cap and a small plate bearing the manufactur­er’s name that Tom took back to camp.

The Southern Cloud’s disappeara­nce was Australia’s first major airline mystery and the ensuing enquiry helped create safer air travel with radios and qualified operators made compulsory in regular passenger services, so that updated weather informatio­n could be communicat­ed to aircrew.

There are a number of memorials to and artefacts from the Southern Cloud in the towns of Cooma, Tumbarumba and Tooma in New South Wales and at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra.

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 ?? PHOTO: National Museum of Australia, Canberra ?? ◆ SOUVENIR: Remnants of a clock from the Southern Cloud wreckage.
PHOTO: National Museum of Australia, Canberra ◆ SOUVENIR: Remnants of a clock from the Southern Cloud wreckage.

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