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Remembering this week: the RAAF’s worst peacetime air disaster

Caribou-Crash-Site-1972IAN LOFTUS | Ian Loftus History & Travel Blog

PERTH - This week marks the 45th anniversary of the RAAF’s worst peacetime air disaster, the crash of a Caribou transport aircraft from 38 Squadron in Papua New Guinea’s Morobe province on 28 August 1972.

With 29 on board (three RAAF crew and 26 passengers) the aircraft disappeared en-route from Lae to Port Moresby. Only four of those on board survived, all cadets.

Most of the passengers were PNG high school cadets from the 35th Cadet Battalion returning home from their annual cadet camp in Lae. They were accompanied by an Australian Army officer and a cadet officer, also from Australia.

Despite an intensive search by RAAF, Army and civilian aircraft, the Caribou remain undiscovered for several days due to its remote location and extensive tree canopy.

A searching Army Sioux helicopter located several survivors who had walked from the crash site. RAAF Iroquois were called, and the survivors were able to lead crew to the crash site, which was near the crest of a ridge.

The survivors were evacuated by helicopter that evening.

Army engineers were able to construct a temporary helipad near the crash site, and Iroquois helicopters ferried investigators and others in and out over the coming weeks. A cross was erected on the helipad before the site was abandoned.

Investigators believed that the aircraft encountered poor weather in the Kudjeru Gap, when the starboard wing impacted with treetops on a ridge line and the plane crashed.

A memorial service is held each year at de la Salle High School at Bomana, near Port Moresby, where most of the cadets were students.


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Paul Oates

How well I remember this particular air crash. It was one of the times I almost 'bought it'. I was a P.O. stationed at Wau at the time.

Returning from a patrol, first thing next morning, all staff were required at the airport which had taken on the look of an operational airfield.

Choppers and light aircraft were everywhere. I was designated as the lookout on a Bell Helicopter (Sioux) with instructions to land at each village along the lost aircraft’s flight path and ask if they had seen an Army balus?

We landed at villages all the way through the Waria area of Garaina and it went the same way each time. As soon as the aircraft was reported missing, an all out effort was made to locate the crash.

The scenario went like this: “Yupela lukim balus bilong Ami long asde a?”

“Yes sah. Mipela lukim wanpela igo olsem na narapela ikam long hap na narapela igo long.......“ Hands and arms were pointing all over the sky.

It was totally useless. There had been so many aircraft in the air the previous afternoon, no one could distinguish between them and not many villagers would have known one type of aircraft from another. Unless someone had heard or seen the actual crash, any other information was useless.

It eventually turned out that the aircraft had speared in to the forest and left virtually no trace of where it had crashed, but of course we weren’t to know that at the time.

We continued on to and over the Papuan border and eventually ran short of fuel. At that point a mild panic crept in as we weren’t exactly sure where we were, due to the clouds having come down behind us. We circled around and I then spotted the old Bulldog track that had been used to supply Wau during the war. I suggested we might follow the Track towards Wau. This we did with the cloud becoming closer and lower all the time. Oh Oh! I thought as the pilot switched fuel tanks.

The right hand tank was completely empty and the left one was dangerously low. We were boxed in with nowhere to go. The pilot looked at the map and said we must go up. There were no peaks over 12,000 ft in that area so if we got above the clouds we should be right. Up we went vertically with the fuel gauge getting lower every minute. We broke out of the cloud cover over 12,000 feet and headed in the direction of Wau. We then discovered it was totally ‘clouded in’ all over the region.

Any other time and if would have been nice to admire the scenery. It was like floating on a flat, white ocean, with the sun shining brightly above.

The pilot took a compass bearing and headed towards where Wau should be, under all those white, pearly clouds. Continual checks with the air traffic controllers confirmed there was 10/10ths cloud cover on the ground at all airstrips in the region. The needle in the left hand gauge started to bounce up and down on the empty indicator.

Then a sudden message from the ground at Wau said a small hole had opened up and was moving over the airstrip. The pilot spotted it and when we were over it, wound off the pitch of the rotors and we dropped like a stone through the hole in the clouds. While my stomach was still fighting to get down from about 12,000 feet, we neared the ground at frightening speed. When we seemed about 100 feet up, the pilot put on full pitch again and I felt like my backside was being pushed up through my throat. We hit the deck fairly hard and neither fuel gauges moved once. The pilot said later there may have been a pint of fuel left in the pipes.

Thick cloud stopped the air search for the rest of the day and I wasn’t complaining.

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