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Always remembered...60 year anniversary of the Mackay plane crash

10th Jun 2020

The Rockhampton Grammar School today honoured the memory of nine past students who lost their lives in a plane crash off Mackay on 10 June 1960.

RGS Headmaster Dr Philip Moulds shares the story of that fateful evening:

On this day, June 10th 1960, nine RGS students excitedly boarded the Fokker Friendship “Abel Tasman” Flight 538 at the Rockhampton Airport bound for Mackay. 

The students, all boarders, were going home for the Queen’s Birthday long weekend.  Taking a flight rather than the train or drive was an exciting adventure.

In fact, it was the first time the Mackay boarders had chosen to fly home for weekend leave. 

However, as history now marks, tragically our students never made it home.  The “Abel Tasman” crashed into the sea off the coast of Mackay on the night of 10 June 1960, bringing nine young lives to an untimely end.  

The plane had flown to Rockhampton from Brisbane via Maryborough, arriving at the Rockhampton Airport at 7:12 pm, where the crew received the weather forecast for Mackay, predicting shallow fog patches.  The plane was refuelled to give sufficient range to continue on to Townsville if fog made it impossible to land in Mackay.

Adding to the nine passengers already aboard, seven adults and our nine schoolboys joined the flight at Rockhampton.

The flight departed from Rockhampton at 7:52 pm

At 8:17 pm, Mackay air traffic control reported that fog had rolled in and temporarily closed Mackay Airport

A few minutes later, having come to the spot where he would start descending, the Captain told the tower controller he would hold over Mackay in case visibility improved.

At 8:40 pm, only 48 minutes after leaving Rockhampton, he reported they were over the airport.  By all accounts, it was a bright moonlit night with a completely calm sea. 

Two approaches were aborted due to a low layer of cloud on the coastline obscuring the sight of the strip on final approach.

By 10 pm, the fog at Mackay was thinning.  Air traffic control reported this to the flight and Captain Pollard said they would begin an approach to the airport.  Several communications continued between the pilot and air traffic control regarding airport conditions.

At 10:05pm, air traffic control lost contact with the Captain.  At 10:10 pm, Air Traffic Control started the procedure for launching a search and rescue operation.

Five hours after contact was lost, at about 3 am on the morning of Saturday, 11 June 1960, items of wreckage, including damaged passenger seats, clothing and cabin furnishings, were found floating on the ocean five nautical miles east of Mackay Airport. 

One of the items recovered from the crash was the RGS School blazer of Edgar Dowse.  This blazer is framed and hangs unassumedly on the wall of our Long Room.  It is a regular and very personal reminder of the tragic loss of life.

While the formal inquiry did not determine a particular cause of the crash. The inquiry did recommend that flight data recorders (black boxes) be installed on all aircraft.  As a result of this crash, Australia became the first country to mandate the carriage of cockpit voice recorders on civil transport aircraft, a trend which was later followed by many other countries. 

The crash remains to this day,  Australia's worst civil air accident. 

The aftermath of this event and the grief remains in the heart of the School and our past students and staff.

Lost in the crash was the School’s youngest student at the time, Maxwell Barclay or Maxxy as his friends called him, aged 9. 

Two brothers, David and Trevor Patterson were lost and the Captain of the flight, Captain F. Pollard, was the brother in law of one of the School’s trustees at the time, Mr JG Palmer.  The impact on the students, staff and broader Rockhampton and Mackay communities was immense. 

A past student who was friends with “Maxxy”, reflected that “Maxxy was pretty chirpy  as his parents were letting him fly home and in the weeks before the crash we would talk about it as our beds were side by side.”  

He went on to say that “ All the fun and games and excitement of boarding school life came to an abrupt halt on June 10th.”

As a Headmaster, I cannot begin to imagine the impact and grief that then Headmaster Mr Jardine would have felt when, on the day following the crash, he personally visited each of the of the families in Mackay. 

Today, we honour each of those students and take a moment to think of their families, friends and staff at the School who this event left an indelible mark and changed the course of lives for many people.  

I acknowledge our Grammarians who passed on that day:  

·       Maxwell J Barclay

·       Donald F Brown

·       Brian F Burnell

·       Edgar L. Dowse

·       Frederick J. Graham

·       Stuart D. Jackson

·       Allan J. Morrow

·       David A. Patterson

·       Trevor Patterson

Never morning wore

To evening, but some hearts did break

Tennyson