The crash was one of Australia’s worst air tragedies. It happened when the airliner, a Viscount 700, was approaching Port Hedland airport after a three-hour flight from Perth.
An Aboriginal woman, believed to be the only person to see the crash, last night described her shock at seeing the big aircraft come spinning out of the sky, and explode in a ball of fire near her home.
Mrs. Selina Wilson said: “It was cartwheeling and making a screaming noise. I thought it was going to hit the house and was too frightened to do anything.”
Last night, the director general of Civil Aviation (Sir Donald Anderson) ordered all five Viscount 700 airliners in Australia to be grounded.
It was the first time since the war that a major airline aircraft had been grounded without inquiry.
TAA has four Viscount 700’s around Australia, Ansett-ANA has one. It was in Melbourne last night.
The crash has mystified the authorities. It apparently happened so suddenly that structural failure was unofficially thought to be the cause.
MacRobertson Miller airlines said 21 passengers were aboard the Viscount, and there was a crew of five, including two hostesses.
The names of the victims will not be released until all relatives have been notified.
The Viscount took off from Perth at 8.36 a.m., and at 11.34 a.m. the pilot radioed Port Hedland tower that he was making his approach, and that the weather was fine and clear.
When the aircraft had failed to land eight minutes later, the Department of Civil Aviation sent off a light aircraft to search for the plane.
The pilot radioed back that he had found the wreckage about five miles north of Indee station homestead in sand and scrub country.
The wreckage was widely scattered, and appeared to have been burnt by an “intense fire.”
Within two hours of the accident, the Department of Civil Aviation’s HS 15 jet was on its way from Melbourne to Port Hedland with investigators aboard.
Another DCX aircraft, a Fokker Friendship followed later in the afternoon with more technical personnel and equipment aboard.
The first DCA men arrived at the crash scene early in the evening, and ordered that nothing be touched until the main investigation team arrived.
A tight cordon was thrown around the wreckage and photographers and reporters were banned from approaching.
Station manager, Mr. Colin Briarley, who was working on a windmill about 10 miles from the crash scene said he heard what sounded like a muffled explosion.
“I saw a great cloud of smoke rising, and at first thought it was a bushfire”.
Mr. Briarley said he reached the crash to find a horror scene of charred bodies and luggage scattered all over the bush.
“After a while I realized it was hopeless looking for signs of life, and rushed back to the homestead to radio the Flying Doctor Service.
Directed by a DCA aircraft, Dr. Ken Cho of the Port Hedland Hospital, scoured the wreckage and declared that there were no survivors.
Another doctor from the same hospital, Dr. Gary Hastwell who was flying not far from the crash in a small Beechcraft Baron, described conditions at the time as “unusually turbulent.”
Temperatures were more than 100 degrees and there was good visibility of up to eight miles.
At Port Hedland Airport, passengers were waiting to board the Viscount, Quininup for the return trip to Perth. They were told at 11.30 a.m. that the “flight had been delayed.”
After midday, they were told that it had been cancelled.
A nursing sister among the intending travelers, Miss Robin Leclere, said friends of the victims continued to wait at the airport. When the fate of the aircraft became known they returned home, stunned by the news.
In the town of Port Hedland last night, the usually crowded hotels were empty, and all the talk was of the tragedy.
The Viscount 700 is the earliest of the Viscount planes, which went into Australian service in 1955.
The plane that crashed, VHR MQ, was formerly operated by Ansett-ANA. It replaced one of the two other Viscounts chartered to MMA last April by Ansett-ANA.
MMA is described as a “partial subsidiary” of Ansett Transport Industries.
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