Nearly fifty years ago, on the morning of September 8, 1972, a vintage Tiger Moth biplane took off from Hobart’s Cambridge Aerodrome bound for the Australian Capital Territory at 10.16am. It was scheduled to arrive at Flinders Island at 12.45pm to refuel. It never arrived.
On the face of it, this was just a case of a small, private aircraft disappearing on a flight over Bass Strait. But there was much more to this than a simple missing aircraft mystery. There was considerable conjecture regarding the reason for the plane’s disappearance.
The pilot was Max Price and his passenger on that fateful day was Brenda Hean, an activist involved in the campaign to save Tasmania’s iconic Lake Pedder from flooding by Tasmania’s Hydroelectric Commission.
The pair’s mission was to sky-write ‘Save Lake Pedder’ over the ACT, and to meet federal politicians.
Brenda Hean had been an unsuccessful candidate for the United Tasmania Group in the April 1972 state election.
Mercury journalist Wayne Crawford wrote an article titled – Sinister turn in lost ‘plane disaster – on September 13.
Brenda Hean had received a threatening phone call several days before the flight, when the caller asked her, “Would you like to go for a swim?”
Several years ago, I obtained access to the police files under Freedom of Information. This included an investigation by Sergeant Knights, of the Bellerive Police Station, into a reported break and enter into the hangar. Someone had used an axe to break into the company’s office by smashing the door; enabling an intruder to gain access to the aircraft hangar. This damage had first been noticed at 6.15pm on the day after the plane disappeared, but was not immediately reported as it was though the door had been forced by someone who had forgotten their key. Because this damage was not noticed until the next day, there was no definite proof that this occurred before the flight departed.
However, according to Dr Bob Brown in the 1985 book Lake Pedder, a light had been left on in an adjacent Cessna aircraft, which could have enabled an intruder to see without turning on the hangar lights. Critically, the plane’s survival beacon was found hidden at the back of the hangar. The police files also included speculation that someone had put sugar into the plane’s fuel tank.
Interestingly, though, the police files stated that Max Price had slept in a room next to the one with the allegedly forced door the night before the flight.
The last reliable observation of the aircraft was flying low over North-East Tasmania, on course to cross the coast en route to Flinders Island.
Several other sightings confirmed that the aircraft had flown up the East Coast, despite some (discredited) reports of it being seen in the NorthWest.
The initial search for missing aircraft concentrated upon the area between Ansons Bay, in the North East, and Flinders Island.
On September 11, 1972, The Mercury reported sightings of ‘objects’ in the sea near Swan Island, just off the North East coast, in Banks Strait. The next day’s coverage reported that no wreckage had been found off Swan Island, and that an aerial search would be conducted between Buckland and Flinders Island.
Police files for September 12 referred to the sighting of a blue scarf, which could not be retrieved.
The files for September 13, stated that the search was being concentrated on Banks Strait and Cape Naturaliste to St Helens for flotsam at a location estimated by the Bureau of Meteorology and marine experts from the University of Tasmania.
In later years, claims emerged that fishermen failed to report findings of clothing and other items that may have been from the aircraft.
So, what really happened to Brenda Hean and Max Price? Evidence that the aircraft was seen heading over Banks Strait for Flinders Island is conclusive. It crashed into Banks Strait. The unanswered question is ‘why’? There is certainly enough evidence to support the theory that the plane was sabotaged by a person breaking into the hangar. But there are other possibilities.
The police files stated that Price was “a barnstorming pilot from an era when there were no controls [on pilots]. He appears to be a person who was an extremely competent pilot, but one who showed disregard for flight plans and DCA regulations.
It is possible that the disappearance of the aircraft was brought about by pilot error.” Price used to fly the plane from the front cockpit, which was not usual for Tiger Moth pilots. He would also take-off on the main fuel tank, then switch to the auxiliary until that ran out and then switch back to the main tank. When skywriting, the oil would be carried in the auxiliary tank. The auxiliary tank had been drained before the flight and filled with fuel. Perhaps some oil was left in the tank and contaminated the fuel.
Bob Holderness-Roddam joined the Launceston Walking Club in 1966. The following year he was a member of a group of LWC and North West Walking Club members who founded the Save Lake Pedder National Park Committee at Lake Rodway.