Quininup, a 48-seat Vickers Viscount, gleamed like near new in its MacRobertson Miller Airlines color scheme of blue and green, a stark contrast to the burning red earth she flew over as she took miners north to make their fortunes as Western Australia’s first iron ore boom gathered momentum.
But she carried deep in her wing a deadly flaw that had started some five years earlier during a botched modification performed at Essendon Airport.
Quininup was a Vickers Viscount 720C and had started life in 1954 as the second of a new fleet for Trans Australian Airlines. A series of leases then purchase saw her owned by Ansett-ANA, which transferred her to its WA subsidiary MMA as VH-RMQ a few months prior to the crash.
For her five crew, she was the darling of the fleet and with a passenger capacity of 48 passengers almost twice the size of her stablemate the Fokker F27 Friendship.
Tuesday, December 31, 1968, dawned a typical summer day in Perth: warm with wind out of the north-east.
Being New Year’s Eve, the passenger load was light – just 22 including Kelmscott man Keith Dyke, 67, who was flying for the first time.
VH-RMQ’s captain, was Brian Bayly, a WW11 bomber pilot who had the right stuff in spades and was the fourth most senior pilot at MMA with over 19,000 hours.
Captain Bayly was a legend, suave, engaging, and humorous and always smiling.
His crew for Flight 1750 to Port Hedland was First Officer Michael Nelson 31, senior training hostess Georgette Bradshaw, 24, Gail Sweetman 23, who had been WA’s entrant in the 1965, Miss Australia Quest. With them was 23-year-old trainee hostess Kay Aubery, who had joined the airline only a month earlier and was making her fourth flight.
According to researcher Anthony James, Miss Aubery, an only child, was originally rostered on a flight to Kalgoorlie and was a last-minute inclusion.
The boarding call came at 8.10am and one passenger Gordon Collins, a 34-year-old father of eight, was heard to tell his wife: “I don’t want to go”.
The Viscount took off at 8.36am.
According to Mr. James, “moments later, Dorothy Weir, whose husband, Gordon, was a passenger, had a strange sensation.”
Mrs. Weir said “my legs suddenly buckled under me and I could not walk. I just sat there and watched the plane until it disappeared.”
Aside from some turbulence early in the flight, the flying conditions were fine.
The flight route was north-east over Mount Magnet with a turn due north at Meekatharra, abeam Wittenoom Gorge at 11.14am
At 11.20am, FO Nelson advised that they would be commencing their descent from FL190 (19,000ft) in three minutes.
And precisely three minutes later Captain Bayly eased back the throttles on the four Rolls Royce Dart turboprops and Quininup left the cruise level of FL190 and commenced the descent into Port Hedland — a procedure he had done hundreds of times
At 11.34am, FO Nelson reported that Quininup was 30 miles (48km) south of Port Hedland and had left 7,000 ft.
This was the final transmission.
Just four seconds later the starboard (right) wing outboard of the inner or No. 3 engine – and including the No. 4 engine – snapped off and hit the tail as it separated sending Quininup into uncontrollable dive, impacting the ground 26 seconds later.
But the impact of this disaster is still painful 50 years on.
On the huge Indee station, owner Colin Brierly heard two big explosions and observed a huge, black smoke cloud rise in the distance.
In Port Hedland, air traffic controller Pat Seymour saw the same ominous smoke.
Mr. Seymour told Mr. James: “When I didn’t get a response from the crew, I knew something had gone terribly wrong with the aircraft. Crews always respond promptly during this stage of flight.”
Search and rescue efforts were launched immediately.
Mr. Brierly was first to the sickening crash site but there were no survivors.
All that was left were twisted pieces of metal, scattered over a wide area blackened by the inferno that engulfed the wreckage.
The tragedy started the most comprehensive investigation in Australian aviation history at the time.
The wing that separated was sent to Melbourne for forensic examination and it was discovered after nine months of forensic investigation that shoddy maintenance work was to blame.
Engineers in Melbourne at Ansett performing an upgrade to the wing in 1964 “butchered” pre-drilled holes in a metal plate that was being bolted to the underside of a wing spar so that they lined up with holes in the spar.
Incredibly, none of the three involved were ever brought to account and thus the relatives were denied proper compensation.