In mid-April, while checking some references on the National Archives website, I came across a short, simple but infinitely sad letter on a general correspondence file of the Canberra Social Service Association from the years 1926-29 (NAA: CP698/9, 22). Dated 16 March 1928, it was written by a grieving father from Mt Eden in Auckland, New Zealand, and received by Mr J.H. Honeysett, the secretary of the Social Service Association operated by the Federal Capital Commission.
We had sent to New Zealand from Canberra last Christmas, a paper the “Canberra Community News” and in it we read of your Social Service Association. We thought you might be able to help us. My wife and I intend visiting Canberra the beginning of May, for the purpose of seeing our son’s grave, Flying Officer F.C. Ewen. As we shall be utter strangers, we would ask of your kindness and courtesy that you would send us the names of Hotels or Boarding Houses, where a quiet elderly couple could get accommodation. If you would please do this you would oblige.
Yours sincerely, Frank C. Ewen
The reason that Frank Ewen and his wife Lilian planned to visit Canberra was because their son, Francis Charles Ewen, had been tragically killed in a flying accident during ceremonies marking the official opening of Parliament House, Canberra, the year before.
Painting of the opening of Parliament House on 9 May 1927, by H. Septimus Power (1928)
During a mass flypast of Royal Australian Air Force aircraft at a military review held on the afternoon of the opening ceremony, a single-seat SE5A fighter plane was seen to leave formation in a stalling turn, then enter into a steep dive that ended as it struck the ground with terrific impact some 600 metres due east of Parliament House.
Spectators reaching the scene of the crash found the pilot, 27-year-old Ewen, still alive in the debris of his wrecked machine. But he was so severely injured and suffering shock that he died less than four hours later without being able to tell anyone what had happened. An inquest held the next day decided that the accident was just ‘one of those inexplicable things’, and nobody was to blame.
Left: The wreckage of Ewen’s aircraft undergoing inspection following the accident; right: Ewen’s headstone in St. John’s churchyard.
Flying Officer Ewen was buried on 11 May in the churchyard of St. John the Baptist at Reid, which is where his parents would have found his grave when they visited a year later. Perhaps they found solace in the coroner’s findings, comforted by the thought that it had been fate or random chance that had claimed their beloved son’s life. But the old couple’s grief would have compounded beyond measure had they known anything of the facts that I uncovered, when writing the history of the RAAF during the period between the two world wars of the 20th Century.
In my 1991 book The Third Brother, I explained that the RAAF had struggled to find and field the contingent of men and aircraft that organisers required at Canberra, when the Duke and Duchess of York opened the national legislature at the new federal seat of government. The 410 officers and men sent to Canberra in the two weeks before the big day represented almost exactly half the RAAF’s entire personnel strength, while the 24 machines assembled comprised practically all its operational aircraft—drawn from across every squadron and base that the RAAF possessed, few as these actually were.
Thus on 1 May young Frank Ewen had found himself sent to Canberra from Point Cook, Victoria, where he was adjutant of the Flying Training School. On 9 May he was called upon to fly one of Sydney-based No 3 Squadron’s SE5A fighters (A2-24)—not that this would have been a problem for him. Although he had transferred to the RAAF from the New Zealand Staff Corps only in April 1926, having previously trained for army service (including four years (1917-1920) at Australia’s military college at Duntroon, also in Canberra), he was—as stated by a RAAF witness at his inquest—a qualified pilot, a strong man, and of sober habits.
What research for my book also highlighted, however, was that, even before the RAAF deployment to Canberra for the opening of Parliament House, the 1927 Royal Visit had been an embarrassing public-relations disaster for Air Force as a result of a series of mishaps. An aerial salute to welcome the Yorks to Melbourne on 21 April, for example, had resulted in a mid-air crash that cost two aircraft and four fatalities.
Left: Aircraft A2-24 pictured after its arrival at Canberra; right: RAAF flypast during the military review on 9 May 1927
The story at the national capital had been depressingly similar, with the two-week encampment on the edge of what is now Canberra Airport having been marred by as many as ten RAAF machines suffering accidents, including four forced landings. While several aircraft had been damaged, fortunately there were no serious injuries to personnel prior to Flying Officer Ewen’s death.
A RAAF engineer officer had assured the coroner conducting the inquest into Ewen’s accident that SE5A A2-24 had been in perfect mechanical order, having been thoroughly overhauled about a week before, but during my research I was given information that A2-24 was actually one of the machines involved in the previous spate of mishaps. As a senior NCO from that period informed me; ‘That aircraft was flown up to Canberra by Don Carroll, a sergeant-pilot who was the son of a Country Party senator from Western Australia. When he landed it at Canberra, the thing went over on its back. It was tipped up the right way again, and no damage was said to have been done. But Ewen was killed in it the next day.’
Finding the letter from Ewen’s parents about their planned visit to Canberra in 1928 brought all these aspects back to the forefront once more—a process made only more poignant by advice received in recent days that the RAAF now has plans to republish The Third Brother more than 25 years after it went out of print, in time for Air Force’s centenary in 2021.