9 April 2021

Canberra's mystery aerodrome and its tragic past revealed

| Lottie Twyford
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Aerodrome at Dickson

The Aerodrome at Dickson is a site many Canberrans have forgotten about. Photo: File.

Think you know everything there is to know about the nation’s capital?

Few Canberrans are aware that the city’s first aerodrome site, as envisaged in Water Burley Griffin’s final blueprint of the city, was the area now taken up by Dickson shops, library and wetlands.

Canberra’s original aerodrome was in operation from 1924 to 1926. It ceased activities just a few months after the capital’s first air fatality when air operations were moved to Majura Valley, the location of the current airport.

With a free exhibition entitled Wings of Dickson – Pioneers, Pilots and the Ploughman, this fascinating part of local history will be on display tomorrow (10 April) for one day only.

It’s part of a larger program of events for the Canberra and Region Heritage Festival.

Hosted by the Dickson Residents Group, never seen before historical artefacts, maps and photographs will be on display. The event will also serve as a commemoration of the legacy of the squadron pilot and aerial photographer killed in Canberra’s tragic crash.

Flying Officer Philip Mackenzie and his observer William Callander had flown from Richmond to complete a reconnaissance mission for town planning when their plane nose-dived and crashed to the ground near the aerodrome, killing both.

President of the Dickson Residents Group Jane Goffman says it was a tragic loss, and these young men’s service to the capital is deserving of remembrance.

The event will also honour the “exceptional bravery of local ploughman Walter Johnson in the face of a blazing wreck of a plane”, she says.

Mr Johnson was working near the crash site and ran immediately to the wreckage where he attempted a dangerous rescue effort with his bare hands. He was awarded a national bravery award for his service.

It is part of a broader push to recognise Canberra’s aviation history and the important role the aerodrome and those who worked there played.

Its operations were instrumental in the early days of planning and developing the capital, particularly in enabling RAAF aerial photography.

It also hosted civilian biplanes and supported the first commercial passenger flights to the nation’s capital.

“Embracing our shared past paves the way for a new and stronger future, one that respects the hopes and dreams of a diverse, inclusive community and its proud links with the Royal Australian Air Force”, Ms Goffman said.

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Accompanied by live jazz of the era, several Air Force members will be in attendance, as will Mr Johnson’s great nephew who will speak on the day.

The unveiling ceremony will take place at 10:00 am on Saturday, 10 April on the lawns of the Dickson Baptist Church at 133 Cowper St.

Organisers advise arriving at 9:45 am if you’d like to see the unveiling, and morning tea will be held after the ceremonial event. It will run until 4:00 pm.

The event will be opened by the ACT Minister for Heritage Rebecca Vassarotti, and two new Canberra Tracks heritage signs will be unveiled to mark the occasion.

Visit Environment ACT for more details.

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