4 May 2023

Then and now: Dickson was Canberra's first airport (and the site of a fatal plane crash)

| James Coleman
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Dickson Now and Then. Photo: National Archives, James Coleman.

Dickson might be an average looking urban landscape today, home to a shopping centre, library and wetlands area. But go back to the early 20th century and it was home to the national capital’s first airport.

A simple plaque by the front door of the Dickson Library commemorates the ‘Dickson Aerodrome’, which opened on 4 March, 1924.

Canberra’s architect Walter Burley Griffin first pencilled in the sheep paddock between today’s Majura Avenue and Antill Street for use as an airfield.

Following pressure from the Defence Force, the Commonwealth Government revisited the plans in the early 1920s. The first plane landed in 1923, bearing government officials tasked with settling on a site.

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Air-force pilots went on to use the aerodrome for photography surveys of the area in their flimsy WWI-era biplanes, until 1926 when air operations moved to the current site of the Canberra Airport in the Majura Valley.

But on 11 February of that year, it also became the site of the region’s first air fatality.

A graduate of the Duntroon Military College, Philip Mackenzie Pitt, and his photographer William Callander were coming in for landing after a survey of the Murrumbidgee River.

Observers later recalled the engine appeared to be running normally, but at 100 feet above ground, the DH9 plane suddenly stalled, spun and nose-dived into the ground where it burst into flames.


Dickson Aerodrome plane crash. Photo: National Archives of Australia.

Local ploughman Walter Johnson was working nearby and immediately ran to the blazing wreckage and attempted to claw the men out with his bare hands.

It was too late for Pitt, who was killed instantly. And by the time Canberra Fire Brigade arrived and drowned the fire, Callander was too injured and died soon afterwards in hospital.

Pitt was buried in an unmarked grave in Queanbeyan, and Callander – with his name misspelt –at St John’s in Reid. Johnson was awarded a national bravery award for his service.

Later that year, the aerodrome was closed because the Duke of York was coming for the opening of Parliament House and Dickson was tricky to approach from some angles due to Mount Ainslie.

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It reverted to a sheep paddock and eventually housing as suburban Canberra expanded.

But the stories are still kept alive by the convenor of the Dickson Residents Group, Jane Goffman, who ran a tour of the area on 25 April as part of this year’s Canberra and Region Heritage Festival.

She also approached the ACT Heritage Council in 2020 with hopes for the area to be heritage listed, but this was knocked back following an investigation which found it “unlikely … any fragmentary remnants would meet the thresholds for inclusion in the ACT Heritage Register”.

Historians still believe fragments of the crashed plane might be buried under Blacket Street in Downer. One of four concrete ‘lockspits’ that marked the corners of the airfield is visible in the wetlands near Dutton Street.

CORRECTION: This article originally stated that the accident that killed Philip Mackenzie Pitt and William Callander occurred on 26 February 1926. This is incorrect. The accident was on 11 February 1926. Region apologises for this error.

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Thanks for the story James! Just a couple of quick corrections and additional info. 1920s are the 20th century, 6 March 1924 was the date the first Canberra Aerodrome officially commenced operating, Thursday 11 Feb 1926 was when the fatal air crash happened. The two crew in 3 Squadron’s DH9 had just flown in from Richmond, a 2 hour flight in those days, and was scheduled to land here, re-fuel and get their instructions before heading out to do the aerial survey of the Murrumbidgee Valley. The engine stalled as they turned for the final approach from the northwest, over Downer. The time of the crash was 10:30am. The nomination only covered three small areas on the Aerodrome as the rest now has at least 70 houses. The most important was the giant concrete ring in the centre of the landing ground, which has now been commemorated with a Canberra Tracks sign and a bronze plaque. Anzac Day was a lovely time to unveil these. Cheers.

Wally Johnson, was my great uncle. He is buried at Young cemetery, along with my grandparents. He lived into his late eighties. He was award a bravery medal for his actions. I have a photo of his grave if anyone would like a copy.

At least one fragment of the plane survives. There is a photograph frame roughly crafted from the aeroplane’s bomb sight (used to take aerial photographs). It was displayed at a heritage festival event at Dickson just before Covid struck, and can be viewed at the Canberra & District Historical Society in Curtin. Full story in Canberra History News , December 2019 (available from CDHS).

You might want to check the period in the fist paragraph. There was no need for an airstrip in the Canberra area in the early Nineteenth century as thee were no aircraft until about a century later.

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