Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sugar Ray and Joey Maxim - In the Heat of the Night

The weather affects many areas of human endeavour in a whole variety of ways but one of the strangest and most famous of these concerned a world title boxing bout that took place in New York back in 1952.

The summer of that year proved to be one of the hottest ever across many parts of the United States, affecting most areas from the Continental Divide to the Atlantic coast. During June of 1952 monthly temperatures were an astonishing 10F above normal in Kansas City, and Nashville’s maximum temperatures for the month beat the previous record by 3F.

From the 24th to the end of the month, temperatures climbed above 100F as far north as Boston and Detroit, and many all time temperature records were broken as the searing heatwave marched across America.

During this furnace-like week, most offices and factories throughout New York and Detroit that weren’t air conditioned sent their employees home early and thousands flocked to the beach around Coney Island and Rockaway where they stayed overnight to try and escape the oppressive heat of the inner city.

In the middle of this heatwave a world championship boxing bout had been scheduled at Yankee Stadium, and a most unusual one at that.

Yankee Stadium in the late 1920's
(Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)

The world middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson had challenged the world light heavyweight champion Joey Maxim for his crown. Robinson had already won two other world titles at lesser weights, and this would have given him world titles in three different weight divisions – an almost unprecedented achievement.

The World Middleweight Champion in 1952 - Sugar Ray Robinson. (Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)

Normally a middleweight would have little chance against a light heavyweight, but Sugar Ray Robinson was no ordinary fighter, even by world championship standards. Equipped with silky speed and a killer punch in either hand, he was rated by many as the best ever boxer, pound for pound, in the history of the ring.

Joey Maxim - the World Light Heavyweight Champion in 1952 (Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)

Maxim was big and strong and the fact that he was world light heavyweight champion meant he was a very tough hombre. The fight promised to be a fascinating one.

It was organised for 10 pm on the night of June 25 1952, outdoors at Yankee Stadium, and, as it turned out, in the middle of the New York heatwave. Robinson weighed in at 160 pounds and Maxim 175 – a big advantage. As the two fighters climbed in to the ring the temperature was measured on the ring apron as 104F, with high humidity conditions adding to the acute discomfort.

The fight commenced and then proceeded pretty much as the experts had predicted with the much faster Robinson scoring punches at will and piling up a big points lead over the first nine rounds. He even managed to stagger Maxim with a big right hand in the seventh.

Then things began to go awry for Robinson. His fast style was generating great heat from his muscles – heat that couldn’t be dissipated in the ultra hot and humid conditions. The core heat of his body began to rise and he started to show signs of imbalance, disorientation and exhaustion – all classic symptoms of hyperthermia or heat exhaustion.

In the meantime, people in the audience had been collapsing with the heat, and the sweat soaked referee Goldstein signalled that he could not go on after round ten. He was replaced by the reserve referee, Ray Miller.

In the thirteenth round Robinson threw a huge right hand, missed, and then fell flat on his face. He was a man noted for his superb balance in the ring so this rang alarm bells all through the crowd.

This moment was captured in the photograph here:


He was just able to last to the end of the round.

But he was unable to answer the bell for the start of the fourteenth round and Maxim was declared the winner by way of knockout. It was the first time that Sugar Ray had ever been stopped inside the distance.

It took a totally spent Ray Robinson some 6 weeks to recover from the fight and he always claimed it was the heat, rather than Maxim that had beaten him.

However Maxim himself denied that heat was the main factor. He later said "Did I have air conditioning in my corner? I pushed him all night. He knocked himself out".

Sugar Ray, after a brief retirement from the ring, came back and regained his world middleweight crown and went on fighting until 1965 when he was 43 years of age. He was named the greatest fighter of the 20th Century by the Associated Press, and the greatest boxer ever by ESPN.com in 2007. Perhaps of even more significance, Ring Magazine voted him the best pound for pound fighter of all time. He died in 1989 aged 68.

Joey Maxim lost his world title soon after the Robinson fight and eventually retired from the ring in 1959. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1994, and died in 2001, aged 79.

Vision of this famous fight can be seen here:


For information about one of Australia's best ever fighters go to


Reference: Sugar Ray, Putnam and Company, London, 1969

Saturday, December 11, 2010

How to Make a Good Cup of Tea

Recently I attended a meeting of the local Rotary Club where the guest speaker was a coffee and tea specialist. He planned to deliver a talk on a topic that seemed to me at the time to be a rather boring subject.

But it certainly was not and instead it turned out to be both interesting and instructive.

It was how to make a good cup of tea.

Above - A tea leaf (Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)

Tea making goes back many centuries and was originally practiced in China, India, Sri Lanka, Tibet and Burma before later spreading to Russia, Japan and Korea. Tea itself became a valuable trade item with the West during the nineteenth century and now continues to be widely enjoyed in most countries.

A tea plantation in India (Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)

The famous English vessel the "Cutty Sark" was a fast sailing ship specially built for transporting tea from China back to Britain and was one of several vessels of the time known as "tea clippers".

But according to our Rotary Club expert, despite our great familiarity with this drink it continues to be be prepared wrongly, producing a bitter taste that we have to mask by adding milk and sugar. He demonstrated by preparing a brew using the correct method and the result was transforming - a great taste with no milk or sugar required.

The "Cutty Sark" preserved at Greenwich, England. (Image from Wikipedia Commons - Atelier Joly - click to enlarge)

Here's how you do it.

Use leaf tea (not tea bags) - preferably from India, China or Sri Lanka as these tend to be the best quality. Measure out two or three teaspoons into your pot depending on how strong you want to make it. Then add boiling water, as soon as possible after reaching the boiling point. If you let it cool before addition the flavour is degraded.

And now the vital point - let it stand for 20 to 30 seconds BUT NO LONGER. After 30 seconds astringents are released from the tea leaves that produce an unpleasant and bitter taste.

You can then pour your tea into a cup - if possible through a filter - or you can separate it from the leaves into another pot. You'll find that a mild and smooth flavour is produced with no milk or sugar required.

The technique applies to all types of tea including the camomile, green and herbal varieties.

Common myths:

(1) Use a spoonful of tea for each person and add one for the pot - almost guaranteed to produce a strong and bitter brew.

(2) The pot should be heated with boiling water before the tea is added - this makes virtually no difference.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Kamikaze - The Divine Winds of Japan

We are all familiar with the word “kamikaze” used as a reference to the large group of young Japanese men that formed the world’s first suicide pilot squadrons during World War 2. Kamikaze pilots flew their aircraft, usually packed with explosives, into allied ships operating in the Pacific Ocean during 1944 and 1945 in an attempt to inflict maximum possible damage at the expense of the life of the pilot.

The kamikaze squadrons inflicted a large amount of damage on allied shipping but were too late to change the course of the war.

However the term “kamikaze” was not originally used to describe suicidal military action but was in fact used many centuries earlier to describe two famous meteorological events that occurred when the Mongol warlord, Kublai Khan twice tried to invade Japan using formidable naval armadas.

Portrait of Kublai Khan, circa 1265 (Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)

The first time, in the year 1274, the Mongol fleet was smashed by a typhoon, with an estimated loss of one in three ships and more than 10,000 warriors drowned.

Kublai Khan tried again, seven years later, in the year 1281, this time with part of his fleet successfully landing in Hakata Bay where they were fought off by Japan’s Samurai warriors. However the Mongol fleet was reinforced by a much larger naval force some two months later and it seemed that the Japanese would be overrun.

Then, amazingly, another typhoon blasted across the area, this time doing far more damage than had been seen in 1274. Some 3000 ships were sunk with thousands of invading Mongols drowned. Kublai Khan gave up the idea of a Japanese invasion after this disaster.

Depiction of the loss of the second Mongol fleet in the typhoon of 1281. This was painted by the Japanese artist Kikuchi Yosai in 1847. (Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)

The Japanese had twice been saved from invasion by the mighty blasts of typhoons, and these storms were thereafter named “Kamikaze”, or “Divine Winds” that had been sent by the Gods to save their country.

Tropical revolving storms are called “hurricanes” in the Americas and this is from the Mayan storm God “Hunrakan”, although the Caribs also had their God of Evil named “Hurican”. Throughout the far-east, including Japan, they are known as typhoons, and this is derived from the Chinese “tai fung” meaning “great wind”. However there is also an Arabic word “ tufan” meaning a sudden or violent storm, and this, in turn may be related to the ancient Greek word “tuphon”, meaning “father of the winds”.

In India, Australia and Bangladesh these storms are known as tropical cyclones.

It has been estimated that since 1850 alone, more than two million people from around the world have died as a result of tropical revolving storms, but the actual figure is probably far higher as records are incomplete and probably inaccurate.

Typhoon "Jelawat" nears the coastline of Japan in June, 2006. (Image courtesy of NASA - click to enlarge)

In the case of Kublai Khan however, typhoons smashed his military ambitions, and his fearsome Mongol armies, all-conquering through China and Korea, were never able to capture Japan.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

President John. F. Kennedy - the Father of World Weather Watch

One of the most remarkable achievements ever made in the science of meteorology was accomplished not by a scientist, but by a President – in fact the 35th President of the United States, John. F. Kennedy.

Above: President John F. Kennedy (Image: Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)

In the late 1950's both Russia and the United States began launching space vehicles, with Russia’s “Sputnik” the first ever fully orbiting satellite. On April 1st 1960 the study of our weather systems was to change forever when the United States launched the worlds first meteorological satellite, TIROS 1, that created a sensation by transmitting television images of weather patterns back to Earth to assist in weather forecasting.

Replica of Sputnik 1 - launched in 1957. (Image: Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)

It became obvious that satellites would have a major effect on a whole plethora of human affairs including communication, meteorology, navigation and military issues.

Born in the Cold War era when the United States and the Soviet Union were teetering on the brink of all-out war for more than a decade, many assumed that space would become a hostile zone, an extension of the battlefields far below where the confrontation between east and west would continue.

The first image of the Earth received from TIROS 1.
(Image: Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)

But in 1961, the US President John F. Kennedy delivered two remarkable speeches – arguably two of the great public speeches of the modern era. They were to change the political landscape of the day and also the science of meteorology.

On January 30th, in his State of the Union address, he stated:

“…….this Administration intends to explore promptly all possible areas of cooperation with the Soviet Union and other nations to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Specifically, I now invite all nations--including the Soviet Union--to join with us in developing a weather prediction program, in a new communications satellite program and in preparation for probing the distant planets of Mars and Venus, probes which may someday unlock the deepest secrets of the universe”.

Then later in the year, on September 25th, he addressed the United Nations General Assembly:

“And as we extend the rule of law on earth, so must we also extend it to man's new domain, outer space. All of us salute the brave cosmonauts of the Soviet Union. The new horizons of outer space must not be driven by the old bitter concepts of imperialism and sovereign claims. The cold reaches of the universe must not become the new arena of an even colder war. To this end, we shall urge proposals extending the United Nations Charter to the limits of man's exploration in the universe, reserving outer space for peaceful use, prohibiting weapons of mass destruction in space or on celestial bodies, and opening the mysteries and benefits of space to every nation. We shall propose, further, cooperative efforts between all the nations in weather prediction and eventually in weather control. We shall propose, finally, a global system of Communications satellites linking the whole world in telegraph and telephone and radio and television. The day need not be far away when such a system will televise the proceedings of this body to every corner of the world for the benefit of peace.”

These resounding and prophetic speeches, together with the major international interest and action that flowed from them, led to the establishment of the World Weather Watch, (WWW) in 1963, under the aegis of the World Meteorological Organisation and resulted in greatly enhanced international cooperation in the collection and processing of weather data.

Remarkably, whilst East and West remained bitterly confrontational on the political field, conducting warfare, espionage and assassination against each other, meteorologists from both sides became friends and colleagues. They attended conferences together, shared knowledge and technology, and established networks for the collection of weather observations from around the world, all for the common good of weather prediction.

As a result, meteorology prospered during the second half of the Twentieth Century, with vast improvements in weather forecasting the immediate result. Detection and effective warning of hurricanes, intense thunderstorms, floods, heat waves, cold outbreaks and all other types of severe weather steadily improved, and the more effective planning of agricultural activities, factoring in the weather, continued to increase our capacity for food production. Ships at sea and commercial aircraft were able to operate more safely as a result of our increased knowledge of the state of the atmosphere.

A hurricane as seen from space.
(NASA image - click to enlarge)

The World Weather Watch remains today as the core of the World Meteorological Organisation's operations. It combines observing systems, telecommunication facilities, data-processing and forecasting products operated by National Meteorological Centres from around the world.

Tropical storm "Katia" photographed on August 31st 2011. (NASA image - click to enlarge)

It is a glowing example of international cooperation, made all the more remarkable by the fact that it was born in the barren political wilderness of the Cold War. All the improvements that resulted from its initiation have continued through to the present day and will do so into the future as an enduring legacy of the Kennedy Administration.

President John F. Kennedy must be therefore regarded as one of the key figures in meteorology of the 20th century, and many meteorologists would regard the World Weather Watch as one of the great achievements of an American President.

See also:






Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Weather Goes to War - The Battle of Long Tan

In 1966, decimal currency had arrived in Australia, (see http://passingparade-2009.blogspot.com/2009/07/australian-banknotes-1914-to-1966.html), National Service had been introduced and our Vietnam commitment had grown to Task Force size. But 1966 would always be remembered for an incident that took place later in the year.

In the early afternoon of August 18, 1966, D-Company, 6 RAR, consisting of 108 men, began a routine patrol, moving in a south-easterly direction after leaving the Task Force base at Nui Dat. This formation consisted of 10, 11 and 12 Platoons together with a company headquarters unit.

Above: Nui Dat, as seen in 2010
(Click on image to enlarge)

After a tough time hacking through head high elephant grass the Company fanned out through a rubber plantation near the small deserted village of Long Tan, following two distinctive cart tracks that disappeared into the distance between the rubber trees.

The path D Coy took between Nui Dat and Long Tan - as seen in 2010
(Click on image to enlarge)

Coming across a small pathway at right angles to the line of advance, 11 platoon commenced a tactical crossing, one man at a time, to a further area of rubber trees on the other side of the track.

As Bob Buick, the Sergeant of 11 Platoon, commenced to cross the track he glanced up the hill and was amazed to see a small party of enemy soldiers sauntering down the hill towards him, totally unaware of the presence of the Australians. Instinctively he turned and fired, with two of the enemy falling, but the others immediately grabbed their wounded comrades and melted into the rubber. The Commander of 11 Platoon, Gordon Sharp, then advanced with his men, following up on the retreating enemy wounded.

The pathway where Sergeant Bob Buick first encountered the enemy.
(Click on image to enlarge)

Abruptly, all hell broke loose. The stuttering crackle of enemy AK-47 assault rifles erupted through the rubber together with the staccato bass drumbeat of numerous heavy machine guns. The sharp crack of Australian SLR’s (Self loading rifles) was also audible in the rising din.

Immediately the airwaves sprang to life, as Sharp radioed the Company Commander, Major Harry Smith, advising that his platoon had taken casualties and was pinned down by a larger force.

Smith sent 10 Platoon, under the command of Geoff Kendall, to the left, feeling for the enemy flank, but they too soon came under heavy fire, indicating that the enemy force was a large one.

The battle then escalated, with all three platoons coming under heavy fire as the enemy continued with major frontal assaults and sent smaller probing forces to the left and right, feeling for the Australian flanks. The Australians were pinned down, adopting the classic combat position, prostrate with arms extended forward and firing their rifles.

The site of the Battle of Long Tan as viewed in 2010 (Click on image to enlarge)

A continuous sheet of bullets streaked overhead, only 40 to 50 cm above the ground, making it sudden death to raise the head. Tragically Gordon Sharp was fatally wounded when trying to steal a quick look from a slightly more elevated position. His Sergeant, Bob Buick, then took command of 11 Platoon. See

Then it began to rain. August in Vietnam is part of the wet season, so rain at this time was not unusual, but even by Vietnam standards this was heavy. Thunder and lightning ripped across the battlefield, with nature imitating the conflict below, as torrential rain totally saturated the two opposing forces.

There is no record of how heavy the rain was, but monsoonal activity, combined with slow moving thunderstorms, as was the case here, can produce phenomenal totals in short time intervals. From eye-witness accounts it’s likely that we were looking at rainfall intensities of around 100 mm per hour at Long Tan on that afternoon – enough to produce flash flooding in the surrounding watercourses.

In addition, the rain produced a strange secondary effect. Falling in an intense deluge across the bare red earth beneath the canopy of the rubber plantation, a fine red mist was kicked upwards, rising to a height of around 50 cm, just high enough to conceal the Australians below.

This was of great assistance to the defensive position of the Australians, although the intensity of the attacks continued to mount, particularly on the besieged 11 Platoon who were in real danger of being overrun. Enemy bugle calls floated across the battlefield as light faded and evening set in.

A forward artillery observer, Morrie Stanley, was in the company headquarters group and he directed artillery fire, originating from Nui Dat, some 5 km away, onto the battlefield. Showing great skill and coolness under fire, Stanley accurately directed howitzer fire between the Australians and the enemy, producing a protective curtain of shrapnel that decimated the advancing forces. Deadly rifle fire from the Australians also took a heavy toll.

Running low on ammunition, the Australians requested a resupply by helicopter, and two Iroquois, flying at treetop height and highly exposed to enemy fire, were able to drop desperately needed ammunition down to the besieged diggers below.

An airstrike was also called and US Phantom jets, flying “blind”, dropped a series of bombs about 1500 metres behind the enemy front line disrupting his rear echelons.

US Phantom Jets - Wikipedia Commons. (Click on image to enlarge)

Dave Sabben brought two sections of his 12 Platoon in behind the besieged 11 Platoon, in an attempt to establish a corridor through which they could retreat. In the process 12 Platoon had several skirmishes with the enemy who were trying to encircle Bob Buick and his men.

Showing great bravery under intense fire, Sabben and his men were finally able to clear a pathway for 11 Platoon. Amidst apocalyptic scenes of bursting shells, torrential rain, deafening small arms fire and failing light, 11 Platoon were able to stage a strategic retreat and avoid annihilation. They had been under intense and unremitting small arms fire for more than three hours.

The three Australian Platoons were then able to join up with Company Headquarters to reach a final defensive position. Accurate artillery fire continued to fall on the enemy but such was the extent to which the Australians were outnumbered it appeared as though the position was untenable.

Then, in darkness, several Armoured Personnel Carriers that had been requested by Smith some time before finally arrived on the battlefield. These vehicles had covered the 5 km from Nui Dat, having to cross flooded waterways and muddy tracks en route. With their headlights on and engines roaring they emerged from the gloom and commenced firing on the enemy with 50 calibre heavy machine guns.

An Armoured Personnel Carrier showing the 50 cal machine gun mounted on top. - Wikipedia Commons (Click on image to enlarge)

This signalled a general retreat of the enemy forces who broke contact and melted away into the rubber plantation. The Battle of Long Tan was over.

The official list of casualties later published was

• 245 Killed in action (Body Count)
• 3 Captured
• 500 Wounded in action (Subsequent Intelligence estimate)

Australian Casualties
• 18 Killed in action
• 25 Wounded in action

Personal details of the Australian fallen can be retrieved from the official 6 RAR website at


The Battle of Long Tan, fought on the afternoon of August 18th 1966, was the most significant action fought in Vietnam by Australian troops. Post analysis by military experts indicates that the Australian victory in the battle probably averted a regimental attack on the Australian Task Force base at nearby Nui Dat that would have had disastrous military and political consequences for Australia at the time.

Long Tan was a model defensive battle in which an Australian infantry company (numbering 108 men) encountered what is now believed to be a regimental sized force comprised of elements of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong, numbering about 2500 men, fighting the much larger sized unit to a standstill and then forcing them to retreat from the battlefield.

It is a story of heroism, skill and poise under fire and the effective use of artillery, air power and armour, all co-ordinated by the officers, sergeants and corporals who fought side by side with the riflemen on that afternoon. It is also an interesting example of how weather can affect a battle, in this case for the good of the Australians.

Major Harry Smith, Lieutenants Sabben and Kendall, together with Sergeant Bob Buick were all decorated for gallantry.

For a fascinating insight into the battle, including interviews with Dave Sabben and Bob Buick, view the following Youtube clip:


Author’s note: During October 2010 I was part of a group that toured the battle site guided by Dave Sabben, one of the two surviving platoon commanders of the battle. Dave took us over the battlefield in real time, recounting the key events and pointing out the main features that shaped the battle, all in the same time interval of the battle itself. It was an awe- inspiring experience and one that I would highly recommend. You can see more details from Dave’s web site at


and the travel company that organizes these tours can be found at


For a more detailed view of the battle you can access the official account at


The Long Tan Cross located at the site where Gordon Sharp was killed.
Dave Sabben has his hand on the cross. (Click on image to enlarge)


Through Enemy Eyes, David Sabben, Allen and Unwin, 2005

All Guts and No Glory, Bob Buick, Allen and Unwin, 2000

The Battle of Long Tan, as told by the Commanders to Bob Grandin, Allen and Unwin, 2004

Monday, September 13, 2010

El Nino and La Nina

For many centuries Peruvian fishermen were aware of a warm ocean current that periodically appeared around Christmas time along the northwest coast of South America. It was dreaded by the locals because it decimated their main fish catch – the cold water anchovy.

They called this phenomenon El Niño – Spanish for “boy child” – and it was realised in more modern times that this was not just a local event but part of a broad warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean waters that stretched thousands of kilometres westward from the South American coastline.

Further research into the phenomena showed that El Niño was part of an ocean temperature “see saw” that constantly rocks back and forth across the equatorial Pacific. Normally the sea surface temperatures across the western equatorial Pacific Ocean are much warmer than those in the east because of prevailing winds and ocean currents. However on occasion, this situation is reversed and the El Niño develops.

The El Niño pattern of sea surface temperatures. The thermocline referred to is the line that separates the mixed upper layers of the ocean from the calm, deep waters below.
(Image from Wikipedia Commons)

And, as with most things in nature, there is an opposite phase, and this is when sea surface temperatures cool over the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean, leaving the temperatures over the western Pacific far warmer. This configuration was given the name La Niña – Spanish for “girl child”.

Like the Peruvians with El Niño , the Fijians were aware of La Niña and they related it to the behaviour of the mango tree. They believed when the mango tree flowered early, a bad tropical cyclone season would follow. And there is science behind this observation as the tree will flower early when waters in the surrounding ocean are warmer than normal, and this in turn, promotes tropical cyclone development.

In modern terms we would say the same thing in a different way. That is, during times of La Niña, there is usually increased tropical cyclone frequency over the western Pacific Ocean – a neat convergence of ancient and modern science.

The La Nina pattern of Sea surface temperatures. (Image from Wikipedia Commons)

For much of the time sea surface temperatures across the equatorial Pacific are somewhere between an El Niño and a La Niña with cycles between the two occurring in an irregular fashion. When the temperature patterns are between the recognised El Niño and La Niña thresholds, the situation is said to be neutral.

El Niños tend to occur roughly every 3 to 8 years, and typically last for 12 to 18 months. La Niñas or neutral conditions predominate for the rest of the time.

Both these situations have a profound effect on Australian rainfall, including much of eastern Australia. The El Niño is normally associated with drier than average conditions for east and southern parts of the country, whilst La Niña conditions tend to promote above average rainfall over most parts of eastern Australia.

At present La Niña conditions predominate and we have seen a persistence of well above average rainfall over much of inland Australia during the last six months, with record totals falling over northern parts of South Australia, southwest Queensland, much of Victoria and southern parts of the Northern Territory.

At the moment we also have warmer than average sea surface temperatures to the northwest of Australia, and together with the prevailing La Nina conditions, this increases the possibility of above average rain over much of the continent during the remainder of spring.

Footnote 1: Whilst we have Spanish names for both the opposite phases - El Niño and La Niña – there is no such term for neutral conditions. I’ll bite the bullet and suggest “La Bamba”.

Footnote 2: Since this was originally posted in September 2010, much of eastern Australia has experienced its wettest ever spring and summer in what turned out to be one of the most powerful La Niñas in recent times.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Crash of the Kyeema

"Aviation is not inherently dangerous, but to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect"...

- Unknown author

Flying conditions in Australia, when compared to many other parts of the world, are generally very favourable, with such phenomena as gales, blizzards and ice storms far less frequent than we see for example, in Canada, North America and Europe. Victoria is a good case in point, with meteorological conditions usually ideal for flying, and severe weather events relatively uncommon.

But severe weather is not the only way to produce hazardous flying conditions.

In light southerly winds, when the moisture content of the atmosphere is high,

low cloud – called stratus - often drifts in from the ocean across southern Victoria, and can cover extensive areas of the state, often as far north as the Great Dividing Range.

Around Melbourne, because of the comparatively flat terrain, it is usually safe to fly under this cloud, but over in the eastern areas, lie the Dandenong Ranges, and these are often covered in stratus during periods of moist southerly winds. As long as the pilot is accurately aware of the aircraft’s position, encountering cloud-covered terrain should never be an issue. But in the event of a navigational error it becomes a very different story.

Following the loss of the Southern Cloud in 1931, in which lack of communications played a crucial role, two-way radio was progressively installed in passenger carrying aircraft, and this quickly proved itself a real safety contribution.

However for the remainder of the 1930’s, passenger aircraft were still navigated by using manual techniques of estimating ground speed, noting reporting points and maintaining a navigation log, a process that became difficult at night or in thick cloud cover. Unlike the situation today, where pilots are aware of their height, location and speed to within an almost precise accuracy, the manual navigation process usually produced a certain amount of error, depending on the skill and experience of the Captain and First Officer.

But for Captain A. C. Webb and his crew, navigational issues were probably far from their minds as they climbed aboard their aircraft on Tuesday 25th October 1938, for a routine passenger flight Melbourne to Adelaide and return. They were flying the Kyeema, an Australian National Airways DC2, with the call-sign VH- UYC.

During the 1930’s, the DC2 was a thoroughly modern aircraft. Built by the Douglas Corporation and released in 1933, it was an instant hit with airline companies because of its superior performance and carrying capacity. Powered by two Wright Cyclone engines, each pumping out 875 horsepower, it could carry a crew of three along with fourteen passengers at 320 kph to a height of 6500 metres and over a range of 1600 km. This was a quantum leap forward from the old Stinsons and Avro 10’s of only a few years before.

A DC-2 in flight

(Image: Wikipedia Commons)

The DC2 was the first Douglas aircraft to be purchased by an overseas airline and in 1934 the Dutch company KLM entered one of its DC2’s in the London to Melbourne Air Race. In an astonishing performance, as it raced, it also completed its normal tasks of picking up mail and passengers and ended up flying more than 1600 km further than the race route. It finished second, behind a “one off” specially produced racing aeroplane, in what turned out to be a tremendous promotion for the Douglas Corporation.

The flight undertaken by Webb and his crew, from Melbourne to Adelaide and back, was only a short hop in comparison, and easily within the capabilities of the DC 2. The first leg began with an early morning take off from Melbourne, and proceeded routinely, with the aircraft landing about two and a half hours later at Adelaide.

Flying conditions were generally ideal, although a light southerly wind had produced extensive cloud-cover across the Melbourne basin, extending from the central business district across the eastern suburbs and over the Dandenong Ranges to the east. The base of this cloud – classical stratus formation - was around 450 metres but with lower patches around 250 metres – well above most elevations around Melbourne, but below extensive parts of the Dandenong Ranges which reach above 500 metres. These areas were in cloud for most of the day, under the influence of the cool southerly winds.

After taking aboard fourteen new passengers in Adelaide, the Kyeema turned around, took off on schedule and headed back towards Melbourne, in weather conditions that remained favourable for flying.

Amongst the newly arrived passengers were some notable citizens, including a Member of Parliament, Mr. Charles Hawker, MHR, the noted vigneron, Mr. Johann Gramp who was the managing director of Orlando Wines and the eminent barrister Mr. Leonard Abrahams KC. Also aboard were a honeymoon couple, Hans and Stella Gloe.

The Honourable Mr. Charles Hawker MHR (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

Soon after 1.30 pm Melbourne time, a transmission from Kyeema was received at Essendon Airport, confirming that the aircraft was passing over Daylesford, and about to enter cloud as it began its descent into Melbourne. The estimated time of arrival at Essendon was 1.45 pm. However, after another brief transmission from Kyeema, nothing further was heard, and when the aircraft had not arrived by 2 pm, the authorities became concerned.

In the meantime, near the top of cloud-covered Mount Dandenong, about 32 km to the east of Essendon Airport, two workers were clearing undergrowth from around a roadway. Macarthur Job, in his publication “Air Crash 1” recorded the events as they unfolded:

“In the eerie quietness of the fog enshrouded bush, both men gradually became aware of the distant whine of an aeroplane; the sound was coming from the west, roughly in the direction of Melbourne. And it seemed to be getting louder…. It was a big one all right and it was getting nearer and nearer all the time! The noise continued to grow in intensity; it wasn’t just a whine now. They could hear the powerful throb of the engines as well.

Suddenly, the noise of the engines and propellers was overlaid by a loud screeching; an instant later there was a sickening smashing of metal, then came a tremendous explosion which shook the ground beneath their feet…and a deathly silence”. The Kyeema had flown straight into Mount Corhanwarrabul, close to the main peak of Mount Dandenong.

The summit of Mount Corhanwarrabul. The Kyeema smashed into this peak about 50 metres from the top where the television mast now stands. (Image from Wikipedia Commons)

It was quickly established that all eighteen people aboard had been killed, and an official enquiry was convened at Melbourne’s Exhibition Buildings only three days after the disaster. This had been ordered by the Minister for Defence, Mr. Harold Thorby, as both civil and military aviation then operated under the auspices of the Defence Department.

After detailed deliberations, the inquiry found that the first cause of the disaster was inaccurate navigation. The investigators concluded that Captain Webb and his crew had failed to keep an accurate navigational log, which required them to monitor the speed of the aircraft and note when certain reporting points had been reached. As a result they had probably mistaken Sunbury for Daylesford (they looked similar from above) and were therefore about 32 km nearer Melbourne than they believed when commencing their descent into the deck of stratus.

As Kyeema descended in the overcast, Captain Webb believed he should emerge from the cloud base at around 1.45 pm near Essendon Airport. In fact he had actually flown well past Essendon, invisible below the cloud, and had descended straight into Mount Corhanwarrabul, about 32 km to the east.

The Kyeema overshot Essendon Airport and descended into Mount Corhanwarrabul

Although this represented a gross navigational error, it was also recognised that existing technology could have helped avoid this situation. Radio beacons were already available that provided pilots with a definite course along which to fly, and also enabled an accurate locational “fix” to be obtained.

The public were surprised to learn that a high frequency radio beacon had been installed at Essendon Airport some 18 months before the accident, but had never been made operational. Several experts afterwards claimed that this device, in fully functioning mode, would have prevented the accident.

As a result of the Kyeema disaster, a system of these beacons was installed along the main inter capital city routes, providing pilots with instant and accurate navigational advice.

Another major change that followed was the appointment of so called “Flight Checking Officers” whose job it was to maintain a watch on the progress of flights on the main air routes. This “double check” was to guard against a pilot making a navigational error, as had happened with the Kyeema.

And, in another major change, the Australian aviation governing body, the Civil Aviation Board, part of the Department of Defence, was replaced with the Department of Civil Aviation or DCA.

The Kyeema disaster is now recognised as one of the watershed events of Australian aviation, generating a whole raft of changes that produced a major increase in safety to flying in Australia.

On October 25th 1978, the 40th anniversary of the disaster, a memorial plaque was placed on a cairn beside the roadway some 50 metres above the crash site.

The memorial cairn erected in 1978 close to the actual crash site. (Image from Wikipedia Commons)

Engraved on the plaque is the following text:




This memorial reminds us of the price we have had to pay for safe flying in Australia – as well as the ever-present need for accurate navigation in all airline operations.

Reference: "The Complete Book of Australian Weather", Richard Whitaker, Allen and Unwin, 2010