IT’S been snowing at Barrington Tops again recently.
You’d expect it around this time of year because it’s winter, after all.
The nights get colder, snowflakes float down and icy westerly winds howl in the treetops high on those mountain forest flanks.
Imagine flying up there in the gloom.
It’s worth remembering it’s almost the 36th anniversary of one of Australia’s most baffling aviation mysteries, which happened in the Hunter.
On Sunday, August 9, 1981, a small Cessna aircraft flew into the history books when it disappeared without trace with five people onboard somewhere over the wild Barrington Tops.
The single-engine Cessna, VH-MDX, whose passengers included popular water police sergeant Ken Price, was flying home to Sydney after a fishing trip to Queensland when it vanished in horrific weather.
The aircraft lost radio contact over Craven, south of Gloucester.
One day, hopefully, someone will find the crashed aircraft and end one of Australia’s few unsolved major civil aviation mysteries.
Up to 250 people at a time have regularly combed the wild, inhospitable Barrington Tops searching in vain for the aircraft.
Every year, bush walkers have trekked out hoping to find some trace of the plane. But, as more than one searcher has remarked ‘It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. But which haystack?”
It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. But which haystack?
Soon after the crash, a Brisbane clairvoyant even claimed the plane was suspended in trees. Nothing, however, came of this ‘vision’.
Sometimes some aircraft wreckage is found amid the huge Antarctic beech forests and tree ferns. Hopes of a breakthrough though are soon dashed when people realise it’s the wreckage from an earlier, recorded air crash.
Like, for example, an RAAF Mosquito aircraft wreck site near Carey’s Peak. It’s an easy error to make as there have been nine documented mountain crashes in the region, not all fatal, but still involving 28 deaths between 1945 and 1987.
They include two RAAF Mirage fighter jet crashes, a DC-3 aircraft (13 killed in 1948), a Lockheed Hudson in 1954, three smaller aircraft and an RAAF Macchi jet in 1987.
In about the early 1950s, some lads from 2nd Adamstown Scouts Group ventured out to Barrington Tops to try to find one of the documented crash sites. And find it they did.
The remarkable photograph (pictured) shows some of the scouts with a propeller from a crash.
Former Hunter scout John Porter takes up the tale.
“I was told the plane was an RAAF Mosquito. There were no survivors and the area – some 1531 metres above sea level and now known as Aeroplane Hill,” he said.
Porter said while the RAAF originally removed some equipment, some site souvenirs managed to end up at the Adamstown scout hall, now long gone.
“We’d got to the Barrington Guest House after dark, parked the car and set out for a couple of hours before striking camp for the night in the middle of nowhere.
“We took off the next day and, after hours of searching, actually came across some of the plane’s wreckage. I don’t have any other information. I was a young kid on an adventure,” he said.
“In our pics taken back then are Jon Bush, David Newton, Derek Cedarblad, Garry Lavis, John Peel and myself. Alex Ward, our senior scouts leader, led the trip.”
Official records show the RAAF twin-engine Mosquito fighter-bomber disappeared on a training flight from Williamtown on April 16, 1945. The incident stayed a mystery until January 17, 1946, when a man mustering cattle came across wreckage.
Some pieces were still wedged high in the tree tops.
The two airmen involved were later buried at Sandgate War Cemetery.
Over decades, visitors took parts of the plane wreckage away so all that remains today of the wartime tragedy is the name of the hill.
An ‘Aeroplane Hill’ plaque was erected later on site to commemorate the accident.
One RAAF Mosquito propeller, however, did somehow end up at Barrington Tops Guest House. It was mounted for years over the fireplace.
It may even be the same one featured with the Adamstown scouts in the picture.
Sadly, it’s not there now as a fire totally gutted the wilderness retreat in 2006.
Former guest house operator Darryl Lewis, now 80, remembers the ancient RAAF propeller well.
“Besides the propeller, we had a machine gun relic, as well,” Lewis recalled.
“We then sold up there in 2002 and, as far as I know, the propeller was still up there in the same place.
“But there was another unrecovered plane part people mightn’t know about,” he said.
“It was an aircraft motor on the edge of a swamp right up on the mountain top. This engine slowly sank into the sphagnum bog.
“From memory, those Mosquito bombers were only made of ply and canvas. I believe two 19-year-old trainee pilots from Western Australia died in the crash.
“I also clearly remember the night the Cessna aircraft went missing in 1981. The RAAF rang to ask if we had heard a plane flying overhead, then asked us to keep a watch out for it.
“A very, very bad westerly was blowing this night the plane disappeared and August is renowned for bad westerlies.”
“The wind was blowing so hard that night it would have blown a dog off its chain.
“The RAAF and rescue people knew us, as we’d keep the guest house kitchen open 24-hours a day when search parties went out at different times,” he said.
“As for the likely site of the 1981 crashed Cessna, it might be between Chichester Dam and probably Mount Allyn, but that’s only a guess,” Lewis said.
“Until the plane is definitely found, it’s all just speculation.”