Queensland’s Amazing Historic Plane Crash. The Stinson Wreck

 

Just as you wonder how much further you have to go, you hit it. Right in front of you are the remains of the wreckage. Some twisted, rusted metal is the only indication of the horrific scene on a Friday afternoon in 1937.

 

As you glance over your surroundings, you spot them. The memorial plaques, shining oddly in the thick rainforest which is desperate to claim back anything untouched.

 

The hike to the Stinson wreck in Lamington National Park will always remain one of my fondest memories of the outdoors. It was my first ‘off track’ hiking experience which I also did solo, and the moment I really fell in love with the outdoors. Having taken many friends there over the years, to get the full value you should know the whole story and what happened there. I had researched it all before I started, and made the experience profound.

 


 

THE STORY OF THE STINSON: VH-UHH

 

The Stinson airliner was an American made monoplane that was mostly covered in fabric around the metal frame. This particular plane was also not fitted with a radio unlike the others in service, but with radio communication limited between Brisbane and Sydney anyway, it wouldn’t have been much use. And like all planes in that era, it also lacked radio navigation equipment.

 

On Friday 19th February 1937, Five passengers boarded.

 

James Roland Graham

William Fountain

John Proud

Joe Binstead

James Guthrie Westray

 

The pilots, Captain Rex Boyden & co-pilot Beverley Shepherd, had over 6000 hours of flying experience between them.

 

 

 

STRONG WINDS ANTICIPATED

 

The plan was to pick up more passengers at Lismore, a journey of about 150Km (90mi), and then continue on South to Sydney. But the Bureau of Meteorology had issued a cyclone warning that morning and strong winds were expected along the coastal route they were taking. There was also a certain amount of pressure at that time for pilots to collect passengers and deliver mail even if things weren’t looking good weather wise, so the flight would go ahead despite the warnings.

 

Taking off at 1:05PM in cloudy weather, both pilots were calm as the south-easterly winds shook the plane. Boyden would consider the risks along the route once underway and plan alternative paths if required.

 

They could avoid the coastal route and go inland if needed.

 

Some twenty minutes into the flight, with rain and wind increasing and visibility decreasing, Binstead noticed the trees very close to the plane. He thought the plane was in a slight roll as well. About to push the button to signal the pilots, but seeing them unconcerned and chatting in the cockpit, he decided against it.

 

Minutes later, they crashed.

 

As the plane rapidly lost elevation from turbulent downdraughts of over 100Km/h, it smashed the top off one tree, plowed through another before striking a third tree, embedding metal into its truck, still there to this day, and then fell to the ground. A branch ripped through the fuselage hitting Graham and killing him instantly.

 

From the relatively calm interior to the sudden screech of tearing metal and roar of wind and destruction as the plane collided, it must have been unimaginably frightening.

 

The violent crash had left Binstead knocked out and Proud with a broken leg. As Binstead regained his senses he saw Proud smashing a window to get out. The pilots were slumped in their seats at the front, as was Graham and Fountain. Flames at the back of the plane were spreading rapidly and would consume them in moments. Going over to Proud, already halfway out the window, he went to help push him through, to which Proud told Binstead to watch his leg as he eased it through the opening.

 

Crawling onto the shredded wing, Proud pulled Binstead through after which Westray appeared also crawling out. As they made to get off the wing of the plane, they heard groaning from inside the cabin. Was it one of the others? The fire was now intense and they had to get clear. There was no hope if anyone had been left alive in the plane.  

 

Flames shot up 45 meters (150 feet) as the fuel, fabric and metal consumed themselves.

 

Westray’s hands and back were badly burnt, Proud had a badly broken leg, and all of them had minor wounds. They were shocked at the past few moments and sat watching the plane burn, thinking of the men who didn’t make it. Both pilots, Rex Boyden & Beverley Shepherd, along with James Graham & William Fountain, had died.

 


 

THE DISCOVERY

 

Westray quickly decided to get help the next morning, figuring their location would make finding them very difficult. Without delay, he headed down the ridge and set off along a creek, one which by his reckoning would be the fastest way out of the rainforest and onto nearby farmlands. 

 

Meanwhile, the search had begun when the Stinson had failed to appear at Lismore or Sydney.

 

Days passed and no sign of the plane was found. All searches concentrated on the coastlines as that was the original route they had planned to take. Numerous public reports of apparent sightings all over the area and as far as Sydney were made, adding even more confusion.

 

Where had the Stinson gone?

 

Back near Brisbane, Bernard O'reilly ran a guest house at Green Mountains, his property, which had also been damaged by the cyclone. Spending the week after the 19th cleaning up, he headed to his brothers farm on the 26th and that was the first time he read the newspapers about the missing Stinson plane. Knowing the land better than anyone, it didn't take him long to come up with a theory.

 

The plane had crashed in the McPherson range.

 

He had no doubt about it. He was convinced. It was with that confidence and some eyewitness accounts of plane engine noise from neighbouring farms, that he set out eight days after the planes disappearance with just a few supplies of food. He needed to travel light. Besides, after eight days, surely no one would still be alive?

 

To say he was experienced in bushcraft skills would not give him enough credit. Bernard was a master. He knew things so well, he could tell his elevation just by the vegetation around him. The rainforest was his home.

 

He followed his planned course, across four high mountain ranges, and weaved down perilous slopes and drops. This was where he expected the plane to be.

 

It was Sunday February 28th and he was getting tired and worn down from the endless leeches, ticks and scratching thorny vines. The terrain is harsh and dangerous and requires constant attention least a mistake lead to a fall, or worse. Stopping for a moment and looking out across the mist covered valleys, he waited for the cloud to clear to get a good view.

 

He must have frozen when he saw the sign. A distant light brown patch. Only fire could have done that. It could have been lightening from during the storm, but it could also be the crash site. Not delaying, he set off in its direction, exactly where he had predicted the plane might have flown.

 

Climbing up a tree a few hours later to look again, he was roused to attention when he heard a call from far away. Careful not to answer the call lest it be other search parties and confusion ensued, he patiently hiked three hours closer to where he thought it came from before letting out his own loud call.

 

“Cooee!”

 

A startled Bernard received a reply a mere 200 meters away! They were close, whoever it was. Exchanging calls to guide him through the thick rainforest, he got closer. As he moved a vine to get a better view he saw it. The black, contorted remains of the planes framework stood out before seeing something that couldn’t be unseen.

 

There was no mistaking the remains of what were once men, still sitting in their seats.   

 

Scared to go on least he find more sinister things, the voices behind the crash site brought him forward again until he saw Proud first. Lying where he had been for 10 days, his open and swollen leg crawling with maggots. Next to Proud, Binstead also looked horrible, raw hands and ripped clothing from crawling to get water for the two of them everyday down below in the valley. That day it had taken him five hours to get water on what had on the first day only taken one.

 

Both were near death and would have only lasted another day or two at most.

 

Chatting with the surviving men, they told of Westray who had gone for help. Bernard had to act quick. The men were dying and needed help fast. He left them with what little he had left, and headed in Westray’s direction, agreeing it was the quickest way out. Bernard hoped he would find Westray along the way, hoping he had already found help and was bringing them back.

 

Finding Westray’s tracks not long after setting off, he followed them to a waterfall where the ripped lillies on the right side told their own story. Westray must have tried using them to help him climb down. They gave a false sense of security and were brittle and quick to break. He made his own way down carefully, expecting to find his body at the base.

 

Surprisingly, the tracks continued on downstream. He had crawled on.

 

Four more waterfalls Westray had rounded, the tracks continuing on with amazing endurance for a man most likely beaten and broken from the fall. Rounding a bend, he spotted Westray ahead, back against a boulder and looking away from him.

 

Bernard called out twice as he approached, thinking he must be asleep. He was glad to have found him. It looked like he was having a quick rest.

 

Coming around in front of him, Bernard didn’t need a second look. He was dead. A burnt out cigarette in his hand, smashed foot bathing in the cool water. His broken face gazing down the creek towards civilization. Westray was an experienced mountaineer back home in England. His effort and will to continue a tribute to that. Bernard could only stay a moment before moving on. The living needed help.

 

Spurred on with the ultimate determination to save the two survivors, Bernard dashed on, even as night fell, before coming out onto flat open ground of a farm property to a young boy shooting his rifle. He knew then the creek Westray and himself had followed was Christmas creek. The boy must have gotten quite a fright when Bernard appeared. Nobody appeared from the rainforest in that direction, at least not men anyway. Berard quickly explained the situation and the boy gave him his horse so Bernard could finally make time to get help.

 

Help was going to be on its way.

 

It was Monday, March 1st, 1937. The nearby men of the hamlet of Christmas Creek had mobilised by Bernard upon his return and in an incredible feat, an exhausted Bernard took them out to rescue Binstead and Proud immediately. With no sleep from the day before after returning, Bernard had only one goal- to get the men out alive. Meanwhile, other men were now cutting a new track (later known as the stretcher track) on the ridge in preparation for the survivors extraction. Coming back along Christmas creek was not an option, the terrain to steep for the wounded crash survivors. Over 100 men were helping, the terrain so rugged and tough that a few got lost and others had to turn back.

 

Reaching the crash site, a doctor treated the two injured men and they waited for first light to carry them out on stretchers. It rained all night, and would make the return trip difficult and slow. The task was enormous, but there were plenty of people ready to help. The news had spread and the whole nation waited for news.

 

On Tuesday 2nd March at 4:15PM the exhausted party of men reached the foot of the mountain and the last of the treacherous terrain. Proud and Binstead were rushed to hospital while Bernard, exhausted, could finally rest. They had done it.

 

The only two survivors of the Stinson crash had been rescued!

 


 

START YOUR ADVENTURE TO THE STINSON WRECK

 

When you walk the Stinson track, the same way that Westray and Bernard had travelled, it’s hard not to be amazed at the determination of those men. The place is rich with history.

 

Starting from the end of Christmas creek road, you cross the creek to the right side (looking upstream) and follow the now well worn trail. Take this subjectively. The track may not be obvious to everyone. Avoid adding extra tape on trees, and if you find it difficult to follow, please turn back.

 

The track follows next to the creek for roughly 4Km before you see the steep track on your right heading uphill. Head past this for 100m or so to Westray’s grave site, after which, turn back and head up that track uphill you passed. This goes up the ridge and is quite steep. Once the ridge top is gained, it flattens out slightly.

 

The track to the Stinson wreck is on your left at a small clearing, going downhill again. If you don’t spot the metal and memorial plaques, stop, backtrack a little and look again.

 

The bodies from the crash were all interred here, apart from Westray who was buried near the creek where he was found. A large part of the wreck was moved to a museum in New South Wales. See if you can spot the tree it hit, or the boulder Westray was found sitting at.

 

Once done, go back the way you came to finish. At least it’s mostly downhill now, right?

 

So how do you get there? And what do you need?


 

STINSON WRECK VIA CHRISTMAS CREEK

 

DIFFICULTY:

◘ Hard

◘ Some off track navigation required, you can’t just wander along without taking note of your surroundings. If in doubt, go with someone who has been before. The terrain gets steep heading up the ridge.

 

TIMES/LENGTH:

8-10 hours/ 8.3Km.

 

START LOCATION:

Car park is HERE at the end of Christmas creek road. Respect the property you pass through and leave gates as you find them.

 

OTHER LOCATIONS:

You can find an online topo map resource from Queensland Government HERE. Locations are marked on the topo map for the area. 

 

EQUIPMENT:

◘ General day hiking gear

◘ Good footwear. The track gets rough.

◘ A PLB (personal locator beacon) is always good to have.

◘ Spare clothes for the car trip home.

 

OTHER COMMENTS:

◘ This trip is ideal for people who have done a few full day walks, are familiar with navigation and would like to try some off track navigation.

◘ You can find a GPS track HERE. You can upload it to your GPS if you have one. Cloudy days will limit GPS use!

◘ Avoid starting late in the day. Get a early morning start!

◘ Avoid during heavy rain or just after. Christmas creek does become swollen and dangerous in flooding.

◘ Check for ticks after the hike.

◘ You can stay at the nearby campground which is really nice. A weekend away allows two great hikes to be done, the other being Larapinta Falls.  

 

Remember, LEAVE NO TRACE. TAKE OUT ALL RUBBISH.

 

The Stinson track is an amazing hike in a beautiful area and with such a vivid historical backstory. Lamington National Park holds many wonders for the adventurous!

 

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