Home Urban Legends The Burning Airman – Canberra, Australia

The Burning Airman – Canberra, Australia

by Jennifer Jones

Just a short distance from the Canberra Airport sits a memorial for an R.A.A.F. Bomber crash from 1940. Now surrounded by the Fairbairn Pine Plantation, the area has become known for The Burning Airman urban legend. But could this possibly be more than just a legend?

Like most legends, this legend has various versions, but the most common one is:

If you stop your car on the cattle guard, a nurse who was on the scene at the time of the crash helping the wounded will run towards your car and try to get in.

Unlike most other places, this location has more than one legend attached to it. It goes like this:

A young girl was found beneath a cattle guard near the memorial. She had been dead for a short while before her body was found, but none of the ground around the guard was disturbed. If you stop your car within a certain distance from the guard, your car will stall.

When I first began researching these legends, I figured that the location probably wasn’t haunted, but the more information I uncovered, the more I started to question if maybe it was haunted after all.

The Canberra Air Disaster

On the morning of August 13, 1940, a Lockheed Hudson, registration number A16-97 was on the way to Canberra from Melbourne. The weather was sunny and clear, and people had remarked earlier that morning that it was a perfect day for flying. While preparing to land from what had been a normal flight, the plane suddenly nosedived into a field just a mile and a half from the Canberra Aerodrome. The plane immediately burst into flames and while it only took rescuers a couple of minutes to arrive, all ten passengers and crew were beyond hope of rescue.

These ten people included three cabinet ministers, Australia’s top Army general, a lieutenant colonel, a private secretary for the air minister and four R.A.A.F crew members. Not only was this crash a tragedy for all of the family and friends of the men killed, but it was also a tragedy for Australia; the prime minister had just lost some of his closest friends and allies.

One of the odd things about this crash was that for a lot of people, the inquiry into the accident left more questions rather than answers. The biggest one being, who was flying the plane? It’s one of those situations where if the plane had crashed now, it’s highly likely all of these questions would have been answered.

When the fire department and police arrived on scene they thought that maybe there could be survivors so they sent for the local doctor, Dr. Lewis Nott. Incidentally, Dr. Nott did not bring a female nurse with him to assist in possible rescues, but his 10-year-old son. Most likely even before Dr. Nott actually arrived on the scene, the police and fireman realized that a doctor was not going to be necessary.

The bodies were removed from the scene and taken directly to the morgue for identification and autopsy. Despite crime scene photography being used in Australia since the 1920s, no photographs were taken of the location of the bodies before they were removed from the wreckage. The decision to not photograph (or even sketch) the scene with bodies in place, would cause people to question to this day: Who was really flying the plane?  

The man who was supposed to be flying the plane and the man who was blamed for the crash was Robert E. Hitchcock. However, during the inquest hearings rumors began circulating that the Air Minister, James Fairbairn was overheard saying that he was hoping to get a chance to fly the plane during this short trip. While Fairbairn was himself an accomplished pilot, he had not had any flight training on the Hudson which was known to be difficult to fly and stalled easily. 

It would have been very easy to solve the mystery of whether or not Minister Fairbairn had been flying. Due to an old injury, Fairbairn’s right arm was noticeably shorter than his left. Did one of the bodies found in the cockpit have a disfigured right arm? There was also the question of why the plane sat at the runway waiting to take off for an additional 10 minutes after it had been cleared for takeoff. Officials at the time stated it was because it was “warming up”, however the plane had just recently completed a flight and no warm-up would have been necessary. Speculation arose that it was during this time that Minister Fairbairn changed seats with the co-pilot, Richard Wisener.

The outcome of the inquest was that Hitchcock, who had over 100 hours of flying experience had fatally stalled the plane in perfect flying conditions. Despite not only landing the plane just a short time earlier and also landing a Hudson in very similar conditions in Canberra previously.

Another oddity about the inquest is the causes of death. Even though the plane practically pancaked onto the ground, many people suggested the crash would have been survivable for many had it not immediately burst into flames. The cause of death listed on the death certificates is exactly the same for all of the men: Fractured Skulls.  The coroner’s report was exactly the same for all men, only the names were changed. His opinion was that all men died instantly before the plane caught fire.

I find it odd that every man would’ve died from a skull fracture. The plane was not instantly disintegrated upon impact. According to an August 14, 1940 article in The Argus “Officials who examined the wreckage are certain that it was very little damaged in the landing, and that had the fire not occurred, the occupants would have escaped.” It seems perhaps it was easier on the coroner to tell the families of these men that they died instantly from skull fractures, and not that they died a horrible death from smoke inhalation and fire after the initial crash.

When I first read about this legend, I immediately had a mental image of a man who was killed in the crash but didn’t realize he was dead. He simply got up and ran out of the plane, on fire, and now a ghost. 

While none of the men made it out of the plane alive, at least two of the bodies were found towards the back of the plane, in the aisle. Had they been thrown there on impact, or had they tried to make it off the plane and been overcome by smoke and fire?

I believe that ghosts are usually some type of energy imprint that’s left behind. This energy then replaying over and over again, usually of either the last moment’s of the person’s life or something that the person would do regularly.

Strange Occurrences

On the twenty-year anniversary of the crash, a monument was erected at the site by the previous Prime Minister, Robert Menzies. It’s not clear if the reports of the spectral burning airman happened before the memorial was erected.

The area became known as a popular make-out spot before the road leading to the memorial was closed. People that were in the area reported seeing “unearthly lights” that would flash in an old dirt parking lot next to the memorial.  As if the strange lights weren’t creepy enough, there are reports of a ghostly figure dashing across the road, sometimes shrouded in flames.

But That’s Not The Only Mystery Here…

Like other legends, these tales of strange activity never seem to have any dates or names attached to them. They’re always anonymously shared in the vaguest of terms. However, unlike other legends, tied to a specific location, this location has seen more than one tragic event.

On the evening of February 26, 1971, a 20-year-old woman named Keren Rowland went missing. She was supposed to meet her sister at a party but never arrived. Her car was found the following day on the side of Parkes Way road with no gas.

Witnesses reported seeing a dark car near Keren’s car on the night in question and said a woman fitting Keren’s description was walking towards the car. The same car was spotted speeding past the Canberra airport towards Queanbeyan about 10-15 minutes later. Despite witness descriptions of the vehicle, the driver of the car was never identified. Keren’s father told police that she had just been through a broken engagement and was approximately 5 months pregnant. 

Months passed with no sign of Keren. Her parents conducted an exhaustive search and no real leads turned up. Finally, on May 13th, 1971, the skeletal remains of Keren Rowland were found at the Canberra Disaster Memorial by a hiker. 

Police believe that Keren was killed elsewhere and then her body was dumped at the memorial site later. But why leave her body at a location that people visit? Despite her pregnancy having been confirmed in November 1970 by her physician, there was no evidence of a fetus when her body was found. 

To this day, almost 50 years later, there have been no arrests in the murder of Keren Rowland, and her death remains unsolved.

Interestingly enough, people have reported seeing a young woman standing near the edge of the clearing at the Canberra Disaster Memorial. She is said to be wearing slightly outdated clothing, with long brown hair that is pulled up.

Friends and family have stated that Keren almost always wore her hair down, but on the night that she disappeared she was wearing her hair up.

Could the strange sightings and activity at the Canberra Disaster Memorial be connected to these two tragic events, or is it simply an urban legend?

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