FCV Radio in Dramatic Mountain Rescue

Peter McHugh (bio)

From an original story authored by Linda Barraclough and published in Gippsland Heritage Journal #26, pages 41-47, 2002.
Modified by Peter McHugh in October 2018 with the author's permission.


In the 1940s (1944 and 1947), there were two Tiger Moth evacuations of injured cattlemen from the high country beyond Licola.

In the first, Wing Commander Alan Hepburn from RAAF East Sale landed on a makeshift strip rapidly cleared on Wellington, to take Bob Goldie out with a broken leg.

In the second, on 19 March 1947, Neil McInnes landed and then took off again in approaching darkness at Holmes Plain, to evacuate Jack Kelly who had brain injuries after an accident.

It was obvious that Jack Kelly had serious head injuries so Bob Gilder from Glenfalloch rode the seven or so miles to the Forests Commission camp at Breakfast Creek on the Wellington River. They had a radio there and were able to get a message out to the FCV base at Erica, where there was also a telephone. The Erica office then contacted Jim Draper, the policeman at Heyfield, who began to organise the evacuation. Jim Draper had been responsibile for the earlier rescue of Bob Goldie off Wellington and immediately requested a Tiger Moth from the RAAF but the nearest available was at Point Cook. The FCV radio was strapped to a horse and taken to the scene. Radio messages from the site became increasingly weaker as the batteries flattened.

As the RAAF pilot was unfamiliar with the area, a photo map was rushed to Point Cook from VL3AA by Forests Commission HO staff. Luckily the Commission had an established procedure for regular bushfire reconnaissance flights with the RAAF since 1930.

In the meantime, Jim Draper contacted Norman McInnes, whose sons owned a Tiger Moth operating from a makeshift airstrip in Arthur Jessup's paddock at Tinamba doing some crop dusting. It was the only other civilian aircraft in the area suitable. Jim Draper set about organising a doctor who was prepared to take the risk of going up, while Neil McInnes took off, flew to Homes Plain and took a good look at it for a potential landing. He then returned to Tinamba, strapped Dr. Atkinson from Maffra into the seatless cockpit in front on a bag of hay, and took off again. He was the third doctor who had been approached – but the first two refused to go. Neil McInnes took off at about 4.45pm for Holmes Plain and landed safely. The RAAF plane from Point Cook had already landed safely about 4.55pm when he got there. Another RAAF Dakota from East Sale was circling to provide a radio relay for the radio in the RAAF Tiger Moth.

With darkness approaching, Jack Kelly was strapped into the RAAF Moth, which then failed to start - a not uncommon problem with Tiger Moths. And then instruction came through from the Dakota that it was not to take off because it was now too dangerous due to the approaching darkness. Dr. Atkinson brought in by Neil McInnes, and the RAAF doctor, Wing Commander Charles Lelue from Point Cook both believed that if he was not taken out, Jack Kelly would not survive. Neil McInnes bravely decided that he would make the attempt anyway. Jack Kelly was loaded into Neil's Tiger Moth onto the sack of hay and strapped in. Neil began to taxi at 7 pm. Cattlemen with lanterns and some even striking matches provided a line for him see by. Experts consider this take-off was hardly possible, calculating the weight of passengers and fuel, and the high altitude.

Neil was going okay until he struck a rock or pothole just as he was leaving the ground, the plane skewed through the line of cattlemen who quickly scurried out of the way and almost collected one of the few trees. Neil just managed to clear it and was airborne. The plan was that the Dakota, which had turned on its landing lights so he could see, would lead him to Sale. However Neil was in a plane rated for daytime use only, with no lights to show the Dakota where he was, and no lights to see his cockpit controls. He was flying blind, with his head down trying to see the faint luminosity on his controls. He also knew that Mount Wellington was out there somewhere, and he had to get above it, but he was unsure where it was. He eventually lost the Dakota, whose slowest speed was higher than his fastest, so it was circling, trying to lead him. He saw this as a mixed blessing, as it meant it was not going to plough through him because they could not see each other.

It was now pitch dark and began to rain. Neil later told the story of how he considered this the most dangerous part of the whole exercise being unable to see where he was going and flying blind in rain and clouds. Down on the plains, Archibald Griffiths patched the RAAF Dakota's radio transmissions live to air on 3TR, the local radio station. At home, the McInnes family's listened in while his father went outside and heard the Moth go over. Knowing how ill-equipped it was to be up there at night, the family heard the Dakota transmit the message "We have lost him", and believed that he had gone down.

Neil finally saw lights that he worked out were a farm at Boisdale and judged it safe to lower his altitude. He came out of the clouds at Stratford. But he still had to land. He says he was "very pleased" to see the flare path at East Sale RAAF Base, but knew as he was going in to land that it was possible they were turned on for the Dakota, which could have been landing on the same strip at the same time. And his Tiger Moth was a crop-dusting plane, modified for paddock landing. It had a skidder on the back, not a tail wheel, and he was landing on asphalt. It was only when someone in the Control Tower exclaimed "Look at those sparks!", and his family heard that over 3TR realised what was happening, and knew that he was down.

Neil says he got the Moth off the asphalt as quickly as he could - both to avoid a potential collision with the Dakota, and because he was concerned that the sparks would set the Moth alight, and Jack Kelly was positioned over a fuel tank. Neil also thought that this may have been one of the first uses of radio in a local rescue. News of the accident and the need to evacuate by plane first got out through the Forests Commission radio at Breakfast Creek to the office at Erica. The pedal powered radio at Erica continued to play a key role throughout the rescue by relaying messages. The Forests Commission's communication systems were regarded at the time to be more technically advanced than the police and the military. 

Neil McInnes received the Royal Humane Society Silver Medal for this rescue.

Neil continued crop-dusting founding his business, Farm Air, in November 1955 with his brother Donald flying Tiger Moths and later PA-25 Pawnees. He was involved in the travel industry and later elected Member for Gippsland South in the Victorian Parliament in 1973 and served to 1982. He died in Sale in 2005.

So what ever became of Jack Kelly?  He recovered in Sale hospital and went onto to live a normal life in Maffra. He also continued to help out with summer cattle musters in the high country for many years to come.

There is a short reference to the incident in the 1946-47 FCV Annual Report.Annual Report FCV 1946-47
Gippsland Times - 24 March 1947. How Forestry Commission radio Operated Heyfield Man's Dramatic RescueHeyfield Man's Dramatic Rescue
Gippsland Times - 24 March 1947. Dramatic Mountain Rescue.Injured Cattleman Brought Out by Aeroplane