The story behind The Riddle of the Stinson

A RECENT tragic air crash in northern NSW stirred up many memories for me. Most were memories of lost planes and fatalities decades ago in the rugged Barrington Tops. The mystery of one missing light aircraft, a Cessna, remains unsolved to this day.

Then, I recalled my story from late last month about Broadmeadow’s long-gone District Park Airfield (until 1963), now the site of the McDonald Jones Stadium. I’d written then of an aborted take-off by a Stinson HW 75 aircraft on the muddy, slippery airfield, when the single-engine, light utility monoplane crashed into a perimeter fence.

That was in late 1958. No one was injured, but the aeroplane was a write-off. The accident happened on the Gully Line rail route that once ran parallel to Turton Road.

Lake Macquarie aviation historian Bill Hitchcock had made my story come to life by providing rare, historic photos of the crash aftermath (pictured).

Then came a series of emails, which put me on the trail of another Stinson aircraft crash about 80 years ago. The crash, which became famous, was not in the Hunter. In fact, the hunt for this missing aircraft was the most intensive in Australia’s aviation history at the time.

It was an amazing story of a solo rescue mission 800 kilometres north of where the missing plane was supposed to be. I vaguely knew of it, but it was once far more familiar to older Novocastrians, my parents’ generation, for example.

Many years after, in 1987, a TV film was finally made about it called The Riddle of the Stinson. It starred a young Jack Thompson as Bernard O’Reilly, the laconic bush hero involved.

REMINDER: To mark the 80th anniversary of a famous rescue, a replica Stinson Model A is on display outside O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat, in the Gold Coast's hinterland.

REMINDER: To mark the 80th anniversary of a famous rescue, a replica Stinson Model A is on display outside O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat, in the Gold Coast's hinterland.

My interest started with an email from Weekender reader Vit Lapp.

“A famous Stinson rescue occurred in mountains south of Brisbane. The story is well remembered there. There were pictures in the foyer of what used to be a guesthouse, but is now called O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat (on the Gold Coast hinterland),” Lapp said.

“When all had given up, this bushman O’Reilly went out. He knew exactly where to go and found people still alive at the crash,” Lapp said.

More background then came from Newcastle’s East End reader Jim Donnelly.

“Your article on the Stinson aircrafts which operated from the old Newcastle airport is very interesting. You state that two Stinsons were imported from the USA in 1939,” he wrote.

“You are probably aware that in February 1937 a Stinson crashed near the Lamington Plateau, in (southern) Queensland. Seven men were aboard. The two survivors were near death and not found until 10 days after the crash. They had no food during that period. They were injured and suffering burns, as the (three-engine) aircraft had burned fiercely.” 

He said a cyclone had been raging the night the commercial airliner flew over the farm of bushman Bernard O’Reilly, the dogged lone searcher who eventually found the wrecked Model A airliner. He later wrote about the subsequent rescue in his 1940 book Green Mountains. The two pilots involved were killed on impact as were two of the passengers.

“The three survivors were John (later Sir John) Proud, a member of the Prouds the Jewellers family and two men called Joseph Binstead and Jim Westray. As Westray could walk, he set off to find help (then vanished).”

Proud had a compound facture of the leg and the others could only crawl to a nearby creek to find water. After O’Reilly found Proud and Binstead, he returned to get more help before coming across Westray’s body en-route.

“Later O’Reilly heard a gunshot and contacted the shooter who was able to guide him the rest of the way out. Horses were provided for the rescue and Proud and Binstead were taken to hospital,” Donnelly wrote.

“This story is of particular interest to me as Sir John Proud became chairman of one of Australia’s largest mining groups, Peko-Wallsend Ltd and I was executive of the Newcastle branch, Newcastle Wallsend Coal Company,” he said.

“I met the late John Proud a few times and had some good discussions. He walked with a cane, favouring his wounded leg.”

Donnelly said the O’Reillys were a large family and a classic 1949 Aussie movie was made about them called Sons of Matthew. This, however, dealt with the family’s pioneering days, not the air crash.

The rescue of the two crash survivors was truly miraculous. Would-be rescuers originally believed the aircraft, flying from Brisbane to Sydney, had gone down in the sea.  

The search was called off after an oil slick was sighted in the ocean six days after the Australian National Airways plane vanished in a violent storm.

Survivor (Sir) John Proud (1907-1997) later also went on to become a major force in the establishment of Earthwatch Australia and a benefactor saving rare books.

Gangrene had spread in his broken leg, which became infested with maggots. The plane had slammed into the McPherson Range, before erupting in a ball of fire. Proud had been seated upfront when the Stinson, caught in a downdraught, started to lose height despite the engines roaring full bore.

The Stinson was trapped amid swirling clouds near the crest of the wooded range. Fellow survivor Joe Binstead later told rescuers he could see the trees outside. 

The pilot then pulled the aircraft’s controls back in a desperate, last-minute manoeuvre to escape. It failed, but the Stinson did hit the trees belly-up, instead of hitting nose first. The disorientated survivors soon discovered their crash site infested with leeches.

Meanwhile, their eventual rescuer Bernard O’Reilly had realised the missing aircraft might have plunged onto a slope below one of the four highest ridges of the McPherson Range straddling the NSW-Queensland border.

So, eight days after the alarm had been raised, O’Reilly set off, against the odds, to successfully find two men alive in the steep, dense rainforest.

A bronze memorial depicting the rescue was later erected in the grounds of O’Reilly’s former Lamington Guest House, now Rainforest Retreat. There’s also now a prominent Stinson Model A replica, from the 1987 movie, outside the site. 

The 1937 crash site is under nine kilometres from O’Reilly’s, but in remote, difficult terrain. A small, skeletal section of the plane remains in situ. As an exercise, the Australian Army removed large sections of the wreck by helicopter in the late 1980s.