On a wooded slope of the snowy mountains in Australia’s Kosciuszko National Park, located about halfway between the coastal cities of Sydney and Melbourne, an odd memorial is nearly hidden among the trees. A four-foot-tall sheet of wrinkled aluminum, embossed with eight names, marks the site of a 1931 airplane crash that killed two pilots and six passengers. Strewn about the aluminum marker is the wreckage of the Avro Ten tri-motor Southern Cloud.
It’s easy to forget, in this era of reliable weather prediction and wireless communication that air travel began before the routine use of radio or any means of communication between the air and the ground. Passengers flying even short distances couldn’t know what awaited them along the way. Southern Cloud, an Australian National Airlines tri-motor bound for Melbourne, departed Sydney in rain on March 21, 1931, and flew into history as the first airliner to disappear.
Australian National Airways (ANA) was among the earliest commercial airlines, the creation of aviation pioneers Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm. Kingsford Smith was the Australian Charles Lindbergh, a record-setting pilot and aviation evangelist. Ulm, Kingsford Smith’s trusted partner, accompanied him on many historic flights, including the 1928 10-day crossing of the Pacific from America to Australia in a Fokker tri-motor named the Southern Cross.
The Southern Cloud was a licensed production version of the Fokker on which the Southern Cross was based, but there was a critical difference between the two. For their trans-Pacific journey, Kingsford Smith and Ulm had two-way radio equipment and were in touch with ships and shore stations. The Southern Cloud, like most airliners of the day, had no radio.
On the day of its disastrous flight, Captain Travis Shortridge and the pilot-engineer apprentice, Charles Dunell, guided the tri-motor down the runway at Sydney’s Mascot Aerodrome and into the sky with six of eight passenger seats occupied. Among the passengers were Bill O’Reilly, a young accountant who was expanding his practice in Melbourne; Elsie May Glasgow, who was flying home after a holiday with her sister in Sydney; and American Clyde Hood, a theater producer. For a weather forecast, Shortridge relied on that day’s Sydney Morning Herald, which had compiled its weather report the night before.
The airplane had been in the air for an hour when an updated meteorological report reached the airline’s headquarters in Sydney. The Southern Cloud was headed for driving rain, strong winds, low clouds, and cyclonic conditions. The only thing anyone on the ground could do, however, was worry. With no radio, the Southern Cloud was unreachable.
When the airliner failed to arrive in Melbourne, a massive search began. ANA flights were suspended so that the line’s pilots and aircraft could scour a broad area along the Cloud’s expected flight path. The Royal Australian Air Force helped search for 18 days. ANA carried on for several weeks longer. From far-flung areas, prospectors, schoolchildren, shepherds, and even a community postmistress reported seeing or hearing the missing airliner.