This week on 2SER Breakfast, Dictionary special guest Dr Peter Hobbins talked to Tess about a terrible accident in the centre of the city in 1966 when a helicopter crashed onto Gold Fields House at Circular Quay. The three people on board were killed, including the ABC cameraman whose camera, with footage of the accident, was discovered in the wreckage.
One of the most graphic – and chilling – aircraft accidents in Australian history, the crash happened in the centre of Sydney on a sunny Saturday afternoon on 10 December 1966 when a Bell 47 helicopter that had been chartered by the ABC spiralled out of control and fell onto the roof of the newly completed Gold Fields House at Circular Quay, and from there onto another building in Pitt Street. The accident took the lives of all on board: ABC cameraman Frank Parnell, Patricia Ludford, one of the ABC’s first female directors, and the helicopter’s pilot James Riley, but the toll could very easily have been much higher.
Unlike today, with video cameras in every pocket, the event was, remarkably, filmed from both inside and outside the helicopter. As Frank Parnell’s camera continued to film the world beyond spinning around him, concurrently, an astute Commonwealth Film Unit crew on Sydney Harbour filmed the helicopter’s final plunge into the city’s central business district a fortnight before Christmas.
Investigations made it clear that the helicopter had crashed after the tail rotor of the helicopter had failed. One blade broke off, then the whole unit came off altogether and fell into the water at Circular Quay. What remains a mystery is why the pilot didn’t immediately follow normal procedures for this kind of event and wind the power back for an immediate landing, but kept flying. Two possible explanations are that the three people crammed inside the goldfish-bowl-like helicopter panicked, or were unable to move, or alternatively, that the pilot, a former RAF pilot, could have been looking for a safer place to attempt an emergency landing rather than risk the lives of others by coming down amidst the ferries and yachts in the water below, or pedestrians at Circular Quay.
The roof of Gold Fields House, which had only just been completed and was one of the tallest buildings in the city, may have seemed a safe place to attempt to land. If this was indeed what the pilot was attempting to do, the helicopter spun out of control before the manoeuvre could be completed and fell 500 feet (about 150 metres) on to the roof before bouncing off an onto the three storey Paul Building at 33-35 Pitt Street, missing by metres the NSW Rugby Union Club where 200 children were attending a Christmas party. Wreckage was recovered from near the AMP Building, Macquarie Street, near the Opera House, Spring Street and at the base of Gold Fields House as well as Pitt Street.
The technical investigation into the accident included interviews with mechanics, pilots and air traffic controllers at Bankstown Airport, whence the flight had departed. But the remaining interviewees, plus witnesses who telephoned or wrote down their observations, encompassed the breadth of Sydney’s demographic and their accounts provide modern historians with not just information about the accident but snippets of leisure in a city that nominally shut down on Saturday afternoons, suggesting a lively metropolis united momentarily by death.
Men, women and children, including a little boy who was narrowly missed by a piece of falling debris at the Golden Dragon Chinese Café, all related their experiences. Another 13-year-old schoolboy was fishing at Circular Quay, just near the overseas terminal, when he saw a piece fly off the helicopter’s tail. Adults watched the morbid spectacle while crossing the Harbour Bridge or Pyrmont Bridge, strolling in the Botanical Gardens, meandering through the city streets or the Rocks, enjoying the view from the observation tower on the AMP Building, or gazing through the windows of their harbourside apartments. Some were passengers or crew aboard yachts, tugs or ferries in the harbour; others waited for them to dock at Circular Quay. Given the season, there were Christmas parties at Garden Island and on Pitt Street, a devotion at St Mary’s Cathedral and drinks at the Trocadero. One man had just purchased a new 8 millimetre movie camera and intended to film the Sydney Opera House under construction – he thought he had captured the accident but in his inexperience the film did not feed through. A surprising number of Sydneysiders were also on duty on that Saturday afternoon. They included not only several policemen, but workers at the Opera House, cooks, building caretakers and club managers, construction workers and foremen, gardeners in the Botanical Gardens and an employee at Cohen’s Furniture Shop on George Street. At Government House, the Governor’s Secretary, a footman and the wife of the caretaker also witnessed the tragedy.
Residents visiting the city that Saturday afternoon included a refinery operator from Auburn, a scientist from Engadine, a toolmaker from Potts Point and a teacher from Chatswood. Pioneering science communicator Dr Peter Pockley claimed to see the helicopter near the University of Sydney. Other informants hailed from Merrylands, St Leonards, Manly, Normanhurst, Roseville, Cabramatta, Concord, Kirribilli, Tempe, Green Valley, Padstow, Five Dock and Randwick. One international visitor from California happened to be an employee of the Lockheed Aircraft Company; several other witnesses also mentioned aviation backgrounds. Their cumulative testimonies helped pin down a three-dimensional and aural account of the accident, leading to a timeline and – ultimately – a formal sequence of events beginning with a broken tail rotor bolt.
While the investigation into the accident had consequences for the helicopter’s American manufacturers Bell, who faced litigation that went on into the 1970s, another long term outcome was that single-engined aircraft, like small planes and helicopters, could no longer fly over built up areas like the city, which is why today you see them flying along Sydney’s waterways like the harbour or rivers.
About the author
Dr Peter Hobbins is a Royal Australian Historical Society Councillor and a historian of science, technology and medicine at the University of Sydney. His current research focuses on aircraft crashes in Australia over 1920–70. He appears on 2SER for the Dictionary in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Peter!
As part of History Week 2018, Peter will draw upon aircraft accident reports for his talk ‘Death in the air and life on the ground at Mascot Aerodrome’, at Mascot Library & George Hanna Memorial Museum on 8 September 2018. Tickets aren’t available yet, but mark it in your calendars so you don’t miss out: https://www.eventbrite.com.au/e/death-in-the-air-life-on-the-ground-at-mascot-aerodrome-tickets-44355051152
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 Accident at Sydney on 10.12.1966 Bell 47G2 VH-AHF, 1973–76, NAA B638 6/266/947 PART 3.
 ‘Aircraft Accident Report, VH-AHF, 10.12.1966, Part 2 ’, in Accident at Sydney 10.12.1966 Bell 47G2 VH-AHF, 1966–71, NAA B638 6/266/947 PART 2.
 Peter Hobbins, ‘Investigating the social history of aircraft accidents’, History No. 136 (June 2018), pp. 3–7.