Tragedy at Point Cook

Point Cook air base is situated on the water’s edge of Port Philip Bay about twenty kilometres southwest of Melbourne. In early 1917 it was a tent city with new enlistments doing basic training before they embarked for England, and a possible posting to France. In the afternoon of March 28th 1917 a shocking event occurred before scores of young recruits that did little to promote their trust of flying machines – regardless of the skill of the pilot…

In 1917 the art of flying a powered machine was at a stage similar to a baby taking their first steps. We announce, ‘They can walk!’ with excitement, but what we really mean is, ‘they can make a reasonable few steps, but sooner or later they will tumble…’ The number of aircraft crashes occurring in England as pilots developed their skills was exceptionally high, and once a pilot was considered worthy, they would be sent to work above the battlefields of France.

While flying machines were largely developing through military channels throughout the war, many civilians were still, where finance allowed, developing, designing, testing and re-developing machines. Prior to the war the Duigan brothers John and Reg had built and flown the first completely Australian made machine on their property north of Kyneton, Victoria. A similar adventurer was young Basil Watson of Brighton, who had worked and flown with the Sopwith Aviation Company in England before developing his own machine for ‘barnstorming’ displays around Victoria. He could not join the military due to injuries from a flying accident in 1915, but he continued to fly for the pleasure and distraction of city and country folk, as somewhat of a hero with ‘golden local boy’ status. Below is a photograph taken by Alec Simpson, a young lad in Hamilton, Victoria where in February 1917, Basil Watson did a series of ‘barnstorming’ flying displays.

Just a few weeks later Watson took off from his home in Brighton on the northeast of Port Philip Bay, to cross the top of the bay to Point Cook, in preparation for displays over the following days. On arriving above the air base he saw scores of young recruits and decided to put on a short display for them. He did one ‘loop’ in the air, but on attempting the second, his machine folded up and plummeted to the water’s edge killing Watson instantly. Young 2nd Air Mechanic Joseph Houston was metres away from where the wreckage ended on the sand, and later took a photograph of the wreckage. The photo appears in ‘The Other Simpson’ – Six Bob Tourists’ first publication to be launched around Anzac Day 2019.

The photo of Watson on the airfield at Hamilton (with the bold inscription) was sent by young Alec to his older brother Leigh Simpson who was a trainee pilot with the 68th (Australian) Squadron RFC in England at the time. Leigh had not long ago transferred from the 3rd Light Horse Field Ambulance in Egypt, and was now studying Aeronautics at Reading University. He would soon join the hundreds of other young pilots to learn the art of flying in various machines at various airfields around the U.K. As a pilot of R.E.8 reconnaissance machines with the 3rd Squadron AFC, Leigh flew over 150 missions before being wounded and returning to Australia in late 1918. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Conduct medal and had replaced Captain John Duigan as ‘B’ Flight Commander when Duigan was wounded in May 1918. Coincidently, John ‘Jack’ Duigan and Leigh Simpson were first cousins on their mother’s side.