One of Tasmania’s biggest aviation mysteries has been re-enacted

By Danielle Wood 4 November 2022
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What happened 50 years ago to the ill-fated flight of environmental activist Brenda Hean?

On 8 September 1972, a vintage Tiger Moth set off from Hobart’s Cambridge Aerodrome bound for Canberra carrying activists committed to saving Tasmania’s Lake Pedder.

What happened next has become one of Tasmania’s most enduring mysteries.

Aboard the Tiger Moth were pilot Max Price and environmental campaigner Brenda Hean, who planned to sky-write the message “Save Lake Pedder” above Parliament House.  It was part of a campaign to halt to the lake’s controversial inundation as part of a hydro-electric power scheme.

They never made their destination.

Against a backdrop of bitter enmity between forces of industrialisation and conservation and having received threats in the days before their departure, Brenda and Max vanished somewhere near Tasmania’s north-east tip.

In what remains one of Tasmania’s great unsolved aviation mysteries, neither Tiger Moth VH-AQL, nor the aviators’ bodies, were ever found.

A timely re-enactment

On 10 September this year members of Brenda’s family and long-time supporters of the Restore Pedder campaign waited at Canberra’s Fairbairn airstrip to watch the final stage of a re-enactment of the ill-fated flight that took off 50 years earlier.

As a Tiger Moth descended through cloud to touch down on the tarmac as part of the tribute flight, it brought a sense of completion for a journey that began five decades earlier.

This time, the Tiger Moth that flew to Canberra from Hobart was VH-CXV, better known as ‘Millie’, and the mission’s personnel included two of Brenda’s relations: Charlotte and Oliver Ditcham, her great-great-niece and great-great-nephew.

Oliver, an aviation industry worker and pilot from Brisbane, flew the mission’s support aircraft, a Cessna, carrying extra oil to satisfy Millie’s thirsty nature, as well as others involved in the re-enactment, who took turns to fly a leg of the journey in the open-topped Tiger Moth’s breezy front seat.

Charlotte occupied that seat on its first leg as the plane left Hobart. In her possession were a red plaid scarf that had belonged to her great-great-aunt, tucked tightly at her throat, and a bag of Lake Pedder’s famous pink sand.

It took courage for the 16-year-old Hobart student to step up into the Tiger Moth.

Her family has been deeply affected by their relative’s disappearance in just such an aircraft, a mystery that’s been the subject of a documentary film and book, both entitled Whatever Happened to Brenda Hean?

Charlotte Ditcham and Tiger Moth ‘Millie’. Image credit: Matt Newton

Suspicious circumstances

Foul play has long been suspected in the loss of VH-AQL and her passengers.

In a late-night phone call shortly before the September 1972 flight, an unidentified man menacingly asked Brenda Hean if she wanted to “go for a swim”.

Evidence came to light that the door to the hangar housing the plane had been prised open on the night before departure, and the aircraft’s high-frequency safety beacons were found tossed behind 44-gallon drums in the hangar.

One hypothesis is that the aircraft’s secondary fuel tank was contaminated, possibly with sugar, causing the Tiger Moth to ditch when the pilot switched over to that tank, which would have likely happened at about the time the plane is believed to have fallen from the sky.

Brenda’s relatives have lived for five decades wondering why no trace of the plane was ever found. Rumours have persisted that the aircraft was strategically buried on a remote beach on Tasmania’s northeast coast.

Charlotte said she thought about her great-great-aunt a good deal during the flight, especially each time the weather turned foul.

“It’s so hard to know what really happened to her – there are so many different stories and theories.” Charlotte said. “It was nice to have her scarf with me, to keep her close. You’ve never experienced wind until you’ve been up there in a Tiger Moth!”

Danielle Wood is the author of several works of fiction and non-fiction. She lives and works in lutruwita/Tasmania and is presently writing a novel about the history of Lake Pedder.