Thursday, October 9, 2008

God's Acre at Archerfield Airport

At the main entrance of Archerfield Airport in Brisbane is a small peculiar graveyard called God's Acre. It is located on the airport grounds, right in-between the road and the greasy spoon eatery favored by local pilots for lack of any other option. And as Aviatrix remarked when describing a similar place in the US, this is not an airport with its own graveyard, but rather a graveyard with its own airport.

It would be easy to believe that this cemetery is the resting place of pilots and passengers involved in fatal accidents flying in or out of Archerfield. The dates however tell a different story. The cemetery was consecrated in 1859 with the burial of Volney Grenier who fell from a horse at the age of 16 while fox hunting on a nearby farm. Archerfield Airport opened 70 years later in 1929.

To put things in an Australian perspective, Australia was only "discovered" by Captain Cook in 1770, with the first settlement established in 1788.

A well-documented history of Archerfield airport tells us that the US 5th Air Force upgraded and used Archerfield aerodrome during WWII, most notably as a base for B17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers. The airfield received the visit of General MacArthur, whose wartime headquarters were in Brisbane, as well as Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the then President of the United States.

There is however one aviation-related plaque in the cemetery. It is dedicated to the memory of Robert Copas and Lace Maxwell, who died in a flying accident in 1994. The airplane involved in the accident, a Tiger Moth VH-UNA, was based at Archerfield.

According to the ATSB report, the accident happened while performing a wing-walking stunt at the Luskintyre airfield in the Hunter Valley in NSW.

Because of the extra drag caused by the wing-walking frame bolted onto the wings, the pilot had developed a take-off technique that would give him a decent climb rate despite the added drag. Unfortunately, this involved climbing at a speed very close to the stalling speed of the aircraft.

According to the investigation report, the engine failed soon after take-off because of a problem with the carburetor needle. The problem had already been identified on similar airplanes in other countries, but had not resulted in an Airworthiness Directive in Australia. The pilot tried to perform a flat turn to get back to the runway by kicking the rudder. This resulted in a stall and spin which killed both occupants.

I wonder how many of the local pilots take the time to visit this place. It really is less than a couple hundred meters from many of the local flying training organisations. I'm glad I did.


Anonymous said...

My parents were good friends with Bob Copas and have a small corner in their flying school at Archerfield Aerodrome called "Bob's Corner." I remember Bob well growing up. He was a mlikman by trade and flew his yellow and black tiger moth once a year to the Hunter Valley to give cancer children joy flights as part of Canteen. My parents are Gil and Sue Layt of Gil Layt's Flying School. We heard confirmation of Bob's passing along with Lace on the 6pm news and my mum burst into tears. He was a lovely man with so much to give. He is greatly missed and yes, I have visited his memorial at God's Acre several times over the years.

Anonymous said...

I was the Rescue helicopter pilot who flew to the accident at Luskintyre that day. Lace had died in the accident but Bob was still alive, although badly burned. We flew him to the John Hunter Hospital but he died shortly afterwards. I attended Lace's funeral as I knew her. RIP.

Anonymous said...

I was glad to find this. Rob was my next door neighbour of 10 years. I still remember his easy smile and the twinkle in his eyes as he did so. A very likeable and sincere man.

Julien said...

Thanks a lot everyone for your comments on this page that I wrote!

I never had the chance to meet Robert Copas or Lace Maxwell or see them perform. I only heard about them through that plaque at Archerfield airport.

I am very happy I wrote this little blog post and that it has become a little place on the Internet for those whose path crossed theirs to remember Lace and Rob. May they rest in peace.