Flying pioneers diced with death

1924 – Aviation in Australia was just out of its first decade when popular young pastoralist Samuel “Keith” Mackay died in an aeroplane accident at Port Hedland, Western Australia.

Mackay’s memorial in the Port Hedland cemetery. Image Sharyn Moodie.

Mackay, 24,  had asked the pilot, Leonard Taplin, who worked for WA Airways and had been chartered for the flight to take Mackay home to his family’s sheep station 100 kilometres south-west, to circle around the town after taking off. This request was not unusual, said a newspaper report.

Mackay himself was familiar with Bristol bi-plane, having dabbled in flying.

But shortly after 4.15pm, only four-and-a-half miles from the aerodrome, the plane  nose-dived and crashed into the shallow waterway. 

Taplin told the subsequent inquest that everything appeared all right when they started off,  with Mackay and the mechanic, Wilson, seated in the passenger portion of the plane.

After circling the town he flew along the beach.

“He started to make a slight turn in the direction of Mundabullangana station when, without any warning, the machine rocked slightly, turned almost completely over, and dived vertically into the creek.”

He had no idea what went wrong, as the engine was going well until he shut it off, just before hitting the water.

The machine dived from about 400 feet.

 Taplin went into the water, and when he came up, “got rid of his goggles and flying gear and made a search for the others”.

He went into the passenger cockpit under water, but could not see anyone there. Mackay’s body was later found.

The jury returned a verdict that Mackay came to his death as the result of an aeroplane accident, and that death was due to concussion of the brain, no blame being attachable to anyone.

Wilson was described in the papers as having received “a good shaking’’ in the incident.

Pilot Taplin was no stranger to danger in the sky, or indeed, falling out of it.

He was a WW1 ace who had shot down 12 enemy aircraft and balloons, and been blown out of the sky himself at least three times. On the final occasion, he was shot through the right hand before being made a prisoner of war.

Although he initially felt his crippled hand was the end of his flying career, he recovered and joined Western Australian Airways three years before this accident, as the company pioneered commercial flights in that state.

And witnessing one of the three planes on the airline’s initial trip crashing and killing another pilot and mechanic near Kalbarri, didn’t keep him out of the sky.

One WA newspaper would hear no criticism of the airline after the Port Hedland crash.

When it is considered that the W.A. Airways Ltd. has flown 318,000 miles during their two years and seven months of existence, it will be realised that the liability to accident from this cause is no more common than is the possibility of mishap from motoring.


Geraldton Guardian, Thursday 17 July 1924, p3

Kalgoorlie Miner, Wednesday 23 July 1924, p 5

Sunday Times, Sunday 6 November 1921, p9

The Daily News, Thursday 17 July 1924, p8

The Murchison Times, Friday 18 July 1924, p3

Western Mail, Thursday 24 July 1924, p24

Sunday Times, Sunday 6 November 1921, p9

Virtual War Memorial Australia, Taplin, Leonard Thomas Eaton,

Port Hedland, Western Australia

Published by Sharyn Moodie

Travelling around Australia for work, I've found so many amazing headstones. But what is more amazing is the stories behind some of these deaths, and the way newspapers of the day reported them.

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