The 1940 Canberra air disaster was an aircraft crash that occurred near Canberra, the capital of Australia, on 13 August 1940, during World War II. All ten people on board were killed: six passengers, including three members of the Australian Cabinet and the Chief of the General Staff; and four crew. The aircraft is believed to have stalled on its landing approach, when it was too low to recover.
A16-97, the aircraft involved in the crash, was part of a batch of 100 Lockheed Hudson bombers newly ordered for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). It was received by the No. 1 Aircraft Depot at RAAF Base Laverton on 20 June 1940 and assigned to No. 2 Squadron. It was the first Hudson in the RAAF to be fitted out with passenger seating, to be reserved for transporting “essential maintenance stores and personnel to advanced operational bases”, as well as ministerial traffic when required. On 9 August, the station administrative officer at RAAF Laverton received instructions to prepare a flight to Canberra on 13 August, to be reserved for James Fairbairn, the air and civil aviation minister. The aircraft had 7 hours and 10 minutes of flying time, of which 2 hours and 35 minutes had been completed by Lockheed test pilots. A daily inspection was completed on the morning of the flight and signed off by the pilot Bob Hitchcock. At 8.47 a.m. he and three crew members left RAAF Laverton for Essendon Airport.
Fairbairn had been working at his departmental headquarters in Melbourne and requested the flight in order to attend an important cabinet meeting on defence policy, which would discuss the allocation of Australian resources in the war. It had been called partially in response to a telegram from Winston Churchill to Menzies outlining his views on the prospect of war with Japan. The chiefs of staff of the army, navy and air force were also due to be in attendance. Fairbairn invited three other senior officials to join him on the flight – Geoffrey Street, Minister for the Army; Henry Gullett, Minister for Information, and General Brudenell White, Chief of the General Staff. Fairbairn’s private secretary Dick Elford and White’s staff officer Frank Thornthwaite were the two other passengers. Two other ministers, George McLeay and Arthur Fadden, were also invited, but declined seats as they had already arranged to take the train. Prime Minister Robert Menzies‘ assistant private secretary Peter Looker had reserved two seats on the flight, but Menzies also preferred to take the train.