80 years ago, our lives were linked by a Dutch aeroplane | OPINION

Tony Wright

Tony Wright

BORDER residents have heard plenty about how Albury residents helped the Uiver to a safe landing in 1934 at the Albury racecourse. Former Border Mail journalist Tony Wright links the famous story with a new example of how Australians and the Dutch are co-operating at a time of disaster.

AS our television screens fill with Australian and Dutch planes ferrying bodies blown from the sky, the hearts of the world yearning for a restoration of decency from ghastliness, there hovers in history a moment that has the power to lift dulled spirits.

It involves a Dutch plane and the good people of Albury. It happened 80 years ago and remains among the most remarkable episodes to join the earth and the heavens.

In October, 1934, 20 flying machines from seven countries set out from London to race to Melbourne, the great adventure of Melbourne’s centenary celebrations.

Among the contestants was the Uiver, a new DC2 purchased by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.

Millions across the world listened to wireless reports and newspapers published special updates as the flock of planes lumbered towards Australia.

They made remarkable time, and only three days after leaving London, the Uiver — just hours behind the leader — flew into trouble over southern NSW.

It was engulfed in a wild thunderstorm that destroyed its communications equipment, stole visibility and left its pilot, Captain Koene Parmentier, and navigator, Johannes Moll, utterly lost.

Disaster seemed certain. Night fell and the Uiver — Dutch for stork — flew blind above the Murray Valley, perilously close to the Australian alps. Radio stations broadcast messages calling on citizens to keep their ears open and their eyes peeled, railway stations from Albury to Melbourne switched on their lights and ships beamed searchlights into the sky.

Albury’s municipal electrical engineer, Lyle Ferris, acting on a brilliant idea generated by the editor of The Border Morning Mail, Cliff Mott, tore open the town’s light-switching headquarters and enlisted telegraphist R.J. Turner to turn the city’s entire street-lighting system into a giant morse code signal.

The lights blinked out the code for ALBURY, ALBURY, over and over.

And glory be, it worked. Amid the beating of rain just after midnight, sharp ears picked up the beat of big motors.

It was Arthur Newnham’s moment to shine. He spoke into his microphone, imploring listeners with motor cars to drive to Albury’s racecourse, to turn their headlights on full and to line up in two rows, forming between them a floodlit landing strip.

At 1.20am, the crew of the Uiver tossed out two parachute flares to grant more illumination.

The plane made the single approach left to it between catastrophe and deliverance.

The cheering folk of Albury weren’t finished.

The race was still on and even if this was a Dutch plane, it was the plane they’d plucked from the storm.

The Uiver was bogged deep in rain-softened mud. Urged on by the mayor, Alf Waugh, 300 townspeople turned out in the dawn with shovels and ropes, dug out the wheels and hand-hauled the plane to firmer ground.

And so, early on morning of October 25, 1934, the Uiver lifted off and flew to Melbourne, second overall in the race and the winner on handicap.

Captain Parmentier and First Officer Moll were knighted by Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands and mayor Alf Waugh was presented with one of the Netherlands’ highest honours, the Order of the Orange-Nassau.

Tragically, the Uiver crashed less than two months later in the desert of Syria, killing all on board.

The people of Albury, mourning, put the hat around to pay for a memorial in The Netherlands.

And here we are, 80 years on, Dutch and Australian air crews working together, their efforts and a shared history reminding us that even in the face of disaster, impending or actual, good people can rescue that most elusive of qualities — dignity.