The WW2 “flying coffin” that never returned: The search for the lost Beaufort

Aircraft wrecks, Interviews, WW2, WW2 Pacific Treasures, WW2 Wrecks

By Pierre Kosmidis

Photos and info by Pamela Harrison

In a solemn ceremony, the relatives of  Flying Officer Arthur Aitken and Flight Sergeant Peter Hastie threw flowers on to the ocean gently lapping the shore.

It was on the 72nd anniversary since the ill-fated RAAF Beaufort A9-317 took off from RAAF Busselton Air Base on September 9, 1943, never to be seen again.

Mrs. Harrison hopes that she will finally locate the aircraft wreck, bringing closure to the families of the killed airmen, almost 8 decades after their violent death.

2Priscilla Smith, Bernie Morgan and Des Aitken about to throw flowers on the ocean_

The ill fated A9-317 Beaufort was on a seaward clearance scan from D’ Entrecastreaux Point to Rottnest Island thence to Pearce where it was due at 4.30p.m. when it disappeared with F/O Arthur Aitken, F/Sgt Peter Hastie both from WA , F/O Cedric Richards and F/Sgt Alexander Emerson, both from Victoria and Passenger Army Temporary Captain Harry Kolbig from S.A and of the Australian Air Liaison Section.

A detailed flight path of the lost Beaufort, made by an ex-RAAF staff member.
A detailed flight path of the lost Beaufort, made by an ex-RAAF staff member.

The aircraft left Busselton Base at 11.50 a.m. never to return, with all airmen since then still unaccounted for, with the wreck more likely somewhere between Cape Leeuwin and Rottnest.

Another aerial view of Base

“Pilot Aitken left the Busselton Base at 1150 to carry out Patrol ‘N’ on a seaward clearing scan from D’Entrecastreaux Point to Rottnest Island, then on to Pearce where it was due at 4.30pm.” Mrs. Pamela Harrison said to ABC Net 

Another remaining hangar.

“Just after 2.30pm, the plane reported sighting MV Nordnes about 45 nautical miles due west of D’Entrecastreaux Point.”

Arthur AitkenFlying Officer Arthur Aitken

“At 5.30pm, the plane was reported overdue and extensive searches were carried out over the next two days by air and sea.”

Bernie Morgan (Aitken's Niece) throws flowers to the boys while Des Aitken (Aitken's Nephew) looks on.

The Australian Beauforts had been plagued with a mysterious problem which resulted in over 90 aircraft crashing. The planes were nicknamed ‘Flying Coffins’.

It was the loss of one of those crews that led to the answer.

Captain Learmonth was on patrol with two other Bristol Beauforts when his plane began to shake violently. Learmonth realised that the shaking was driven by the tail of his aircraft.
Bernie Morgan, Des Aitken and Priscilla Smith arm in arm on the beach.

He broke radio silence, calling the pilot of one of the other Beauforts to fly closer and observe the tail. The pilot could see the control rod to the elevator trim tab on Learmonth’s plane hanging down.

It had separated from the tab, allowing the tab and elevator to oscillate and drive the violent shaking of the whole aircraft. It is reported that it turned out to be the faulty manufacturing of the elevator-trim jacking screws.

The company contracted to make them couldn’t keep up with the quantities required so sub contracted the work out. The contractors either didn’t have the skill or their equipment was not up to producing such fine tolerance items that failures began to occur. It is also reported that the plans were being misread.
Learmonth radioed the information to the other crews. Shortly after, the trim tab flicked to the extreme up position, forcing the aircraft to descend rapidly. Less than a minute later Learmonth’s plane crashed into the sea, killing four men.
Des Aitken, Bernie Morgan and Priscilla Smith standing on original main runway now grass.

All RAAF Beauforts were grounded while the fault was traced.

It is believed that the engineers in Melbourne assembling the planes were misreading the plans and assembling part of the controls incorrectly.


Engineering workshop plus foundations of something.

Mrs. Harrison spoke to on her quest for the lost Beaufort:

“I was successful in locating relatives of the four crew and one passenger on board the plane, and had the relatives of the two WA boys, present at the former RAAF Base Busselton, on the 9.9.2015, the anniversary of when they took off on 9.9.43.” 

Entrance to former Base

“They stood on what was the original runway from where the lads took off, now grass. They never knew what had happened to their Uncle, only that they took off in their plane and disappeared. There are still many buildings remaining at the former Base.”
Entrance to second end of Puzzling Building.

“We then went to the beach where they threw flowers on to the ocean gently lapping the shore.

It was so strange, as the day before the weather was wet cold and windy, that day was perfect sunshine, the sea was calm and silken and a beautiful pinkish hue with a blue sky, not a breath of wind and one lone seagull flying over us all the time.”

Former Officers'quarters remodelled.

One lady said she liked to think it was her Uncle. The next day it was again wet, cold and windy.


Harry Donald Kolbig

Captain Harry Kolbig


Map flight plan with plane developing trouble and heading back to Base at Busselton

Flight plan of the doomed Beaufort

For some unknown reason, just a few days ago, I suddenly thought I’d look at Kolbig’s file and go over that again.

Don’t ask me why. I found ‘phone numbers and addresses of his sister-in-law, Niece and Nephew in Adelaide that I’d written down two years ago, so thought I’d ‘phone.”

One end of possible amunition hut.

Relics of yesteryear: The concrete buildings of the RAAF Air Base at Busselton

“I spoke mainly with his Niece Deborah (his sis-in-law is 95), and she said that the day before, they had been talking about Harry, and wondering how they could find out more about what happened, then I ‘phone.

I’m now able to send them a whole lot of information including his records which they never had.”

One of the remaining hangars

“I asked Deborah if it is the plane, would they possibly be able to come over, maybe her Mum might not be able to travel, but she and her brother.

She said if they have enough notice yes, they would.”

Other end of possible amunition hut..

Other side of Engineering workshop

Possible control tower

RAAF Base accommodation

WW2 aerial photos of RAAF Busselton Air Base

RAAF Base aerial view