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Alone in the dark
PTE John Wellfare searches the Point Cook heritage area for the truth behind the ghostly sightings that have become a part of Air Force legend.

Do ghosts haunt the deserted buildings of the Point Cook heritage area?

Do ghosts haunt the deserted buildings of the Point Cook heritage area?

Photo illustration by PTE John Wellfare
The first flying training course pilots and instructors. Back row, from left: LT Richard Williams and CAPT Thomas White. Front row, from left: 2LT George Merze, LT Henry Petre, LT Eric Harrison and 2LT David Manwell.

The first flying training course pilots and instructors. Back row, from left: LT Richard Williams and CAPT Thomas White. Front row, from left: 2LT George Merze, LT Henry Petre, LT Eric Harrison and 2LT David Manwell.

Photo by PTE John Wellfare
The old offices of the flight training school in the Point Cook Heritage area are an eerie place to be at midnight.

The old offices of the flight training school in the Point Cook Heritage area are an eerie place to be at midnight.

Photo by PTE John Wellfare

THICK grass crunched beneath my feet as I approached the old flight training school office building 10 minutes after midnight.

The sound of my footsteps seemed unusually loud, but must have been barely audible in the night air, which bustled with a lively wind, buffeting the Point Cook coastline and sending the treetops into a frenzy.

A lonely shutter clattered rhythmically nearby and an enormous iron hanger door let out a weary groan somewhere along the deserted row of 90-year-old buildings. My nerves were frayed, and it took all my will to shine a torch through the building’s dusty window and peer inside.

There radiates a rich energy in the base that has been home to some of Australia’s great men.

While they don’t pre-date many of the Army’s majestic sandstone offices in both Sydney’s and Melbourne’s Victoria Barracks, there is still history in the almost century-old buildings that make up Point Cook’s heritage areas.

The wooden structures, most of which are no longer occupied, appear little more than withered shells of buildings during the daylight hours, but take on a much more eerie visage when the sun has gone down.

It’s little wonder then, that Point Cook is widely regarded as the Air Force’s most haunted base. Numerous ghost stories have arisen over the years, encompassing most of the heritage buildings in the area.

Some of them can be explained, such as the RAAF Museum’s occasional missing reference books or small items apparently being moved overnight.

Other occurrences cannot be explained, such as the heater that turned on one night, despite being sealed in behind a false display wall in the museum. The staff literally had to tear down the wall to turn the heater off.

Wing Commander Ken Llewelyn’s 1991 book Flight Into The Ages has a chapter “Guests of the Military”, detailing accounts of ghostly encounters on Australian air bases.

All but five pages of this chapter are devoted to Point Cook. “A RAAF guard accompanied by his dog on night patrol in December 1985 ... challenged an officer in what he took to be a WWI pilot’s uniform,” WGCDR Llewelyn writes.

“The guard’s dog was unusually ferocious when the challenge was made. The officer refused to obey the guard’s instructions and continued on his merry way. The frustrated guard forcefully repeated his challenge [but] the figure simply disappeared.”

It’s incidents such as this, or the pilot that was often seen walking past the base’s fire section, that kept running through my mind as I peered inside the office building.

I started to wonder what had led me to believe a midnight wander around Australia’s most haunted airbase was a good idea for a story. Point Cook is the oldest Air Force base in Australia and the oldest continually operating airfield in the world.

Many of Australian military aviation’s pinnacle moments happened on this coastal stretch of land, about an hour’s drive from Melbourne.

The Central Flying School was first established at Point Cook in February 1914, operating two B.E. biplanes, two Deperdussin monoplanes and a Bristol Boxkite out of canvas hangers and tents.

The site had been chosen by Lieutenant Henry Petre, an English barrister who had taught himself to fly and had even built his own aircraft before being selected by the Australian Government to be one of the military’s first pilots.

Australia’s first military flight left the runway at Point Cook on the morning March 1, 1914. It was that same afternoon when LT Petre snared a telephone wire and crashed one of the monoplanes – Australia’s first military aviation accident.

LT Petre survived the crash and went on to lead the first flying training course in August, 1914, and later the ill-fated Australian First Half Flight, which deployed to Mesopotamia in 1915.

The four pilots in this flight included Lieutenant George Merz, the first Australian pilot killed in action during World War I.

LT Merz had been forced to land with engine trouble during a flight from Nasiriyeh to Basra and, along with his New Zealand observer, was set upon and killed by an Arabic tribe.

LT Merz, a qualified medical doctor, had worked through the previous night treating wounded in Nasiriyeh before making the fatal flight.

Captain Thomas White was another distinguished member of the First Half Flight.

CAPT White was captured in Mesopotamia in November 1915, escaped in 1918, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1919, commanded a British air base during World War II and accompanied a number of bomber missions over Europe, became the Minister for Air and Civil Aviation in 1949 and was knighted in 1952.

Then there’s No. 1 Squadron’s Lieutenant (later Air Vice- Marshal) Francis McNamara, the only Australian airman to be awarded the Victoria Cross during WWI.

LT McNamara had seen one of his fellow pilots land with engine trouble during an aerial bomb attack on a hostile train. With enemy cavalry approaching, LT McNamara landed his own aircraft under heavy fire.

Despite suffering a leg wound, he helped the stranded pilot onboard and attempted to take off, but was unable to keep his aeroplane straight and it turned over.

The two pilots set LT McNamara’s machine on fire and made for the other aircraft, which they managed to start and fly 70 miles back to the aerodrome. LT McNamara’s squadron was commanded by Captain (later Air Marshal) Richard Williams, who was strongly involved in establishing the Royal Australian Air Force and went on to become the first Australian Chief of Air Staff in 1922.

These men, and many others who served with such great distinction during WWI, trained at the newly established Point Cook airbase.

I had planned, at one point, to spend a night in one of the deserted buildings, but the reaction of the base personnel I spoke to changed my mind.

Nobody laughed at me when I said I intended to write a feature on the ghosts of Point Cook, and while no one was willing to go on record, they all could relate haunting experiences – either their own or a friend’s – and it was hearing of staff refusing to go into buildings, day or night, that I decided to scratch the idea of a sleepover.

I’ve never seen anything “supernatural” – never had a bad feeling about a place – but one has to accept that unless the storyteller is lying, there are happenings that cannot be explained.

I shone the torch through the grimy window and into what looked like a lecture hall in the office building, which is attached to a hanger that once housed seaplanes.

The room was empty, save for some desks pushed up against the wall and the long shadows that stretched off into the far corner.

My heartbeat returned to a more normal rate and the hairs on the back of my neck receded after that early hesitation, and I walked the rest of the way along the building’s front, shining the torch in each window to illuminate the interior.

The wind continued to charge between the buildings with no particular direction and pushed against me with renewed strength as I emerged into the open gap between the office block and the hanger up ahead. CAPT White lost control of the Bristol Boxkite once while trying to land on September 12, 1914.

He came down the runway, which runs perpendicular to the strip of buildings, too high and too fast, and crashed into the first permanent hanger built on the site.

CAPT White apparently walked away unharmed, but the hanger still bears the scar, a deep indentation above its heavy iron doors.

It’s a reminder of the courage it took to fly in the early days of aviation, when aircraft engines lacked power and reliability, and flimsy airframes would do little to protect a pilot, even from a minor crash.

The first flight across Australia departed from Point Cook in 1919, with Captain (later Air Vice-Marshal) Henry Wrigley in the cockpit After WWI, in which he received a Distinguished Flying Cross, AVM Wrigley devoted his career to developing air power doctrine, establishing himself as Australia’s first authoritative commentator on the subject.

Australia’s first air-sea rescue flight was also made from Point Cook. Flying instructor Captain William Stutt and his mechanic Sergeant Abner Dalzell left Point Cook in a De Havilland 9A biplane on September 5 1920, to search for a missing schooner, Amelia J, which had disappeared while crossing Bass Strait.

A second plane also joined the search, piloted by Major William Anderson, who saw CAPT Stutt’s aircraft fly into a cloud and disappear. Despite extensive searches, the missing aircraft and schooner were never found.

I wandered the desolate row of buildings in the darkness. There have been some terrifying accounts, such as some of the recorded occurrences in the fire section at Point Cook.

Many of the Air Force firemen who occupied the fire section on 24- hour shifts, until it was closed down in the 1990s, claimed to have a resident ghost in their building. WGCDR Llewelyn recorded accounts of the ghost “rattling cups, opening doors and causing the floor to creak with his footsteps”.

“Leading Aircraftman Nick Dennis had no experience or knowledge of the haunted fire section when he was awakened around 2am in May 1989 by tapping on the window and the sound of someone talking.”

According to LAC Dennis, the voice was saying, “Can you remember back to 1980?”. As he rolled over, the voice said, “I saw your leg move”. Another Air Force fireman had a more terrifying experience while sleeping in the firehouse during the same year.

“This young fireman actually felt unseen hands pressing down on his legs and shoulders,” WGCDR Llewelyn writes. “Although a powerfully built man, he was unable to raise himself from his bed.” This happened to the same man on three different occasions during mid-1989, after which he refused to work on night shift.

As I neared the western end of the row of hangers, I couldn’t help but glance at the air traffic control tower. A figure has been seen in the unused tower on several occasions, although the tower’s not particularly old. The previous air traffic control tower was also the centre of a string of unusual occurrences before it was pulled down.

An airman hanged himself there and the base firemen claimed to see his outline in the vacant building as lights turned on and off.

Having reached the end of the row, I’d successfully challenged my fear and kept my nerves in check. The hanger building I had reached was a little different to the others.

Grey in colour and with no windows, it once held a German aircraft, brought back to Australia after WWI in secret, which was kept on the airbase and examined by some of the military’s top technicians.

The unnamed but highly advanced aircraft apparently took Australian aviation in new directions and shaped the future of aircraft technology development.

Having reached the end of my selfguided tour, I’d explored at midnight a section of Point Cook that some of the base’s guard patrols have apparently refused to enter after dark.

I’ve walked the same ground that the Air Force’s founding fathers walked as they built an entirely new kind of warfare based on emerging technology.

The old buildings have stood through some of Australian aviation’s pioneering moments, its greatest successes and most tragic disasters.

The wind was beginning to die down as I turned to look back along the row of buildings. Having made it this far, I didn’t expect it would be too much trouble to walk the 500m back through the strip of old buildings and return to my car.

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