Swansea is a small town on the east coast of Tasmania.
This story begins in triumph, but ends in heartbreak. My thanks to friend and fellow history buff Margaret Schmidt for bringing it to my attention.
In December 1933, 17 year old Swansea resident Mabel Cotton completed her flying instruction at Brighton aerodrome. It took her under seven hours, as apposed to the average of nine. ‘In consideration of the fact that Miss Cotton had no previous instruction whatsoever, and had been a passenger in an aeroplane on two previous occasions only, the accomplishment probably constitutes a record for a woman pilot. (Mercury December 6, 1933)
Subsequently, Miss Cotton began her nursing training at the Hobart General Hospital.
It was hardly surprising that back home on the family property of Kelvedon, Mabel’s younger sister Jean also developed a keen interest in aviation. On February 6 1936, three R.A.A.F Hawker Demon planes from the mainland made a ‘demonstration’ visit to Swansea aerodrome. The plan was to then continue on to Launceston. Jean and her parents, Louisa and Arthur Cotton had planned a day at the beach, but decided to watch the planes instead.
Jean in particular had a wonderful time that day. She was shown over the plane piloted by Pilot Officer Eric Lansell, and was even invited to sit in the cockpit.
Around 200 spectators watched as the aircraft finally took to the air around 2.30pm. The first two lifted off without incident, but Lansell’s plane failed to rise in time and ploughed into a section of the crowd.
Many people had been startled by the plane’s increasing proximity and escaped by flinging themselves to the ground. Tragically, being more familiar with planes, Jean and her mother had a misplaced sense of confidence. ‘ Oh, it will rise in a minute’, Mrs Cotton said, and Jean happily waved to the pilot until it was too late.
Mother and daughter were struck by the propellor, both suffering shocking, fatal injuries.
Ella Graham, another local, had been standing a few metres back, against a fence. She was hit by Jean Cotton’s body. Her physical injuries included broken ribs, a lacerated chin and a badly bruised thigh. Her mental trauma can only be imagined. Thomas Watt, from Prince of Wales Bay, had ducked, but was hospitalized with a scalp wound.
Meanwhile the disabled Hawker Demon climbed into the air, but its propellor was badly damaged and its undercarriage had collapsed. In the midst of his unthinkable loss, Arthur Cotton was heard to say that he hoped the plane would land safely, which miraculously it did. He would later send Eric Lansell a message of deep sympathy.
A clearer image of the broken propeller and damaged undercarriage;
COTTON – On February 6, 1936, at Swansea, Louisa Kate, beloved wife of A.T. Cotton of Kelvedon, Swansea, aged 50 years (result of accident).
Cotton – On February 6, 1936, at Swansea, Jean, beloved daughter of A.T. Cotton and the late Louisa Kate Cotton, of Kelvedon, Swansea, aged 19 years (result of accident).
Following a very large funeral service, Mother and daughter were buried at Kelvedon. It was a beautiful resting place, as the following photos dated 1930 demonstrate.
The Cotton family was highly respected and the tragic deaths deeply affected the community.
A, Coronial Inquest found that the plane, which had a new Rolls Royce engine, was mechanically sound and that pilot error was the main cause of the tragedy. However, the Coroner also made the following, strong statement; ‘People should not be allowed to get in front of these machines in any circumstances. It should never have happened, and people should have been warned. The machines apparently were taken up to one end of the ground, the people at the other end, and the machines driven straight at them. It must be remembered that aviation was still in its infancy, and virtually unregulated compared to today’s standards.
Despite the finding of gross negligence and young Lansell subsequently being committed for trial on a charge of manslaughter, criminal action did not proceed.
Arthur Cotton lost a third family member to the RAAF in WWII. His son Max joined up on ANZAC Day 1941. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, but was killed in action in 1943.
The bulk of information for this article was located in TROVE, the free archive of Australian Newspapers.