The Mystery of the Southern Cloud
On 21 March 1931 the Southern Cloud set off for Melbourne from Mascot Aerodrome in Sydney, which is now Sydney’s Kingsford Smith International Airport. The pilot, Travis “Shorty” Shortridge, had flown combat missions in World War I, just like Smithy. He had a co-pilot and six passengers.
Before they left, the pilots checked the weather forecast. It looked okay. But after they took off, the forecast changed, and a terrible storm was predicted over the Snowy Mountains, right in the Southern Cloud’s flight path. Because the plane didn’t carry a radio, there was no way to warn the pilot. He was on his own.
The Southern Cloud never arrived at Melbourne. What happened?
The Snowy Mountains were a formidable obstacle in the late 1920s, when aeroplanes, especially loaded with passengers, luggage and cargo, flew slow and low. The range lies exactly between Sydney and Melbourne. There are several peaks reaching over 2,000 meters, and the area is well known for its unpredictable and intense storms.
Two campers experienced the fickle nature of the Snowy Mountains on New Year’s Eve in 1999, in the middle of the Australian summer. After a beautiful day with clear blue skies, they ended up having to camp out in extremely strong winds, hail and snow. The next morning, there were wind-blown icicles on the tent’s ropes. In August that same year, in the middle of winter, four snowboarders had hiked out onto the Main Range with an early forecast of a “fine day with no chance of snow and a minimum temperature of -6 [degrees centigrade]“. By noon that day, they were battling strong winds up to 100 km/h, snow, and a wind-chill of -20. Stuck in a four-day storm, they died in their snow cave and weren’t found until the spring. If the storm on 21 March 1931 was anything like those two 70 years later, then the Southern Cloud was probably doomed.
After the Southern Cloud disappeared, it was concluded that the plane had not been able to get through the storm. The plane’s top speed was only 160km/h, so with winds up to 150km/h it is possible the plane made no headway at all. There was some speculation it may have even been hurled backwards. It would have been tossed and thrown about in the turbulent air, and the pilot may have flown lower to try to get under the clouds. Because of the powerful winds, though, he may not have realised how slowly he was flying, and may not have known he was still over the high peaks of the Snowy Mountains. Perhaps he’d taken his machine down, thinking he was close to Melbourne’s lower terrain instead of still high up in the Snowies’ rugged heights.
Not far from Mt Jagungal, over 2,000 meters high, the Southern Cloud flew straight into the side of a steep mountain ridge.
It would not be found until 1958.
The Crash Site
On 26 October 1958, a worker on the Snowy Hydro-electric Scheme named Tom Sonter was bushwalking on his day off. Near the little dam at Deep Creek, he came across the twisted wreck of a plane, and found some skeletons too. The mystery was finally solved.