73-year-old spitfire mystery solved

M

ore than 70 years after Flight Sergeant Colin Duncan fought his way from the burning cockpit of his Spitfire, its twisted wreckage — spotted from the air by pilots in recent months — is set to become a museum piece.

crashsiteThe crash site, in a rarely- visited patch of Litchfield National Park far from established tracks, was described in military records as “rough country” and is likely why Duncan’s plane, unlike many other wrecks, remained undiscovered and unpilfered.

The remoteness of the crash site — which is now protected by the Heritage Act — is likely also why rescue crews took five days to reach Duncan after he crashed on June 30, 1943.

In following days, his mates dropped him food and cigarettes along with a note saying: “You owe me a beer for all this.”

Military records show Duncan, who died in 1992 after battling cancer, followed a typical path to war, learning to fly Spitfires in England, where he was flying photographic reconnaissance missions when the Japanese bombed Darwin.

In an in interview before his death with fellow pilot and historian Jim Grant, Duncan told how he forced the canopy of his plane open, while his legs were on fire, when the rip cord came off in his hands.

“I realised then I had a battle on my hands — a red hot engine, a stuck canopy and the possibility of one or more Zeros following me,” he said.

Duncan, a carpenter before the war, went on to play cricket for Victoria and run a successful building company.

Darwin Aviation Historical Society president Tony Simons said the find was significant. “It’s another piece of the puzzle, putting together the history of the aircraft that defended Darwin,” he said.

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He welcomed the site’s protection, saying too many wrecks had been picked over for parts, find it all in this site.

In a statement, a Tourism and Culture Department spokesman said plans were being made to make sure the wreckage was preserved or displayed in a meaningful way.

The NT News understands the Australian War Memorial, which declined to comment, is heavily interested in putting the wreckage on display.

Several experts said its collections relating to the air war over Northern Australia were weak.

The wreck itself effectively remains the property of the air force, which is spearheading recovery efforts, due to start in early October.

Tourism and Culture Minister Lauren Moss, who signed off on the wreckage’s legal protection in recent days, said the discovery was “of high significance for all Australians, in particular Territorians”.

Spitfire Association president Lysle Roberts said only two pilots from Duncan’s squadron were known to be still alive, both in poor health with little memory of the war.

He said Duncan’s 452 Squadron was highly regarded, but suffered more casualties because they were often sent in to “hairier” missions.

“When (the Japanese) arrived here they were already battle hardened,” he said.

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