The Albatross Arsonist

Summary of fire investigations at Naval Air Station H.M.A.S. Albatross, Nowra on 4 December 1976 

Detective Chief Inspector Harry Delaforce
A report on the investigation into what was the biggest peace-time act of destruction on Australia’s naval aircraft.

How teamwork unmasked the Albatross Arsonist

EDITORIAL NOTE

This article is from the July-September 1991 issue of the APJ. The article is based on a paper prepared by the author in 1977. After writing the paper he was promoted to be the Commander of the NSW Police Force’s Physical Evidence Section at Sydney Police Headquarters.

THE ARTICLE

About 11 :30 pm on Saturday, 4 December 1976 a fire commenced in 'H' hangar at HMAS Albatross near Nowra which destroyed the total naval surveillance and submarine detection aircraft of Australia. 

The fire occurred at a time when the air station was 'winding down' prior to most personnel leaving for annual vacation over the Christmas/New Year period. The consequences of this fire are still being felt today and, apart from bushfires, is by far the most costly and complex fire to ever have occurred in this country. 

The Naval Air Station is posi­tioned in a rural setting about 10 kilometres south-west of Nowra on the south coast of New South Wales and not far from Jervis Bay. It housed at the time of the fire, squadrons of helicopters, Skyhawk jet fighters, Macchi jet trainers, VIP and Grumman SE2 Tracker aircraft. 

HMAS Albatross in the 1970s. It is still a major facility for the Royal Australian Navy

This incident concerned the 12 Tracker aircraft comprising 816 and 851 Squadrons and two Hawker Siddley VIP aircraft. At the time of the fire the latter aircraft were standing on an apron close to the northern end of a hangar housing the 12 Tracker aircraft. The hangar was about 70 metres long by 46 metres wide, of arch type construction with corrugated walls and roof. It was orientated in a north-south direction. Located at the northern and southern ends of the hangar were gantries which each enclosed six along both side walls were work rooms. 

The northern half of the hangar was severely damaged by fire with the roof from that area collapsed on the floor. The southern half, while still standing, had heavy smoke and heat damage. Of the 12 aircraft in the hangar six were located under the collapsed roof while the remainder had been removed during and immediately after the fire. 

Local police were advised of the fire at 11.40pm when assistance in controlling the fire was sought from Nowra Fire Brigade. Because the air station was a Federal installation it came within Commonwealth jurisdiction and not that of New South Wales. This meant that in the initial stages all matters relating to the fire were controlled and handled by naval authorities. 

During the early hours of 5 December it became apparent to naval authorities that they didn't have the resources or expertise to investigate the cause of the fire. At 5.30am a message was received from Rear Admiral McDonald, Flag Officer Commanding the East Australian Area, seeking assistance from the New South Wales Police specialising in fire investigations. 

This request was acceeded to and at noon on 5 December, 1976 the first police scene investigators arrived at the air station. After discussions with naval authorities arrangements were made to have the hangar contents, surrounding area and damaged aircraft secured. The area was barricaded and roped off with guards posted 24 hours per day. This continued unchanged for 45 days until physical examinations were completed on 17 January 1977. During that time weather conditions varied between a heat wave and violent thunderstorms with strong winds. 

Upon reviewing the whole inquiry the most important decision made affecting the direction and final results of the investigation was that to secure the scene at the earliest moment.

Following the arrival of the main contingent of New South Wales Police a conference was held late in the afternoon involving both Naval and Commonwealth Police. At this meeting the control of and various roles in the investigation were determined together with a number of procedural and accommodation matters. Shortly afterwards a Naval Board of Inquiry was instituted. While the Board of Inquiry conducted its hearings separate to Police investigations, the two ran a parallel course because of close liaison and co­operation. 

An aerial photograph of the damaged hanger

Police investigations were directed towards two main areas. The first dealt with the physical examination of the fire scene and all matters considered to be asso­ciated with it in some way. The second aimed at establishing the identity of all duty personnel and other persons who were on Albatross shortly before, during and shortly after the fire. Included in this area was the obtaining and recording of information received from those persons about their movements, involvement and observations during the relevant periods. 

Responsibility for conduct of the fire scene examinations was given to Wollongong Scientific Investigation Section while the second role was in control of the Special Breaking Squad attached to the CIB, Sydney. They were assisted by detectives attached to Wollongong, Nowra and the Fraud and Motor Squads, Sydney. 

As the inquiry expanded, Police attached to Fingerprint Sections at Wollongong and Sydney became involved, as did members of the Scientific Investigation Section, Sydney. Over the course of the inquiry 34 New South Wales Police with a number of Commonwealth Police were involved. The latter performed the important role of liaison between State and Federal authorities.

On the first day of examinations a pair of chrome plated electrical side cutters were found in the sprinkler system control room at the southern end of 'H' hangar. These had apparently been used to cut a leather strap securing the handle of a valve controlling water flow to the sprinkler system. Upon examination this valve was found to be in the closed position. The following day a fingerprint expert from Wollongong developed por­tions of latent fingerprints on the handle and head of the side cutters. 

At the beginning of the investigation opinion varied as to whether the valve was closed deliberately, by accident or in panic during the very early stages of the fire. To resolve this situation it was decided to obtain finger and palm print impressions from all persons known or considered likely to have entered the sprinkler system control room during the fire or at any time recent to the development of the latent fingerprints.

Despite taking this course of action the latent fingerprints developed on the side cutters remained unidentified and no satisfactory explanation was found for the closed valve in the sprinkler room.

While the above was taking place physical examinations were being made of the fire scene. The hangar was divided into ten sections, each designated 'A' to 'J', to ensure that a proper and thorough examination was made. Each sec­tion approximated an area cov­ered by one of the six aircraft on the hangar floor. The intact south­ern end of the hangar and work rooms on either side comprised the remaining four sections.

A damaged / destroyed Grumman Tracker airplane

Examinations were completed in one area before commencing the next. As items or other matters arose of probable assis­tance to the investigation or of some evidentiary value, it was photographed in situ, position recorded by measurement, labelled, taken possession of and details entered into the recording system before being placed in a security area.

Numerous outside experts were brought to the fire scene either by Police or the Naval Board of Inquiry to cover an area of the investigation applicable to their particular expertise. Their attendance had to be arranged at a time when it was possible for them to make a meaningful examina­tion. As a result of discussions and liaison with them, Police put into motion requests made to have tests or experiments carried out.

The type and condition of mate­rial involved in the scene exami­nations made it necessary to use working parties comprised of navy personnel. They were utilised throughout the scene examinations and because they were untrained and not familiar with examination requirements of the Scientific Section investigators, constant supervision was necessary. This ensured items or matters of importance were not overlooked or destroyed. 

Naval photographers attached to Albatross and acting at the direction of the scene examiners were used to take, process, print and file the 2500 individual photographs involved. This course was adopted for security reasons and because the inquiry was of a service nature. 

Many separate scale plans were prepared to show the layout of 'H' hangar, position of aircraft and ground support equipment, furni­ture contained in all offices, electrical systems, water sprinkler system, roof trusses and skylights together with the general layout of the air station. 

When all collapsed roof covering and steel trusses had been removed, a terrestrial photogrammatry survey was made of the northern end of 'H' hangar. This was done before any of the items contained therein were disturbed or examined. The virtue of using this system to prepare scale plans is that once used, information coming to hand at some future date and not known at the time of the survey, can be visually checked and accurately placed on a scale plan whenever desired. 

Image from inside the hanger, some weeks after the fire.

As the inquiry progressed new lines of investigation arose from the physical examination of the scene. Some were of vital importance while others were neces­sary to provide information essential to the investigation such as supporting or rebutting theories advanced or those that inevitably would be advanced. Briefly these lines of investigation included: 

  1. Detailed examination as to the state of electrical installations and appliances in 'H' hangar.
  2. Normal operation of the fire sprinkler control and fire alarm systems and whether there had been any significant discharge of water from the sprinkler system on the night of 4 December 1976. 
  3. The accepted fuelling and defuelling procedures employed on Tracker aircraft and any prac­tice which departed from these recognised procedures.
  4. The state of all external doors and windows of 'H' hangar at the time the fire was discovered. 
  5. The key status in 'H' hangar and the movement of these keys. 
  6. The identification of keys recovered from the fire during scene examinations. 
  7. The composition of 851 Squadron tool control room as at 3 December 1976 and after the fire.
  8. An examination of the Air Station perimeter for signs of illegaI entry or other matter that could indicate entry to 'H' hangar from outside the base. 

On 9 December 1976 the investigation took a dramatic turn when experts from the Air Transport Group found evidence that a defuelling valve on one of the aircraft was in the open position when that aircraft was destroyed by fire. The whole approach to the inquiry then changed as investigators were almost certainly faced with the crime of arson.

Increased efforts were made to obtain the finger and palm print impressions of every person at Albatross on the night of 4 December 1976 for comparison with the latent fingerprints developed on the electrical side cutters. This was a mammoth task as more than 2000 people were involved. It was further complicated by prevailing heatwave conditions and by personnel having left the base and travelled interstate. 

It was pointed out to every person that the supply of impressions was purely on a voluntary basis with an assurance given that if supplied they would be used solely in relation to the fire investigation and later returned for destruction. 

The heatwave conditions initially made the task of obtaining suitable quality impressions almost impossible as perspiration pre­vented fingerprint ink from adhering evenly to the skin. This problem was overcome however by wiping perspiring hands with a cloth soaked in methylated spirits. As each person gave their finger and palm print impressions they were invited to complete two separate forms. The first form required them to set out their name, rank and where attached, and to agree or otherwise, that at no stage during the evening of Saturday, 4 December, or the morning of Sunday 5 December 1976 did they enter the sprinkler system control room for 'H' hangar nor had they entered that room on any other occasion prior to those dates.

The second form was in the nature of a questionnaire asking whether they were on the base at the time of the fire; in any case who they were with at the time; if on the base did they attend the fire; if so what they did and whether their normal or some other duty took them into 'H' hangar; if so the last occasion they were there; whether they were on duty watch the night of the fire; any knowledge they possessed as to the cause of the fire. 

This questionnaire was introduced to allow investigators to shorten interrogation of persons who for various reasons would obviously be of no assistance to the inquiry. To avoid the possibility of a guilty party arranging for a substitute to volunteer impressions, proof of identification was obtained from each person and when satisfactory an endorsement made at the foot of the questionnaire. 

When another defuelling valve of a second destroyed aircraft was found in the open position by air transport experts the necessity to establish the identity of all persons on Albatross during the night of 4 December 1976 became paramount. Without going into details it can be said that the task of identifying the latent fingerprints developed on the chrome plated side cutters was made very difficult because of variable factors involved with interpretation. 

One of the damaged Trackers outside the hanger

Notwithstanding that, an expert attached to the Central Fingerprint Bureau, Sydney (Detective Sergeant Jim Dowling), on 19 January 1977 identified the two partial fingerprints discovered on the electrical side cutters as those of the left thumb and right ring finger of Graham John Trent, of 851 Squadron. It was quite a breakthrough and had taken Sergeant Dowling weeks of painstaking comparisons and eliminations before the culprit's identity was finally revealed. 

Shortly afterwards Trent was taken into custody and in a recorded interview which he signed he admitted lighting the fire in 'H' hangar on the night of 4 December 1976. Prior to lighting the fire he had opened defuelling valves on two aircraft and closed the control valve supplying water to the sprinkler system. The side cutters were used to remove a leather strap securing this valve. 

On 20 January 1977 Trent voluntarily accompanied police to various locations around the air station re-enacting what he did on the night he lit the fire in 'H' hangar. As this took place his actions were recorded both in writing and by photography. 

In his record of interview Trent raised matters in relation to certain acts done by him on the evening of the fire. These matters could be fully supported by evidence although when found well before Trent was identified, their implications were not fully appreciated. They would only have been known to the person responsible for lighting the fire and, by falling into place, incriminated him further. 

By the time the investigation reached the above conclusion some 851 separate lines of inquiry had been followed. A total of 349 statements or records of interview were taken or conducted ranging from two to 15 pages. In excess of 100 items were recovered from the fire scene during examinations and held for evidentiary purposes. 

Naval officers had the responsibility of preparing the prosecution case against Trent which was presented to a Court Martial hearing held at HMAS Penguin, Sydney, during April 1977. The case was found to be established and Trent was detained at the Governor's pleasure. 

In conclusion, this investigation clearly demonstrated what can be achieved by teamwork, co-operation and DOING IT RIGHT THE FIRST TIME.

The author in 1991

EDITORIAL NOTE 2022

The following text is from the 6 December 2016 online issue of The South Coast Register

HMAS Albatross Tracker hanger fire remembered 40 years on

By Robert Crawford

LAST Sunday marked 40 years since one of the biggest disasters ever to strike HMAS Albatross and one of the biggest fires ever witnessed in the area.

On December 4, 1976 a hanger, home to 12 Grumman Tracker aircraft was intentionally set on fire, destroying all but three aircraft.

Six were totally destroyed, three were damaged beyond repair. Two were capable of repair and were returned to service, while one was at the Hawker de Havilland workshops in Bankstown at the time, undergoing inspection.  

At the time the Shoalhaven and Nowra News declared it a “Naval disaster”

For both Tracker squadrons, VC851 and VS816, it was a major setback.

The fire started around 11.30pm in 'H' hangar. The Trackers had been stowed close together for security and shared resources reasons. A navy report said they all had their tanks fully loaded with volatile aviation fuel to avoid water contamination from condensation forming in the fuel tanks over the upcoming Christmas period.

Around 100 Albatross personnel and local Nowra firefighters battled the blaze which took many hours to extinguish.

Six of the aircraft were dragged from the hanger, with in some cases naval personnel using their own vehicles to do so. Ropes were attached to tailhooks and the aircraft were dragged clear of the burning hanger.

The roof on the northern half of the hanger collapsed to the floor, trapping the remaining six aircraft, with fire severely damaged the southern half of the building.

It was later discovered the automatic water sprinklers had been turned off and two of the aircraft had had defuelling valves open, allowing highly flammable Avgas to leak all over the hanger floor.

A pair of chrome-plated electrical cutters used to cut the leather strap that normally restrained the sprinkler valve in the open position, were found in the sprinkler control room.

A fingerprint found on the tool was later used to identify an offender.

On 19 January 1977 a 19-year-old junior sailor Graham John Trent from 851 Squadron admitted to starting the fire. He was subsequently found to be mentally unstable at his court-martial.

Eric Woolley who served with the Nowra Fire Brigade for 37 years, and eventually became brigade captain, said it was the biggest fire he ever attended.

“I certainly remember that fire,” he said.

“It was the biggest fire the NSW Fire Brigade ever attended on a naval or defence force establishment.

“When we got there naval personnel were running around trying to do their best to put the fire out.

“The roof had already collapsed onto the Trackers and they were spraying water onto the roof.

“We had to take the assault to the fire and get inside. We were told it was impossible all the doors were locked.

“I went to one end where there was a big hanger door and gave it an almighty shove and it moved about a foot and we were able to get in.

“I vividly remember the first thing I saw was a melted Tracker propeller right in front of me.

“When the fire was all out, the captain in charge asked what we would like as a memento and I said that melted propeller. It hung in the Nowra Town Brigade’s building for many years.”

He said it wasn’t until sometime after they were alerted to the fact the fire had been deliberately lit.

“It wasn’t until later that we heard about the fuel lines being open and that explained the intensity of the fire, why it was so hot. There was fuel all over the place,” he said.

“The fuel was leaking and running everywhere - we used foam to try and stop it. It was a fair while until we managed to get it under control.

“Because there was so much fuel around, the planes they did manage to get outside would also catch fire, so we had a hanger on fire and aircraft outside on fire.”

Mr Woolley, who attended some of the area’s biggest fires including the ones that destroyed the John Bull Rubber Factory at Bomaderry (1985) and Advanx Westwood Tyre fire in Nowra (1966), said while those fires were both big blazes, in terms of monetary damage the HMAS Albatross fire was the biggest.

“The word was the fire cost around $50 million,” he said.

Mick Ison was deputy captain of the Nowra brigade at the time and remembers the fire vividly.

“I recall Captain Joe Hyam was away so the call came through to our place,” he said.

“We were initially told there was a tractor on fire.

“As we were driving past Keystone Valve on Albatross Road, I looked at the amount of smoke and said to Eric Woolley and Peter Murphy who were in the truck, by Christ it must be a big tractor!

“It wasn’t until we got there we discovered it was a hanger with Tracker aircraft inside.

“It turned out to be the most expensive commercial fire in Australia’s history. It may still be today?

“The biggest fire I ever went too.

“Considering it was fully alight when we got there I think we did a pretty good job.”

The fire cut the RAN Tracker fleet almost in half. Six trackers already on order were fast tracked from the US with an order placed for an additional 10 aircraft. Replacements were sort from the US from the Davis-Monthan US Air Force Base in the Arizona desert where they were stored for preservation. Sixteen aircraft were finally selected. In less than six months the fixed wing component of RAN naval aviation had been destroyed and resurrected with a better than ever capability.

Information for the newspaper article was gathered from HMAS Albatross A Collection of Memories and Flying Stations A Story of Australian Naval Aviation.

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