Police in the air : villains pursued by aeroplane in 1927

History was made in Camooweal, Queensland at Christmas 1927 when, in a well planned heist, four criminals stole the best car in town and, with a load of stolen provisions, set off the the Northern Territory border. This photograph of an aeroplane in the main street of Camooweal is what led me to discover the story.

Aeroplane in the main street of Camooweal, ca. 1929, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 46425

Aeroplane in the main street of Camooweal, ca. 1929, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 46425

This photo is one of a number that I have included in a new album on Flickr illustrating the history of QANTAS on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of their first regular service to and from Brisbane, which commenced on 17 April 1929. In this case the QANTAS aircraft was not engaged in its regular service but had been contracted for a more urgent purpose. I discovered the details of the case in two reports in the press discovered through TROVE, the National Library’s gateway to digitised newspapers and more. Reports were found in the Queensland Times of Ipswich, 4 January 1928 and Sydney publication The Farmer and Settler , 8 January 1928.

It seems items had gone missing from houses and shops for several weeks but the police were not informed until eight cases of petrol were stolen from a local garage. Then, on Christmas Eve, the best car in the town was reported stolen by its owner, a Mr O’Malley. It being thought impossible to catch up with the thieves in their stolen vehicle by ordinary means, some bright spark came up with the idea of calling in an aeroplane from the QANTAS base at Cloncurry. A quick whip around raised funds to hire a plane and a wire was sent to Cloncurry and pilot Fleck took off in the Gypsy Moth pictured, arriving in Camooweal some three hours later.

First car in Camooweal, 1911, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 76520

First car in Camooweal, 1911, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 76520

The police having established the route the thieves must have taken, the plane with a police sergeant and Mr O’Malley aboard set off in pursuit. The plane flew ahead of where the villains could have arrived, to Headingly Station in the Northern Territory where they borrowed a car and set off back towards Queensland in order to cut off the escape route. When they caught up with the thieves, they were undeterred by the revolvers pointed at them, proclaiming that they were in the Northern Territory and out of Queensland Police jurisdiction. The wily police sergeant, however, simply reclaimed the stolen car and waited on the Queensland border, knowing that the thieves would have to return to find water, at which point they were promptly arrested and taken back to Camooweal to stand trial.

The thieves had planned their robbery well, having more than three months’ provisions on board the car. They were bound for Barrow’s Creek in Central Australia. It is believed that this is the first occasion In Australia on which an aeroplane has been used to track down criminals. The machine travelled over 400 miles from the time it was engaged until the thieves were picked up.

Our Flickr album QANTAS : outback airline includes photographs of a number of other aerial firsts.

Avro aeroplane part of the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service, , John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 71953

This AVRO 504K was the first aircraft in the QANTAS fleet, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 71953

QANTAS biplane BE 2E was the first plane to fly from Sydney to Melbourne in one day, ca. 1921, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 62424

QANTAS biplane BE 2E was the first plane to fly from Sydney to Melbourne in one day, ca. 1921, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 62424

Tri-wing Avro 547 aeroplane, owned by Qantas, ca. 1921, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 194172

This Avro triplane was the first prototype of a new design made to carry four passengers, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 194172

Empire flying boat Cooee, operated by QANTAS, circling over Brisbane, 1938, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 60428

Empire flying boat Cooee first landed in Brisbane 5 July 1938 on its inaugural Singapore service, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 60428

Simon Miller – Library Technician, State Library of Queensland