Australia

The Australian 9/11: The Forgotten Legacy Of The Connellan Air Disaster

The aftermath of the crash. Inset: An image of the culprit, Colin Richard Forman

The aftermath of the crash. Inset: An image of the culprit, Colin Richard Forman

Two decades before terrorists hijacked planes in the United States and flew them into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, a deranged pilot in the Australian outback carried out a similar destructive mission with horrifying results.

The Connellan Air Disaster, as it became known, has been all but forgotten by all but those involved in the tragedy and the families of the victims. 39 years have passed since Colin Richard Forman deliberately flew a stolen plane into the offices of his former employer in the central Australian city of Alice Springs, killing four and injuring four others.

Part of the reason that so few know of the incident is that the families of some of the victims have chosen to avoid talking about it to the media or to historians. Despite the long years that have passed, the pain of the event is still too much to bear, and too fresh in the minds of those left behind. The Central Australian Aviation Museum, which itself is located inside the original Connellan Airways hangar, bears no mention of the disaster. It is as though this event never occurred at all.

While the story attracted considerable media attention in Australia in January 1977, within weeks it had dropped out of newspapers and television reports when the Granville rail disaster occurred in Sydney, killing 83 and remaining to this day the single worst train derailment in Australian history in terms of fatalities. While the Connellan Air Disaster would be remembered locally, it soon dropped out of public focus in Australia.

Even after the tragic event of 9/11 in the United States, the Connellan Air Disaster remained forgotten; several media outlets claimed, at the time, that the terrorist acts at the World Trade Center and Pentagon were ‘the first recorded deliberate acts of aircraft being flown into buildings”.

30 years after the Connellan Air Disaster, a local newspaper covered the tragedy in one of the most detailed published accounts on record. Colin Richard Forman, the perpetrator of the crime, was a disgruntled former employee of Connair and just 23 years of age at the time.

Forman was described by some as a shy young man, who was hard to get along with and ‘slightly overweight’. He was English by birth, and had travelled to Australia in the early 1970s; the exact date is unknown, but those familiar with the case estimate sometime between 1971-73. He first arrived in Melbourne, where he made a living as a tram driver. However, he reportedly had trouble to adapting to life in Australia, and went so far as trying to forge a plane ticket back to England to return to his home country.

The attempt failed after the authorities discovered the forgery, and Forman received a conviction for the crime. This conviction would have grim consequences for Forman’s life in future, but in the meantime he appeared resigned to the fact he was stuck in Australia and looked for alternative employment. Moving up from driving trams, Forman travelled to New South Wales where he began training for a commercial pilot’s licence, which he would receive in November 1975.

With his sights set on a career as a pilot, Forman made the journey to Alice Springs in the centre of the country to apply for a position at Connair, at that time a moderately-sized airline offering passenger and cargo services in northern Australia. While he was offered a job, it was little more than a glorified cabin attendant role and didn’t involve much actual flying. A mere seven weeks after he started at the airline, they discovered that he’d been previously convicted of the ticket forgery, which was enough for management to terminate his contract.

Forman didn’t take the news well, although he did move on to another airline – Ord Air Charter – where he was given a role with actual flying duties. However, he fared no better at this company after receiving numerous complaints for his cavalier flying style. Within a few months he found himself also being terminated from this position. Depressed, Forman made the move from Kununurra in Western Australia to Mount Isa in Queensland, hoping to find some flying work in a new town where his past indiscretions were unknown.

An image of an aircraft operated by Connair

An image of an aircraft operated by Connair

Not much is recorded of Forman’s time in Mt Isa, although he was reportedly a member of the local aero club. It is believed that Forman began plotting his revenge on Connair while living here, although why he singled out this past employer amongst the others that had fired him remains unclear to this day. Ultimately, in January of 1977, Forman decided upon an action that would leave four of his former colleagues dead.

Investigators who raided Forman’s flat in Mt Isa in the aftermath of the crash would discover grim evidence linked to the crime. Forman had trashed the contents of his rented property, and built what was described by some sources as an ‘altar’. Atop this altar lay a few mementos of his time as a pilot, including a trophy he’d won for topping his class at an aviation academy. Far more disturbing was his pilot’s log book, which lay open with the details of the suicide mission he planned to fly into Connair’s offices, and the words: “The End”.

Forman would leave Mt Isa and make the long journey by road to Wyndham in Western Australia, a 22 hour drive. It was here that Forman knew he’d be able to steal a much larger plane than those available at Mt Isa – and much better for his evil plan. Arriving in the early hours of January 5, 1977, Forman first tried to steal a large plane belonging to the Royal Flying Doctor’s Service; however, he failed to get both engines running and abandoned it on the tarmac. The next largest plane at the field was a Beechcraft Baron; a far smaller craft, but still suitable for his purposes.

Once in the air, there was little that could be done to foil Forman’s plan. He covered the distance from Wyndham to Alice Springs in four hours, but then spent an hour flying pointless circles to waste time. His reasoning, investigators believe, was to strike at 10:00AM – the usual morning break time – and thus maximize the potential casualties. What Forman had forgotten, of course, was the time difference between Western Australia and the Northern Territory. As a result, the impact occurred at 11:00 AM, potentially sparing a few victims.

The first sign to those on the ground of Forman’s intention was a message broadcast to the Alice Springs control tower in the minutes before the crash. “It is better to die with honour than live without it” he allegedly said to the air traffic controller, before slamming the stolen plane into Connair’s offices.

The fuel tank on the Baron’s wing burst into flames, and the ensuing blast ripped holes in the front and back of the office. Three employees on site were killed instantly; another died in hospital five days later from horrific burns. Four other employees were injured – two critically – but they ultimately did survive after extended treatment.

A suicide letter penned by Forman was later received by the Department of Transport, outlining his reasoning for the attack. In the letter, he explained he wanted to “kill and maim as many employees of Connair Pty Ltd as possible… I am forced to the degrading practice of living on the dole [unemployment benefits] as I have been unable to find another job and my meagre savings have nearly run out. I have therefore decided to end my life in what I hope will be a quick and painless way, and at the same time make a protest regarding by treatment by Connair.’

Next year will mark the fortieth anniversary of Forman’s vile act, but there remains no monument to the victims of the tragedy. While the pain of that day may live on for those affected, some locals have asked if enough time has now passed for a permanent memorial to be built in Alice Springs.

For the moment, though, it appears it may still be some time before such a plan gets the go ahead. One thing remains certain: while the families of those who lost their lives in the attack will never forget the horrible actions of Forman, his own family completely disowned him in the aftermath of the crash. Investigators tried, without success, to find any living relatives of Forman back in England, and completely failed. His murderous deed was enough to warrant his own relatives forever turning their backs on him.

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