Flying an aircraft under the Sydney Harbour Bridge is not a common occurrence. On the rare occasions that it has been achieved, the pilot has generally become an overnight celebrity.
But when Sgt Vernon Stannard went under the bridge in an Anson flown by Flight Sergeant Dempster on 8 July 1943, closely followed by several other aircraft, there was no official record of the event, despite its being seen by thousands of people around the harbour.
Vern Stannard had spent June and July 1943 at Bairnsdale, Victoria, flying Ansons and doing a course at No 1 General Reconnaissance School. The highlight was a shipping patrol up the coast to Sydney to land at Mascot, refuel and do a reconnaissance of Port Jackson on July 8, 1943 and stay overnight. It was thought a flight of planes floating around over the harbour would be a good morale booster.
"At Mascot, when I opened our sealed orders giving our maximum and minimum flying heights and where to fly (east or west of the bridge), I said to my pilot, F/Sgt Dempster; 'we're going to do this like the real thing. If anyone is going to shoot at me they are going to have to shoot at their mates on the other side of the harbour. We'll do it at 100 feet'," Vern said.
Dempster said they couldn't do that as they had to fly as ordered and anyway he couldn't climb up over the bridge from that low.
I handed him our orders and said: 'This says below 600 feet (somebody had forgotten to type in and above 500 feet) and battleships sail under the bridge'. 'So they do,' said Dempster, 'and you're going to order me down, I hope.'
"And so down we went under the big coat hanger, up and over Pyrmont, Sydney Town Hall, Hyde Park and the Botanical Gardens in time to follow the first of the others under the bridge."
Altogether six aircraft flew under the bridge, Vern's plane made the trip four times, three others went under three times and the others flew under the bridge twice.
"Round and round we went, all of us. First time round there were a couple pushing prams through the park. The last time it held more heads than blades of grass, every window and vantage point was crammed with people and it seemed every car in Sydney had squeezed on to the bridge.
"We would have got away with it too because as a morale booster it seemed a resounding success. Unfortunately, bringing Sydney to a standstill was one thing, stopping the conduct of the war was another thing altogether.
"When I booked a bed for the night (I was one of the few who had no relatives in Sydney) the receptionist said: 'Were you in those planes playing chasey under the bridge? If you were you're in real trouble because among those VIPs you trapped on the bridge for an hour and a half was your big boss, Air Vice Marshal Jones.'
"How right she was. Officially no one flew under the bridge before Isaacson in his Lancaster one year later, so it never happened - well not officially anyway," Vern said ruefully.
All 24 aircrew involved were posted to separate units around Australia. Vernon was posted to 71 Squadron near Lowood in Queensland where his training in aerial photography was used to produce a stereo mosaic of Moreton Bay.
About three months later the authorities relented and nearly all of the 24 'miscreants' were posted to No 1 Operational Training Unit at Sale.
The material for this article was supplied by Vern Stannard of East Victoria Park, in Western Australia
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