Obituaries Australia

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: use double quotes to search for a phrase
  • Tip: lists of awards, schools, organisations etc

Browse Lists:

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

William Selwyn (1922–2010)

by Malcolm Brown

There could be fewer messages more chilling for a pilot to be told than that a bomb might be on board and it would go off if he went below a certain altitude.

Captain William Selwyn, on Qantas Flight 755, got that message at 1.30pm on May 26, 1971, not long after he had left Sydney Airport with 116 passengers, four flight crew and eight cabin crew on a flight to Hong Kong.

Selwyn was then flying his Boeing 707, City of Broken Hill, at 35,000 feet, over Dalby in Queensland. Now he was told that he would have to stay above 20,000 feet until further notice.

On the ground, optional plans were made to divert the plane to Canberra, the highest location in the country where a four-engined jet could land. It would be touch-and-go getting the plane down there if there really was a bomb.

The plane was instead diverted to Brisbane. The passengers were told there was a technical problem but not that there was a bomb. When the plane was diverted again to Sydney, passengers were told that Brisbane would not accept the flight.

Air crew and cabin crew, receiving instructions from Sydney, searched City of Broken Hill from top to bottom, probing every nook and cranny where a bomb might have been secreted. As they ripped out panels and opened things up, passengers were told just that the crew were looking for ''an object''.

Selwyn made his way to Sydney at minimal speed, using up time as negotiations continued on the ground between Qantas officials and the man who said he had planted the bomb on the plane, Peter Macari, known at the time as ''Mr Brown''.

Macari had left a gelignite bomb in a locker at Sydney Airport, with an altimeter. He had left letters saying he needed $500,000, after which he would say where the bomb was on the plane.

As the hours went by, Selwyn, circling at sea off Mascot, watched his fuel gauge. He told controllers he would have to land his aircraft at 7pm at the latest.

At 5.45pm the general manager of Qantas, Captain R. J. Ritchie, handed over the money in two suitcases to Macari and at 6.10pm Macari rang to say there was no bomb on the plane. At 6.13pm, Qantas radioed to say: ''We have been advised there is nil – repeat nil – bomb on board. Please advise your cabin altitude and aircraft altitude.''

Selwyn replied: ''Roger. Cabin altitude 11,000 feet. Aircraft altitude 22,000 feet. Stable at 22,000.'' At 6.40pm he began his descent.

''It was the most frightening thing,'' he said later. ''We came below 20,000 feet and no bomb went off!'' When the plane reached the tarmac it had only 16 minutes of fuel left.

An army bomb disposal expert said later that he had never met such cool courage in all his 34 years' service.

Macari made off with the money and was later arrested. A lot of the money was recovered and Selwyn, who had kept his cool throughout, became a hero.

William Selwyn was born at Rose Bay on February 24, 1922, the younger son of Sydney Selwyn, a Sydney policeman who had won a Military Medal as a stretcherbearer in World War I, and his wife, Evelyn Fowler.

Leaving school in an era still beset by the Great Depression, Selwyn became a telegram boy with the Postmaster-General's Department. When World War II broke out he joined the RAAF and entered the Empire Training Scheme. He ended up in England, where he was posted to 36 Squadron Coastal Command, in the Royal Air Force.

Selwyn flew Wellington bombers on anti-submarine patrols in North Africa, Italy and the Outer Hebrides. While he was based in the Mediterranean, his plane developed serious mechanical problems and he ordered the crew to bale out while he tried to land it. The crew had faith in him, and stayed as he made a very rough landing, skidded across the airstrip and hit another plane, wiping out the entire stock of Christmas alcohol that had been brought in for the base.

Selwyn saw his first enemy submarine a few days after Germany surrendered. At war's end, he returned to Sydney and flew for Cathay Pacific for a time. He then took a job, operating out of Camden airport, flying DC3s to deliver The Sydney Morning Herald to country areas.

In 1966 he married Christina Hobb, nee Morrison. Leaving his Herald job, Selwyn flew for MacRobertson Miller Airlines in Western Australia, where he took with relish to the opportunities coastal fishing had to offer. Fishing, along with serious swimming and tennis, were his recreations.

Selwyn then flew for Qantas. After the bomb hoax, Qantas asked him to retrain as a pilot on the newly introduced 747s but he decided that retirement was a better option and stopped work at the end of 1971.

Selwyn left Wilton, south of Sydney, where he had been living, for Bendigo in Victoria to be near his stepson. He is survived by his widow and stepson, Michael Greenwood, four granddaughters and two great-grandsons, and his brother, Robert.

Original publication

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Selwyn, William (1922–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024