Errol Martin Kavanagh was born in Millicent, South Australia on 2 July 1944. He enlisted in the Royal Australian Navy from Mount Gambier, on 29 October 1962 as a midshipman, undertaking initial officer training at HMAS Cerberus, Westernport, Victoria.

Between 18 March and 25 Oct 1963, Midshipman Kavanagh undertook basic aircrew training at RAAF Base Point Cook, Victoria, learning to fly in CAC Winjeel trainer aircraft. Advanced flying training followed in November 1963 at RAAF Base Peace, Western Australia, where the young 19 year old converted to De Havilland Vampires. It was there that he was given the nickname ‘Clump’ and awarded his naval pilot’s ‘wings’ on 4 May 1964.

On 18 May 1964, the then Acting Sub-Lieutenant Kavanagh was appointed to 724 Squadron for operational flying training at NAS Nowra where he learnt to fly the Fairey Gannet Anti –Submarine aircraft before joining 816 Squadron in November 1964.

Between November 1964 and October 1966 Errol embarked variously in the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne (II) as a member of 816 Squadron, flying Gannets.  It was during that time that his natural ability as a pilot began to flourish and he was promoted, lieutenant, on 2 June 1966.

In October 1966 Lieutenant Kavanagh briefly joined 724 Squadron at NAS Nowra before being selected to train as a flying instructor. He was subsequently posted to the RAAF’s Central Flying School, East Sale, in January 1967, graduating as a Qualified Flying Instructor on 5 May that year. He was soon putting his newfound skills to good use at the Advanced Flying Training School (1AFTS), RAAF Base Pearce, as a pilot instructor. On 15 Nov 1967, at 23 years of age, he was appointed Senior Naval Officer at RAAF Base Pearce, assuming responsibility for naval aviators undergoing training.

This posting was to place Errol in good stead for his next appointment in November 1968 at the Operational Flying School (OFS), NAS Nowra. There he was among the first of the RAN’s pilots to convert to the newly acquired Douglas A4G Skyhawk fighter-bombers, an aircraft type he quickly mastered and one he would enjoy a close relationship with throughout its entire service life in the RAN.

On 19 November 1969, Lieutenant Kavanagh joined 724 Squadron as its senior pilot and OFS instructor. At that time the squadron was an all-jet unit comprising Vampires, Sea Venoms and Douglas A4G Skyhawks used for operational flying training, fleet requirements and trials. With the phasing out of Sea Venom and Vampire aircraft in 1970 the squadron was equipped with Macchi MB 326 jet trainers and three TA-4G two-seat trainers. 

In August 1971 Errol was selected to serve in the US at NAS Kingsville, Texas, as an exchange jet instructor with VT-22 Squadron. His role there was instructing student naval aviators in the final areas of training before transitioning to fleet assignments. On 31 January 1972 he completed the USN Air Training Command, Instructor Training Course, qualifying him to fly the TA-4J Skyhawk variant. Later that year he also completed courses of instruction qualifying him to fly A-7E Corsairs and to perform the duties of a Landing Signals Officer in aircraft carriers.


Although not yet 28 years of age, Errol Kavanagh was proving himself an experienced and highly capable officer and, with that in mind, he was selected to attend the Naval Post Graduate School, Monterey, California where he remained until 31 August 1973 before returning with his family to Australia in October and taking up an appointment with 724 Squadron. The following year he served at sea to hone his mariner skills and qualify as a bridge watch keeper.In June 1975 Lieutenant Commander Kavanagh was appointed to Navy Office as the staff officer responsible for aircrew postings, remaining in that role until 13 December 1976. On 31 December 1976 he was appointed the commanding officer of the Ton Class minesweeper HMAS Ibis and Commander of the Australian Mine Countermeasures Squadron.

In early January 1978  Errol was appointed the Commanding Officer of 724 Squadron. Again finding himself in the familiar cockpit of A4Gs, Errol became the first RAN pilot to log 1500 flying hours in Skyhawks during a night air-refuelling sortie in August 1978.

In August 1979 Lieutenant Commander Errol Kavanagh became the first RAN pilot to achieve 1500 hours in A4G Skyhawks while serving as the commanding officer of 724 Squadron, NAS Nowra. Photo: Sea Power Centre.

In December that year he was briefly appointed the Commanding Officer of 805 Squadron before embarking in HMAS Melbourne in January 1980 as the Deputy Head of the Air Department. 

Promoted commander on 31 December 1981 Errol’s next appointment was as the Area Director, Joint Intelligence Organisation at the Department of Defence, Canberra. He remained in that appointment for two years during which time the fixed-wing component of the Fleet Air Arm was dealt a blow from which it would not recover. A deal with Britain to replace the ageing aircraft carrier Melbourne with an Invincible class light aircraft carrier did not proceed and consequently the RAN’s fixed-wing aircraft were phased out of service, not to be replaced.
That decision saw numerous RAN aviators leave the Service or transfer to the Royal Australian Air Force in order to continue flying. Commander Kavanagh, although deeply disappointed, continued to serve joining the fleet oiler HMAS Supply as her executive officer on 6 January 1984. This proved to be Commander Kavanagh’s last sea-going appointment before undertaking the RAN Staff Course at the Joint Services Staff College in July 1985. On completion of that training he was appointed Deputy Director Naval Plans in Canberra before resigning his commission in November 1987 to fly privately operated Lear jets in support of the RAN fleet.
Commander Kavanagh continued to fly Lear jets for the next two years before joining QANTAS where he qualified as a Boeing 747 pilot flying internationally around the world. Although still flying, it was a far cry from piloting single seat jet aircraft and when an opportunity presented itself for him to pilot a privately operated MiG-15 jet, operated as a ‘war bird’, he embraced it. 
On 13 March 1993 Errol took off from runway 12 at Canberra Airport with an associate in the rear seat. After becoming airborne, the aircraft entered a climbing left turn levelling out at about 1,200 feet. At that point Errol detected a technical problem and requested a landing. The request was granted and instructions issued to land on runway 35. When the MiG was about 4km from the threshold of runway 35, it was seen to enter a steep nose-down attitude before crashing in open ground in the Canberra suburb of Narrabundah. Both Errol and his passenger were killed instantly.
A coronial investigation was conducted in July 1995 but following representation by Errol’s wife and experts in the aviation industry, the Bureau of Air Safety Investigation conducted a more thorough examination of the crash determining, inter alia:

‘…that an in flight fire, fuelled by an unknown source of combustible material, melted and burned the rudder and elevator control tubes located in the fuselage aft of frame 21. As a result of the damage to these items, control of the aircraft was lost making recovery impossible.’

Commander Errol ‘Clump’ Kavanagh’s funeral was conducted at the Duntroon Military College Chapel attended by family and his many friends. There he was remembered fondly as a loving husband and father, a man of absolute integrity and a professional and accomplished aviator who helped train a generation of RAN frontline jet pilots.

Errol Kavanagh was survived by his wife Carol and two daughters Justin and Erin. The Narrabundah sports oval that he avoided using the critical last seconds of control he had over the doomed aircraft is named in his honour.

We are indebted to John Perryman, the Director Strategic and Historical Studies at the Navy Sea Power Centre, for his work in preparing and publishing a very comprehensive piece on the life of Errol Kavanagh, together with many photographs.  You can read it here

The obituary above is a synopsis of that work, with John’s kind permission.