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TWO BLADES ARE BETTER THAN ONE

by Neil Spencer


Neil Spencer Reunited with KMF

(All images on this page are linked to larger versions)



Anzac Day 1974 dawned bright and clear and as I was on standby I got the call early from Earle to get down to Moorabbin to do some flying. Earle, as Pilot and I had a choice of areas to fly that day; some low level work over Melbourne City and bay beaches; some high level work over the mountains in the North East and some mid-level work in the Latrobe Valley.

We chose the Latrobe Valley. I don't remember why but most probably because it was often cloud covered and this was a chance to get "a few runs on the board". It was also most likely that we were keen to go flying but not a long flight into the mountains and not a short flight over the City, but a flight that was about right on what is a public holiday, not that survey crews took much notice of public holidays or even weekends for that matter.

I remember little of the events leading up to the incident as it was like any other flight and nothing out of the ordinary. I do remember that just before the incident occurred, we had climbed to the survey altitude below 10000 ft (I think we were to fly the job at 8000 ft) and had reduced power back to cruise. I had flown some 600 hrs in KMF and it was as familiar and as comforting as the family car.

I was just setting up the drift sight (it was an NF-2 and located in front of the right hand seat) and looking out of the window to identify the start point of the first run when there was an almighty bang and the plane and everything in it shook like we were a rat in the mouth of a terrier. I can still remember looking at the instrument panel to see what was going on but it was just a blur as was everything about us. I was seeing double and triple! Out of the corner of my eye I saw multiple images of Earle reaching for multiple images of the throttle, but it didn't matter, the vibration stopped as suddenly as it began and so did all the other noises except the noise of air whistling in through the old door and window seals. We were going down and that was that.

Earle made a calm and collected Mayday and I went to the back of the plane and tied down anything that moved or looked like it could move. We were very conscious of the large lump of metal camera behind us and the drift sight between my legs! I think we made a half hearted effort to re-start the engine but there was no life in any of the systems and the only option was to turn off the fuel and look for a convenient place to land. It was mostly pine forests all around.

As luck would have it, Latrobe Valley Airfield was just ahead and Earle set KMF up for a very smooth and impeccable landing without even a bounce. We rolled to a stop at the far threshold, got out of the plane and went around to the nose to see what the problem was. To our utter astonishment, one propeller blade had sheared off, right at the hub, and there was a large hole in the engine cowling!

It was all very quiet at the end of the runway. We were pondering this wonderful silence after the panic of the last few minutes, the damage before us, how lucky we were and how we were going to get home for tea, when over the crest of the slight rise in the runway came a collection of fire engines with sirens, cars honking horns and people running. They reached us soon after and were all in a jovial mood. I think they were quite concerned about what they would find at the end of their runway and were relieved to find us standing around chatting and the plane largely intact.

After the damage was inspected by all present, we rode back to the club house like conquering heroes and were treated to the most marvellous hospitality. Being a public holiday, the club house was full and this incident must have provided quite a bit of excitement.

One of the Club Members kindly offered to fly us back to Moorabbin in his Cessna 150, an offer we gratefully accepted, the problem of getting home in time for tea then having been solved. On the way home we flew around at tree top level in the area where I thought the prop had come off, trying to find the prop blade but no luck of course. A fruitless exercise really but it did provide a sense of closure to the day as we needed to find some answers to what went wrong, but that was to come. I did hear, sometime later, that the blade was found embedded in a tree trunk in a pine forest. It was popularly believed that the blade was subsequently mounted on the wall in the Latrobe Valley Aero Club bar but recent research reveals that whilst the club has a fine collection of propellors, it does not include the missing blade from VH-KMF.

We flew back to LV airport with the DCA inspectors a few days later after a debrief and had a second look at the damage. All four engine mounts had sheared as well as most of the system connections. The hole in the engine cowling was caused by a cylinder head punching its way through the sheet metal due to the out of torque force as the blade departed the hub. Thankfully the out of torque forces also punched it back in. The engine was firmly wedged into some superstructure above the nose wheel but it only required a couple of chains around it to lift it out. Very little needed to be disconnected, the vibration at the time of loss saw to that. I remember the DCA guys commenting on that feature.

I thank Earle Wiltshire for his coolness under pressure and his remarkable ability to land the aircraft as if it was all in a days work. Had the propeller blade sheared off at climb power or on take-off; or had we chosen to fly one of the other survey areas on offer, then this story might have had a very different ending. As it was, we were home in time for tea, a few stiff drinks and a good story to tell.

I still have clear recollections of the incident like it was yesterday; in fact it was yesterday 35 years ago (as Ron has kindly reminded me).

Neil Spencer
Auckland, New Zealand
26 April 2009

 

Postscript:

During the preparation of this story, it emerged that VH-KMF migrated to New Zealand in December 1994 where she became ZK-KMF. Further checking revealed that the aeroplane is based at Helensville which is just a 45 minute drive from where Neil lives in Auckland. Thus, within four days of penning the above article, Neil and KMF were reunited. Given that New Zealand registered aircraft are not required to carry the ZK nationality prefix if they do not operate outside NZ, it was a simple matter for Neil to return KMF to the Australian Register for a photo shoot. The resulting photograph appears at the top of the page.

 

The Aftermath of Anzac Day 1974

   

VH-KMF at Essendon on 26 December 1974

Is it a 205 or a 210? See here

 

If you wish to contribute your experiences, please contact Ron