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by Ted McKenzie


Ted McKenzie at the controls of Catalina VH-AGB.
Picture courtesy of Ted's son Paul McKenzie


The Catalina VH-AGB was ferried to Australia by Jim Greenshields and a Canadian crew from Kenting Aviation,  they arrived in Sydney in late 1956 (probably October. Ed.). Following the usual negotiations with DCA re the legality of a Canadian pilot checking an Australian pilot on an Australian registered aircraft, I commenced conversion training on 24 November 1956. I went solo with Gordon Taylor, (a relative of the esteemed P.G. Taylor) as co pilot on 30 November. As we taxied from the Adastra apron, a voice I knew well came up on the Tower frequency and in an a mock tone of admiration asked “did you make it yourself?” Chris Braund of East-West was well known as a comedian in those days. I muttered something about “yes, would you like the plans?” but I did feel a bit conspicuous.

On the 1st December, Taylor and I did a test flight and on the 2nd we were off to Charleville and Cloncurry. The Cat was fitted with a magnetometer, scintillometer, and a radio altimeter.  Mid-January we packed up again and went to Canberra, then Dubbo and arrived back in Sydney as January ended. Crew included Jack Tierney (nav),  Maurie Miller (tech), and Alf Thompson (engineer).

The EM gear was fitted during the next three months and at the beginning of May, Bob Love (copilot) and I were flight testing around Sydney, culminating with flights over known ore bodies as selected by Peter Woyzbun, the Chief Geophysicist. We had heard details of the effect on aircraft of fitting the large antenna required by the EM transmitter, Hunting’s DC-3 for instance had been found unsuitable for operations in the Sahara because the cruise speed reputedly dropped to 105 knots and the asymmetric capability disappeared. However, the Cat lived up to its reputation of doing everything at the one speed. Normal cruise was 105 knots and after EM was fitted it was 105 knots! As for asymmetric, we tried many times at Cloncurry, throttle back on take off (there was no critical speed because directional control was available, even with full power on one side, down to the stall).

Climb performance was another matter, the Cat would sit in ground effect and fly level happily but without gaining an inch at the weight at which we operated (from memory 28000lbs). From other tests I believe climb was not feasible above about 25500 lbs. So we tried not to think about engine failure on take off, and concentrated on the fact that once comfortably airborne with the landing gear up we could rely on the aircraft to get us back safely should we have an engine failure either on survey or during cruise. We checked this aspect and made a feathered landing from a 400 feet circuit. This was necessary to confirm because only one engine had a hydraulic pump. There was an electric emergency pump, but the undercarriage extension became quite slow and it was comforting to know the aircraft limits (even though very little damage would incur from landing wheels up). Incidentally, the weight limitation on the aircraft meant that we could only carry about 700 gallons of fuel as opposed to the aircraft normal tankage of 1432 gallons. The wing tip floats and the associated actuation gear were taken off for that reason but saved only about 330 lbs.

We operated for EM at 400 feet with the EM receiver bird on 500 feet of cable, actually about 250-300 feet below the aircraft. The ferry flight to Cloncurry was via a number of known mineral areas in Queensland, the flight was directed by Peter Woyzbun for that reason. At Cloncurry we did one flight with VIP’s from the client (Rio Tinto) and Bunny Hammond aboard. They rode in the blister compartment as we profiled across the hills to the west, they were most impressed at the way the aircraft would be heading downhill with the bird out of sight over the ridge that had just been crossed and then it would come into view flying up and over the hill, following the flight path but not the aircraft! I have to admit to the loss of a bird towards the end of this survey, we were operating over an unfamiliar area just to the north of Cloncurry and cut the hill a bit fine with the result that the bird cable stuck the branch of a tree. There was no effect on the aircraft and we went out next day and recovered the wreckage after a tough climb up a steep slope. The cable was wrapped several times around a horizontal branch and the bird had obviously flown between the branch and the ground, looping around the branch two or three times as the cable was breaking. While we were at Cloncurry we were given the sad news about the loss of Hudson VH-AGO at Horn Island and we actually met the DCA investigator (Frank Yeend) when he landed in the Department’s Anson on the way North.

We were back in Sydney on June 6th and off to Cloncurry again on 16th. This time we had as passengers my wife and four month old daughter, my daughter tucked up in a basket in the blister compartment. Back in Sydney at the end of August, I had other obligations until mid-October when we went to Broken Hill for more EM work returning in December.

The Catalina subsequently operated in various locations, notably Broken Hill, Cobar and Tasmania under the command of Bob Love, Ken Rowlands, Gordon Nettleship (ex Qantas Catalina pilot) and myself. With my usual immaculate log keeping I have no record of the final delivery flight to Bankstown, but John Semmler (TAA) and I made the flight and just as we set course after take off from Mascot, the starboard propeller ran away (see also the DC-3 delivery). John was a bit keen to go back to Mascot, but when we weighed everything up, the old girl was flying almost as well as it always had, Bankstown was in sight ahead and we simply went there and landed! We taxied to the de Havilland dispersal and that was my last direct contact with VH-AGB.

Ted McKenzie
12 April 2003.

Postscript July 2004:

Ted McKenzie has confirmed that the Catalina was never operated off water during the time it was in Australia. None of the Adastra pilots had water endorsements and their licences were endorsed simply "Cat". If for no other reason, water operations would not have been possible with the bird in its cradle behind the aft step.