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by Dave Aitchison


In May 1965, I joined Adastra as a Camera Operator. I spent a few days with Les Sheffield learning about the various cameras; mainly the RC-9 and RC-10.

On 1st June, I carried out my first real job under the supervision of another camera operator. We were operating in the area west of Richmond so the sortie was carried out ex Mascot. We were in Hudson VH-SMO. The navigator, whose name eludes me, was operating with another navigator, due I think, to being out of the job for a while. That first day was uneventful.

The next day, 2nd June 1965, we once again departed for the Richmond area, this time however we were all 'solo'. When the navigator and the pilot were satisfied that the sortie had been completed, we headed for Mascot. Up until now the day was uneventful. Things were about to change!!

As someone new to the flying game, having been brought up in Sydney, I was keenly searching for places which were familiar to me. We eventually reached Botany Bay, where we joined the downwind leg for runway 25. At about this time, I was aware of "little white specks" flying past the window. Having absolutely no idea what these were, I ignored them for a minute or so. At this time, the navigator was standing adjacent to the pilot and was unaware of what was unravelling down the back! When I felt that I could no longer ignore these 'things', I tapped the nav on the shoulder and suggested to him that he might like to take a look. He casually came back and after a moment or so told me he thought we were on fire! He then went and informed the pilot of what we had seen. Apparently there were no indications on the instrument panel of a fire, so he continued the approach normally. He informed the tower that he thought we had a problem and we were cleared to land. By this stage, we were about halfway along the base leg. At about the halfway point of finals, the instrument panel finally indicated a fire so the pilot did what he had to do, setting off the fire bottles. Shortly thereafter we touched down to an escort of all manner of emergency vehicles which fortunately were not needed. The hangar tug arrived and towed SMO back to the hangar.

The outcome can be a matter for someone else. Suffice it to say that the engine suffered a fair amount of damage and SMO looked quite forlorn sitting outside the hangar for a while with only one engine.

Why did I turn up for work the next day after experiencing what is after all the one thing feared most by pilots - fire? I suppose it was the almost casual way in which the navigator and pilot coped with the situation.

Dave Aitchison
15th January 2004


Footnote: (RC)

The log books for VH-SMO (later VH-AGP) are held with the aeroplane in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. The Aircraft Curator at the AWM confirms that the aircraft suffered an engine fire on 2nd June 1965 (this entry was signed by Jack McDonald). The log states that the fire was in the port engine. The log later records that the starboard engine was changed. The next entry in the log is on 28th August 1965 when the fire bottles were changed (this entry was signed by Gwyn Davies of Herald Flying Services).

Update by Bill Mitchell (10th February 2004)

"The aircraft involved was Lockheed Hudson VH-SMO flown by Allan Walker and the Navigator was Jack Tierney. I spoke to Jack shortly after the incident and Jack made it sound very amusing, although the whole occurrence may have had a more serious outcome, but this is what he told me. The camera op' had alerted the flight deck to a problem by telling him that he had observed sparks flying past the wing which he considered may be normal, but when he saw the "Meteorites" flashing by he thought possibly there was a problem and had initially raised the alarm. SMO had been descending into Mascot at the time and in fact was on finals at this stage. A little earlier, Allan had had a feeling all was not right and had gone into Auto Rich and carried out a magneto check, but an ignition problem was not indicated, nor were any of the other instruments indicating anything out of the ordinary that would be evidence of the impending peril. What was really happening was that the starboard engine was on fire internally and was slowly transforming the P&W Twin Wasp from a reciprocating piston engine into a gas generator Jet engine. The fire had now consumed the diffuser section of the engine [Hawker DeHavilland, who dismantled the engine, reported that there was nothing left of the diffuser] and was now starting on the induction pipes. At last the power plant fire detectors were alerted and sent their warning signals to the cockpit. Allan immediately released both CO2 extinguisher bottles which put out the fire, and carried out other emergency shut down procedures whilst completing the landing. Emergency vehicles were standing by, ready to go into action and douse the aircraft with foam which is a standard safety procedure. However, Jack Tierney was able to talk the fire crew into delaying this action and do an inspection of the fire damage instead. It was found unnecessary to apply any further extinguishant and this saved doing what could have been an expensive cleanup. The aircrafts own fire extinguishers had effectively put out the engine fire, and nothing was left but to tow SMO back to the hangar."

Update by Allan Walker (23rd February 2004)

"It was definitely the starboard engine which caught fire. What Bill and Dave have said is substantially correct. It was such a long time ago but I believe the fire started in the supercharger. The fire was internal and it was not until an induction pipe was burnt through that the fire detectors were set off. We had abandoned the survey because the engine was running a little rough, but apart from a slight split in the throttle positions (to maintain manifold pressure) everything was normal. Probably the low power used during the descent made it harder to identify."

So there we have the definitive word from the man on the spot. The fire was in the starboard engine. Allan Walker believes that had the fire been in the port engine he would have noticed it himself much earlier. The other man on the spot, Dave Aitchison, was initially certain that the fire had been in the starboard engine, but "evidence" from the aircraft log book sowed seeds of doubt. Dave, it seems that the log book is incorrect and your memory is vindicated!



If you wish to contribute your experiences, please contact Ron