LAST FRIGHT IN A HUDSON
by Wal Bowles
landing at Madang on 27th June 1962 with the starboard engine
Photo: Wal Bowles Collection
Madang fire tenders await the arrival of VH-AGX on 27th June
Photo: Wal Bowles Collection
on handling of Lae landing
At the time
this telegram arrived in Lae, Papua New Guinea, I felt I could
have done without it, even though I appreciated the thought behind
it. Telegrams are of course confidential, but I didn't want information
to drift surreptitiously into areas of officialdom which might
prompt more paperwork. The flight from Madang to Lae and the
landing were still vivid in my mind; Jack's "fright"
was shared by all three on board, a flight which could easily
have ended in disaster.
referred to a landing in Lockheed Hudson aircraft VH-AGX on 31
July 1962. I was the pilot-in-command, and Jack McDonald and
Brian Smith were innocent passengers. Jack was the Chief Engineer
of Adastra Aerial Surveys and Brian was the engineer assigned
to service the aircraft as part of the field crew. Lou Pares
sent the telegram a day or two after the landing, soon after Jack
returned to Adastra Head Office, Sydney. Jack never flew in a
Hudson aircraft again!
To write with
accuracy of an event which occurred some 30 years ago is a little
daunting. However the impact of the moment was so profound that
I still recall the circumstances with a mixture of feelings, not
the least being wonderment that we survived. Jack still raises
the subject occasionally in the convivial atmosphere which exists
whenever ex-Adastra crew members get together.
About ten years
ago at a civil aviation function a person who looked familiar
to me, but whose name I could not remember, introduced himself
and said: "The last time I saw you was at Lae in 1962 when
you landed a Hudson aircraft in atrocious weather conditions.
It should have been written up as an epic flight. I was an air
traffic controller in the tower at the time." It must have
made an impression on this experienced controller to remember
it as he did all those years ago; it certainly made an impression
people bear witness to the same event, invariably there are discrepancies,
or at least shifts of degrees of emphasis of some aspects. Should
others who were involved read this account, their recollections
may vary somewhat from my own.
But it is not
so much the detail of the event which has remained in my memory,
even though this was a life-threatening situation with all the
attendant internal stirring of the glandular orchestra; rather
it was a sudden unexpected change in myself which is difficult
to describe - perception? consciousness? I do not know, but it
seemed to arrive of its own accord apparently from my internal
To this day
I remain astonished by this unforgettable experience and I still
have difficulty in explaining it, even to myself.
experience a "close go" now and then. And "automatic
cool" is an expression sometimes used by pilots to describe
what they can hear on radio communication channels in the voices
of their fellow aviators in emergency circumstances or in circumstances
requiring a more than ordinary degree of concentration to avoid
a possible disaster. This was something different. But I have
little doubt that what I experienced is something which is common
to all people who accept a life threatening situation from which
there seems little chance of escape.
In 1962 I was
the unit manager of an aerial survey project based in Lae. I
had flown Lockheed Hudson aircraft VH-AGX from Sydney to Lae in
January of that year. The Hudson was originally a twin-engined
light bomber of a type used during World War Two. For its time,
it was an aircraft of high performance.
Our task was
the methodical photographic coverage of much of Papua New Guinea
on an opportunity basis, as often as weather conditions would
allow. Completely cloudless conditions were a requirement for
the quality of photographs demanded, but completely cloudless
conditions rarely exist in the tropics. A degree of cloud was
tolerated for survey flying in PNG, the same area sometimes being
photographed more than once with the expectation that surface
features obscured by cloud on one survey attempt might be discernible
In PNG the
warm, moist, tropical air and high, steeply rugged mountain ranges
set the stage for an interplay of factors which result in weather
conditions ranging from mist and fog in river valleys to deep,
dense cloud masses, large areas of persistent torrential rain
and violent tropical thunderstorms. Changes in weather patterns
can occur with little warning. PNG weather is subject to the
vagaries of the "inter-tropic convergence zone", the
boundary between airstreams originating in the northern and southern
hemispheres. When convergence is extreme, cumulo-nimbus cloud
can build to 40,000 feet or more. The day to day movement of
the inter-tropic zone is erratic, but it would normally be well
to the north of Papua New Guinea in July when the flight took
the reason for the flight in question requires retracing the events
of the previous flight a month earlier.
FLIGHT - 27 JUNE 1962
The Lae crew
of VH-AGX consisted of Jack Tierney navigator, Bob Jones camera
operator and myself as pilot. (Bob Jones had been recruited in
Lae to replace Tony Burgess who, in recent weeks, had returned
to Australia to be married. Tony later became a senior airline
check captain.) Brian Smith, the maintenance engineer, completed
the field crew. Part of Brian's task was to perform a daily inspection
of the aircraft preflight, to meet the aircraft on our return,
and to attend to any unserviceabilities.
On the morning
of 27 June 1962 we took off from Lae on a survey flight over central
western New Guinea. We climbed to 25,000 feet and completed several
photographic runs. Because the weather was reasonably clear further
to the north-west, I headed for another survey area towards Wewak.
25,000 feet, about 30 nautical miles inland and midway between
Madang and Wewak, the starboard engine stopped suddenly. There
was no warning. The aircraft had been operating normally when
suddenly it lurched violently; I glanced towards the starboard
engine and the propeller was stopped.
This was an
unusual engine failure, unlike anything I had previously experienced.
My first impression was that the engine had seized and I was cursing
myself for having missed the drop in oil pressure. I glanced
at the oil pressure gauge and the needle was dropping rapidly
through 50 pounds per square inch (normally 75-80 psi) and I knew
then that it hadn't been an oil supply problem.
From a cruising
rpm of about 2100 the propeller stopped suddenly and completely.
Had it been a problem other than a mechanical failure the propeller
would have "windmilled". There was no windmilling;
the propeller was locked solid and the blades of the three bladed
propeller were in a normal cruising pitch.
months later that the master connecting rod "big end', had
separated as a result of a fatigue failure of one of the connecting
rod bolts. The whole of the master and articulating rod assembly
was a mangled mass. From normal cruising rpm to stop, the engine
had rotated only 2/3 to 3/4 of a turn. With such a sudden stop
the inertia of the propeller could have torsionally failed the
propeller shaft with a complete separation of the propeller from
the aircraft. Fortunately this didn't happen. 2100 engine rpm
might seem slow in comparison to today's high performance motor
vehicle engines, but these were 9 cylinder radial engines, of
1200 horse power; slow revving but with a lot of torque.)
lurch of the aircraft at the time of the engine failure was from
a combination of a sudden absence of engine power on one side,
normal cruising power on the other, and a rolling motion from
the significant rotational inertia of the stopped propeller and
engine mass being translated into a rolling force.
It was not
a difficult situation to control. Being about midway between
Wewak and Madang I turned towards Madang and went through the
engine shut down procedure. It was unusual feathering a stopped
propeller in flight and watching the blades rotate from cruising
pitch to one of minimum drag. Once pressed, the feathering button
should have remained depressed and, by means of a limiting mechanism,
should have popped out automatically on completion of the feathering
cycle. On this occasion the feathering button remained depressed;
the cycle continued beyond the full feathered position and the
blades began to unfeather. I pulled out the feathering button
to stop the progression of the blades. Even though the blades
were then slightly out of full feather, I decided to accept this
partial drag rather than risk a further cycle with perhaps a similar,
or worse, result.
flying in multi-engined aircraft requires the aircraft to be as
"clean" as possible so that aerodynamic drag is reduced
to a minimum (propeller of the failed engine feathered, landing
gear and flaps retracted and, if applicable, oil cooler flaps
and cowl gills all closed or streamlined). Adequate control of
the situation also requires full power availability on the "good"
engine, full rudder control capability, careful control of airspeed
and the more height the better. If one has to experience an engine
failure in a Lockheed Hudson, an altitude of 25,000 feet or more
There was ample
time to ensure the aircraft was "cleaned up" aerodynamically.
I did not attempt to maintain height because of our proximity
to Madang. The Hudson would not maintain height on one engine
above about 13,000 feet anyway. I reduced power for the descent.
Jack and Bob
at their positions in the nose of the aircraft were well aware
of the engine failure. I advised them on intercom that we would
land at Madang. The Hudson was an unpressurised aircraft, so
they needed to remain at their positions and continue using their
oxygen masks until we descended to a lower altitude.
With a gradual
descent from 25,000 feet it would not have been over-taxing the
aircraft to have landed at Lae. This would have been more convenient,
but it was inadvisable for a couple of reasons.
was a regulation stipulating that under such circumstances the
aircraft was to land at the nearest suitable aerodrome.
port engine was on an "extended life" and was burning
more oil than usual for Wright Cyclones, renowned for their oil
burning characteristics at the best of times. With a normal maximum
fuel endurance of six and a half hours flight time, VH-AGX was
limited to four hours because of the oil consumption of our "good"
to push our luck, Madang was the logical choice for the landing.
I called "Madang Tower" on VHF radio. I advised them
of the engine failure, that we would land at Madang and would
arrive overhead in about 30 minutes. To the tower controller's
query "Are your operations normal?" I responded: "I
anticipate a normal asymmetric approach." The tower controller
told me later he didn't appreciate that the situation could deteriorate
rapidly until he mentioned the impending asymmetric landing to
the duty fire officer.
When he advised
the fire officer his response was: "Shit! Those bloody Hudsons
have difficulty flying on two engines let alone one, we'll have
everything standing by!" His appreciation of the flying performance
of the Hudson was in error, but I was grateful for his positive
In 1962 the
then Australian Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) had a well
deserved reputation for professional excellence. It had the responsibility
of providing a number of services for the safety of aircraft operations.
DCA units provided services throughout PNG until after its independence.
Air Traffic Control and the Fire Service were two of these services.
with sufficient power to keep the good engine warm, applying a
higher burst of power periodically to ensure the engine was at
a safe operating temperature, important if a single engined "go-around"
became necessary. During the descent I described to Madang Tower
the type of engine failure which had occurred. This was unnecessary
and was low on my priority list. But there was ample time during
the descent and such information could be helpful for the investigation
if the landing was unsuccessful.
referred to by the fire officer ("everything standing by")
was an antique fire tender and a converted wartime Jeep. The
fire officer was preparing for the worst happening - always a
sound aviation philosophy, and he undoubtedly had in mind two
previous Adastra accidents involving Hudson aircraft in recent
years, one at Horn Island and one at Lae. Both were making single
engined approaches and both rolled over and crashed, killing all
on board. There were different circumstances leading to each
occurrence, but history of this kind has the effect of sharpening
the concentration when making an asymmetric landing approach,
especially in a Lockheed Hudson for which the optimum approach
speed limits are narrow and critical.
I enjoyed flying the Hudson. To become familiar with the handling
characteristics of any aircraft takes time and the Hudson had
a few idiosyncrasies which needed to be respected. It was an
excellent aircraft for survey work but, when most operations were
at 25,000 feet and the engines were on high power for repeated
climbs to this altitude, engine life sometimes was less than advertised.
Jack and Bob
vacated the nose of the aircraft during the descent and Jack stood
at the right hand control seat position. (For survey flying the
right hand control seat was removed to allow the navigator and
camera operator access to their operating positions in the aircraft's
nose. The Hudson was operated on survey work as a single pilot
aircraft and was flown from the left hand control seat.) It was
always supportive to have one of the other crew members up front
and Jack was particularly helpful on this occasion. We had exchanged
a few comments about the quantity of oil being burned by the port
engine on its "extended life" before Jack went back
to the cabin area to strap himself in for the landing.
I have no doubt
that Jack and Bob were thinking about the earlier Horn Island
and Lae accidents. They were well aware of the possibility that
the landing might not be normal, but both displayed a resigned
"Oh well, you can handle it" confidence which my gastric
juices at the time might well have denied. On our single engined
descent we arrived over Madang at about 3000 feet altitude and
I planned the landing approach towards the east-north-east, runway
07. The Madang runway length was 4,500 feet, adequate but not
generous for a Hudson asymmetric landing. The touchdown was smooth;
it was further into the runway than I would have liked, but far
better than undershooting and having to apply high power on the
stopped on the over-run and the fire tender, which had been positioned
adjacent to the runway, was now following closely. Fortunately
Jack was able to get out of the aircraft before the tender arrived
and he managed to stop the fire crew covering our "good"
engine with foam. The "normal" exhaust smoke trailing
from the port engine led them to believe it was on fire!
A plane carrying 35 passengers overshot the runway at Madang
Airport on Papua New Guinea's north coast and slid into
shallow water on the edge of the harbour on Wednesday.
None of the passengers or the four crew members was injured.
runway was not generous" - a recent news article)
towed to the tarmac and I then needed to make arrangements for
a replacement engine. Communication with Sydney was only by cable/telegram.
Jack McDonald, in Sydney, on receipt of the telegram had difficulty
in accepting that the starboard engine had failed. He was well
aware of the high oil consumption of the port engine and he believed
that the port engine had probably seized. In any event he made
arrangements for a replacement engine to be shipped to Madang,
but it would be a month before it arrived.
After the landing
at Madang on 27 June 1962 Jack Tierney, Bob and I went back to
Lae by Mandated Airlines to await the arrival of the replacement
My wife, Margaret,
and our two children, Wendy and Robin, had been with me in Lae
since February of that year. (Cameron, our third child, was not
born until 1965.) Adastra Head Office decided to relocate VH-AGX
for another contract in Australia after the engine change, so
I made arrangements for Margaret, Wendy and Robin to return to
Sydney by the TAA DC-6 service before the replacement engine arrived.
It was a wrench to see them off at Lae Airport.
When the replacement
engine was due to arrive in Madang by ship, Jack McDonald flew
to Lae from Sydney by the scheduled TAA DC6 aircraft. On his arrival
we (Jack McDonald, Brian Smith and I) flew to Madang by Mandated
Airlines to change the engine in VH-AGX. Jack Tierney and Bob
Jones remained in Lae.
arranged to use one of the Mandated hangars on Madang aerodrome
for the engine change, which took the three of us the best part
of two days. Jack noticed a slight bend in one of the push-rod
covers of the failed engine. There was no doubt about the mechanical
nature of the engine failure from the immovable propeller, but
it was further confirmed by the bent push rod.
change proceeded without difficulty, although it needed Jack's
engineering expertise and practical flair to provide the answers
to a couple of discrepancies between the control linkages of the
old and new engine installations.
was a competent young engineer, but Jack's vast experience knowledge,
ability, his understanding of DCA requirements and his determination
of what was reasonable and safe in circumstances when it was impossible
to "go by the book" on every occasion in remote locations
was masterful. As one who spent most of his time in the field
I was unaware of most of what occurred at the Sydney base. I
hope Jack's many engineering talents and his willingness were
fully appreciated by Adastra management.
On the morning
of 31 July 1962 the installation of our replacement starboard
engine was almost complete. We checked out of the hotel expecting
that we would be on our way back to Lae about mid morning. I
would air test the engine at the same time. The final split pin
and piece of locking wire secured, VH-AGX was wheeled out onto
the tarmac and the ground run of the replacement engine was satisfactory.
And this is where the story really begins.
MADANG - 31 JULY 1962
weight and balance calculations and prepared a load sheet. Jack
decided to run the port engine while I submitted a flight plan.
It was mid-morning
when I went to Madang Tower to obtain a weather briefing and to
submit a flight plan for the flight to Lae.
On my way to
the Tower, I spoke to a Mandated Airlines DC3 crew who had landed
at Madang only about 15 minutes previously on completion of a
flight from Lae. As is usual in PNG, pilots invariably ask other
crews about weather conditions they have encountered. The Mandated
crew advised that they had flown up the Markham Valley without
any difficulty and that the weather at Lae and throughout the
flight had been fine with no problems for visual flight.
Rules (VFR) applied to all Adastra flights. VH-AGX was minimally
equipped for instrument flight and was not approved for flight
under the Instrument Flight Rules (IFR). All survey flights required
clear weather for photography. When one task was completed and
the aircraft needed to be repositioned for another survey area,
if the weather was unsuitable it was more economical to wait for
a day of good weather than for the company to have the ongoing
expense of IFR equipment and its servicing as well as flight time
costs for pilot training and periodic currency checks.
forecasts en route and at Lae were consistent with the information
I learned from the DC3 crew. Madang weather was fine with normal
cumulus build up and a reasonably high base. The Markham Valley
was the shortest, most direct route and was the appropriate way
to plan. Allowing for a "dog-leg" to enter the Markham
Valley, flight time in the Hudson would be about 45 minutes.
The Finisterre Mountain Range ran along the northern coast of
PNG from a position north of Lae to a position south of Madang
and the range, up to some 13,500 feet elevation, formed the northern
boundary of the Markham Valley. From Madang aerodrome, weather
towards this range appeared reasonably clear. If flight through
the Markham became inadvisable because of cloud buildup, the alternative
was a longer route coastal via Finschhafen, almost double the
There was no
problem with fuel reserves if the longer route became necessary,
or to return to Madang via the same longer route if Lae weather
deteriorated. Based on hours flown since last refuelling and
a check of the fuel gauges, in theory there was fuel sufficient
for 4 hours - 3 hours 15 minutes flight plus 45 minutes reserve.
In fact there would have been something less than this, mainly
because of evaporation during the period the aircraft had been
standing at Madang. I considered refuelling at Madang but decided,
in view of the existing fuel state and the relatively short flight
time, to delay refuelling until after we landed at Lae.
tanks are normally kept filled to capacity, especially in the
tropics, because of condensation. Water in fuel is to be avoided
at all costs and our fuel draining after VH-AGX had stood for
so long was thorough. With the current weather forecasts the
minimum fuel requirement would have been 90 minutes - 45 minutes
flight fuel plus 45 minutes reserve. I was satisfied we had sufficient
for Madang - Lae with a return to Madang if necessary and with
generous reserves. The port engine oil tank was topped up to
ensure we had a safe oil endurance.
I planned via
the Markham Valley with an estimated time of departure (ETD) 30
minutes from the time of lodgement of the flight plan. This would
allow a comfortable period for Jack to run the port engine and
for final loading of tools and equipment. If the aircraft did
not taxy out within 30 minutes of the ETD, the flight plan would
be invalid and submission of another flight plan would be required.
to the tarmac area I could see that Jack was having difficulty
in starting the port engine. The engines were normally started
with the aircraft's batteries. If one engine was difficult to
start, starting the other and using generator power was the next
step. On this occasion the starboard engine was stationary and
Jack had arranged to use a battery cart. I knew there was a problem.
The port engine,
having been subjected to tropical moisture for a month without
being run, was being more than ordinarily difficult.
Adastra Operations Manager and Chief Pilot, had briefed me thoroughly
for the New Guinea operation and had commented on this moisture
problem. He advised that, in the event that weather was unsuitable
for survey for lengthy periods, I should fly the aircraft every
week for an hour to keep the ignition system from becoming saturated.
If the weather was unsuitable for flying, then to run the engines.
Weather was rarely suitable for survey and it was essential for
the aircraft to be in readiness for those rare occasions. I made
a practice of flying the aircraft for 30 minutes twice each week.
Ted was an
exceptional pilot and an excellent check and training captain.
When some action was needed in flight which was a little out of
the ordinary, I was quietly grateful to Ted on more than one occasion
for his sound advice and for his white knuckle, perspiration producing,
fly-to-the-limit flight checks. Ted did everything he could to
ensure that all of his pilots would be able to handle the Hudson
competently under all circumstances, and particularly after the
unfortunate accidents at Horn Island and Lae. My six monthly
flight checks often concluded with my clothing absolutely saturated
with perspiration and without a dry pocket in which to put my
flight check certificate of competency.
not been run for a month, the port engine ignition system was
breaking down with tropical moisture and was difficult to start.
How long it would take to dry the system sufficiently to get the
engine started was uncertain. (There was no WD40 in those days!)
When the port engine continued its cantankerous behaviour I cancelled
the flight Plan, explaining to the tower controller that I would
re-submit the plan after the port engine was started.
There was yet
another setback for our flight to Lae. On my return from flight
planning, the period of validity for HF radio servicing was found
to be expired and an approach to DCA by Brian for a concession
was not approved. Jack McDonald made a second approach, explaining
that radio servicing facilities were at Lae and were unavailable
at Madang. It would be expensive to fly a radio serviceman from
Lae to Madang for what would probably amount to a radio check.
DCA granted a concession for a single flight, Madang to Lae, subject
to a satisfactory preflight HF radio check.
The radio ground
check proved satisfactory, but the HF radio was to be a problem
later in the day. Communications between Air Traffic Control
units were often difficult in 1962 and en route communications
relied primarily on HF radio. VHF was far better quality in terms
of clarity, but was limited to “line of sight" (no benefit
It was after
1600 hours EST (4 pm) before the port engine started, roughly
at first but it was soon firing evenly after it began to warm
up. I had almost decided to abandon the idea of flying to Lae
that afternoon, but there was still time, and after all, the weather
was fine throughout - or so I thought.
If a diversion
became necessary I would need to return to Madang. It would have
been stretching it to get to Port Moresby. This would have involved
a climb of some 15,000 feet over the Owen Stanley Ranges and in
any event there was insufficient time before last light to get
to Moresby. It is always desirable to have plan B in mind when
planning a flight, and perhaps plan C as well. For example there
is always a possibility that a runway can be closed just prior
to landing because of a preceding landing aircraft with a blown
tyre. Anticipating such events helps avoid that “thinking feeling"
if circumstances change suddenly.
As soon as
the port engine was operating satisfactorily on its ground run
I went to the tower to submit another flight plan. There was
no weather forecaster at Madang but from the tower I was able
to speak by radio directly to the forecaster at Lae. I jotted
down the forecast which hadn't altered significantly from the
morning forecast. It was satisfactory for a VFR flight with light
and variable winds throughout below 5000 feet.
an actual observation at Lae and this was also satisfactory, visibility
15 miles, main cloud base 5000 feet with 1/8 of scud at 1000.
1/8 scud at 1000? Unusual, must be the low scuddy cloud which
often formed over the Markham River, just south of Lae. I asked
the forecaster which route appeared clearer, coastal or via the
Markham Valley. He indicated that via the Markham should be the
was not permitted in PNG and all flights were to be planned with
an ETA of at least 10 minutes before last light. At this stage,
last light was becoming a consideration. The end of daylight
in the tropics is significantly different from middle and high
latitudes. The end of daylight charts take into account a certain
amount of twilight after sunset, depending upon latitude. The
higher the latitude, the more twilight until, above the arctic
and antarctic circles there is "land of the midnight sun".
In the tropics there is very little twilight; soon after sunset
darkness falls like a blind.
at Lae was shown to be 0836 hours GMT (1836 EST or 6.36pm). If
I set course by 0640 GMT, (4.40 pm) and flew to Lae via the Markham.
I could still return and land at Madang about 25 minutes before
last light if Lae weather deteriorated. The requirement to plan
with an ETA at least 10 minutes before last light could be met
It looked good.
Why did I have this lousy feeling that I ought to wait until tomorrow?
I walked briskly
back to the tarmac and Jack and Brian were ready to go. The battery
cart had been wheeled away. Jack was in the control seat with
both engines operating. Brian boarded the aircraft behind me
and closed the door. Jack vacated the control seat and I strapped
myself in. I wasted no time in completing a pre-taxy check, taxying
to the holding point and conducting an engine run-up. We took
off from runway 07 and I obtained approval for a right turn towards
the Markham Valley. No problems with the replacement engine;
it was performing beautifully with all temperatures and pressures
well within their normal range. Our departure time was 0640 hours
departure and with a better appreciation of general weather conditions
with height, it became apparent that we would be unable to enter
the Markham Valley because of cloud build up, even with a significant
diversion to the north western end of the valley. From a base
of about 3000 feet, towering cumulus cloud covered the rising
Finisterres completely, cloud tops being 20,000 feet or more.
Most IFR aircraft avoided the direct track Madang - Lae. It required
a cruising level of at least the minimum safe altitude of 16,500
feet because of the high terrain. I altered heading coastal and
calculated an ETA Lae of 0800 GMT, 36 minutes before last light.
The ETA for
Lae was closer to last light than I liked even though it was 26
minutes more than the 10 minute minimum required. Last light
graphs do not take into account factors such as the terrain surrounding
a location, a cloudy sky or visibility less than unlimited. Significant
cloud cover, poor visibility or high ground to the west can result
in the earlier onset of last light. However the Hudson cruised
at 170 knots and, with light and variable winds forecast, the
ETA was likely to be accurate. At least I could continue for
awhile and still return to Madang before last light if the weather
procedure is required for all flights in PNG. I called Madang
Tower on VHF and advised of our change of plan, that we would
track coastal to Lae via Finschhafen. I gave my ETA Saidor (on
the coast about 50 nautical miles (nm) from Madang and 65 track
miles after taking into account our initial track towards the
Markham Valley) of 0703 and Lae of 0800 (1800 - 6.00pm). This
was acknowledged. I reported to Madang approaching Saidor and
we were still within VHF range at our cruising level of 4,000
feet. My next report would be a scheduled reporting time, approximately
midway between Madang and Lae at 0720 GMT when we would be about
100 nm from Madang with about 55 nm to run to Finschhafen.
To remain “legal”
relative to last light, we could stay airborne until 0826, 10
minutes before last light. That is, with a departure time of
0640 we could fly for 106 minutes. So our "point of no return"
based on last light considerations and light and variable wind
conditions was 0733, being 53 minutes after our departure time.
If we needed to return to Madang this would give a couple of minutes
margin because last light at Madang was a little later than at
Why did I have
this uncomfortable feeling that I ought to be returning to Madang?
In PNG particularly,
I always liked to “look over my shoulder" with time to divert
and land at an aerodrome I had overflown or where I knew the weather
to be suitable. Runway lengths and surfaces in PNG in 1962 limited
the operation of Hudson aircraft to only five aerodromes; Port
Moresby, Lae, Madang, Wewak and Rabaul.
options were to continue to Lae or return to Madang.
I called on
HF at the scheduled reporting time of 0720 GMT and received no
reply. I called again and asked for actual weather conditions
at Lae. No response. I called on VHF but we were then too far
from Madang for VHF transmissions to be possible and we were certainly
too far from Lae, especially with the Finisterres blocking our
line of sight. Tracking along the coast we were cruising at 4000
feet below a broken cloud cover.
I called “any
aircraft" on VHF hoping for someone to relay our position
but there were apparently no other aircraft in our area or on
our frequency. I tried another HF frequency, but still no success.
The fuse for the HF equipment looked satisfactory but I changed
it anyway. Try another microphone. Another radio check, no response.
Damn! We were
half way to Lae, our groundspeed was consistent with the flight
plan and the weather ahead looked quite reasonable. Continue
to Lae or return to Madang? Radio failure requirements were to
proceed to the nearest suitable aerodrome, land, and telephone
air traffic control. The nearest suitable aerodromes were either
Lae or Madang because we were midway between the two.
facilities were at Lae but not Madang. The weather en route and
at Lae was fine (so I thought), we needed the HF radio serviced
at Lae, Jack needed to return to Sydney without too much delay,
and our base accommodation was at Lae, in the DCA mess. The replacement
engine was performing well and all information available indicated
that logically we should go to Lae. Why this strong gut feeling
to go back to Madang?
I called Lae
again, advising that we were not receiving on HF and we would
continue to Lae, ETA 0800 and, “if receiving this transmission,
please advise the Lae weather conditions". No reply. I
had no way of knowing whether my HF transmitter was functioning,
but radio fail procedure requires this assumption so that air
traffic control may have some information to work on.
We were approaching
our point of no return (PNR) based on last light, 0733. I descended
to 3000 feet and the weather ahead looked good, hazy, but the
visibility was about fifteen miles. Our PNR came and went and,
with an uncomfortable feeling of resignation based on nothing
but a lousy gut feeling, I committed the flight to continue to
Lae. Soon the cloud layer, about 500 feet above us, seemed to
be lowering and I descended. The weather still looked satisfactory
ahead with no observable deterioration. I continued the descent
down to 1000 feet and, looking down at the kunai grass it was
bent over at right angles towards us. Obviously a strong headwind
at the surface and certainly not the light and variable winds
forecast, at least not in this area. We could be a minute or
two later at Lae because of this and our last light margin would
be reduced. My gastric juices acknowledged.
passing our PNR, a general weather deterioration was apparent
in the distance with widespread areas of rain. At that stage
I could almost see Finschhafen near Cape Cretin, the most prominent
northern "bump" of PNG, but Finschhafen appeared to
be almost obscured by rain. It was too late to return and land
at Madang before last light. Lae it had to be.
a landing at Finschhafen? A natural surface grass strip, probably
saturated with water and unsuitable for Hudson operations even
in dry conditions. Finschhafen was not on the list of approved
aerodromes. I would have considered a precautionary landing there,
but getting closer to Finschhafen and flying now well below 500
feet to remain in visual contact with the ground, rain squalls
obscured Finschhafen airstrip.
were about three minutes behind our ETA Finschhafen of 0741.
I flew slightly inland, across the corner of Cape Cretin, abeam
Finschhafen. There was low lying land for a few miles inland
at this point and I flew towards the Huon Gulf coastline which
I could see, with Finschhafen, or where I assessed Finschhafen
to be, about three or four miles to our left. This "short
cut" would reduce our flight time by a minute or two and
would help make good our ETA at Lae.
of the Finisterre Ranges to our right were totally obscured by
cloud and it was black ahead. On a previous flight from Rabaul
to Lae there were large areas of localised deteriorated weather
off the coast from Finschhafen and I was hoping the Lae aerodrome
forecast of clear weather was accurate.
weather would open up after I reached the coast and got closer
to Lae; after all, the Lae actual weather just before we departed
from Madang was good. But all I could see ahead were worsening
conditions. My decision to continue the flight beyond our PNR
was not made lightly but overflying Cape Cretin I thought "cretin"
was an accurate description of my self image at that time.
I needed to
descend well below 500 feet to maintain forward visibility. We
were running into dense rain squalls. The cloud was dark grey
with an indistinct base, not far above us. As well, daylight
was fading; the cloud mass over the ranges to the west of the
Huon Gulf must have been very dense and deep. The sun would have
been low on the western horizon somewhere above this cloud mass,
and it would have been also behind the ranges to the west, contributing
to the earlier onset of last light.
being illegal, climbing into cloud could have been disastrous.
The lowest safe altitude for an IFR flight approaching Lae from
the Huon Gulf was 3400 feet. If I climbed into cloud, a descent
in clear weather to seawards off Lae looked extremely unlikely.
If there was little clearance between the cloud base and water
surface, a descent in darkening conditions could result in the
aircraft crashing into the water before the water surface became
discernible. It was imperative to maintain visual contact with
the ground or water.
equipped with basic attitude instruments and a single ADF, an
instrument which, when tuned to a ground station (NDB), would
indicate the direction of the station from the aircraft. It was
a useful navigation instrument, but it had its limitations and
was known to point to thunderstorms at times instead of to the
station to which it was tuned. (When flying in the RAAF I had
I tuned to
Lae NDB and received a positive needle indication. We were too
far from Lae to identify its transmitted signal but its steady
indication was supporting.
I needed to
stay below the amorphous cloud base to maintain forward visibility.
But forward vision was difficult in the Hudson with its flat,
sloping windscreen panels. Rain would strike and spread on these
flat surfaces, virtually obliterating forward vision. (Curved
windscreens on modern light aircraft help overcome this problem.)
no windscreen wipers. I opened the port sliding cockpit window
for better external vision.
At this stage,
flying very low across swampy mangroves and with no indication
of improvement in any direction, I fleetingly considered the possibility
of putting the aircraft down on any reasonably flat area. No,
it would be better to go back and try Finschhafen if I could find
it, or put the aircraft down on an area of kunai grass - a bit
better than swamp crocodiles; but what if we were to overturn
on touchdown? The whole area was pockmarked with craters from
the World War Two bombardment, too lumpy for a safe precautionary
the murk and go to Moresby? Moresby would have runway lighting,
and I had by then put behind me the niceties of trying to stay
“legal". That is, the aircraft's instrumentation was not
approved for instrument flight and I had not held an instrument
rating since leaving the RAAF some 3 years previously. But this
was a question of survival; we were far from legal as it was regarding
specified visibility and distance from cloud and ground for a
VFR flight but there was little option. And if there was a softer
option than rock-filled cloud I would take it, so stuff the regulations.
was too far; we would arrive there at least an hour after last
light. And, assuming our radio problem was not common to both
VHF and HF and our VHF was serviceable, the air traffic controllers
would all be at their favourite watering holes long before we
had even cleared the Owen Stanleys and were within VHF range.
As well, the fuel quantity remaining was doubtful for the distance,
and I didn't want to check the serviceability of the aircraft's
internal lighting which probably hadn't been used for years.
If it worked it would wreck my external vision. It had to be
pelting rain, obscured windscreen, about 50 nm to run to Lae,
flying about 100 feet above the ground, getting darker, bloody
hell Bowlesie, you've stuffed up this time, looks like you've
written yourself off with Jack and Brian and written off the aircraft
as well. I felt a twinge for AGX, the fastest aircraft of the
fleet. I accepted that we had next to no chance of recovering
the situation I had placed us in. I believed our chances of flying
into the real estate were very high indeed. I accepted death.
And then IT
at the time was that something, something intangible outside myself
enveloped me and permeated my entire being. It was instantaneous;
the moment I accepted death as virtually inevitable there was
this all pervasive feeling of unimaginable calmness. And a second
or two later: "But we are not dead yet - perhaps we have
a 1% chance of getting away with this. Let's see what I can do
with this 1%.
I felt like
someone with his back to the wall, intense concentration, calculated
efficient actions, yet all the time this unusual, unbelievable,
peaceful serenity without a word from my gastric juices. Perhaps
they had all been used up.
I reached the
coastline and paralleled the coast towards Lae, about 50 nautical
miles ahead. At this stage we were flying below 100 feet and
probably below 30 feet for much of the time. Wind squalls were
visible on the sea surface which was flattened by heavy rain.
The dark grey metallic colour of the sea merged with the low,
indeterminate cloud base. In the fading light the torrent on
the windscreen totally obscured forward visibility. We were about
half a mile to seaward.
At about this
time Jack and Brian came up front, viewing the weather with some
concern. I asked Jack to open the starboard side window. By
now the open side windows were our only means of visual reference.
To our right, through the restricted opening of the starboard
window, the dark grey of the water merged with the darkness of
the vegetation along the coast. I concentrated on staying out
of the water and getting some idea of attitude from an occasional
glance at the artificial horizon, but mainly from the appearance
of the terrain on our right. From my position in the left hand
control seat the starboard wing obscured my view of the coastline
for much of the time. By banking the aircraft occasionally I
tried to identify a coastal feature, but I found this impossible.
of the dark coastal vegetation on rising hills mingled with the
indistinct cloud base, which seemed less than 100 feet above the
water with heavy rain and scud beneath.
There was no
possibility of obtaining a visual fix; to look from the ground
to the map was risking inadvertent water contact. It required
all my concentration to stay clear of the water and clear of the
ground when we passed over a small headland. Yet all the time
there was this incredible feeling of peacefulness, totally inconsistent
with the situation.
to call Lae Tower on HF and VHF and finally, about 30 miles from
Lae by estimation, there was a welcoming response: "Alpha
Golf Xray, Lae Tower, we've been calling you for some time, go
the tower controller's voice, a somewhat dour ex-RAAF Wing Commander,
Phil Graham. I replied: "Alpha Golf Xray now approximately
three zero miles from Lae, coastal, estimate Lae at zero three,
what are your weather conditions?" There was concern in Phil’s
usual monotone when he replied simply: "The weather is poor."
This was a
particularly unusual Air Traffic Control transmission. Inbound
aircraft at 30 miles usually receive landing instructions such
as: "AGX runway --, the wind --, QNH ---, report one zero
miles." "The weather is poor" meant the weather
was bloody awful. I asked Phil: "What’s the visibility?"
He replied: "About a mile". If my heart hadn't dropped
to my boots about 20 minutes previously it would have sank; yet
there was still this extraordinary, almost detached feeling of
tranquillity. There was obviously no improvement in the weather
at Lae; perhaps it was even worse than that which we'd been experiencing
since before passing abeam Finschhafen.
this as Alpha Golf Xray. What is the landing direction?"
Phil was remarkably quiet. "The wind currently favours 32,
and the QNH 1008”. I learned later that Phil had telephoned Jack
Tierney and invited him to the tower "to see these galahs
prang. There’s no way they are going to be able to land in this."
So Phil didn't
waste words. If the Hudson was going to prang, why waste breath
on landing instructions? But the weather would have closed the
aerodrome and Phil couldn't legally issue landing instructions.
However there is no way he would have denied assistance to an
aircraft in our circumstances.
this communication about 30 miles from Lae (I had no idea of precisely
where we were) I selected the landing gear down. Gear down lowers
the nose position slightly for level flight and is supposed to
give a slightly better forward visibility. Handy if we happened
to encounter a break in the rain to give us some forward visibility!
Because of what happened a little later I was pleased I took this
an identifiable signal from Lae NDB and the ADF needle was pointing
ahead steadily. Was it pointing to Lae or towards a thunderstorm
At least there
was no visible lightning to suggest thunderstorm activity; it
was more than enough to cope with the torrential rain and dense
nimbo-stratus cloud almost to the ground and water surface without
I figured our
ETA Lae would be a little later than planned because of the headwinds
at low level along the north coast, shown by our loss of a few
minutes abeam Finschhafen. However our heading change from south
easterly to westerly after Finschhafen could have resulted in
a tailwind component which would make up some of our loss. Again,
the reduction in speed for gear down would make us a little later,
but not more than a few minutes. Impossible to identify any landmarks
in this torrential downpour, let alone calculate a revised ETA.
at the starboard window. He had a slightly better view of the
terrain than I and, even though nothing was said, I knew that
he was looking out for possible obstructions. Saying anything
was pointless anyway - nothing could be heard above the noise
of the engines with the side windows open. I was grateful for
Jack's presence. From my familiarity with the general area I
knew there were no obstructions as long as we hugged the coast.
If we missed seeing Lae and overflew the Markham River, we would
be faced with the spine of the Owen Stanleys rising to over 9000
feet just beyond the Markham. We would use up our final 1% if
I missed Lae. I needed to keep the aircraft low to get what visibility
I could from the side windows. But even at a reduced cruising
speed, necessary with the landing gear down, there would be insufficient
manoeuvring distance to avoid rising terrain if it loomed out
of the murk ahead. Slowing the aircraft further could help a
little, but with darkness fast approaching I was reluctant to
reduce speed, so while I could see the coastline and remain just
to seaward of it I would be making the most of our 1%.
back to the cabin, put on a pair of headphones and listened to
the radio transmissions.
As a minimum
runway length, 4000 feet was required for the Hudson. This requirement
could vary depending on surface wind, temperature and other atmospheric
conditions. The landing charts were based on normal flapped approaches
and the 4000 feet minimum length was accepted as a safe landing
distance for Hudson operations. Lae runway, aligned 320/140 degrees
was 4000 feet in length with jungle at the western end and a drop
of about ten feet to the sea at the eastern end. The Lae landing
chart showed the aerodrome elevation as eleven feet above mean
Maru” was a Japanese vessel which sank in the Huon Gulf during
World War Two. It was run aground on the edge of a steeply sloping
reef or shelf just a few hundred metres off the eastern end of
the Lae runway. Its bow, angled up steeply, was perhaps 30 feet
above the water. It was an excellent point of reference when
approaching Lae, especially in conditions of haze or reduced visibility.
On final approach to Lae runway from the sea the Tenyo Maru was
about 100 feet to the left of the approach path.
But where was
Lae? The ETA of 1803 I had passed to Lae Tower was to accommodate
the time loss observed near Finschhafen, even though I felt we
may have picked up a little, both from "cutting the corner"
and from a possible tailwind component after the heading change
near Finschhafen. I needed to reduce the indicated airspeed to
125 knots to select the gear down, which I had done at an estimated
30 miles from Lae, and this speed reduction over that distance
would account for a loss of a few minutes.
was that we would reach Lae no later than about 1802. It was
now 1802 and no sign of Lae. In this miserable weather and fading
light I was feeling a little doubtful whether we would be able
to see Lae, even from 100 feet. Let's hope we might see a few
lights in some of the homes and buildings on the higher ground
which I knew to be to the north of Lae aerodrome. No doubt the
Mandated Airlines Club on the hill above the aerodrome would have
its normal patronage and its lights might be visible, providing
it wasn't enshrouded in low cloud.
And now 1804. Where the hell was Lae? Nothing except continuous
torrential rain, an obliterated windscreen, low cloud and scud,
an indistinct landscape to the west and darkening conditions.
Jack and I were oblivious to the rain through the open windows;
not all of it was whipped away by the slipstream. At least the
deafening roar of the engines was comforting. By this time I
began to wonder whether we had passed Lae and were heading for
the ranges across the Markham. No, not yet anyway because we
were still following the coastline and heading generally west.
The Huon Gulf coastline swung to the south and then south-east
just beyond Lae. My mental alertness was acute. We didn't need
the 9000 feet ranges across the Markham to suddenly terminate
the flight, tracking over coastal projections, a tall tree might
achieve a similar result.
I began to
alter my concentration from the starboard window and to scan the
water to the left. Perhaps I would spot the Tenyo Maru, or less
palatable, terrain too close to avoid. But the ADF needle maintained
its steady indication ahead. The ADF in VH-AGX had always been
reliable and Lae NDB was transmitting a strong signal so, believe
it, Bowlesie! I mentally put on "hold" the possibility
that the ADF needle may be pointing to a thunderstorm cell.
are required if the calculated ETA varies by more than two minutes.
We were a minute over our revised ETA of 1803, so I called the
Tower again and gave another revision to 1806, purely by guesstimation.
We were still hugging the coastline but precisely where was anyone's
1806 and still
no sign of Lae. This was crazy, as crazy as this feeling of incredible
calmness in this situation. At the speed of the Hudson, wind
conditions need to be significantly different from forecast to
alter the ETA to any extent. On one occasion I flew for about
5 hours from Mackay in Queensland to Sydney and arrived within
a minute of the original ETA calculated on departure. A six minute
variation over the relatively short flight from Madang just didn't
make sense. At least the ADF needle indication was still pointing
ahead and we still had the Huon Gulf coastline on our right.
I revised my guesstimated ETA to Phil: "Zero eight".
But had we
passed Lae without seeing it? Were we now heading for the 9000
feet mountain range? Through the deluge I tried to pick up the
first indication of a change in direction of the coastline towards
the south. I would know then that Lae was behind us. But then...
Jack saw it
first. He looked towards me and pointed ahead. I leaned across
to see better through the starboard window and there it was: the
Bureau of Meteorology's cloud searchlight. And - runway lights!
And the time? 1810!!
flying was not permitted in PNG and because Adastra aircraft generally
only flew in excellent weather and always landed several hours
before last light, I didn't consider the possibility that Lae
was equipped with runway lighting. It seems ridiculous that I
had operated from Lae for about six months without being aware
of this installation.
What an unexpected
bonus! We were almost over the runway at a height of 50 feet
or less when it was first visible. Jack and I exchanged a glance
of relieved understanding and he then returned to the cabin to
strap himself in. Thanks, Jack. A big sigh. Perhaps we'll live
to fly another day!
At about this
time, there was a change in my feeling of detached calm. It was
still there to the time we landed; but there was a gradual change
- difficult to explain - a change back to my normal perception
though my "back to the wall" mental concentration remained
the runway at right angles close to the 32 landing threshold.
I immediately reduced power and commenced to turn left. Phil
was right. Poor weather was an understatement. It was way below
the circuit minimum required for VFR aircraft - 1500 feet cloud
base and visibility 3 nautical miles. No good for IFR either.
There was no
way I was going to lose those runway lights. This would be very
much a modified circuit pattern. I reduced speed for initial
flap extension, 107 knots, and selected flaps down. They began
to extend and then stopped at only 5 percent! Oh shit. A hydraulic
failure. I could do without this.
It meant virtually
a flapless landing on a runway with minimum length for the Hudson
for a normal flapped landing. No time or inclination to try to
sort this one out in flight under the conditions of lousy weather
and approaching darkness. It probably couldn't be sorted out
in flight anyway and I needed to concentrate totally on staying
out of the water and not losing sight of the runway. It was a
relief that I had selected the landing gear down much earlier
and there was a safe (green) gear indication. The landing gear
was operated by the same hydraulic system.
full fine - a normal pre-landing procedure for a possible go-around.
There’d be no go-around but, without flap, I would need whatever
drag I could get to stop in the available runway length and fine
pitch would help. Selected early it would reduce actions necessary
on final approach.
The port wingtip
seemed almost to skim the water as I continued the left turn,
looking back over my left shoulder through the open side window
to keep the runway lights in sight. It was a continuous turn
through 270 degrees and I was then aligned with the 32 runway,
with the Tenyo Maru ahead to our left.
At some stage
Phil cleared us to land. An academic instruction at this stage
- we would be landing ready or not! To land, I needed to look
ahead through the rain splattered windscreen. It was like looking
through frosted glass. The misshapen appearance of the runway
lights through the heavy rain on the windscreen was far from their
normal crispness; the lights at the far end of the runway were
barely visible. Oh for some windscreen wipers right now! But
at least the runway lighting array was in reasonable perspective
I kept the
indicated airspeed at 105 knots. Anything less without flap,
and with anything other than gentle control movements, could result
in a stall. The approach of necessity was very shallow but we
were stabilised in the slot for landing with engine power a little
above idle and we would be on the ground in about 8 seconds.
And then -
Holy bloody catfish!! The runway lights disappeared and I was
looking up at the dark shape of the Tenyo Maru beside us! It
felt as if a sudden downwash of wind off the end of the runway
was forcing us down and we were below the level of the runway!
My right hand
was on both throttles and I slammed them forward. Fortunately
both engines responded; an engine failure now would be disastrous.
It was a "go around" situation for a second approach
but this was out of the question. I knew there were cloud covered
hills to the west which were obscured by heavy rain. Going around
just wasn't on. The burst of power was for only 3 or 4 seconds,
enough to lift the aircraft above the level of the embankment
at the approach end of the runway.
I closed both
throttles almost immediately because of the need for a low approach
over the runway threshold without flaps. We cleared the embankment
at little more than flare height; we were perhaps 5 feet above
the runway threshold. With throttles closed, I eased the control
wheel back slightly to flare the aircraft and we were on.
it was a smooth touchdown. We ran through to the far end of the
runway, quite easily done without flaps! But at least we stopped
in the available length. The wind, which almost had us in the
water from the eddy spilling over the end of the runway, was a
bonus during the landing run and allowed us to slow from the higher
landing speed necessary for a flapless approach. We landed about
25 minutes before the end of official daylight but, by the end
of the landing run, it was too dark to read the instruments. I
taxied the aircraft along the taxiway through the downpour in
the semi darkness to our usual parking position and shut down
By this time
the feeling of total calm had left me. I was having a controlled
attack of the heebie-jeebies.
I went to the
control tower to thank Phil for his help, in particular for the
runway lighting, without which we would not have seen Lae. I was
surprised to see Jack Tierney there. He shook my now trembling
hand and said: "Am I glad to see you! We thought you were
gone. When you climbed up out of the water you disappeared into
Lae Tower was the only "tower" I have seen which was
at ground level. It was situated to the north of the runway,
about midway along. From memory it was built on housebuilding
piers; the floor may have been 3 feet above the ground.
it appeared to Jack Tierney that the aircraft entered cloud, it
didn't, but his comment gives an indication of the local weather
conditions. A flapless landing requires a higher than normal
approach speed and the aircraft needs to be lower over the threshold
than normal even when landing on a runway of adequate length.
And when the runway is around the minimum length needed for a
normal flapped landing, there is little margin for error when
landing without flaps. That is, the least height over the threshold
with safety is making the most of the available landing length.
I lifted the
aircraft just enough to clear the embankment. I believe we cleared
it by about five feet. Jack McDonald said later: "I thought
we went through it!" (It's the only time I have ever needed
to climb an aircraft on a landing approach to flare height!).
Jack Tierney's comment "you disappeared into cloud', was
somewhat remarkable, especially when his viewpoint was near ground
level and only about 2,000 feet horizontally from us. His view
was probably obstructed by some intervening low scud.
generous greeting, Phil, who was then off duty and about to leave
the tower, was not so affable. He said: “I suppose you think
you are a bloody hero." His comment was like a body blow.
I said: "Phil,
the forecast looked good and so was the actual weather at Lae
when I filed my plan at Madang. There's no way I would have come
to Lae had I known what the weather's like."
a little unsettled from his usual aloof self. I think he was
unwinding after preparing for a possible prang on or close to
the aerodrome. It was unusual that he had asked Jack Tierney
to come to the tower. He probably had in mind Jack's usefulness
in the event of an accident - knowledge of crew etc.
and when we discussed the situation a little more, he indicated
that he had been calling us on HF from the time we reported at
the half-way position, telling us to go back to Madang - that
Lae was closed because of adverse weather. He was receiving our
HF transmissions and he was unaware that our HF receiver was faulty.
Even though I had transmitted on several occasions that we were
not receiving on HF, he somehow had the idea that we were.
Phil also mentioned
that the Mandated DC3 aircraft which had left Lae for Madang early
in the day was the only aircraft to depart from Lae all day.
The low cloud and heavy rain had moved in soon after its departure
and there had been no significant improvement.
When I'd spoken
to the Lae forecaster and obtained the actual weather conditions
at Lae before taking off from Madang, it was during the only 15
minute break in the weather all day. The weather closed in again
soon afterwards with persistent torrential rain.
There is often
a reluctance on the part of weather forecasters to change their
original forecast and there was no mention of anything other than
suitable conditions when I spoke to him. He probably believed
the break in the weather was consistent with his original forecast
and that the improvement would continue.
We must have
been very close to the sea surface when we encountered the downwash
on final approach. Had the flight terminated in the sea near
the Tenyo Maru we would have joined the earlier Hudson when it
had rolled over and crashed in almost precisely the same position
some years before.
of the Hudson is 11 feet 10˝ inches from the ground to the top
of the pilot's compartment. The pilot's head would be about 18
inches below the highest point of the compartment. That is, sitting
in the control seat with the aircraft on the ground my eye height
would be about ten feet above the ground.
On final approach
when my eye level was below the level of the runway lights, the
wheels would have been ten feet or more below the level of the
runway. When the runway reference point was eleven feet above
mean sea level it didn't leave much margin. Tidal movement at
Lae is only a few feet, but perhaps it was low tide, or perhaps
the end of the runway was slightly higher than the runway reference
point. In any event we were bloody close!
drove us to the DCA mess in the Adastra Jeep. We were the last
to arrive for the evening meal and, still unwinding from the recent
events, my appetite was somewhat subdued. I mention the evening
meal only because of something Brian Smith did which was unusual.
We had eaten
our main course and dessert was being served. Brian was sitting
next to me and he received his plate of dessert first. He passed
it to me - as if to say: "Thank you." Totally unnecessary,
my sense of self-preservation had been working overtime. It was
a simple, unexpected, gesture. I didn't feel like eating dessert
(unusual for me!) but I did anyway.
the meal, Brian, having done some Private Pilot training, said
he thought we were in quite a difficult situation. In the cabin
he had been listening to the radio transmissions with headphones.
He said he was surprised at how calm my voice sounded and, because
of this, he thought perhaps it wasn't as bad as it looked. His
comment about the calmness of my transmissions was confirmation
to me of the strength of this strange tranquillity I had experienced.
I didn't have the heart to tell him that at that stage I had written
us all off. I made some inane response that I wouldn't want to
repeat the performance before breakfast every morning and left
it at that.
But this unusual
calm feeling, change of perception, change of consciousness, serene
peacefulness, call it what you will, needs to be experienced to
be believed. It was about six months before I felt comfortable
about mentioning it to anyone, even though the experience was
rarely far from my thoughts. It was so unexpected, so inconsistent
with the need for intense concentration and rapid, positive responses,
and it was just suddenly there. Where did it come from? Outside,
inside? It was certainly an internal experience which I found
to be a distinct advantage in the circumstances.
I have since
heard of other people experiencing something similar in life threatening
circumstances when death seems imminent and inescapable.
I wonder whether
it's a kind of internal reaction, common to all life forms in
near-death circumstances. For example when a mouse "freezes"
before being swallowed by a snake, is it suffering from shock,
has it given up on its future existence, or is its state of immobility
an indication of some internally produced anaesthesia?
seemed to be beyond panic and, apart from the acceptance of a
remote possibility of survival, I had virtually given up on our
future existence. However the feeling was by no means immobilising.
As well as being grateful that we survived, I am grateful to have
had the experience.
have taken place in Papua New Guinea since 1962. In recent years
the Tenyo Maru slid into deep water and pilots were deprived of
a valuable approach aid. But Lae no longer exists as an aerodrome
either. It was disbanded in favour of Nadzab some years ago,
Nadzab being about 20 miles inland, in the Markham Valley. On
recent maps Cape Cretin, near Finschhafen, has been renamed "Schollenbruch
"fright" in VH-AGX was not the reason he didn’t fly
in Lockheed Hudson aircraft again. The company insured aircrews
against the possibility of accident but they did not insure Jack.
Had he been involved in an aircraft accident there would have
been only workers, compensation. So Jack's decision not to fly
applied to all Adastra aircraft. Jack flew often in airline aircraft
and, being Jack, he did in fact fly, uninsured, in the company's
DC3 when he was called upon for other technical problems in the
And now that
there is only an occasional Lockheed Hudson flight anywhere in
the world by carefully qualified enthusiasts who have temporarily
brushed the museum dust off its wings, I believe I am safe in
claiming, with doubtful honour, that Jack's final Hudson flight
was with me.
to Jack McDonald and Brian Smith, who calmly and helpfully shared
the experience with me.
also to my sister Laurel Dumbrell, to Mike Wood, to Jack McDonald
and to Margaret for proof reading several drafts, to Dean Darcey
and Gordon Phipps for clarifying the accuracy of Papua New Guinea
aeronautical information, to the unknown Madang photographer, to
Phil Graham whose illuminating actions saved the day, to fellow
members of the "RA Club" for their encouragement, and
to Margaret for her helpful comments and for cheerfully accommodating
disturbed nights while I wrote and re-lived this episode from many
And thank you
Jack for getting our saturated engine started. Had it taken you
20 minutes longer there would have been no story to tell because
we wouldn't have flown that day. But please don't be so darned
efficient next time!
can be read in different ways.
a school teacher it could be read as:
my sister Laurel:
cliff-hanging piece of creative writing
a publishing house:
the Reader's Digest:
the Department of Civil Aviation (as it was):
detailed Air Safety Incident Report (CA225)
Phil Graham, Lae air traffic controller:
potential accident going somewhere to happen
fellow members of the "RA Club":
relief that this topic finally can be put to rest
Jack, Brian and myself:
20 minute adrenalin rush
rights only. (c) Copyright W.H. Bowles June 1995