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How Lucky Can You Be?

by Tom Carpenter *


They say cats have 9 lives - can't beat that, but perhaps I too have been as lucky - you are the judge.

No.1. Shortly after the death of our Chief Flying Instructor, Ernie Buck at Orange in 1938, Vin Burns from the Royal Queensland Aero Club joined Newcastle Aero Club at Broadmeadow as Ernie's replacement, and while cleaning out the Instructor's office, called for the junior lad to burn some rubbish. The junior was on an errand, so I volunteered for the job and took the garbage box out to the fiercely burning incinerator, my instruction was to burn the rubbish but bring back the box.

I upended the box but it had been so tightly packed that nothing fell into the fire. The result was that I had to pull the papers out by hand and throw them into the incinerator. All went well until my hand reached something that sent cold shivers through my body - it was one of the bombs, which had caused Ernie Buck's death some weeks ago. We had packed the remaining 27 detonator powered bombs into a cardboard carton and had put them on top of a cupboard in the Chief Instructor's office. Vin Burns, not knowing the story, had used the same box to dump his rubbish, and had then called for the boy to burn it, the lad also would not have known about the bombs being there, but I did.

I don't think that anyone could imagine my feelings, when after pulling tightly packed papers from the box and throwing them into the fire, my hand found the bombs. I took the box with its 27 detonators back into Vin's office, and for the first time in my life, I saw a man turn white.

No. 2. Just after the outbreak of World War 2, soldiers were camped in the Newcastle Showgrounds and the Newcastle Aero Club was asked to provide an aerial training exercise for these troops. One of our Instructors, Bud Myers was given the job. Briefly his idea was to dive bomb at these troops and pelt them with one pound flour bag "bombs". How to do this? He decided to fly the Tiger Moth from the front cockpit and have a volunteer in the back cockpit to throw the bombs. His idea was to locate the target, invert the plane, and then do a vertical dive at them. The bomb thrower in the rear cockpit who was 17 year old me, holding a one-pound flour bomb until he commanded "Throw".

Bud commenced his dive and then shouted, "Throw". I had a calico bag containing 11 "Bombs" strung around my neck and resting on my knees. Centrifugal force wedged the bag down hard behind the joystick as Bud tried to pull out of the dive. Thank God some of the bags burst under the pressure, thus allowing the joystick to come back and Bud was able to pull out of this near fatal death dive before we hit the ground.

My main memory seems to be of me looking up at the power lines above my head as we went past. On landing Bud apologised to me for our near miss, I accepted his apology but omitted to tell him of my part in the drama.

No. 3. The only time in my life I have ever experienced the possibility of being shot out of the air was in 1945, just after the Victory in the Pacific (VP) at the end of the 1939-1945 war. We were test flying our first civil Avro Anson and its camera gear with Joe Linfoot the pilot, John Howard the photographer and myself the engineer, when at about 10,000 feet we were attacked by an English Seafire. He was either a psycho case or a pilot with a camera gun who wanted to shoot a million dollar 'aircraft to aircraft' air attack. .

He attacked us from every angle for perhaps 15 minutes only pulling away within a minimum distance of our aircraft. We never heard or were given any explanation of the incident but a few months later, while we were in the R.A.A.F. Officers' Mess in Ballarat we came in contact with pilots who were very bitter in their thinking about civilian pilots being used for aerial survey work when many hundreds of R.A.A.F. pilots were being discharged and thrown into the civilian job market. These were very sad times for many pilots simply because there were many more pilots than there were jobs available.

No. 4. Perhaps my next near miss was on the 18th October 1947 while based at Essendon. Joe, John and myself were flying an Anson which had not yet been fitted with long-range fuel tanks in the starboard bomb bay. Our survey location was Drouin, east of Melbourne, but at 13,000 Melbourne seemed just beneath us. Decision time - could we make another photographic run thirty miles to the east, then back 30 miles towards Melbourne? The answer was "yes" but soon after, turning off the camera and heading downhill we ran into a strong westerly head wind. Melbourne seemed to stay in the same place but our fuel supply drained away quickly. To minimize the story, we were given permission to land at Fishermen's Bend and despite my manipulation of fuel available, I firmly believed we would ditch in the Bay. However we landed with power available on both engines but lost one of them on the taxiway. A fuel tanker was sent to us from Essendon and supplied 1 gallon less than our total tankage.

No.5. My seven odd years with Adastra covered a lot of Australia and many good, but a few bad experiences. The worst happened while we were based in Benalla and surveying in the High Country around Mount Hotham. At an altitude of 13,000 feet while lining up for another photographic run, the starboard engine blew itself to pieces internally, leaving the propeller with no pistons or anything to slow it down and the balance weights still on the crank shaft. I hope never again to experience such vibration or hear the noise that aircraft was making - the landing gear warning horn did not help either, until I tore the leads from the Claxon. As the aircraft slowed down, the unexpected happened - due to the severe twisting of the starboard wing, it stalled 10-15 knots before its normal stall speed. One wing flying and one wing stalled threw us into an inverted position and we began to spin. Joe Linfoot, John Howard and I have talked about that day many times, but we are unable to remember anything between going inverted and the normal spin - if there is anything normal about a spin in a twin-engine aircraft.

At 10,000 feet Joe was in control again and for the next 27 minutes I waited to die. It was a strange cold feeling with flashes of past memories. The instrument panel was a complete blur due to the vibration of the aircraft, and all I could do was look out along the starboard wing and watch the skin and tank covers buckle as the front spar went up and the rear spar went down and look back towards the rudder and elevators and see the severe twisting of the tubular members that made up the fuselage frame. If I prayed it probably would have been that the gyrating engine would fall off before the whole starboard wing left us.

At last we were over Mangalore, but what could we do next? We had some idea of the probable stalling speed with gear up, but what would be the result with wheels down? Are we game to lower either wheels or flaps? Wheels went down O.K. but we gave the flaps a miss - I walked slowly backward ending in the dark room, to trim the aircraft onto the ground. The noise was so horrendous that we could not communicate with each other and used hand signals.

Joe pulled the aircraft to a stop on the grass clear of the runway and because I had been nearly over the tail wheel, I was first to get out - a funny thing happened. As my feet hit the ground my legs turned to jelly and I fell over - both Joe and John did exactly the same thing. When the groundsman drove out to the aircraft he found three grown men laying on the ground laughing hysterically. The nearest pub was Avernell and did we drink a skinful that afternoon (even John who was a non drinker), while waiting for the R.A.A.F. to bring our car down from Benalla.

The date was 20th March 1948 a day to remember, but despite my feeling that VH-AVT would never fly again, neither my Chief Engineer Eric Haynes nor myself could find any structural fault, or any reason not to fit a new engine and cowling. The result being that nineteen days later, I flew the Tiger Moth VH-AVV with Joe as passenger from Benalla to Mangalore - Joe flew the Anson back to Benalla and I wandered home in the Tiger Moth.

I have often wondered about that skinful of beer at Avernell - I think it was important and a day to remember for the rest of our lives, which to both Joe and John proved to be of short duration. Both of my long time friends and crewmembers lost their lives in separate air mishaps. Joe Linfoot, his wife and crew and two friends, with Joe as pilot and flying an Adastra Lockheed Hudson, lost their lives on Horn Island. A motor failed on take off, Joe did a circuit and came in to land, but a local council truck baulked his approach, he tried to go round again, but lost the aircraft on the climb.

John Howard flying a Pilatus Porter aircraft with 3 passengers aboard in heavy fog over Cooma hit the top of a radio beacon on the aerodrome. The Snowy Mountain Authority was the owner of the aircraft.

No. 6. My next exciting flight may not have been life threatening, but it certainly was interesting. On 5th June 1948, we were based at Nhill in Victoria, but as the weather was not suitable for aerial survey work, Johnny Howard and I decided to go to Hamilton for a football match and stay the night. Mid afternoon, the police located us at the football ground with the news that our survey aircraft had been totally destroyed by fire in the hangar at Nhill. We immediately headed back to Nhill and into a strong north wind late in the afternoon, but found that our ground speed was down to about 55 miles per hour. Soon it got dark, but that did not worry us, because Nhill aerodrome being on the Adelaide-Melbourne air route had a revolving beacon above its tower. Eventually the light was seen but not where we expected it - we were about 30 miles off course. At last we were in the circuit area and saw the flare path that had been laid for us - but again things went wrong. Those days only big aerodromes had electric flare path lights, smaller aerodromes had tins filled with rags soaked in petrol and oil. This night the wind was so strong that the flares kept blowing out. John Howard flew the return flight and said he dropped the aircraft from about 10 feet above the ground on landing, but I don't remember it happening. I was too busy watching the flares blowing out and the two men who caught our wing tips as we hit the ground.

Briefly the story was that another Avro Anson which had been converted into a passenger carrying aircraft - similar to those used by East-West Airlines and Butler Airways for many years, had been parked in our hangar and joined by its sister aircraft shortly after John and I had left for Hamilton. Joe Linfoot's story was that he was still on the aerodrome and removed our aircraft to allow the new arrival to park in the back of our hangar for storage. Our aircraft was returned to the hangar and the doors locked. The owner and pilot were about to be driven to town in our car when the owner said he had left something in his aircraft and requested the keys to the hangar. Joe said that he and his two passengers had just arrived in town from parking the visiting aircraft when he saw a cloud of smoke out towards the aerodrome. After depositing his passengers at the hotel he drove back to the airport to see smoke pouring from our hangar. Despite the heat he was able to open a small side door to see both stored aircraft ablaze and the nose area of our aircraft just starting to burn.

I personally lost a lot of memorabilia and tools because of the fire, but due to crew changes I also lost my association with John Howard's Tiger Moth, which I had rebuilt for him with all new parts, after he bought it while we were based at Benalla Elementary Flying Training School. The last time my log shows a flight in a DH82 was Nhill to Hamilton - and I don't even know who won the football match.

No. 7. If I were asked which was my closest brush with a fiery death, it would have been on the northern end of the main runway at Mascot on 6th February 1951, when Lionel Van Praag conducted the test flight of Adastra's first Lockheed Hudson.

My logbook reads "Local. Test flight Hudson". What a masterpiece of understatement!!

I was Chief Field Engineer but with only 2 days at Mascot, after a 3-month tour covering New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria - had no connection with the Hudson prior to its test flight. Crew for the test flight was Van Praag in command, Joe Linfoot and myself. At the last moment we were joined by Bunny Hammond our General Manager, which left me without a seat to sit on. On take off Van remarked that the aircraft was very tail heavy, but we forgot about it until the test was completed. During the landing approach at the end of the test flight, I noted that Lionel was working hard and later we all agreed that the tail wheel had hit the runway when the main wheels were at least 5 feet or more above the ground - things started to happen - I believe we porpoised along with port wing low until we left the runway and headed toward the T.A.A. passenger terminal area. The two most vivid things I remember would be the rapid departure of a T.A.A. DC3 from the taxiway as we raced towards him, and the look on Joe Linfoot's face with microphone half way to his mouth as the tower kept repeating "Are you alright AGG?" We missed the parked aircraft in front of the tower, and came to a stop close to the cross-runway, where I got out and kicked the tailwheel free of its locked position. We taxied back to the hangar to find fuel pouring out of both wings and covering the undercarriage. I have never seen sweat pour from the face of any man, the way it did from Van that day - I am alive today because of the way Van Praag worked that aircraft. I believe he did a mighty job. We checked the wheel contact marks on the runway and found them up to 3 times the normal width as we staggered sideways. Perhaps the Lockheed Hudson was not the most perfect aircraft, but none would ever convince me that they had a weak undercarriage.

Why did this test flight go so wrong? Could it be that two engineers made preparations each without the knowledge of the other? My personal checking of petrol tanks showed that both the front and the rear wing tanks were full when the flight plan showed fuel in the forward tanks only. Camera gear and weight was shown on the flight plan as being in place in the nose, but the nose compartment was bare. An engineer loaded boxes of brass valve guides into the rear of the cabin, telling me they were required to trim the aircraft and remember also that Bunny Hammond, unannounced, joined the aircraft and sat in the seat towards the rear of the cabin. The Big question "Where was the centre of gravity?" Much too close to the tail wheel for my liking.

No. 8. While in Cootamundra flying at 6,000 feet we saw a large eagle perhaps 500 feet above us and in front of our aircraft. Our three heads, Gordon Bigg the pilot, Harry Morrell the photographer and myself the engineer were all looking at the eagle, when it dived and went between the pilot and the port engine, perhaps 2 feet from the pilot's head and three feet from mine - what fools people can be! We never dreamt that the eagle would attack our aircraft.

A mate of Cay's was not so lucky; his eagle came through the windscreen and nearly took his head off. He was fortunate that Queensland eagles are only half the size of those in the Cootamundra area. I once saw a monster stuffed and mounted in a shop window down there, and he would have stood 3 feet high.

No. 9. In October 1950 we were based in Roma flying in perfect survey weather, when an oil leak developed in our port engine. I will minimise the details other than to say I hoped to fit a new engine in the shortest possible time. I thought we had a broken, or at least cracked a crankshaft, so we left Roma early one morning, had breakfast in St. George and tightened the propeller cones. We headed south hoping to get to Tamworth - our Anson was not fitted with dual control and I was flying when we reached Tamworth with no obvious problems, so we continued to head for Sydney.

About half an hour later the oil leak was quite noticeable, so I changed seats with Gordon Bigg the pilot. The oil had reached the exhaust ring and we were trailing white smoke when we reached the Richmond R.A.A.F. area. Then our radio told us in a general broadcast to look for an aircraft on fire in the Richmond area. Only twice before in my years of flying had our radio let us down, but that day we could not make contact with Mascot until we were in the circuit area. We listened to the Tower telling everyone to keep clear because an emergency was in progress. As we landed we found that we had an escorting fire engine on each wing tip, but perhaps more astounding was the fact that the oil pressure gauge maintained normal pressure until we were on the ground.

My normal routine those days was to leave the aircraft with a cigarette in my mouth and a lighter in my hand - that day as my feet hit the tarmac, the lighter flared but the cigarette was snatched by a fireman who angrily asked "Don't you know this aircraft has been on fire?"

No. 10. In December 1955 the New Zealand Government chartered an Ansett Flying Boat to fly empty to Wellington and then take a full load of school children and others to the Chatham Islands. We spent the night in Wellington in bad weather but the next morning the conditions were shocking, but the two pilots went to the Flight Centre while the two Flight Stewards and the Flight Engineer went directly to the aircraft and prepared it for flight. I went through the motions, never dreaming that we would fly. An hour later the pilots arrived on the Flight Deck and I jokingly asked for altitude and power to allow me to make my calculations. Sure enough we were going, then the aircraft started to fill with passengers - we cast off and followed the Control Craft, the local police launch. When we were ready to take off the police pointed the way and we were gone without really seeing anything.

We climbed on track and at last came into a lovely day. Before reaching the Chatham Islands, Wellington told us that they were closed to all arrivals and not to take off for the return flight without their permission. Everything went well in lovely weather until we were loaded and ready for the return flight. You must remember that the Chathams are low islands a long way from New Zealand, without aircraft fuel or even an aerodrome in those days. Their only method of transport of stores and people was a ship, which called every 3 months. So you can see how important our fuel supply was to us. Despite trying for half an hour, radio contact could not be made with Wellington, so the Skipper took the risk of taking off and hoped a bit of altitude would allow us to contact the mainland. Contacted at last, but not until we were at least an hour from the Chathams and told that Wellington was still closed - return to the Chatham Islands.

We changed course for Christchurch but were told eventually that Littleton Harbour was closed because 17 small American ships were milling about in the harbour in preparation for "Deep Freeze", America's assault on the Antarctic. Another course change, this time destination Auckland, but it only took the Flight Engineer moments to realise that we would run out of fuel long before we got there.

Back on course for Wellington and I can only assume that the radio system allowed us to spiral down through the cloud and find the water between the Islands. For my part I had drained both outboard fuel tanks into the inner tanks - that is 4 empty tanks, and 2 only holding fuel, then with the cross feed and relying on the accuracy of the fuel gauges we went looking for the harbour mouth at an altitude of about 200 feet. Sounds frightening, but that was necessary to stay beneath the cloud. Several times a more or less steep turn was required to stop running into the shore and I had my microphone in my hand to tell the Skipper we were down to 40 gallons so only gentle turns could be executed without danger, when he barked "Prepare to land" and pulled off power, moments later we were on the water. I went forward to ask why he had landed in the Strait between the two islands, Lloyd Maundrell did not answer but pointed through the windscreen - the only thing I could see was the police launch, which we followed to our moorings. Talking it over later Lloyd said that he came through the Heads without seeing them, and was about to turn when he saw the police launch and flopped beside it. Later after fuelling it was shown that we landed with 39 gallons in one tank and 40 in the other, thus proving that our gauges were accurate. I might add that on the Flight Engineer's panel was a big red notice saying only flat turns could be made if the main tanks were allowed to fall to 40 gallons.

Next day our air crew were called before a high ranking inquiry because a highly rated public servant complained about our dangerous flying - didn't see him again, but we were treated very nicely by the others, they even took note of our disgust at their system which allows an aircraft to depart no matter how bad the weather is - but not to return.

No. 11. After leaving aviation, life seemed to loose some of its zest and became routine until something happened. One day driving from Brisbane to Daymar via Cunningham's Gap, I was climbing the range when I heard a truck engine fairly screaming. I was coming around a bend to my right when I saw a semi-trailer loaded high with electric light poles coming towards me. His speed and the scream of his motor suggested that his brakes had gone and that the driver was an expert. I will never forget the way that load of poles canted over my station wagon - had the trailer rolled on the curve or a tie down cable broke we would have been crushed flat. Strange to say, Vilma's mother was sitting beside me but she only heard the scream of the engine and was oblivious of our brush with death.

No. 12. Still in the bush but back to aeroplanes. While visiting Alan Bett's property he took us for a flight in his Cessna 182. While inspecting his paddocks he took after a pig, and I will never know how he managed to prevent his wing tip from digging into the ground. I thought I had reached the end of my road - wrong again, thank goodness.

No. 13. The previous pages are testimony as how close one can come to death, but now let me give you my reaction to seeing a pilot killed before my eyes.

Late in 1947 while based in R.A.A.F. Laverton, we were invited to attend a school of Air Support demonstration staged jointly by the Army and Air Force in a valley between Laverton and Werribee. There was a brick blockhouse erected in the valley and after it had been pounded by the Army field guns, we heard them call for air support. Five Mustang fighters appeared beneath the low cloud base at perhaps 4,000 feet where they circled. The leader dived to perhaps 500 feet roughly a quarter of a mile in front of us and released two 250 pound bombs which we watched until they hit the target. I knew that the second Mustang was diving but when I looked up all I could see was aircraft pieces plummeting to the ground, or in the case of the two wings, just waffling down like leaves. On one wing I could plainly see a 250-pound bomb still in its rack and the undercarriage still retracted. All I remember of the other wing was the fact that the undercarriage leg was extended. We could hear the Lincoln bomber circling above the cloud and it was my honest belief that to add realism to the display, aircraft parts had been off loaded above the target. Obviously the explosion as the two bombs hit must have camouflaged the explosion that blew the Mustang to pieces, or did the bomb bursting on the ground trigger the explosion in the aircraft?

The mystery was perhaps solved within the next 12 months when the R.A.A.F. made a discovery in the fuel carried in the fuselage of the Mustang. This tank had an electric pump surrounded by fuel under normal conditions, but in the event of an empty tank the electric pump motor could and did cause a spark and explosion. The following investigation showed that one of the 5 Mustangs from Williamtown when refueling at Canberra en route to Laverton had requested 10 gallons of fuel is placed in his fuselage tank for trimming purposes. During the pre bomb release dive the fuel uncovered the pump housing and a spark did the rest.

What impressed me on that morning was the amount of red braid on the Army Officers and the number of senior officers and their ladies - what a spectacle it may have been had things not gone wrong. The Laverton Officers' Mess would have worked overtime.


* Compiled by Tom's wife, Vilma from the memoirs of Thomas William Carpenter after his death on 8 January 2005.