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by Wal Bowles


The Lockheed Hudson was a particularly useful aircraft for survey flying. We used it for oil survey work at 1,000 feet above ground level but mainly at 25,000 feet on photographic flying. When weather conditions were suitable, flights of 5 hours 45 minutes duration were normal, which allowed 45 minutes mandatory fuel reserve. Because of light conditions and shadows from surface objects, the aim was to turn the camera on not before about 0930 or 1000 hours, which meant we would usually return to our base aerodrome about mid afternoon.

Early in June 1961, flying photographic survey in Lockheed Hudson VH-AGX at 25,000 feet out of Cairns, North Queensland, we had some “clean up” runs to do and our navigator on this occasion was Mike Wood. It was my normal procedure to take a basket of food and coffee to allow us a little sustenance about mid afternoon, when we would normally have completed our day’s photography and would be on descent. Around 12,000 feet on the drop was when the heads of the navigator and camera operator would normally appear from the front compartment and they would grab the basket as they went past the pilot’s position to the cabin area. (I admit to a feeling of discomfort to see these two half frozen human beings come up from the cold nose compartment while I was comfortably warm in my short sleeved shirt and shorts - I guess the Hudson’s warm air direction was designed by a pilot!) On this occasion we had flown 7 separate lines and had a 20 minute transit to the next area. Suddenly Mike’s head appeared from the nose compartment. We were at 25,000 feet. He had no oxygen mask; he grabbed the basket and disappeared down into the nose compartment again in a matter of seconds. A few seconds later I thought we had a real problem – there appeared to be smoke issuing from the instrument panel. This was followed immediately by a few muffled noises from Mike over the intercom - “She’s right mate, I’ll have it sorted out in a minute.” It happened that Mike had felt the need of coffee but, as soon as he placed a finger on the top of the thermos, it’s contents suddenly issued from the flask. Of the five cups of coffee in the flask, four and a half cupfuls spread themselves around the nose compartment and much of it stuck to Mike’s perspex navigation panels. He managed to scrape enough frozen coffee off the internal perspex surfaces to be able to navigate, with difficulty, for the remainder of the flight. But this wasn’t the end of the story. Taxying in after landing at Cairns, a walk around showed that the coffee had streaked down over the camera draught excluder and lens. We were all a little shattered, especially because Mike had been especially confident that the photography had been spot on, only to be spoiled, apparently, by coffee streaks. Each evening after photography, we would usually go to a dark room (often a bathroom in an hotel) and would develop a couple of surplus shots taken at the end of photography just to make sure the camera seemed to be functioning satisfactorily. The purpose of this was that, if a problem showed itself, we could re-fly the same area again the next day if the weather continued to be suitable. On this occasion we had already decided to re-fly the runs, at least those that would have been affected by coffee streaks. It happened that the test shots developed in the hotel looked entirely normal – no sign of coffee streaks!! Jack Tierney, a navigator with another crew and with expert photographic knowledge, confirmed that nothing appeared abnormal with the test strip. We decided then not to re-fly, at least not until after the photography had been assessed at the Sydney office. “The Angry Ant” at Sydney was meticulous in his standards of acceptable photography and, in confirmation of what we believe happened, he gave the photography the thumbs up! It seems that, as soon as the coffee hit the internal walls of the cold nose compartment at altitude, it froze immediately and did not run down over the camera lens until after our photography was completed. The frozen coffee had melted after we encountered warmer air on descent. Even now, indulging in an iced coffee at our local coffee shop reminds me of this event.

Wal Bowles
11th February 2003



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