"What's The Story???"
If you're new to the blog, you may have missed "The Big Bang Theory."
"What's The Story???"
If you're new to the blog, you may have missed "The Big Bang Theory."
"The 100 Day Fighter."
This week marked the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin and so appropriately, and as a tribute, I thought I would post this special memory of the "100 Day Fighter". Lest We Forget.
Desperate times call for desperate measures and the days didn’t come much darker than in 1942 for those on the edge of the Pacific War. Darwin had been bombed and sitting on the distant fringe of the Commonwealth, Australia was confronted with an advancing Japanese foe approaching its doorstep while the British Empire battled tyranny in Europe. To this backdrop the all-Australian Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC) Boomerang was born in little more than 100 days.
Born of the Times.
Britain was hard pressed to meet the production needs of its own Royal Air Force as 1941 drew to a close and the American industrial arsenal was still gaining momentum with its emphasis on the war in Europe and its own requirements. Australia’s small air force was already weakened with the deployment of front line squadrons and personnel to the European theatre. Only a threadbare force based in Malaya and a variety of non-fighter aircraft at home represented the nation’s air power.
Aware of the predicament and without a foreseeable means of bolstering their stocks, the decision was made to set about producing an Australian fighter and fast! At the time, the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC) was producing the Bristol Beaufort bomber under licence and a derivative of the NA-33 North American Harvard, the Wirraway. At the helm of CAC was the highly regarded, Wing Commander Lawrence Wackett. Using the resources available to him and a contractual clause permitting modifications to the NA-33, Wackett and his time devised an aircraft that would be based upon the Wirraway. This would minimise the requirements in design, manufacturing and tooling processes and open the door to use the Pratt and Whitney engine already in production for the Beaufort bomber.
Designated the CA-12, the ‘Boomerang’ utilised the centre section, empennage, wing and undercarriage of the Wirraway, while melding it with newly designed forward section to accommodate the larger 1,200 HP radial engine. Gone from the Wirraway was the two seat configuration, replaced by a lone pilot, and the armament was moved to the wings in the form of two 20mm cannons and four .303 machine guns.
The net effect was a compact looking fighter whose appearance could be better described as stubby rather than sleek. Yet the achievement of its production and logic could not be argued with. When the first CA-12 flew in May 1942, it had taken only 4 months to grow from a concept to a living, breathing aeroplane. Furthermore, to a nation in danger of losing its supply, much of the supporting materiel was readily available to the commonality of design and production processes it shared with the Wirraway.
Flight of the Boomerang.
From its earliest flights, the Boomerang was earmarked for its manoeuvrability. When trialled against the Curtiss P-40, which the Australian government had ordered, it out-turned its highly regarded opponent and demonstrated impressive rates of climb. However, its stubby airframe was not conducive to speed and was inferior to the Kittyhawk in this critical department. This trait was further hampered by the CA-12’s engine’s tendency to overheat, resulting in flight with the engine gills partly open and creating drag.
Originally, labelled the CA-12, the Boomerang would evolve through the CA-13 and CA-19 to tally a production line of around 250 aircraft. There was even a lone super-charged CA-14 trialled in an effort to increase the top end speed of the type.
The Boomerang’s active service commenced in 1943 and primarily consisted of patrols and convoy escorts, though its limited range proved made certain sorties difficult. With the impending delivery of the faster Kittyhawk fighters, it seemed that the Boomerang’s days were numbered and would be remembered as little more than a stop-gap measure. Yet, just as the Wirraway had been the forerunner in the Boomerang’s design, it was to prove its predecessor in an operational sense too.
The Wirraway had been serving in New Guinea with the RAAF in an Army Co-Operation role. Operating at low level, they provided reconnaissance, artillery spotting and the first generation of Forward Air Control (FAC). The Boomerang now presented itself as an ideal replacement with better armament, manoeuvrability and a zippy rate of climb. While it may not have excelled in its original design role as a fighter, the Boomerang won the admiration of many of the troops in its close ground support tasking.
Operationally, the Boomerang slid into history at the war’s end with its final posting winding up in 1946. Interestingly, the Wirraway from which it was spawned found a new life post-war as an advanced trainer, much like the Harvard. As such, it continued to serve with the RAAF while its offspring was relegated to the scrap heap.
The Boomerang Comes Back.
The Boomerang now seemingly filled the gaps in books detailing military fighters, much as it had done in its active life. There was not much thought in the mid-1970s of seeing a Boomerang brought back to life, other than perhaps in the archive rooms of a national museum: and in the mind of a teenager named Matt Denning.
In 1975, at only 15 years of age, Matt convinced his father to purchase the bones of CA-13 Boomerang A46-122. It was a little more than a beaten up fuselage frame, but became the catalyst for one of the most remarkable restoration stories ever. Restoring what he had and scouring the countryside for any other components, Matt gradually worked towards restoring ‘122’ to static condition. With the assistance of many across the nation he amassed such a stockpile that in 1982 he decided to undertake the mammoth task of a restoration to flying condition.
With unrivalled persistence and determination, Matt Denning saw his dream take flight on Valentine’s Day 2003; 28 years after he had first acquired the airframe of A46-122. Today, ‘122’ is owned by the Temora Aviation Museum, but is still to be found gracing the skies with Matt at the helm.
For most, such an undertaking might wear the enthusiasm levels somewhat, but not Matt Denning. On June 26th a second CA-12 Boomerang (A46-63) rolled out from his Queensland hangar and took to the air for the first time since it forced landed in 1943 following an engine failure.
Though Matt took the historic aircraft into the sky, this time it has been restored for owners from South Australia. It is another immaculate restoration and credit to the man behind the Boomerang today.
Craftily, there has been a second seat fitted aft of the cockpit. In keeping with the quality of the restoration, this modification is virtually invisible to most observers, but enhances the practical use of the aircraft twofold.
The Stop Gap No More.
The Boomerang may have been borne of desperate times in an exercise of compromise, but it is better remembered as an aircraft of answers. It offered the Australian people an interim fighter when none was on the horizon and instilled a level of self dependence when the Empire seemed so far away and distracted. It displayed ingenuity at its very best to utilise existing parts and processes and deliver an aircraft from paper to ‘plane in around 100 days.
It remains the only fully designed and built Australian aircraft to see active service. While it may have only provided breathing space until the arrival of the P-40 Kittyhawk and the like arrived to re-establish a degree of air superiority, it found a vital role down amongst the jungle canopies of New Guinea. Those foot soldiers would not have seen the Boomerang as a ‘stop gap’, but more likely a saving grace.
Regardless of performance or role, the CAC Boomerang fills a special niche in aviation history. A niche that we can still be reminded of as restored examples of the little fighter weave across the sky and pay tribute to those who have gone before.
"Tomorrow's Wing...Here Today."
An interesting perspective of the Boeing 747-8F's wing, highlighting its efficient raked wing-tip and the state-of-the-art General Electric Gen-X engines.
"It was just one of those days."
It was just one of those days again.....in a good way.
Like so many mornings in the airline game it began in a hotel room with an alarm clock sounding at an hour too early to accurately recall. A shower, a shave and a stealthy exit, carefully trying not to slam the door and disturb the other guests. An exchange of pleasantries and a room key to the sole staff member manning the foyer desk, before a cheerful ‘Good Morning’ to my fellow pilot. As the car makes its way to the airport along the darkened roads, we both check the latest weather and radar paints on our iPhones. What did we do before these things? In the briefing room we pore over the detailed weather and ‘Notices to Airmen’ before ordering our fuel load, passing through security and finally walking out to our aircraft sitting quietly on the tarmac.
The control tower was still asleep as we brought the Boeing to life for the day and then passengers started to climb aboard. A few more calculations and then the ‘tower’ was open for business. We received our ‘airways clearance’ from the chirpy Air Traffic Controller and I’m sure that I could smell coffee on his voice. The runway lights were on, the sun was threatening to rise in the east and we were all ready to go. Engines started; we’re on our way.
Climbing out from Hobart, the darkness grew deeper very early in the flight as we entered a low layer of cloud. Some thousands of feet later the cloud began to glow and then I was in clear air with a line of bright orange sunrise back over my shoulder. The brilliance only lasted a few minutes, before once again the cloud consumed the aircraft and held it in its grasp until 30,000 feet. By then we had well and truly set course for Melbourne and a solid white blanket lay below us. Thirty minutes later and we were over Bass Strait with the thrust levers closing to initiate our descent into the Victorian capital.
Not much was happening on this sleepy Sunday morning, so Air Traffic Control instructed us to fly a straight line at our maximum speed to join final for the northern runway; an instruction that we happily complied with. As the cloud thinned out the coastline lay below and we shadowed the waterline with the high-rise of the city looming ahead and out to our right hand side. This stretch of coast was familiar to me as I had dawdled along it during my fund-raising flight around Australia in 2010. At that time I was flying at 120 knots and around 1,500 feet, now I was on descent from the flight levels at 320 knots. Still, from the higher vantage point I could pick out various features and mentally retrace my steps.
The view as we passed Melbourne’s skyline was beautiful as we began to decelerate. The early morning sun silhouetted the buildings without affording the full detail of colour. But there was colour; seven or eight dots of colour. In the stillness of the early morning air, a sea of hot air balloons silently drifted into the sun’s earliest rays and was illuminated by its light. They appeared to be untethered lanterns welcoming the day from on high. It was spectacular.
We continued on and landed at Melbourne, but after such a breathtaking start to the day, the latter phase of the flight could not compete as a spectacle. The flight deck truly is the best seat in the house and I treasure every day I spend there. Every day offers something new, so really, today was just another one of those days.....but in a good way.
Title Image supplied by "Picture This Ballooning."
A contrail at dusk as the traffic ahead turns the corner, bound for home.
The day was not so old today when the news of another airline's collapse filtered down the wire. There had been rumours circulating over recent days, but nothing untoward in an industry that is traditionally underpinned by third hand speculation. Even so, when the news was confirmed it was still a shock to the system, particularly for those caught in the cross-fire. Personally, it took me back ten years to when my old employer, Ansett Australia, ceased operations in the wee hours.
On that occasion I was left standing outside the terminal with the passengers as the automatic doors refused to budge despite limitless arm-waving at the sensor. Eventually I gained access under the watchful eye of a security guard, emptied my letterbox and was shown the door. All before 6am. It's a surreal experience to be standing on the footpath, in uniform and unemployed. The thoughts racing through the mind are difficult to harness; action needs to be taken, but what's to be done? Where to from here? Abandonment, vulnerability, confusion and grief all show their faces as the rational half of the brain endeavours to create a strategy to move forward from this mess.
As the announcement of Air Australia's collapse filled the air waves, that day on the footpath did not seem to be a decade ago. The corporate impact hardly registered with me as I felt immediate empathy for the staff. A number of the pilots at Air Australia were my workmates at Ansett, so the blow they have taken must be a bitter case of 'deja vu'. Once again they are asking, “Where to from here?”
For so many, aviation is more than just a job; it's a passion. As such, the loss of employment can be a twisted blend of fiscal uncertainty and a slap in the face by a cold-hearted lover. And similarly, both may take years to fully 'get over'.
If there is any solace, it may lie in the fact that many have been down this road before and have managed to regroup and rebuild. Resilience is so often a by-product of disappointment. It may be cold comfort in these first days when any sense of perspective is difficult to come by, but rest assured that the thoughts and good wishes of many are with you.
To the staff of Air Australia, stay strong and treasure those who really matter the most as they are the ones who will get you through.
Take care one and all.
Chatting with the team at the PCDU Podcast.
For those who followed my charity flight around Australia, you’ll recall that one of the supporters from the early days were the lads at "Plane Crazy Down Under" or PCDU. The two founders of PCDU, Steve Visscher and Grant McHerron, spend every spare moment hunting down interesting aspects of aviation from balloons to Boeings to compile a monthly podcast. Of paricular note is the genuine passion for aviation that exudes from every episode of PCDU. These guys love what they do.
Their podcast has gone from strength to strength over the last two years and while there is an Asia/Pacific focus, that didn’t stop Steve and Grant crossing the Pacific Ocean to visit the United States for a pilgrimage to ‘Air Venture’ at Oshkosh in 2011. Those particular podcasts proved very popular across the globe and were heavily downloaded through their website and iTunes.
This episode again brings a number of varied topics to the microphone; from flying boats and ‘Splashing In’ to World War Two pilot training. I even sit down for a chat for the lads and speak about the wonderful world of aviation. If you haven’t listened to the team at PCDU, Episode 82 might be a good place to start.
Welcome to this week’s ‘Friday Flight Bag’. And what a week it’s been!
This week saw a huge response to both my post 'Moments' and the video from the solo charity flight around Australia. Meanwhile, the subsequent posts in the "Practical Pilot" and "Fatal Stall" series followed up the interest from the previous week. In fact all of this week’s posts were met with a great response.
Away from the keyboard, this aviation blog was very honoured to receive coverage at three very established aviation entities.
1. PCDU Podcast Where I stopped by for a chat.
2. Karlene Pettit's 'Flight to Success' Where she is kindly profiling my background and the blog.
3. AirlineReporter.com Where I concluded the article on the Boeing 737.
I cannot thank these three tremendous organisations for their support as I start out on this online aviation journey. A reminder for everyone that Karlene Pettit’s book "Flight for Control" hit the shelves this week, so make sure that you visit her website and hear the latest on this new release.
So what’s for next week? Amongst other things, another instalment in the “Practical Pilot” series and a look at the Airbus A380 to balance the grass roots passion here at the blog. Thanks again for your support as it is your interest that keeps me writing. So tell your friends and spread the word and together we can share this journey of aviation.
Cheers for now,
Those who have been following the blog will recall the chilling video that formed the nucleus of the post, 'The Fatal Stall'. In this instance, the aircraft involved was a light aircraft, but in recent times the tragic demise of Air France 447 has reinforced that size is not a barrier to the lethal nature of the stall. And yet, despite the publicity, Air France 447 was not the only airliner to fall victim to the edge of the aerodynamic envelope. Below is the story of another.
"Even the Mighty Can Fall"
The Boeing 727 is one of the all-time classic airliners. Built for speed, it is a pilot’s aeroplane that offers a hushed ride for its passengers by virtue of its three aft-mounted Pratt and Whitney engines which left most of its noise in its wake. Yet even such an illustrious machine can fall victim to the simplest oversight as the crew of Northwest Orient Flight 6231 learnt on a cold winter’s night in 1974.
Prelude to disaster.
The sector should have been little more than a milk run. The flight was a short positioning sector from New York’s JFK Airport to the upstate town of Buffalo where an American football team and its staff were awaiting a ride back home. The crew of three were the only occupants for the ferry flight on the evening of December 1st and consisted of the Captain, First Officer and Flight Engineer. The Captain had held a command for five years, while the F/E had around 2,000 hours in the back seat. The First Officer was to fly the sector and had previously been a Flight Engineer before changing to a ‘window seat’. Of his 1,500 hours as a pilot, only 50 of them were on the 727.
As the crew readied the Boeing, the forecast for the night ahead was typical of a cold winter’s eve on the east coast. The cloud base sitting at around 5,000 feet with occasional thunderstorms extending towards 30,000 feet and icing virtually assured for all levels in between. The crew had planned to cruise above the weather at 31,000 feet and had very little reason to believe that the flight would be anything other than routine. And yet in less than 15 minutes after departing JFK they would crash to earth in a forest a mere twenty miles to the north. But how?
Air Traffic Control’s first indication that a problem existed for Flight NW6231 came in the form of a Mayday call stating that they were, “...out of control and descending through 20,000 feet”. In response to ATC’s transmission, the crew’s final message was that they were, “...descending through 12....we’re in a stall.” In less than a minute they were dead.
The Boeing had hit the earth at high speed and its wreckage was confined to an area less than 50 metres square. There were some tailplane components a short distance away, but it was evident that these had separated in flight due to high aerodynamic loads. The undercarriage was retracted, but the leading edge devices were extended. While a number of the aircraft’s pitot heads had been damaged, two of the airspeed sensing systems were found to contain water and began to point the finger at possible icing issues. This was further reinforced when closer examination of the flight deck found the overhead ‘pitot heat’ switches were in the ‘OFF’ position.
Much more would be revealed when the aircraft’s Flight Data Recorder (FDR) and Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) were analysed. As the flight was so short, both recorders contained voice and data recordings from before take-off to right up until impact and both portrayed a relatively normal flight prior to 16,000 feet. At this point the aircraft was established in the climb at 300 knots and climbing at 2,500 fpm enroute to cruise at FL310. Incredibly, the airspeed began to climb through 340 knots while the climb rate exceeded 5,000 fpm. The First Officer was taken aback by the increase; however the crew put it down to the aircraft being light and possibly an updraught associated with the forecast thunderstorms.
Incredibly, as they climbed the indicated performance was astronomical with a speed of more than 400 knots and 6,000 fpm rate of climb as the aircraft punched through 20,000 feet. Still hand flying the aeroplane the First Officer was continuing to pull back on the control column in a vain attempt to arrest the growing airspeed as the overspeed warning sounded. The Captain encouraged the new co-pilot to keep pulling back but it was all to no avail as the overspeed warning sounded again. And then, only seconds later, the stick-shaker activated to warn of an impending stall.
On the verge of 25,000 feet, the crew were still convinced that they were flying at excessive speed and rationalised that the stick-shaker was in fact Mach buffet at the other end of the performance envelope. The Captain again told his co-pilot to “Pull it up”. The gear warning horn chimed in, indicating that the gear was retracted while thrust levers were closed and idling at the stops. It was now all too much for the 727 and the airliner lurched from its nose high attitude to more than twenty degrees down as it simultaneously turned to the right through 180 degrees to point back in the direction of JFK. In an instant its rate of descent increased to 15,000 feet per minute. Yes, 15,000!
The aircraft continued its downward plunge and at around 12,000 feet the Captain recognised that the aircraft was stalled and called for “Flaps Two” as the stall warning continued intermittently. Ultimately the aircraft was descending with a 50 degree pitch down, 80 degree roll to starboard and a rate of descent of up to 18,000 feet per minute in association with G-Forces reaching 5G. Ironically. By this stage the airspeed indicator was reading zero as the tailplane partially failed under the load. The crew never stood a chance at this point and their fall from over 24,000 feet had taken a minute and twenty seconds.
The attitude indicators were frozen at 20 degrees nose down at the point of impact, but it was what they were indicating a few minutes earlier that was crucially overlooked. Climbing through 16,000 feet when the incredible climb performance first began to accelerate, the pilot’s action was to increase the back pressure in an attempt to arrest the blistering speed. If due attention had been paid to the aircraft’s attitude, the nose was actually more than 30 degrees up, when a more likely attitude was in the realm of five degrees. Continuing to pull back only exacerbated the issue until the critical angle was exceeded and the aircraft stalled. So began the aircraft’s rapid fall to earth, but even so, there was no attempt to roll off the high bank angle as the aircraft descended so that any back pressure on the control column merely served to increase the G-loading. Everything was working against the crew possibly recovering the aeroplane.
But why would the crew receive such phenomenally high airspeed indications when in fact the aircraft was stalling with a high nose attitude and the thrust levers were closed? The simple answer is that the pitot heat had not been selected prior to take-off and the multiple probes had iced up until they were blocked passing 16,000 feet. The CVR revealed that there had been some hesitation, confusion and oversight when the pre-take-off checklist had been read, with the ultimate result that the pitot heat was not selected ‘on’. Such a simple error, but such an extreme result. The indicated airspeed was far from accurate once the system was blocked to the extent that when the aircraft stalled at 24,000 feet it was indicating over 400 knots but flying at less than 170 knots. Conversely, in the final stages of descent when there was zero indicated airspeed, the aircraft was probably flying in excess of 350 knots. Without due attention to attitude, confusion undoubtedly reigned supreme.
The Lessons Learnt.
For such a tragic outcome, the findings revealed that it was the failure to successfully complete a checklist that created the problem and an undue focus on airspeed rather than aircraft attitude that led to disaster.
The need for checklist discipline, whether for the lone pilot or the airline crew, is absolutely vital. Cockpit interruptions are frequent and distracting, but shouldn’t circumvent crucial checklists. If the flow of a checklist breaks down for any reason, there is a strong case to go back to the beginning and start it again. And then, don’t stow the checklist, move the marker or flip the page until the checklist is absolutely completed. Even if flying solo, recognise this point by stating out aloud, “Pre-take-off checklist complete.” It provides a further filter and is another marker in the brain that the job is done properly.
As for flying an aircraft with suspect instrument indications, the first thing is to consider whether the attitude and thrust setting is appropriate for the indicated performance. Confirm that the pitot or probe heat is selected to ‘ON’ and cross-check the Mach/airspeed indicators against each other as the fault may not lie across the entire system. First and foremost, consider the attitude and thrust in light of the performance.
The investigators did not find any great mystery in the loss of Northwest 6231. A simple oversight here and a misinterpretation there led to the catastrophic loss of an essentially serviceable Boeing 727 and its precious crew. Regardless of the size of the aircraft or the experience of the crew, the operation of any aeroplane is hinged upon discipline and the observation of some fundamental principles. This is sometimes easier said than done, so it is our responsibility as aviators to give due attention to every aspect of our operation and guard against the curve-balls that fate throws at us.
That cold night over New York the unfortunate crew saw events unfold at a rate that exceeded the ability to recognise what was befalling them and it all stemmed from failing to flick a switch. We are all only human and there but for the grace of God go I.
Title Image: r2suberti.blogspot.com
B727 Image. The extensive 'Ed Coates Collection'
In 2010 I flew around Australia to raise funds for the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
Along the way I filmed the journey in HD and took a number of digital images. However, I also took a number of 'snaps' with my iPhone. I subsequently put these together as a short video for my own enjoyment, but given the interest being shown in this blog, I thought it might be a good time to share it.
Please spare a thought for the great work for the Royal Flying Doctor Service and if you're at all able, please spare a 'dollar for the Doctor'. Donate to the RFDS.