Incident in Dubbo Airspace - An aircraft in trouble

Dark, stormy night

High winds, lashing rain.  Not a good environment for landing and departing aircraft
High winds, lashing rain. Not a good environment for landing and departing aircraft

Happy frogs in a rainwater pipe

Not in a 'water tank' as such, but these frogs are every bit as happy as those in the Dubbo Aeradio water supply
Not in a 'water tank' as such, but these frogs are every bit as happy as those in the Dubbo Aeradio water supply

The drought has broken and every airport was socked in

You can always tell when a change in the weather is on the way out on the Western Slopes of New South Wales. Those slender striands of cirrus curl in from the Southwest high up, forking down. They widen, becoming mares’ tails of cloud which lower and thicken, forming a spider’s web of yellow dust which gradually lowers and darkens as the day moves along.

By sunset the cloud covers the entire sky and the warm, gentle rains begin. Big, isolated drops splash here and there upon the parched earth. You can smell the dust in the air. And as the darkness comes the rain increases. Now, it is falling in a steady murmur upon the paddocks, the iron roofs, the water tanks filling steadily, the frogs croaking with joy for the first time in a long while. Motorists switch on windscreen wipers which have lain dusty and unused in months. The drought has broken.

It was on such a night as this that I heard ‘The Voice,’ a voice that I will always remember. But more on that later...

Focker Friendship Taxying for departure.

Too many trees for Dubbo, but you get the picture.  It's a rainy night
Too many trees for Dubbo, but you get the picture. It's a rainy night

The last flight of the evening is about to depart

Outside, swinging ponderously on its nose wheel, an Airlines of New South Wales, Focker Friendship, it red and green navigation lights blinking ‘on-off, on off,’ is throwing clouds of spray into the air as it does its pre-flight checks. Inside, at my control console, a burst of static then a familiar voice.

“Dubbo, Fox-trot November Charlie taxiing.”

“Fox-trot November Charlie, roger, Dubbo. From Sydney ATC Clearance.

Clearance via flight planned route. Enter control area on climb to flight level 155. Call Sydney Control on 118.5 abeam Mudgee.”

“Fox-trot November Charlie.”

There comes the rising whine of turbine engines. They become more shrill. The aircraft begins to role forward. The whine becomes a crescendo. The F27 gathers speed as it does its ‘do or die’ dash along the glistening runway. In a moment it is rising. The lights flicker ‘on-off, on off’ for a moment and then it has gone, disappearing in the flow-flying scud of cloud.

 

I am on duty alone in Dubbo Aeradio.

I press an intercom button on the control console.

“Sydney? Departure. Fox-trot November Charlie departed zero seven five eight.”

An impersonal voice sends an acknowledgement and once more peace descends upon my little domain.

I am on duty alone in the Dubbo Aeradio Office five miles west of the town.

It is Winter 1961. A Sunday night. The last aircraft as departed and, in theory, I now have little to do before I close down the airport for the night in a little over one hour’s time. Generally, there is no night flying in Dubbo’s airspace.

The aeradio room is no glamorous tower. It certainly isn’t the building which stands there today. No, in 1961 it was a tiny wooden building, probably measuring no more than twenty by fifteen feet. Its floor is wooden, covered with brown lino, it’s roof, corrugated fibro. And upon the roof, painted in huge lettering, one word: ‘Dubbo.’ That was for the benefit of any aviators who might get the aerodrome mixed up with Narromine, which was only twenty miles up the road.

Airline of NSW's VH- FNG in Fligh.

NSW Airlines F27A in early 1960s livery.
NSW Airlines F27A in early 1960s livery.

With the Focker departed, there'd be no more flying tonight

The duty Dubbo Aeradio Operator, which I am that night, has a huge georgraphical area of responsibility. His flight information zone, as it is called, stretches from the Queensland Border in the north, Wilcannia to the west, then right down south past Cowra and then across to the east to a line drawn down through Moree, Narrabri and the like- probably a third of the entire area of New South Wales. Any aircraft flying in that huge area becomes his responsibility, as far as providing in-flight information, and search-and-rescue alerting.

But on this night there are no aircraft flying. You see, every aerodrome and airstrip from Wilcannia and White Cliffs, to Wauchope, and from Goodooga to Gundagai is socked in below dense, impenetrable cloud. No Visual Flight Rules aircraft could fly in that. And now that the regular public transport flight had gone, there was nothing for me to do.

-Except to report on the weather. As a trained aeradio man I was also I qualified Meteorological Observer. Well. It had to be done. I flick on a switch on the aeradio console. Outside, some distance away, a bright shaft of light suddenly shines from the ground up vertically into the night sky. It beam doesn’t shine very far. The cloud is low - very low.

Better measure the cloud base. It looks very low

Bracing myself against the cold and wet, I open my glass door then, banging open the fly-screen door I step out into the night air. In my hand I hold an instrument. It is a tube with a cross-hair sight inside it. Its made of stainless steel and has, below it, a curved scale in which I can measure off the angle between the base of the light and where it enters the cloud.

“Can’t be!” Can’t be.” But it is. 430 feet. The cloud is down to 430 feet. Never seen it so low. Visibility? Oh, No.”

I press a button on the console. “Sydney? This is Dubbo. Dubbo Weather,

Wind 340 degrees 20 knots. Visibility four hundred yards. Temperature 14 degrees Celsius. Heavy, driving rain, Cloud eight-eighths base searchlight showing 430 feet, repeat 430 feet.”

“Roger Dubbo,” comes the reply. Then, a few moments later.

“Dubbo, Sydney. From Sydney Operations, Dubbo Airport closed to all operations due low cloud and low visibility.

So that was that. Not that it mattered. There wasn’t an aircraft in the air in the whole of my flight information zone. I sipped at my coffee and checked the time.

Introducing a MATS C124 Globe Master

This is the aircraft type that popped up unannounced that night
This is the aircraft type that popped up unannounced that night

There was no fancy digital stuff in the early 1960s

Now, in those days we didn’t have any fancy, new-fangled digital readouts and that sort of thing at Dubbo. We had one of those big, old-fashioned railway clocks. You know the type. Made of wood. Big sweep hand. And accurate? -To the second. We used to check it every day against a time broadcast from Washington in the good old U S of A. ‘Tick-tock, tick tock tick tock,’ went old faithful. It was about ten to nine. In just a few minutes I could ask permission to close and then go home to my nice warm bed. Cuddle up to the Missus. You know, young married days. Used to do a lot of that cuddling up stuff in those days.

That was when I heard The Voice.

Coming through the atmospherics, it cut a sort of chill into my heart. You see, I knew what it meant. The voice sent like this”

“Dubbo, Dubbo, this is Quiz Show 123 on 5499 -copy?”

Indeed, I did copy. I depress a lever on the control console bringing on a transmitter. I speak into the microphone.

“Quiz Show 123 this is Dubbo. I am reading you loud and clear, go ahead.”

“Quiz Show 123. We crossed the Queensland border this time, flight level 115, estimating Bourke on the hour, Dubbo next.”

It was said that the Yank Military are a law unto themselves.

Well, this certainly was a surprise. I have nothing on this aircraft. According to my information there should be nothing flying in my airspace. Yet here, quite unexpectedly was something, probably an American Military Aircraft. They were, after all, a sort of law unto themselves. The Yanks, anyway.

I grab my microphone and ask.

“Quizshow 123 this is Dubbo. I have no flight plan on you. Could you please go ahead with your flight details?”

“123, roger. We’re a C129 Globemaster off Anchorage Alaska, via Honolulu, Guam, Momote, Darwin, thence Sydney. Then onto Christchurch bound McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, copy?”

I did copy. The aircraft’s pilot continued. “We have 23 souls on board, fuel remaining 9 hours 21 minutes. Air report, wind 350 degrees 70 knots outside temperature minus 16 degrees centigrade...” and so he went on.

I got busy. Quickly I prepared a yellow, cardboard strip and slipped it into the ‘Active Bay’ of my flight information board. I’d already typed his details straight onto my typewriter. Now, I called up Sydney and sent the message over an alternative voice channel. People far and wide had to know about this aeroplane, Sydney, New Zealand, and others places. No going home at 9 o’clock now. I’d better phone the Missus.

 

Still it was only one aircraft. Shouldn't be much trouble.

Still, it was only one aeroplane. No other traffic to worry about. And besides, a couple of hours overtime would always come in handy. I settled back, sipping my ‘cuppa.’ Maybe I could read for a while. On the wall to my right the big, railway clock ticked on, ‘tick-tock, tick-tock, tick tock’. Outside the rain lashed down. The frogs in the water tank noise picked up. They were having a party in there.

The aeroplane pilot said that he would call me on reaching Bourke He was due over the top of that town ‘on the hour.’ That meant that he had to call me by no later than three minutes past the hour. Those were the rules. If he didn’t call me by three minutes past, then I had to call him. If he did not reply, I was to assume that he was in some sort of trouble. At three minutes past the hour I was to start checking on his whereabouts. If nothing was heard by ten past, i.e. seven minutes later, it was to be assumed that there was uncertainty as to his safety. Yes, the government had procedures for everything.

The clock ticked on. The wind blew. The rain slanted in.

Introducing the reader to "Ware's Law."

Now, it is probable that some of you out there would have heard of ‘Parkinson’s First Law.’ Parkinson’s Law states that ‘Work always expands to meet the time available for its completion.’ Maybe you’ve heard that? And you’ve probably all heard of ‘Murphy’s Law.’ Murphy’s Law states that ‘If it is possible for things to go wrong it is probable things will go wrong.’ Heard of these?

Well, I’ve got another law for you. This one is called ‘Ware’s Law.’ Yes, I named it after myself. It comes from a lifetime of study. ‘Ware’s Law’ states:

‘ The seriousness of an official announcement is always inversely proportional to the seriousness of the actual event.’

I’ll repeat that.

‘The seriousness of an official announcement is always inversely proportional to the seriousness of the real event.’

Let me give you an example of what I mean.

You are travelling on a ship or an aeroplane and a voice comes over the microphone, strong, authoritative. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I have a very important announcement to make...” Relax. It won’t be important. It’ll be something about filling out your customs declaration forms, or checking your tickets at the office on arrival. If they say it’s important it isn’t.

On the other hand... You are travelling in a ship and it runs aground on a reef. Over the loudspeaker comes and announcement. “Ladies and gentlemen you are required to assemble on the boat deck. Just a precautionary exercise. Please bring your life vests.” The ship is sinking but it’s just a precautionary exercise!

Or, you are flying along when the public address system is turned on.

A voice comes on, sounding almost apologetic. “Er, this is your captain speaking, We are, er, experiencing some minor difficulty on the flight deck...” What he really means is they've run out of fuel...or the wing is falling off the aero plane.

In airways operations, beware the casual-sounding voice

Well, it was that casual, inadvertent type of voice which came over the airways to me now.

“Er, Dubbo, Quizshow 123?

“This is Dubbo, go ahead.”

“Quizshow 123 we’re experiencing some, ah, icing at flight level 115. Bit of clear ice. We’re unable to maintain height at 115 and would like to descend to flight 70.”

All very casual. My attention went up ten points immediately. It was atypical example of ‘Ware’s Law’ in action. The key phrase was ‘we’re unable to maintain height.” Do you know what that means? It means the damn plane is falling out of the sky.

Just as casually I reply. (It’s all a sort of game with air traffic, he who is most casual wins)

“Quizshow123, roger. There is no known traffic for your descent to flight level 70.”

The big Globe Master is coming down from eleven and a half thousand feet to seven thousand feet where he obviously hopes it will be warm enough to get rid of that ice on his wings. However, there’s no panic. It’s all routine.

Then he reaches Bourke. But no one sees him. Who’d be out on a night like this.

“Dubbo, Quizshow123 we’re over Bourke at 03, flight level 70, estimating Dubbo on the hour.”

“Quizshow 123 roger, call operations normal at time 30”

"123, roger. Will call ops normal at three zero."

Engine failure: feathered engine.

Compared with modern jet and turbo-prop engines, the old piston engines were far less reliable
Compared with modern jet and turbo-prop engines, the old piston engines were far less reliable

Oh, oh. It was that casual-sounding voice again

I go back to my paperback novel. It’s a Carter Brown private eye yarn. The clock on the wall ticks steadily on. The aeroplane is to call me again at half-past the hour. He doesn’t wait that long. The voice comes again. This time it is almost nonchalantly casual.

“Dubbo, er Quizshow 123?”

“Go ahead.”

“123, er, our starboard inner is running rough. We’re getting an oil warning light

on it. We’d like to feather No3 and descend to 4,000 feet, copy?”

I copied all right. Sounding just as casual I reply. “Roger Quizshow123,

I have no known traffic for your descent. Advize when reaching 4,000.”

“Roger, thank you, sir.” (Only an American serviceman would call a civil airgroundman ‘sir, ‘ but as a former, lower deck sailor in the RAN, where only officers were “sir,’ I lap it up.

Now, in the Australian Public Service we have a procedure for just about every situation. And procedures invariably mean writing out some sort of government form. We had such a form. It was pink in colour and I had one in my console drawer. I open the drawer. At the top of that form it has, in big, bold letters.

‘Emergency -Search and Rescue Phases: Uncertainly, Alert, Distress.’

I quickly filled in the form. There was uncertainty. A big, four engined aeroplane, of the type notoriously underpowered in proportion to its weight, had lost one of its four engines. Moreover, in a short period it had descended from over eleven to four thousand feet. Hurriedly I sent the message off to the Senior Operations Officer at the Sydney Air traffic Centre. And in a moment he was back to me, on the intercom, upgrading the ‘Uncertainty phase’ to that of an ‘Alert.’

“What’s this damn Uncertainty Phase. Make it an Alert Phase – this an American we’re talking about here!”

 

If he could get any more 'layback' he'd have nodded off to sleep.

Once again the American pilot called. If he could get any casualler he’d have nodded off to sleep. But I can hear a sort of rustling sound, like he’s unfolding a chart on his lap with the microphone button open.

“Dubbo, er, um... We’re at four thousand, now estimating your station at 05.

(he was losing time) “We, er, request the lowest safe altitude across those there Blue Mountains.”

I get out my chart. Looking along track I notice several peaks. Any aeroplane passing over that route has to be at least a thousand feet above the highest point of terrain. Those are the rules. I tell him the lowest safe altitude. It is well above 4,000. I’m wondering what his climbing capability is.

A pause. “Er, roger, Mac. We...er -Request the length of your main runway at Dubbo.”

I knew what he was getting at. No way! He’s not going to land here. My reply is brisk and business like.

“Quizshow 123 this is Dubbo Dubbo main runway 05/23 is 4200 feet. However, Dubbo airport is closed to all operations, repeat, closed to all operations, due low cloud and low visibility.”

Instrument Flight Rules or IFR calls for a lot more experience

No Global Positioning Systems back in the 1960s.  Dubbo had a DME (to measure distance) and a NDB to get direction.
No Global Positioning Systems back in the 1960s. Dubbo had a DME (to measure distance) and a NDB to get direction.

This airport is closed to all operations, repeat: closed to all operations!

“Is it sealed, Mac?”

“Affirmative. But I repeat, this airport is closed to all operations, repeat closed.”

“Well that’s stiff, buddy, ‘cos we’re coming in there, anyway.”

Suddenly everything has changed! Suddenly I have to move. I grab a phone and call, Dave, the DCA fireman who has a residence on the aerodrome

“Struth!” says Dave. A Globemaster in here. You gotta be jokin’. We aint got the length. We can’t even take a Viscount ‘cos of the concrete strength let alone one of those monsters.”

I get onto Sydney Operations

Next moment. “Quizshow 123, we’re thirty miles out and on descent. Request frequency your non-directional beacon.”

He’s going to do an instrument let down. I switch on the airport’s emergency generator to back up the town supply. There is a slight flicker of the lights as it comes on line. Then I depress a red switch on the console which brings on the main runway lighting. A parallel line of lights disappear into the watery darkness. Then I activate the aerodrome’s rotating beacon. I notice that the rain is slanting in at about forty-five degrees. It’s blowing a gale.

 

I pass landing instructions but Q123's pilot does not reply...

The aeroplane is due at five past the hour. All lies in readiness. The airport fire tender is standing by. The firemen in Town have been notified and are probably already sliding down that pole or whatever.

“Quizshow 123 this is Dubbo. Dubbo beacon is 251 kilocycles. Surface wind is 330 degrees through 360 swinging. wind velocity 25 knots with gusts to 35 knots. Heavy driving rain. The QNH altimeter setting is 1004 millibars”

No reply from the aeroplane.

“Quizshow 123 did you copy?”

No reply.

Ah, he must have changed over from HF to VHF. He’s close enough in now.

I switch off the HF transmitter and call him on 122.1.

“Quizshow 123 this is Dubbo on 122.1. Do you read?”

No reply.

“Quizshow this is Dubbo on 5499, 122.1. 8939 do you read me?”

No reply.

Now, you’ve probably all heard the expression, ‘No news is good news.’

It does not apply to overdue yachts and to aircraft who do not answer when called on the radio.

 

Lumbering C124 on final. Loveley, clear day

It wasn't like this for Q123.  Landing on a unsealed, dirt strip, lit by kerosene runway markers and car headlights, is a bit more difficult
It wasn't like this for Q123. Landing on a unsealed, dirt strip, lit by kerosene runway markers and car headlights, is a bit more difficult

The anxiety spread. Where the hell is that plane! Was that an...explosion?

By now other ground stations are starting to call the American flyer. We’re on a huge High Frequency Radio Network and just about every aeradio station in Southeastern Australia is able to listen in.

“Quizshow 123 this is Sydney do you read?”

“Quizshow 123 this is Broken Hill. Do you read Broken Hill?”

“123 this is Adelaide, copying Adelaide?”

“Copying Brisbane?”

No reply. I’m starting to get worried. The aircraft should now be in the circuit area. I go the door, pushing it back and securing it. Then I bang out through the lighter screen door into the pouring rain. I’m listening. Straining to hear any sound above the murmur of rain, the croaking of frogs.

‘Ah! There. An engine.’ It’s a semi-trailer. The big truck flies by on the highway a couple of hundreds yards away. Its engine noise fades rapidly. Nothing.

Now, I’m starting to get really worried. The ulcer starts to twinge. The imagination runs riot. Was that an explosion a way off? Gawd! Next moment my imagination gets to me. I’m at the ‘official enquiry,’ in the courtroom. The Queens Counsellor is waving a bony finger beneath my nose.

“You let this happen. It was your fault. Are you sure you gave him the right altimeter setting for his descent? Can you swear to it? Are you absolutely certain!”

Large, articulated truck or semi trailer in rain.

A large truck passing by, its sound particiarly muted by driving rain can be mistaken for an inbound aircraft.
A large truck passing by, its sound particiarly muted by driving rain can be mistaken for an inbound aircraft.

We're going round again...doing an NDB let down

Another sound. Then- ‘Roarrrrrr!’ Right over the top. A tremendous roar of aero engines. The whole building vibrates.

“Dubbo, Dubbo this is Quizshow123. We passed right over the top of you. Did you hear us? More important, Mac. Did you see us? We can’t see a thing. You sure you got that rotating beacon on?”

“Affirmative. Yes, heard you. But no sign of your landing lights.“

“Roger, that. We’ll just go round again. Standard NDB approach on 05. Here we come again, Mac: wheels down, flaps down and pants down-”

Another long anxious moment. I know he’s busy but I’m tempted to call.

A minute goes by. Then another. Then another. Just about to pick up the Mic when-

‘Roarrrrrr!’ Once again the building vibrates to the awful sound of those massive piston engines. But once again I can’t see him. The cloud must have been almost on the deck. It’s raining pitchforks. The glass on the inside of the aeradio room is fogged up. The runway lights outside are a blur.

Then another long pause. Other ground stations are calling but the flyers in big aeroplane pay them no heed. Then, once again the open mic, the sound of a chart being unfolded, moved around.

 

A Godsend - a break in the cloud to the northwest

A break in the heavy cloud cover gives hope to a by now very anxious pilot
A break in the heavy cloud cover gives hope to a by now very anxious pilot

We spotted some clear sky up to the Northwest

“Dubbo, Quizshow123. We’ve just noticed a little break to the North. Couple of stars shining through. Must be clearing up that way. Er, we’d like to head for, ah, Walgett. My charts show you’ve got some sort of airport up that way. Yes, Walgett. We’re going into Walgett, man. Could you let ‘em know we’re coming?”

Can you imagine? Walgett. It’s a Sunday night in 1961 and this bloke want’s to take a several hundred ton plane into the place. It’s a light aircraft strip, unsealed, no landing lights, nothing!

Well, it’s his decision. Quickly I cross to the wall telephone. It’s one of those old-fashioned, wind-the handle types. I swing the handle vigorously.

You’ll remember me telling you, Ladies and Gentlemen, that the Australian Public Service has procedures for just about everything. Well, we certainly had one for making emergency telephone calls. According to my training, all I had to do was ring the switch a say a magic word. That word was Air Flash.

I wind the handle and wait.

And I wait...

And I wait...

At last the tired voice of a very old lady says, “Yes, Airport.”

Quickly I respond. “Switch? Airflash, repeat Air Flash. Call Walgett Airport Immediately.”

“I beg pardon?

“Air Flash, please put me though to Walgett exchange immediately.”

No reply.

Hard to believe that something like this...

A USAF C124 Globemaster in all its glory
A USAF C124 Globemaster in all its glory

A recalcitrant telephonist isn't making this easy. What the hell was going on?...

“Hello? Hello? What the hell?... I swing the phone handle again. The handle all but comes off in my hand.

“Yes?’

“How’s that call to Walgett going?

“I’m sorry, but all the lines are engaged.”

“Engaged! Engaged! This is an emergency. Cut somebody off. There are lives at stake here. Put me through immediately. Put me through now!”

“There’s no need to be rude, young man.”

At long last I get through. Senior Groundsman at Walgett not at home? “You’re his wife? He’s what? Up the pub. Can you get back to the switch up there and have ‘em put me through to the hotel then. Yes, it’s an emergency.”

Well, finally it is all sorted out. The townsfolk rally. Sunday night and everyone who is everyone, including the local cop, are all up the pub. But they race out to the little aerodrome. The drums of kero are dragged out. Car headlights are switched on. The makeshift night airfield suddenly becomes operational and, at that very moment I hear that voice booming from my loudspeaker.

Landed on a strip like this.

I'm told there is a photograph of the Globemaster at Walgett in that town's aero-club clubhouse
I'm told there is a photograph of the Globemaster at Walgett in that town's aero-club clubhouse

"Dubbo. We're in the circuit at Walgett at this time"

“Dubbo, Dubbo, this is Quizshow123. We’re in the circuit area at Walgett at this time. Yes, man, we can see the field. Beautiful, man- beautiful. Landing now and...Say, buddy, thank you for everything and could you do me one more favour?”

“Affirmative Quizshow 123, that’s what they pay me for.”

“Roger. Well, thanks again and say, would you mind booking me and the boys into a good motel?”

 

1 comment

Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 6 years ago from Upstate New York

Holy Smoke!!! Glad you landed him safely. Even if he was a Yank (like me!).

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