Features Australia

Skid marks in the desert

16 December 2017

9:00 AM

16 December 2017

9:00 AM

My time was up. Skid marks in the desert after three decades and six years. You don’t run out of fuel in a jet at altitude and survive. Six of us did survive and I will never forget the noise of a wheels-up landing with the fuselage skidding along the red dirt and the thumps as the wings hit saplings. It was not an accident. It was a certainty waiting to happen.

On an earlier trip in the corporate jet from Melbourne to Kalgoorlie, we were descending into Kalgoorlie. I was sitting in the co-pilot seat, the pilot asked me where the headframes of the goldmines were and I suggested that maybe he should do a circuit. He replied that he only had seven minutes of fuel left and couldn’t. This was not the first time. We had once landed at Kadina with only minutes of fuel and God knows how many other times he had landed with low fuel. The pilot was ex-RAF, somewhat psychiatrically damaged and played Russian roulette for his thrills. But he did this with passengers. When he was with the plane on the ground and we were elsewhere, he would often do low-level fuel-consuming trips such that the fuel records did not show that he had been flying with no reserve fuel. He cooked the fuel books for years. He was also arrogant, incommunicative and aloof. Mistake No 1 was to have such a pilot employed, licensed and flying passengers.

On 5 December 1983, we had a dawn start from Essendon airport and were due to land at Adelaide to pick up a couple of others who had come down from Broken Hill. The previous day the pilot had been flying in Tasmania and had refuelled the plane and submitted his flight plan for the next day. The Melbourne Briefing Office told him that there were upper level high winds on the nose between Adelaide and Kalgoorlie and the pilot assumed that the headwind was 50 knots. Mistake No 2. Aviation Safety Investigation Report 198304358 for Cessna 501 Citation 2 VH-BNK shows that the forecast headwinds at 31,000 feet for Melbourne to Adelaide were 90 knots and for Adelaide to Kalgoorlie at 37,000 feet were 100 knots. Such strong headwinds are common when flying from eastern Australia to WA, especially in winter or stormy weather. Big storm fronts were coming in from the west on that day. The pilot’s flight plan gave the fuel endurance at 200 minutes ex Melbourne and 300 minutes ex Adelaide.

A dawn takeoff allowed us to have a short sleep on the flight from Melbourne to Adelaide. The pilot had organised for TAA flight catering to deliver breakfast to the plane and he left a note for the aircraft refuellers to fill the tanks while he was at the Adelaide Briefing Office. Mistake No 3, the pilot should have been supervising refuelling. The pilot’s updated weather forecasts required him to have an alternative landing place to Kalgoorlie. The pilot elected for Perth if Kalgoorlie was closed and was told that the fuel endurance to Perth was 302 minutes. If the predicted storms had closed Kalgoorlie we would have been 2 minutes short of Perth and would have crashed in the suburbs. Mistake No 4. The pilot then changed the flight plan and claimed that he had 320 minutes fuel endurance. Mistake No 5, the pilot told the Adelaide Briefing Office a lie yet they did not see that the 320-minute endurance was obviously concocted. Mistake No 6 was when the pilot decided to fly at 29,000 feet rather than at 37,000 feet because the headwinds were less although they were still at twice the velocity of the planned headwinds of 50 knots. Our series of visits and meetings as a due diligence committee would be delayed as we were running late and courtesy prevented us from informing our hosts in a pre-dawn phone call. I doubt if the pilot cared whether we were late or not and he certainly had no pressure from his passengers to arrive on time.

When the pilot returned to the jet at Adelaide Airport, he found that it had not been refuelled as requested. The refuellers were edgy, they wanted to leave for their breakfast break. Mistake No 7. He claims that he assisted the refuellers and added the anti-icing agent to the fuel during refuelling. This may or may not have happened. What did happen is that the fuel tanks were not filled to capacity. Mistake No 8. After flying for an hour or so, the plane entered cloud, the pilot turned on the anti-icing and continued to fly at 29,000 feet. Operating with the engine anti-icing consumes about 8 per cent more fuel. After about 30 minutes, the pilot climbed to 31,000 feet. We noticed that he was getting edgy and would complain if someone moved around as the trim had to be re-adjusted. I’d had breakfast and settled down to read.

At mid-point between Adelaide and Kalgoorlie, the pilot became concerned that he might not have enough fuel to get to Kalgoorlie let alone the alternate airport at Perth. He did not tell his passengers. If he had, we would have forced him to backtrack to Adelaide, Port Lincoln or somewhere else where he could get fuel. Mistake No 9. The pilot continued along his original planned track, the pilot had mentally planned to land at Caiguna if the alternate airport requirement was not lifted. The alternative landing requirement was lifted and, although the pilot was within striking distance for refuelling at Caiguna, he continued to fly to Kalgoorlie knowing that he had low fuel and was taking a huge risk. Mistake No 10.

Descent into Kalgoorlie started at 185 miles. I started to read an article in the Australian about an aeroplane near Longreach that crashed with no survivors after the pilot became ill and a passenger tried to stop the plane diving. The wings broke off when pulling out of a dive too quickly. At 25,000 feet we were again in heavy cloud and the engine anti-icers were switched on. They consume extra fuel. During the descent, the fuel low-level warning light illuminated. By then there was no alternative airport, no more mistakes needed to be made as we were in a hopeless position, the right engine flamed out with a bang and very soon after the left engine also flamed out. Flaming out by a jet engine is an unforgettable noise. I lifted my head, put down the article that I was reading about the plane crash near Longreach and saw that every light in the cockpit was red. I knew that we had run out of fuel, I knew that jets can only glide at a high angle of attack, I then knew that we could not slow down the plane and I knew that aeroplanes are very flimsy. The certainty awaiting to happen had happened.

It was very quiet with the plane gliding like a brick, no one talking and the pilot sending Mayday calls to Kalgoorlie. The lady at Kalgoorlie air traffic control freaked out. This was her first mayday and it was a jet, not a slower propeller plane. The pilot didn’t use the intercom to tell us that we were coming in and the passenger up the front turned around to tell us that we were going to attempt a forced landing on the Commonwealth Railway Line or mine tailing dams. These I could see were too far away at our rate of descent and it was obvious that we were going to crash in the bush. I knew that jets have a very high stall speed, that crashing in the bush was certain death and I was really angry that a risk-taking pilot was going to kill me because of his stupidity. There were no prayers, no thoughts of a supernatural being. Just anger and thoughts of my wife and children. We battened down the luggage, clipped the seats back to the fuselage, stored anything that was loose or heavy and waited to die.

At about 1,000 feet, the passenger up the front pointed out a firebreak, residual hydraulics were used to turn the plane to approach the clearing. There were not enough hydraulics for flaps and there was no point in putting down the wheels. What was incredible was that our angle of glide for the firebreak was perfect for landing and that flaps, if they could have been used, were not necessary. Just before we hit the deck, we went into the brace position. When we hit the ground the noise was deafening, the TAA breakfast residuals scatted around the cabin, seats and luggage were projected forward as we rapidly decelerated and we could feel the wing spars and fuselage twisting backwards and forwards. After skidding for about 200 metres, I lifted my head and thought that I might not die but could end up with dreadful internal injuries as rapid or sudden deceleration can detach or rupture internal organs.

Towards the end of our 400-metre skid, we hit a tree on the port side and the wing was opened up. Although we had run out of fuel, there is always some vapour and residual fuel in the tanks for a fire. We later learned that only five litres of fuel was present in both the port and starboard wing tanks, there was a trace of fuel in the fuel filters and fuel lines and that there were no defects that could have led to fuel starvation, despite the pilot entering the plane after we’d come to rest and recalibrating the fuel gauge. Plane damage was substantial, only the main door would open and the fuselage was so twisted that the emergency door could not open. The pilot did not converse with us, one of the passengers congratulated him on a good landing (but did not comment that he had not filled the plane with fuel) and we were later to learn that he had written off four planes in his career, including three RAF planes and one for his current employer. He certainly had experience with crashing planes and should never have been employed.

Our firebreak emergency airstrip was at Bulong, ten kilometres northeast of Kalgoorlie. John Jones, from Jones Mining, owned the station. Every time he sees me now, he wants to charge me for parking a plane on his land and I reply by telling him that the charge for ploughing a 400 metre trench for him is at a slightly higher cost than the parking fee. We joke but we both are aware that I should not be alive. If there was no firebreak, we would have been dead with a bush landing as planes and trees don’t mix. One of the contributing factors to our troubles was a huge summer storm that gave us strong headwinds. It had dumped a large amount of rain on the firebreak and the wet ground meant that we were able to skid rather than come to an abrupt stop.

I knew where we were and walked through the bush to the Oroyo Mine with one of the passengers. When at the boundary fence, we were apprehended by mine security who did not believe that we had just crashed in the bush.

The police were gobsmacked that there were survivors, a spotter plane had seen the wreckage but had seen no people and police cars were on the way to the site. They elected me as nominated driver to collect passengers and luggage and warned me that if I was caught driving under the influence, then crashing in a jet and surviving was no excuse. We got a lift to the car rental company in a cop car.

At the car rental office, I was told that they had rung the airport and learned the plane had crashed and all had died. I pointed out that the first part was correct, the second obviously was not and that we had not cancelled our car rental contract. Our cars had been rented to others.

I could not contact my wife. I wanted to tell her that all was OK and to create some sort of diversion so the children would not watch the news and see that the plane had crashed. She must have been out hunting and gathering. At that time, I played in the police squash team. I rang one of my copper mates, and he went looking for my wife around various shopping centres. When he found her later at home and, after niceties, he said that he’d just been talking to me and then explained the situation. I am forever grateful for the good training and experience that he was able to put into practice. It was only when the children were in their twenties that I told them because I did not want them to worry every time I was flying somewhere.

Word gets around quickly. While underground, many of the miners wanted to touch us so some of our luck would rub off. There is a great sense of camaraderie underground between miners because of the constant danger and I guess they felt that there are also dangers at altitude. That night we had a few drinks and the next day rented a plane to go to Meekatharra and Wiluna to continue our work and to get back in the saddle again. One passenger did not come and he has never been able to fly since.

The trip back to the east was with MMA and then Ansett across the continent as we now no longer had our own corporate jet. By then, I could not board flights unless I was three sails to the wind. I met a geological colleague from Sydney in the lounge at Perth, word gets around quickly, he knew that I was in shock, Ansett had diagonally-striped carpets which I could not possibly navigate in the tired and emotional state that I was in and he physically helped me on to the plane He must have said something to the crew because I was treated like a king. Some weeks after returning, I was not surprisingly hit with delayed shock and needed help to get back to equilibrium. It actually wasn’t shock, it was uncontrollable anger for being placed in this position by my employer, a mining company. Mine work is very safe if there is a culture of safety, if everyone at all levels thinks safety, if people work together and if there is a lack of cavalier behaviour. Accidents are not accidents. They are normally certainties.

I still travel commercially, fly in corporate jets and fly in fixed wing propeller planes with pilots I know. Two of us on that fateful flight regularly fly with the Historical Aircraft Restoration Society in their magnificent radial engine seventy year-old C47B (DC3) and Lockheed Super Constellation planes.

The most unsafe aspect of commercial flying is the taxi to and from the airport, especially in Third World countries. However, flying in private planes is a different matter. Forget flying in a single pilot jet. Our pilot was able to make ten consecutive and unnecessary mistakes before the point of no return was reached. A co-pilot would have stopped this. The Adelaide Briefing Office should have been able to see that the flight was not possible in such weather conditions as it was well known about a big storm, headwinds and the dangers of icing up. The company that employed the pilot never should have had him on the books. Whether driving or flying, catastrophes generally do not occur as a result of one mistake in isolation, but a combination of mistakes. I am happy to fly with a single pilot in propeller planes if the pilot owns the plane, conducts his own business using his investment, does not have kangaroos in the top paddock and has not been psychiatrically damaged as a military pilot.

I am one of the very few that have had more airport takeoffs than airport landings and my extra thirty-five years of life I treat as a bonus. Don’t put your life in the hands of idiots.

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