A Birthday Trip.
By PP van den Berg.
28 October 1955.
An overcast day with rain all over the country. It is a Friday and I have taken a half-days leave to dash off home to Krugersdorp to collect a 21st Birthday cake. I rush back (to Jan Smuts) and report to check in as staff with luggage and cake. I sit in the backseat of the DC-4 and we taxi out. CAA (Central African Airways) connection is late so we do not wait for it. We take up position and do a run up before aligning for take-off. Over the radio comes the call that CAA has a passenger for emergency transfer to Cape Town – a heart case – will we taxi back to base to pick up the passenger? CAA lands in front of us.
The passenger is taken on board; we again taxi out, do a run-up and take off. The flight is without event and we do a scheduled stop at Victoria West. Some passengers come on board and we taxi out, run-up and take off. A call comes over the radio requesting us to call at Beaufort West, again for a passenger.
It is now already dark and we do not top up on fuel. Again we taxi out, run-up and take off.
We are now late on our schedule, and with all the extra activity, not high on fuel. We contact Cape Town and are told that DF Malan has mist, which rolled in 20 minutes ago, 10 minutes after our scheduled ETA (Estimated Time of Arrival).
Anyway the Captain tells the pax (passengers) that we will approach from across False Bay and do a dummy run. The ILS (Instrument Landing System) is still a new thing with us and Ellis, the Wireless Operator, comes to me and asks if it works OK. I say it should, I tested it myself that morning.
DF Malan has also just been commissioned and brought into service. We hope the Landing System works.
So we make a dummy run. The ILS brings us in halfway down the runway and we see the terminal lights glare through the mist on our left. The DC-4 lifts up again and does a second approach – but the mist is thick and again we over fly the threshold. We then realise that the ILS beam is bent. (With the help of Cape Town University boffins the ILS defect was sorted out later)
But we are now up in the sky, above the mist, and the moon shines down on this white mass.
The excitement and tension of the two approaches causes the heart patient to have a bad turn and the cabin crew assist the Sister in attendance with portable oxygen. His wife apologises as she feels the delay was caused when we picked them up. We could have been down before the mist – on time. The Captain assures her that it was not their fault, we had unscheduled stops, and she calms. But now we do not have enough fuel to get back to Kimberly, our alternate landing airport.
The Captain announces that we will fly to Langebaan (an Air Force Base) and busses will transport us to Cape Town, and so we fly to Langebaan – but Langebaan is having an Officers Mess Night!
All the Air Force pilots are in dress uniform and most are sozzled. Someone brings you down on GCA (Ground Control Approach) and I breathe easily as I see the violet lights of the runway skim by. Eventually we are parked and an Aero-Stand is pushed to the exit door. The Ambulance is on hand for our heart patient.
Every body goes down the steps and I am the last to leave. I get to the bottom of the steps and find a Captain hanging onto the handrail. “Is jy the laaste? (Are you the last?) Ek is so bly ek het julle op die grond gekry, want ek is poepdronk (I am so glad that I got you on the ground, because I am drunk)” He is the person who “spoke” us down on the GCA!
Suddenly I remember the cake, and dash up the stairs to fetch it.
I emerge with the cake, close the door, and the awaiting Garry takes me to the Officers Mess.
What a sight! The passengers are offered free drinks and the business men are relieving their tensions while three young Air Force pilots are after the Hostess and I suddenly find myself announced as her Fiancé (Temporary – though I wish it could be permanent) This dampens the ardour of the young sprogs.
A young mother with a baby has run out of dry nappies – could we help? I go to the men’s toilet to rinse the nappies with the object of drying them around the mess kitchen stove and run into my GCA Captain. He takes them for a clean swap from his on-board babies supplies.
01h30 20 October 1955.
The busses arrive from Cape Town and we bid our Air Force hosts farewell. The Flight Deck crew remains. On our way we get lost in the mist. Fortunately, one of the coloured baggage attendants knows the area and assists the driver. We get to the Cape Town Terminus in Adderly Street and Jack Verster, the Traffic Clerk, arranges accommodation for those staying over and taxis for those going home.
At 03h30 I find myself with cake & bag at the Grand Hotel in Strand Street. It is a real Jack the Ripper morning in Cape Town. I find a room with bed & bathroom for 16 Pounds. I have a quick sleep, a bath and go to the railway station to take a train to Stellenbosch at 06h30. The flying adventure is over for the time being, but the second tale is about to begin.
Arriving in Stellenbosch, cake, bag and all, I have to find the University students residence “Dagbreek (Daybreak)”
The first nine Candidate Officers of the Union Defence Force to ever be put on a graduate course of B.Sc. (Mil) are in this residence. One is my kid brother, and on the evening of Saturday 29 October, the Military Group has arranged a dinner dance in the Big Hall. It is also my kid brothers 21st Birthday. I would be accommodated in the residence, in place of one of the military students who had a weekend pass.
It would go unnoticed and a partner also arranged. Talk of infiltration! I felt like a spy. Here I was an “Ikie” staying in a “Matie” domain for a weekend. However all went well. We serenaded the girl students and dressed in Tuxedos & Bow-ties we called on them. We had a glorious celebration and Sunday morning 10h00 took the train to Cape Town. The Flight was uneventful. The sequel to the story was that the newspapers stated that three ships ran aground on Woodstock Beach that Friday night.
The kid brother that had the 21st Birthday?
He is Lieutenant General and our countries “Master Gunner”
(Acknowledgement to PP van den Berg – Author, and Hoppie Heystek - Custodian of his writings. Thanks, Web Manager)
The ACM (Air Cycle Machine) Change.
By Johnny Pretorius, alias Dikvel.
The Vickers Viscount was a very fine aircraft and was a pleasure to fly in. In its day it was often referred to as the SAA Money Spinner. The South African skies were filled with Viscount 813 Aircraft going hither & yon. But for the Ground Engineers they did pose a certain problem, that is they were not the most accessible aircraft to work on.
QAD (Quick Attach/Detach) clamps had not yet been introduced so most Components were flange mounted with numerous 2BA bolts with Self-locking nuts. In addition, the components were usually housed in the most awkward location.
You really had to be a contortionist & very adept with a spanner to change many components. A “C” Check on the Viscount usually took four working days. Three Crews of about eight men were required to perform the necessary maintenance tasks.
One crew was allocated the four engines; one crew was allocated the wings & Landing gear and one crew was allocated the fuselage & empennage.
And so it was that Steve Grover’s crew had to do the maintenance on the fuselage & empennage. One of the scheduled component changes on this section was the ACM (Air Cycle Machine) A very awkward task!
The ACM was installed under the passenger cabin floor between the supporting structure, and had to be removed & installed from above. This entailed perching on the floorboard supporting structure and bending over, toiling away on the numerous attaching bolts & nuts.
Your back soon knew all about it. And so, on day one of the check, “Lavvie” (Steve Grover’s affectionate Nickname) did his rounds of his allocated section to check on the work progress.
Coming across Johnny “Dikvel” toiling away on the ACM only about four hours after work on the aircraft had started, “Lavvie” asked Johnny, “Is that the new ACM being installed?”
Dikvel, always a joker and as smart as ever, and not really amused (it was a Monday morning!) sarcastically replied “Yes”.
Steve was impressed and moved on to check other areas under his control.
Two days later Steve again did the rounds and found Dikvel still sweating away at the ACM. Curious, Steve asked what was going on.
Dikvel honestly replied that he was still battling to install the new ACM!
But, said Steve, you said on the first day of the check that you were installing the new unit! “Oh”, said Dikvel, “I was just joking!”.
Did hell break loose in that cabin that day!
By John Hart
Time takes it’s toll on the memory, so perhaps some of the facts are not necessarily correct, but this is what comes to mind.
I remember leaving school, Marist Brothers, Observatory, Johannesburg at the end of 1953. I was to start my career in Aviation the next year at SAA.
I was the only Matric Student to take up a trade, they all thought that was rather stupid of me. But it was my chosen path.
On the 4th of January 1954, at the age of 16 ½ years, I reported to Jan Smuts Airport, and was indentured as an Apprentice. Those were hard days! There was not much public transport between Modderfontein and JSA. A friend lent me his bicycle for a while. The climb out of Kempton Park to Modder was known as Modderhill and was very strenuous after a day’s work in the Filing School.
The offer of the bike didn’t last too long, so it was back to bussing it, and more often than not, the interconnecting bus at the Kempton Park Railway station was missed. If this was in the morning, then it was a walk from the Station to the Airport, and you arrived at work late, and a “Please explain” awaited you! If the afternoon connection was missed, then it was an even longer walk from the station to Modderfontein, and on eventually arriving home, there was another “please explain”!
Things improved when you were introduced to other workers in the hangar and you were able to cadge a lift into Kempton and so make your connection. And months after, when you had earned some money, you could approach your parents for a loan to buy a used motorcycle and have your own transport. Things were looking up, until you had your first accident!
The Instructors weren’t too concerned that a control lever had penetrated your forearm, after all had the doctor not certified you fit to work!
So, file on Sonny, and stop complaining! It was good to move on to the aircraft maintenance hangars. But discipline had been taught, and that was never regretted.
Working on the aircraft of the day, Lodestars, Dakotas, Skymasters, Constellations and later Douglas DC-7Bs and then Viscounts was truly exciting. And one was tutored by what I call legends of their time! Jack Guest, Ronnie Farrow, Norman Melville, Bob O’Brien, Nobby Clark, Steve Grover, Shag Lapham, Jack Upham, Harry Gillispie and so many more dedicated aircraft men. I only wish that all the names would come to me.
In the early days there was no such thing as overtime pay. You worked to completion due to the exigencies of the Service. My longest ever “shift” was from 05h00 on a Saturday to 07h00 on a Monday! This was due to various breakdowns and engine changes. Yes, you did manage to get a catnap between failures. My parents thought at the time that I had an accident!
Use of the company phone was forbidden, and the call box seldom worked!
If it were not for the lure of the aircraft one would have been tempted to find other employment!
John Hart, ex SAA Technical
The Bucking Broncos.
By PP van den Berg
Lugging battery carts all over the tarmac used to be the lot of the Servicing Staff, but soon after moving from Palmietfontein to Jan Smuts Airport Management decided to ease their burden and provided each section with a Hobart Mobile Generator. This looked like a tractor, but was not for towing aircraft. It had a massive DC (Direct Current) generator between the gearbox and the differential. For the first time we could ride to the aircraft, plug in, start the Hobart and service the aircraft.
Some wag of the Radio Servicing Section decided to paint white walls on the Hobart tyres but changed his mind and painted eccentric white rings on the tyres instead. This gave the effect of the Hobart making like a bucking bronco as it rolled along.
As fate would have it the Sunday shift was called to the Departure Base on a Sunday afternoon to do an emergency snag on an aircraft, and of course on Sundays the balcony of the terminal used to be crowded with sightseers. Now fate also arranged that Mr. Bailey, the top brass, would also be at the airport on some errand or other.
Well, as the Hobart slowed down as it approached the aircraft the bucking bronco effect became more obvious and the crowd up on the balcony roared and clapped! Rising to the occasion the fellows on the Hobart bowed to the crowd, went up the aircraft steps and attended to the snag.
A short while later Mr. Bailey emerged from the basement ramp and hoisted himself up the aircraft steps into the aircraft. In short sharp bursts he told the radio guys to get their goods and chattels off the Departure Base. On the Monday morning you can be sure, there were quite a few sorry faces after the “frying” which Wally Broughton, the Foreman, did very well.
(Acknowledgement to PP van den Berg – author, and Hoppie Heystek - Custodian of his writings. Thanks, Web Manager)
By JTP Hart
The “Hot-Rod” was the name given by the Departure Staff Ground Engineers to the Douglas Aircraft Corporation DC-7B Aircraft flights that operated a weekly flight from South Africa to Australia.
The Douglas DC-7B was the world’s fastest piston-engine airliner and enabled SAA to operate one-stop services to and from London. It was also used to inaugurate services on the “Wallaby” route across the Indian Ocean to Australia from 25 November 1957. The route was from Johannesburg to Perth via Mauritius and the Cocos Islands. The majority of the flight over the Indian Ocean was accomplished in the hours of darkness to allow for Astral Navigation.
Departure Staff started the day early. The morning shift commenced at 05h00 hrs and heaven help any individual that overslept and arrived at work late. The crews were small and selected and each individual had his role to play. The team had to operate as a well-oiled machine. Those who did not shape-up were soon invited to ship-out. And so to assist in the arduous task of arriving on time there were various modifications to the household alarm clocks! I used an electric time switch, which was connected, to an electric bell and also to the bedside light. In case of an electrical failure there was a conventional clockwork alarm placed in an empty biscuit tin that was placed beyond the reach of a tired arm!
The first task at work was to Ground run your allocated aircraft. This early morning ground run was required to prove that the aircraft engines and related systems operated correctly and that the engines delivered the required take off power. It also served to warm up the engines prior to flight, particularly in the cold winter months.
In the case of the DC-7B’s this task was allocated to a specialist trouble-shooter Supervisor assisted by the Departure Staff.
To witness the run-up of the powerful Wright Cyclone R3350-DA4 engines that were rated at 2424kN was an awesome sight. In the dark hours of the early mornings the engine exhaust stacks and the PRT’s (Power Recovery Turbines) glowed cherry red at take off power.
If all was well then the aircraft was towed to the Departure Base with the minimum of delay. The scheduled time of Departure was 09h00 and there was still much work to be done. A detailed pre-flight inspection was to be done by the Engineering Staff and the aircraft was to be fuelled as required.
At the last minute, depending on the aircraft all up weight, the final fuel figure would be given; usually this would be for “full tanks”.
And that meant in no uncertain terms “full tanks”. To achieve this objective the fuel bowser would fill the tanks, wait for the aircraft to settle on the landing gear oleo legs (assisted by a little jumping on the wings!). And then again top-off all the fuel tanks, and then repeat this again until not another drop could be added.
And the Flight Engineer would perform his own Pre-Flight Inspection, followed later by the First Officer, and finally by the Captain.
And finally the Ground Engineer would again do a last minute walk-around. At 09h00 it was “doors closed”, and most importantly, Landing Gear ground locks removed, viewed and stowed, and clear for start.
A warm DA-4 would start easily (as it had a Fuel Injection System) and without much smoke. The Ground Power Unit, GPU, was removed and the wheel chocks taken away. At idle power the DC-7B would quietly taxi away. A quick check of Reverse Power, and the taxi continued. Now the Flight Engineer would be extremely busy using the Sperry engine Analyser to check whether the 144 Spark plugs fitted to the 72 Cylinders of the 4 Engines were firing correctly. Any defective ignition pattern or oil-fouled spark plug would be indicated on the Oscilloscope. That would then require that the engine power be increased in an attempt to clear the plug of oil. Should that not have the desired result then it would be a RTR (Return to Ramp) for corrective maintenance action.
That was the Ground Engineers nightmare. It now meant working on an extremely hot engine to replace the spark plug, the high-tension ignition lead, and the related ignition coil (each cylinder had it own HT system). And there was no luxury of first letting the engine cool down. The reason being that if the flight had not departed within a prescribed time from the scheduled departure time, then a 24 hour delay would be enforced. The reason for this was that the arrival at the Cocos Islands, a speck in the Indian Ocean, had to be made before daylight using Astral Navigation.
After the required maintenance a quick check by ground & flight crew and the aircraft departs again. All is now well and the aircraft proceeds to the allocated runway, turning at the very end to get the maximum runway length. The four DA-4’s roar and the aircraft accelerates down the runway.
At the Control Tower it is still on the ground. As it passes the Main Terminal it is still on the ground but moving fast. It is not yet airborne, or maybe just, when the landing gear is retracted (this will reduce drag and allow further acceleration). The aircraft seems to descend, and then starts slowly to climb and disappears over the fence at the airport perimeter.
Another job well done! You return to the Departure Shack to log your aircraft’s departure details and have a quick snack and a cup of coffee, your next aircraft is due at 09h45!
The Lost C-130.
By JTP Hart
The Lockheed C-130 Aircraft, or the Commercial version as used by Safair, the Lockheed L-382G, is a large aircraft and is not likely to be lost, but one was.
This is the story:
SAA was at the time responsible for the maintenance of these fine aircraft at the Jan Smuts Airport Maintenance Facility. Following maintenance the aircraft were to be positioned at the Freight Base at Jan Smuts. This was some considerable distance from the SAA Maintenance Hangars so it involved a long slow tow from Hangar to Base.
During the winter months, Jan Smuts Airport, especially in the small hours, can be enveloped in a thick London Type Pea-soup fog.
This heavy fog reduces visibility and also deadens all sounds. It also chills one to the bones, and generally gives you the creeps.
And so it was that one such morning “Singing Sam Kushner” was given the task of towing one Lockheed L-382G from the SAA Maintenance area to the Freight Base.
Being a large heavy aircraft it would be towed with the Large Heavy Buda Tractor.
This tractor was very powerful, very heavy, very slow and also very noisy. Initially it had been supplied with an “open” cab, but with the inclement conditions experienced at Jan Smuts Airport at times, it had a locally manufactured closed cab fitted. Although now more cosy in the rain and cold, this accentuated the noise within the cab.
And so the tow-bar was attached to the aircraft’s nose landing gear, the tractor was connected to the tow-bar, the wheel chocks were removed, the aircraft navigation lights were switched on, and the tractor hooter signalled for “Brakes Off” and the long tow commenced.
Some considerable time later the tractor arrived, after the long journey through the thick pea-soup fog, at the delegated parking bay at the Freight Base. The Tractor slowed to a well-controlled stop. And “Singing Sam” hooted twice to signal that the technician seated in the Aircraft’s Cockpit should now park the aircraft’s brakes so that the tractor could be disconnected. On looking back “Singing Sam” was somewhat alarmed about the absence of the Large Aircraft behind him! Where was the aircraft?
Tracing his footsteps (as it were) it was found that the aircraft tow-bar shear-pins had failed at the turn around the Control Tower and the L-382G had silently rolled away into the fog until the technician in the cockpit noticed that the tractor was missing!
Fortunately there was no damage incurred and the aircraft was positioned on the base after a small delay.
More modern aircraft and tractors were equipped with a Headset communication system to allow the Tractor Driver and the Cockpit Technician to remain in constant communication.
The Night Bugler.
By PP van den Berg
On the day that Dr. Malan was buried there was a severe thunderstorm over Jan Smuts Airport. One lightening strike hit the main runway leaving a crumbled area, and another lightening strike hit the workshops between the Training School Hangar (Hangar 4) and the old Radio Shop where the green fibreglass veranda was.
The strike was about 15 meters from the Labourers change house, adjacent to the Tuck Shop next to the Radio Shop.
At that spot Dix Jooste was struck and killed by a lightening bolt.
He and some others members of the staff had just clocked in at the Hangar for the afternoon shift and were running in the rain towards the Radio Shop.
Now the story that goes with this is that Dix was a very good bugler and at night used to give us a bugle performance with a length of hose pipe while he marched up and down in front of the Change House and the Radio Shop. Swinging that hose round and around above his head brought about a sort of Doppler effect with the sound. A few weeks after the accident, someone, who could also play the bugle, found the length of hose. In the darkness he marched up & down playing a few tunes.
Needless to say many of the Labourers avoided the Change House for quite a while, and many of us walked very wide of that spot, especially at night…
(Courtesy of the Late PP van den Berg – Author, and Hoppie Heystek – Curator of his writings. Web Manager)
The Phone Calls.
By JTP Hart
The Fleet Servicing Foreman’s phone was ringing like crazy!
The Foreman was not in his office and a passer-by, “Acker” an Aeronautical Supervisor, happened to be in the vicinity and so he answered the phone. He was given hell on the phone! The irate voice asked:
“What are your staff doing hanging about outside the hangar smoking?
Don’t they have any work to do? And how is that aircraft coming on? Will it be finished in time? Don’t you have any control over your staff?”
“Acker” didn’t quite know what to say; he was just answering the phone.
“No, I cannot answer your questions,” said he.
There was a deadly silence on the phone, and then the voice on the other-side of the telephone line shouted out:
“I say! Do you know whom you are speaking to? This is Roland Gunn (The Manager Aircraft Maintenance)”
“Acker” always quick on the uptake responded sharply.
“Do you know who you are speaking to?”
“No” said Roland Gunn.
“Thank goodness!” said Acker and hung up and walked away.
On another occasion during a lull between aircraft arrivals & departures the phone rang in the Departure Staff Office. Acker, most likely reflecting on the quite time, announced in a sombre voice “Kempton Park Morgue here”.
Again it was RBG, and again he asked whether the person answering the phone knew to whom he was speaking. And again he received the same reply. Small incidents like this helped to brighten the day.
The Rope Start.
By Johnny Pretorius
It was a particular cold winter at Jan Smuts Airport and the RAS (Rhodesian Air Services) DC-3 Aircraft that had night stopped on the frozen tarmac was suffering to start it’s engines. The engine oil was very thick after the cold soak overnight and soon the aircraft batteries were flat.
The Flight Crew declined the offer of a GPU (Ground Power Unit) and instead requested a rope start. This type of start was not known to the younger generation. But the “Old Timers” that had served with the SAAF (South African Air Force) knew the procedure. Our Assistant Foreman, Pete Smith who was a veteran of the SAAF and a most knowledgeable Aircraft Ground Engineer explained the procedure and rounded up some willing hands.
A rope with a loop at one end was slipped over one of the propeller blades and then wound around the propeller hub. Apparently this method of starting a DC-3 was perfected during World War 2 and in principle works pretty well. Having wound the rope around the prop hub, you then gather as many strong lads as possible and on the given signal, all pull on the rope in unison and in theory, the engine turns and should start.
That is if the rope doesn't snap as it did in this particular instance, with bodies falling all over each other in a tangled heap.
All concerned then agreed that it was time to call for the GPU!
The Spooky Aircraft.
By PP van den Berg
Before the Boeing 707 Hangar (later the A320 Hangar) was built that area used to be veld and the Lodestars, Dakotas, and DC-4 aircraft were parked on the edge of the apron with the DC-4 tail end usually overhanging the grass. By the time the radio checks could be done the aircraft was usually parked out there. ZS-BMH was a really spooky aircraft, its airframe used to creak, crack and groan as it stood in the wind and the night air. To add to this, it seemed that BMH was always the one to carry coffins up from the Cape or vice versa.
New Staff in Radio Servicing were made well aware of this and somehow always had to do the servicing on THAT aircraft at THAT place, round about midnight. Conveniently also someone would need the Aero stand providing access to the aircraft and remove it from the doorway. Sufficient to say that many a novice jumped from the DC-4 doorway to the ground leaving tools and all in the aircraft. Such were the weird sounds that BMH emitted.
(Courtesy of the Late PP van den Berg – Author, and Hoppie Heystek – Curator of his writings. Web Manager)
The Spooky Hangar.
By PP van den Berg
When the Viscount Aircraft arrived they were quartered and serviced in the hangars behind the New Simulator Building, these Hangars (Hangar 1 & 2) were known as the Viscount Hangar. It is a fact that there were some accidents during the construction of the hangar, which gave rise to more spooky tales.
However the Viscounts required modifications, one of which was installing Radar. The only time this could be done was during the night, stretching until 2 to 3 o’clock in the morning.
The crew consisted of Jack Shepherd, myself, and two apprentices who had to fetch and carry between the workshop and the hangar. The hangar lights were not switched on for we worked in the belly of the aircraft doing the wiring using lead lights. One windy night with the hangar creaking and crackling we sent the apprentice out for something. As he felt his way along in the dark towards the hangar door the wind slammed the small door with a hang of a bang. At the same time something struck the floor next to him. That apprentice high tailed it back to us missing all obstacles in the darkness, gave one massive leap into the Viscounts belly and stopped between us, swearing never to move again. Eventually we all went together to fetch whatever it was that we needed.
It was only later that we discovered that the hangar roof bolts were working loose and dropping from the roof to the floor.
(Courtesy of the Late PP van den Berg – Author, and Hoppie Heystek – Curator of his writings. Web Manager)
By Phil Unterhorst
It was way back in the early 1970's, Flight SA 508, a Viscount, was parked outside the Louis Botha Airport Terminal at Durban; the passengers were milling about in the departure lounge waiting for the boarding announcement. But instead the Tannoy burst into life announcing a delay due to a violent electric storm overhead.
A Texan passenger immediately approached the Duty Officer and the dialogue went something like this.
TEXAN: What the hell is wrong, why don't we get going?
DUTY OFFICER: There is a terrific storm raging overhead, as soon as it moves away we will board passengers.
TEXAN: In the United States we fly in this weather without any trouble, what's the matter in this country?
With that, the Captain was seen in the concourse and was called by the Duty Officer.
DUTY OFFICER: Captain, this passenger is rather upset that your flight has been delayed!
TEXAN: What the hell is the matter that we can't get away, I have a very important engagement in Johannesburg. In my country we fly in this type of weather without any trouble!
CAPTAIN: Do you really want to know what the trouble is?
TEXAN: Yes. Is there a problem with the Aircraft?
CAPTAIN: No, there is no problem with the Aircraft. It is just that I am too scared (or perhaps stronger language!) to fly in this dangerous storm, I would rather delay for a short while, than for people to read about a mishap in the morning newspaper!
With that the Texan pulled down his wide brimmed hat and disappeared into the crowd who were applauding the Captain's response.
The Vickers Viking.
By PP van den Berg
Ask anyone in the airline about aircraft that we had operating and the one type less known or spoken about is the Vickers Viking. Why this is so I do not know, but one thing is for sure, that when they were acquired to replace the un-economical Lodestars, they lifted our Bank Balance chop-chop.
Granted they were a peculiar aircraft because they should have been fitted with a tri-cycle undercarriage for the following reasons. When empty, they needed one “hell-of-a-load” of ballast in the tail, and then as they stood parked on the line, not more than four persons dared to enter the cockpit. If this precaution was not observed, she made like an Ostrich, tail up and nose on the ground. I know; I caused ZS-BNK to do just that – but I will tell you about that later.
Another reason was that baggage and pax had to be on board before the full crew could enter the cockpit. Reason three was that you could not land on a waterlogged runway. For again she would trip over her own feet, so to say, and go nose down – tail up, with pax and all. It happened on the runway at Palmietfontein, but I had nothing to do with that.
Yet I loved the Viking. The airframe was of a peculiar construction. Perhaps the fuselage was the forerunner of the shape Jet Aircraft would later adopt. The wing construction was known as Geodetic Construction, a peculiar criss-cross sort of grid matrix. The main wing spar went through the cabin and passengers had to climb a few steps to get over it into the forward cabin. Coming from the front cabin, on the way to the rear toilet during a flight, one felt quite conspicuous climbing over the spar with all the rear cabin pax staring at you. Just imagine the cabin attendant, balancing a tray, getting over this obstacle. A sort of “knees up mother Brown” act.
The engines were Bristol Hercules types, at that time the best power to weight ratio in the world. It was a sleeve valve engine, performed well, belched more smoke than a DC-3 when started and sounded out of this world if you stood nearby.
By this I mean it sounded like all the dustbins of the Four Seasons Hotel in Durban, being rattled and shaken in the back of the Trash Truck.
Up in the cockpit the Pilot & Co-Pilot chairs stood like two easy chairs, one could almost walk around them. The Radio Operator sat behind them facing the Starboard wing. His pride and joy was a Marconi Installation with Red, Yellow and Blue knobs on the 1154 Transmitter and a 1155 Receiver with so many controls for tuning and direction finding that it would make a modern music centre look nude. On the floor, at his feet, was mounted a 1464 VHF Transmitter-Receiver whose normal starting procedure consisted of switching on at the remote control, followed by one hefty kick against the VHF case. This dislodged the normally stuck Start Relay and energised the Gene-Motor.
Above the Radio-Op’s head was a large Bakelite contraption with an umbrella type handle that switched all the antenna positions. Direction Finding was done manually by winding a handle. This in turn positioned the Loop by remote Tachometer Cable. Another peculiarity of the Viking was the Gust Lock, which had to be inserted into holes in the cockpit floor. Attached to the Gust Lock block and pins was a six foot long red pole that was bent and lay over the pilots seat, preventing anyone from sitting in the seat. Although an important piece of equipment, it was 90% useless. Sad to relate the Vikings were sold, and I will stand by it, through a misunderstanding. The Lodestars should have gone, but someone could not spell!
The Wet Suit.
By JTP Hart
The Piston-Engine Fleet operated by SAA were as reliable as any operated in those early days. Route structures in those days when it took days instead of hours to fly from Johannesburg to London took their toll on the engines, as did the harsh climatic conditions and high temperatures.
As a result from time to time, despite good maintenance practices, there were engine breakdowns or even failures “up the line”.
When this occurred a relief aircraft was dispatched with the necessary spares or with a replacement engine and also the necessary technical expertise to affect repair and permit the scheduled flight to continue with the minimum delay.
Occasionally these failures happened in rapid sequence!
And so it was that a certain Fleet Servicing Supervisor (he shall remain nameless) was summoned time and time again to go “up the line” to attend to these breakdowns. And then came the day that he was again summoned to “The Corner Lounge” (the hallowed and respected domain of RBG, Roland Gunn, Manager Aircraft Maintenance and Norman Strudwick, Deputy Manager Aircraft Maintenance). He was told that he must yet again travel “up the line” to attend to yet another weary aircraft.
Alas, he could take no more! He had been flying up and down the line for days. So when told that he must do yet another breakdown trip he replied, “With all respect, Sir, I cannot go again!”
“And why not may I ask?” replied RBG.
“Because my suit is wet, Sir”
“That is impossible! How can your suit be wet? It hasn’t rained in days!”
“When I last returned home Sir, my wife was taking a bath!”
Such were the hardships of early aviation!
The Wrong Aircraft!
By JTP Hart
The Fleet Servicing Hangars, Hangar number 3 & Hangar number 4, at Jan Smuts Airport could accommodate four passenger aircraft, two per hangar. Access was good as both the hangars had doors at both sides. The hangars were also heated by means of under-floor steam heating supplied from “The Queen Mary”, the local power station.
One draw back of the many hangar doors was that if they were open at opposite sides, then the heating effect of the under-floor heaters was lost, and the hangar then also became a wind tunnel. So it was important to the maintenance staff that the doors were kept closed whenever possible.
And so it was that Danie van der Westhuizen, Aeronautical Supervisor at the time, was awaiting his next job, a Check “A” on a Boeing 727, on this cold winter day. There were other aircraft already in the hangar being serviced so the doors to the vacant spot in the hangar were closed pending the arrival of his aircraft.
The new Foreman of the hangar was quite agitated, as the hangar doors were not yet opened and the arrival of the aircraft was imminent. He had words with Danie, but Danie explained that when the aircraft was towed up from the base then he would see that the doors were opened in good time. The Foreman was not too happy.
Danie kept a vigilant eye open awaiting the arrival of his aircraft.
Suddenly the Foreman saw, through a gap in the doors, the wing of an aircraft standing in the hard-standing area outside the hangar.
He came down very hard on Danie telling him that he had been told to get ready for his aircraft and that he was to get the aircraft parked outside into the hangar immediately!
Danie looked at the aircraft outside, shrugged his shoulders, opened the hangar doors, and told the Technician in the aircraft tug to pull the aircraft into the hangar. The Towing Technician, Lou Parsens, was amazed, but started to pull the aircraft into the Boeing 727 hangar as instructed, even though it was too large to fit!
Because the aircraft that was standing outside was not a B727, it was a B707, and it was waiting to be towed into the hangar across the hard standing, Hangar 6 when it’s doors had been opened!
Never the less the nose of the B707 was pulled into the B727 hangar.
At this time the new Foreman approached Danie and asked, “what are you trying to do?” “I am only carrying out your orders,” said he. “You instructed me to bring the aircraft outside into the hangar”.
Without another word the embarrassed Foreman returned to his office.
By Johnny Pretorius
I had performed a Pre-flight Check on a Viscount, the passengers were on board, the doors were closed, and I was standing in front of the aircraft ready to give the Captain start clearance, when the First Officer looked out of his window towards the number 3 and 4 engines.
I followed his gaze and to my horror, noticed that I hadn't removed the Air Intake Cover off the number 3-engine air intake. Abel a very capable man was the Labourer in Departure Staff that fitted and removed the chocks and brought the engine stand and oil to the aircraft and generally assisted at start up time.
Luckily on this day, he was sitting on the Hobart Ground Power Unit, which was positioned below the aircraft fuselage, and I beckoned him to quickly go and remove the Air Intake Cover from the number 3 engine.
Meanwhile the First Officer was conversing with the Captain and with the thumb of his right hand, gesticulating towards the starboard side of the aircraft. The Captain opened his sliding window and gestured me to come closer.
"The First Officer tells me that there is still an Air Intake Cover on Number 3 engine, is that correct?" he shouted from the cockpit.
I took a few steps backwards, looked at number 3 engine and truthfully replied that there was no Intake Cover on the engine. The Captain closed his window again and I could see him in conversation with the First Officer. The First Officer then stared out of his window towards the number 3 engine for quite a while and with a puzzled look shook his head.
He probably thought he needed to have his eyes tested!
By John Hart.
A Lockheed L-749A Constellation was undergoing a routine maintenance check, a Check A*, in the Fleet Servicing Hangar at Jan Smuts Airport. Those were busy days, there was a lot of activity about the aircraft and there were many tasks to accomplish. The aircraft would be required for service the next day.
Every conceivable access panel, door and hatch was open with an “erk” (aircraft mechanic) inside the bowels of the aircraft with only their legs protruding. The engine maintenance rostrums were likewise well occupied with “erks” toiling on the engines. One of the items to be checked on the engines during this maintenance check was the engine fuel injection system.
This system had to be inspected for possible leaks whilst pressurised. In order to obtain the maximum pressure during the test the aircraft fuel boost pumps had to be switched on, the fuel selector set to “Rich” and the throttle opened fully. Then after ensuring that the hinged flaps on the engine rostrum were opened to allow propeller rotation, the engine had to be “motored over” to pressurise the fuel manifolds, lines, flexible hoses and injectors.
Number One engine was cleared for the check and the Inspector, Norman Melvin, neatly attired in his white coat, took up his position next to the engine and behind the propeller. He then signalled the “All Clear” to Harry “G” and “Bomber H” who would motor the engine over from the cockpit.
The Connie Cockpit, rather small, was at this time full of “erks” of various trades, Electrical, Instrument & Radio, all trying to complete their checkouts of various systems. And perhaps that had an influence on what happened next. At the first turn of the propeller the engine immediately started and rapidly accelerated!
What a racket in the confines of the hangar! Added to the loud engine noise was the sound of the propeller demolishing the engine rostrum – chunks of aluminium, wood and steel flew through the air. The thrust of the engine had caused the aircraft to edge forward. I witnessed this event returning from the hangar tool store – it was amazing – I had never before seen a Wright Cyclone engine start so quickly!
I recall seeing Norman, his white dustcoat flapping in the propeller wash, hanging grimly on to the vibrating and disappearing rostrum. Another image comes to mind – numerous “erks” very hastily evacuating the area. It reminded me of drops of water falling, hitting the ground, and disappearing in all directions.
The “erks” literally fell out of the aircraft and ran in every direction. And then the deadly silence as the engine was shutdown.
Somebody would be working through the night changing the engine and the propeller!
And somebody would be explaining why the Magneto Switch happened to be incorrectly selected to “On”
By Johnny Pretorius
It was a Sunday afternoon and as usual the viewing balcony at Jan Smuts Airport was packed with spectators. JAP (“Muscles” Pretorius - no relation) and I were waiting to do a Transit Check on a Viscount Aircraft that had just landed.
Soon after landing the cockpit crew would shut down the inboard engines and taxi in using only the outboard engines. Only when the chocks were in place, would the outboard engines be shut down, but being a Turbine engine, the propeller blades would keep on spinning for quite a while. The Rolls Royce Dart engine oil system was of the dry sump type and therefore the engine oil quantity had to be checked by dipstick as soon as possible after engine shutdown.
If the oil level was not checked within 15 minutes of shutdown then the engine would have to be ground run and thereafter the oil checked.
To slow down the spinning propeller, it was customary to grab and release a prop blade or to brake the prop by placing both hands on the rotating prop spinner. Once the propeller was stationary it was safe to check the oil.
This particular Sunday while the Viscount was taxing in, JAP said that he could stop a spinning prop quicker than anybody else in Departure Staff could and I believed him. He was stocky in stature and indeed very muscular, with his shirtsleeves rolled up virtually to his shoulders and wearing a pair of very tight fitting white shorts, I wasn't going to argue with him.
The Viscount parked right in front of the Terminal Building, the chocks were fitted and the engines were duly shut down. JAP and I were standing in front of Number 1 Engine. He stood there in a boxers stance, with arms raised shoulder height, rocking backwards and forwards on the balls of his feet waiting for the prop blades to slow down to a reasonable speed, at that stage they were still a blur.
When he thought they were now spinning slowly enough, he stepped forward grabbed one of the blades and suddenly disappeared. I can't remember what the gear reduction ratio was exactly, about 10 to 1 seems to ring a bell, but the prop lifted JAP right off his feet and flung him right over the engine. He landed on the tarmac with a terrible thud and if I'm not mistaken, either broke or sprained a wrist.
The spectators on the balcony found this acrobatic display fascinating and went crazy, with much whistling and hand clapping, and the prop was still spinning.
By Johnny Pretorius
Not many Aircraft Technicians can boast that they have an affinity with a particular aircraft. But the Vickers Viscount registration ZS-CDU was my aircraft, it even had a plaque, or should I rather say a patch, measuring roughly 50 X 20cm on the Port side of the fuselage, between the wing trailing edge and the rear cabin door, that bore testimony to this fact.
In the late 1960’s, our South African Airways issue of inclement wet weather clothing was rather inadequate. Especially the gumboots, which were the heavy type with thick Tractor type tread soles, the same as worn by the miners and used in their famous Gumboot Dance.
It was late evening during a typical Highveld storm when I drove up to ZS-CDU that had just come to a standstill on the apron after a flight. I was wearing my gumboots and driving a Hobart Ground Power Unit (GPU) which had an open cab. Approaching the aircraft I applied the brakes, but my foot slipped off the brake pedal and onto the accelerator pedal. The Hobart lurched once, twice and on the third lurch, struck the aircraft with a tremendous force, so much so, that the bonnet and steering wheel moved backwards, pinning me to the driver’s seat. I couldn’t move.
The passenger steps were already in place, and everybody disembarking from the aircraft, first stopped to have a look what had caused the impact. The impact was so severe, that an elderly lady, who had been standing in the aisle ready to disembark, had been knocked off her feet and fallen in between the passenger seats and had subsequently broken her arm.
Once I had been pried out of the Hobart and saw the damage that had been caused to the aircraft, I very much doubted if it would ever fly again. But the first thing that happens after an incident of this nature, is to be issued with a “Please Explain” form by your supervisor, which was naturally done. I duly filled in the form and tried to explain that I hadn’t been driving too fast or recklessly, but blamed the gumboots for causing the incident.
About a week after this incident, Mr. De Kok, the Chief Executive of South African Airways Technical Department, (but as he had transferred from Railways to Airways, was referred to as “Oom Stoom”), sent his right hand man, Mr. Trevor Phillips, to personally investigate the accident. Mr. Phillips was a snappy dresser and arrived at “Departures”, as the section was known in those days, wearing a tie and a three-piece suit. He donned my gumboots and sat on a similar Hobart that I had driven that night, but as hard as he tried to simulate how my foot could have slipped off the brake pedal and onto the accelerator, was beyond his reasoning.
I reminded Mr. Phillips that it had been raining heavily that night and that maybe we should try and simulate the wet conditions. Mr. Phillips agreed and I dashed off to fetch a bucket of water. On my return, Mr. Phillips was still sitting on the Hobart with the gumboots neatly placed on the floorboard. Maybe it was a combination of desperation or over zealousness, but I threw those 10 litres of water with such vigour, that it splashed against the Hobart’s instrument panel with such force, that it not only wet the accelerator and brake pedals, but Mr. Phillips as well. The man was absolutely drenched and very, very upset.
To cut a long and humiliating story short, with everything now soaking wet, including Mr. Phillip’s gumboots, on his very first attempt of applying pressure on the brake pedal again, his foot also slipped off and onto the accelerator. He tried this numerous times and always with the same result, his foot kept on slipping off.
About a week later, I received a personal letter from “Oom Stoom” advising me that the accident had been thoroughly investigated, and that no further action would be taken against me. But I, as well as the rest of my colleagues, should exercise extreme caution when driving vehicles in the future.
Within eight months after this incident, we were issued with lightweight and thin-soled “Wellingtons”.
ZS-CDU wasn’t scrapped as I originally thought it would be, thanks to Messieurs Eddy Testaferrata and Tony Liedenberg, who spent many man hours getting the aircraft airworthy again.
Memoirs from my logbook
By John L’ange
AIR MISS – CLOSER TO DEATH (Published in World Airnews May 2005)
By John L’ange
On one particular flight during which certain dangers were destined to be graphically illustrated, my log book reflects a start-up time of 0045 hours Zulu on October 11, 1982, at Ilha do Sal in the Cabo Verde archipelago, some 300 nautical miles west of Dakar, the westernmost city in Africa.
We were bound for Frankfurt’s Rhine/Main airport, in the then West Germany. Since the international airline pilot's lot consists largely of trying to sleep when the metabolism cries otherwise, or of trying to stay awake when that same metabolism appears bent on sleeping, I had spent a fitful late afternoon and early evening tossing in my bed at Ilha do Sal in anticipation of the loud knock on the door followed by a Portuguese accented voice claiming, “Calling Timesh”. This usually occurs just as one falls into a deep slumber, in preparation for taking over the flight from Johannesburg.
Little did I realise as I showered and dressed that all of us on board that aircraft were within hours of being closer to death than any of us were ever likely to be again before being claimed by Father Time!
At that time, the aviation world, and indeed the world in general, was still reeling in the aftermath of the horrendous collision on the ground at Tenerife a short while previously, between two almost fully-laden 747s in fog. This was due to a complete misunderstanding between the control tower and the two aircraft.
This was possibly precipitated by the ATC’s lack of knowledge of the English language, the one universal language of the aviation industry. Since one of these aircraft was in the process of becoming airborne, the resultant impact destroyed both aircraft with a staggering number of 583 fatalities.
Climbing away from the desert island in the pitch blackness of that night, I was overcome by that particular sense of peace and wellbeing that I invariably felt when flying that giant of a machine, the Boeing 747.
Securely cocooned in the cockpit, tiny by comparison with the rest of the aircraft, I felt pleasantly removed from the rest of the world, assuaged by a sense of belonging, of “I belong here, am happy here, and right now would not want to be anywhere else but right where I am sitting at this time.”
Soothed by the rush of air past the windows a mere couple of feet away, I contentedly monitored the instruments glowing in the darkened cockpit as we maintained the mandatory 250 knots to 10 000 feet, where after, switching off the landing lights, we accelerated to 320 knots for the climb to flight level 330 or 33 000 feet.
The only real noise at this time was the odd chatter of the radio in my left ear, for I habitually kept the right one clear of the headphones in order to communicate with the crew.
During the climb, the comely senior air hostess silently entered this domain bearing most welcome cups of coffee.
Holding a Private Pilot's flying licence, she said: “Captain, this gentleman would very much like to come and chat to you people.”
For security reasons this was frowned upon, but I believed that if a passenger was genuinely interested in the “sharp end”, it was good public relations practice to bend the rules a little.
In any case, an organised, well informed hijacker would scarcely be deterred by not being able to visit the flight deck officially. This passenger, squatting on the floor between the two front seats, watched with interest as I levelled off at flight level 330, quoting the semi-circular rule which ensured that there were 2 000 feet separating aircraft travelling in opposite directions.
A while later, I tuned in the Tenerife visual omni range or VOR beacon on the island, used to both verify and up-date the inertial navigation systems.
Naturally, throughout the transition of the Canary Islands or Canarias control air space, we were in radio contact with those controllers, and had flight planned to fly over Tenerife and thereafter on the “airway” to the north-east at whatever flight level was assigned to us.
Approaching Tenerife, I spotted the flashing strobe lights of another aircraft in the distance, which I duly pointed out to the passenger beside me. Taking a long look at this, he eventually exclaimed:
“Hell, I'm positive he's at the same altitude as we are!”
I hastened to assure him otherwise, stating that at night, at that altitude, distances and heights were almost impossible to judge and besides which we were flying in accordance with the semi-circular separation rule, so that the other aircraft had to be either above or below us by at least 2 000 feet.
I nevertheless flashed my landing lights a few times to which he eventually responded. He was obviously heading in our direction since by then I could clearly discern his navigation lights – red on our right and green on the left, indicating that he was heading towards us.
Surprisingly, I had not heard him on the radio, and assumed that he must have been on a different frequency. So I broadcast our call sign, position, altitude and estimated time over Tenerife on an international frequency reserved for communication between individual aircraft, but there was no acknowledgement.
As he approached, I was becoming decidedly uneasy, for at a closing speed of not far short of 1 000 knots, we were closing at a bewildering rate. A microsecond later, both the first officer and I instinctively reached for our autopilot disengage buttons in order to take evasive action, but too late – in a flash he was past, the big yellow orb on its blue background, the logo of Lufthansa, seeming to fill the side window as he flashed past.
So close was he that I was sure that he had taken part of the right wing off, but the aircraft remained on an even keel, displaying no tendency to roll as it must have if that had happened.
I disengaged the autopilot to the cacophony of aural warnings and flashing lights, but she answered to the controls quite normally.
Re-engaging the autopilot I switched on the wing illumination lights and sent the flight engineer back to check the wing from the cabin. He returned to report that everything was still where it should be, and since all other indicators remained normal, I had to conclude that we were two 747 loads of extremely lucky people for I do not think he could have come any closer.
I called Canarias Control but he was silent – presumably in shock after realising that two aircraft had passed over the same point at the same time and altitude.
I then heard the Lufthansa aircraft calling on my frequency and asked him to submit an ICAO “Near Miss” report as soon as possible, as I would on landing, to which he readily agreed.
As we taxied in after landing at Frankfurt's Rhine-Maine, I asked the first officer to try and judge by the size in his window of the logos of other 747s we passed, how close we had been to disaster.
Eventually we parked right alongside one and he nodded saying: “That's about it. We couldn't have missed by more than a couple of feet!”
One upshot of that incident was that a lot of Canarias controllers were sent to the United Kingdom for further training, and radar was installed at Tenerife, but it took a near disaster to motivate that.
As for the passenger who, squatting next to me, had witnessed the whole thing, I found, when I had time to turn my attention to him, that he had disappeared back to the cabin.
The flight engineer informed me that the second time I flashed the landing lights, the poor guy lit out of that cockpit like a jackrabbit, and I never saw him again!
POWDER IN THE SKY (Published in World Airnews December 2003)
By John L’ange
“… the most superb exhibition of flying skill and crew co-operation that I had ever witnessed.”
IN WHAT, to the modern generation, must appear as antediluvian times, the very early 1960s in fact, not long after the introduction of the Boeing 707 in South Africa, I was treated to a superb display of innovative airmanship that I have never forgotten, nor am I ever likely to.
This new aircraft, twice the size, and flying at twice the speed, of the fastest piston engine type in service, was held in such awe by the SA Airways administration of the time that it was crewed by not one but two captains in addition to a senior first officer who acted as third pilot, of which genus I was a member.
On the flight in question, we departed London Heathrow one wet, cold and miserable February late afternoon, bound for Las Palmas, in the Canaries, shortly after South African-registered aircraft had been banned from over-flying Africa. Our departure clearance route took us over Land’s End and as we broke cloud at in the region of 5 000 feet heading westwards, became some of the privileged few to witness the sun rising in the west as we climbed out of the murk!
This four hour leg down to the Canaries was normally a piece of cake despite the night landing on the Las Palmas runway which was so narrow in those days that the outboard engines overhung the verges of the tarmac, precluding the use of reverse thrust on those motors. As usual, the departure from Heathrow had been a pleasure with the highly efficient and skilled standards of air traffic control, marred only by a complete communication black-out with Las Palmas or even Tenerife.
Nevertheless, we set course without an updated weather report; all we had being an outdated version many hours old which simply stated the more or less standard ‘CAVOK’, but with strong northerly surface winds gusting up to 30 knots.
Shortly after reaching top of climb I diligently attempted to contact ‘Canarias Control’ on H/F without success, thanks to the vagaries of the ‘Heaviside Layer’ (from which such radio waves are reflected) in addition to sun spot activity. This despite the fact that I could read stations as far afield as Athens loud and clear. After two hours or so of being totally in the dark as regards communication, I received a faint, garbled reply in broken English which I interpreted as, “Visibility down and powder in sky.”
In all my met lectures and subsequent experience, I had never encountered terminology remotely resembling this, but on receiving the message a second time, conveyed it to the captain who dismissed it, muttering something like: “One never knows what the hell they are trying to say.” At top of descent, in the absence of VHF communication which had also gone on the blink, we obtained another garbled, scarcely decipherable message on H/F clearing us to descend to “Papa” beacon, the main and only beacon then serving Las Palmas, to the north of the field, at 12 000 feet. On a clear, moonlit night, descending into Grand Canaria from the north, it is possible to make out the mountain on Tenerife over to the west, but on that evening, despite an almost full but hazy moon, nothing was to be seen.
Subsequently, approaching Papa, not even the lights of Las Palmas, normally visible for miles, were discernible. Arriving over the beacon, all radio communication was again lost, and so we entered the holding pattern at 12 000 feet, our last assigned clearance.
Being on an IFR flight plan, we could only proceed with the let-down on instructions, except, that is, in exceptional circumstances such as radio failure. Sitting behind the captain, I awaited his decision with interest and some concern for those gas guzzling straight jet JT-4 engines were doing just that, swallowing our “island holding” reserve, based on two hour’s holding at 15 000 feet, at an alarming rate.
The captain asked me to obtain the Tenerife weather on VHF, which I duly did, passing it on with growing consternation, for they reported surface winds gusting up to 30 knots from the north and visibility down to 400 metres due to dust in suspension, clarifying the earlier, “powder in sky” report received from Las Palmas – obviously a literal translation from Spanish!
This eliminated any possibility of diverting to Tenerife, so I contacted El Aauin, some 100 miles to the east in Western Sahara, but they also reported similarly reduced visibility.
We had encountered a rare phenomenon, called “Blood Rain”. Under certain conditions, probably associated with either the ‘Harmattan’ or ‘Khamsin’, desert winds caused by a pressure system which lifts red dust from the Sahara and which subsequently can be deposited as far afield as Ireland, Blood Rain occurs when the airborne dust discolours subsequent precipitation.
This time, however, it descended on the Canaries and environs, putting us in a pickle – not only was our destination below limits but so, too, were our possible alternates and we had insufficient fuel to make Lisbon or even Faro south of that city!
WHAT TO DO?
The captain, outwardly unruffled, then calmly briefed the co-captain saying, “Right Bill, even though we don’t have an ILS, we’ll have to treat this as a Category II approach (Decision height 100 feet and RVR or runway visual range 400 metres). So you will do the approach, letting down to 100 feet. If you hear nothing from me, overshoot. If I see the runway, I’ll take over and land.”
By this time we had regained VHF communication. Turning to me, he said: “See if you can get through to these numskulls that we want a Jeep with flare pistols positioned at the end of the runway.” Quite amazingly, the control tower immediately grasped what was required, replying, “Yeep is position. Visibilite quatro unnert metre. Windi, zero tre zero guste tre zero,” which we interpreted as: “Jeep in position. Visibility four hundred metres. Wind 030 gusting 30 knots.” “Hell,” I thought, “Four hundred metres is way below what we should have for an NDB let-down let alone for an ILS.” As fate would have it, we had no sooner departed ‘Papa’ outbound, tracking away from the beacon when it, too, went off the air.
Still maintaining his outwardly unruffled demeanour, the captain said to the man on his right, “Don’t worry about that Bill. Continue descending outbound. When we turn inbound, I’ll position you on radar – we have a pretty good picture of the coast line here, and John, you keep your eyes peeled for those flares from the Jeep and keep monitoring ‘Papa’ just in case it comes back on.
“Bill, just follow my instructions; I’ll position you at 4 000 feet at 20 miles and then 1 500 feet at eight miles. After that, just keep descending at six to seven hundred feet per minute while I keep you on centre line.”
For the uninitiated, weather radar of the early 1960s was not designed for mapping and even less as an approach aid, but it did show coast lines clearly and this was what the captain was using to keep his co-pilot lined up with the projected position of the extended runway centre line. Much as would a ground-based radar controller, he continually read out headings, heights and distance from the runway.
Passing 1 500 feet, we ran into heavy turbulence requiring Bill’s full concentration to maintain heading, speed and rate of descent. With the landing gear and flaps confirmed down, I read out the final landing check-list to myself since the captain was concentrating on the green glow of the radar screen, then set to its largest scale while I strained my eyes through the windshield, hoping to detect the flares.
The atmosphere was tense as we passed 500 feet with Bill wrestling the turbulence and the captain’s calm voice reading out headings and distances. At 200 feet, still with nothing in sight, Bill called for landing lights, which he promptly cancelled as the reflection from the dust particles became almost blinding. Gazing ahead, I checked the captain’s pressure altimeter out of the corner of my eye (No radio altimeters on the early 707s) and then, at 100 feet, a white flare came arcing towards us out of the gloom, slightly to the left. I yelled, “Flare ahead. Eleven o’clock.”
The captain looked up for the first time on that final approach and as another flare came arcing towards us, said, “I’ve got her,” and headed for the source of the flare. Shortly thereafter, a couple of “goose necks” (paraffin fired flares which formed the flarepath), miraculously still burning in that wind, loomed out of the murk. The captain put her down between those to the almost audible relief of tension on the flight deck, while I marvelled at this, the most superb exhibition of flying skill and crew cooperation that I had ever witnessed.
JET STREAMS (Published in World Airnews, March 2005)
By John L’ange
“Any piece of air space is only as safe as the most dangerous pilot in it!”
JET STREAMS not, in this case the efflux from the tail pipe of a jet engine, but those incredible meteorological phenomena encountered from time to time by those which frequent latitudes around the “thirties” and at altitudes, surprisingly enough, also in the “thirties”, the latter, naturally, being thou-sands of feet above sea level.
The jet stream could be likened to some gigantic, invisible stratospheric serpent, being a narrow core of air snaking and dip-ping its way across land or sea in the upper atmosphere or lower stratosphere in an easterly direction due to the rotation of the earth. Its speeds are high enough to be more often associated with those of the tornado, typhoon or hurricane. Temperatures within this core decrease rapidly towards the centre on the polar side and less rapidly on the equatorial, with the result that an isothermic cross section of the core would resemble an irregular oval. In an era before the advent of INS and GPS, when navigation was still an art, the navigator had to resort to every snippet of relevant information he could glean from the elements, particularly during daylight ocean crossings when the only assistance he could utilise from the firmament had to be from the sun and sometimes the moon.
It was said at that time when instantaneous ground speed read-outs were an absolute luxury, that jet streams could be followed if heading east or avoided if heading the other way by deliberately crossing the core and closely observing the OAT; the point at which the lowest OAT was observed would be the centre of the core. But in practice, however, due to a jet stream’s snaking and dipping, this was easier said than done. For those fortunate enough to have Doppler, (Doppler being an ingenious system which transmitted and received pulses to and from the surface below, the difference in frequency between the two being converted to an instant read-out of ground speed and drift angle), this process as well as other aspects of the navigational art, were much simplified by having those two paramount factors being presented as it were on a platter. In illustrating the chaotic effect jet streams can have on aviation, it is related here how in the wee hours local time of one October morning way back in 1973when even electronic pocket calculators much less cell phones, satellite navigation and electronic approach charts were a novelty, we set heading for Sydney from Perth.
The synoptic chart in the weather folder depicted a jet stream to the north of track with winds of some 60 to 80 knots, which would be unlikely to affect us and otherwise nothing significant en route. This route over the Nullabor Plains of Western Australia, south of the Gibson Desert, brought home the vastness of that outback with nary a light to be seen between the few centres of habitation. Added to this, an eerie silence would prevail over the ether for the Aussies commendably use radio as intended and not as a means of chatter.
At top of climb at flight level 370, the Doppler ground speed indicator was registering a healthy 540 knots, a good 80knots above our true air speed at that stage of 460 knots – the forecast jet stream was further south than expected. Approaching Whyalla on the Spencer Sound, the Doppler which, by then, had been hovering at 600 knots ground speed, went up to 620 and then gave up, putting itself in memory mode as it was programmed to do in the event of poor returns being received from its pulses. I accordingly reached into my flight bag for my ancient rotating slide rule flight computer, a rare occurrence since navigators and first officers usually abounded for such mundane tasks, except that in this case we had neither a navigator nor a third pilot. After struggling to free the dial on the instrument, stiff from lack of use, I came up with a startling result – at Mach 0,82and OAT of –60oC, we still had a TAS of 460 knots and according to our time over Whyalla, the ground speed of 620 knots thus obtained, verified the Doppler reading before it went off.
According to my venerable instrument, Mach 1 under such conditions stood at 560 knots and even though the magical speed of sound at sea level may have been in the region of 660knots since that speed is dependent purely on air temperature, our ground speed was actually supersonic at that altitude!
We landed at Sydney some 50 minutes ahead of schedule with not a soul to meet the “supersonic” 707! Needless to say, on the return leg, despite remaining as low as flight level 310 and obtaining clearance to fly on a more southerly route in the hope of the stream moving north to where it was supposed to be, that persistent core of high speed air might well have been possessed of evil intent the way it followed us and turned a scheduled four-hour leg into something closer to five!
And then there was the daylight crossing of the South Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro which bore all the ingredients of a frustrating navigational exercise – broad day-light and no moon meaning only sun shots available for celestial navigation; an inaccurate weather report forecasting 4/8 cloud at 1 500 feet for our arrival; headwinds of some 30 knots across the Atlantic with no mention of the jet stream that lay in wait for us, and a glassy sea from which the Doppler system could pick up no return.
As we passed Rooikop (near Walvis Bay) on the west coast and set heading on a great circle track for Rio, we had already lost some five or six minutes on flight plan, and with the “Howgozit” fuel consumption chart – plotted to portray fuel consumed against distance covered.–already heading into the red, the stage was set for an interesting crossing of the South Atlantic.
As we approached critical or equal time point, the point at which, time-wise, we would be equidistant from both destination and point of departure, heading ever further out over that vast ocean and with Doppler sulking in memory mode, I was aware of a growing sense of foreboding. I went back to consult with Al B., the navigator. Working on sun shots alone, Al had been able to obtain a reasonably accurate indication of longitudinal position and therefore ground speed since we were on a westerly heading. From this he could estimate an approximate wind component which he “guesstimated” as minus 90 knots derived from the paltry ground speed he had reckoned at 370. My forebodings had not been unwarranted for we were in the grip of a jet stream, losing time and fuel by the minute! A decision had to be made quickly, for by then we were approaching the point of no return; the end of the umbilical cord; that point after which there would be no return to point of departure.
If the wind we were bucking held or even increased, we would make Rio with precious little in reserve. To gain time, I asked Al to work out a PNR for Cape Town with normal reserves and no diversion, for we had Langebaanweg, the air force base, to the north with its excellent GCA controllers should Cape Town undergo another of its mercurial weather changes. While he was thus engaged, I resolved that should we not have flown out of the jet stream by whatever point Al came up with, I would have no hesitation in making for Cape Town from there. It so happened, however, that before reaching that last point of diversion to Cape Town, Doppler came back on, giving a ground speed reading of 430 knots, in keeping with the forecast wind and indicating that we had finally rid our-selves of the irksome stream, and so we continued on track. Since H/F communication with Rio had been extremely poor throughout the crossing, our first actual weather report was received on VHF, only some 160 miles from the coast.
This report gave 8/8cloud at 300 feet with visibility reduced in light rain. Although the weather was deteriorating and our reserves all but depleted, the situation still did not war-rant undue concern, provided that is, we had a direct ILS approach and did not have to overshoot. The instrument let-down at Rio must be one of the longest anywhere, taking 23 minutes in a stepped descent from 12 000 feet, the minimum sector safe altitude, to touchdown at the 30 foot field elevation. An overshoot would involve a climb out over the sea back to 12 000 feet followed by another lengthy descent procedure, a gas guzzling exercise which we did not relish. I delayed my descent, timed to reach the holding beacon at 12 000 feet, deprived by thick cloud of the spectacular views afforded in visual conditions of the Pao de Azucar (Sugar Loaf) and the Corcovado, that gigantic statue of Christ, arms outstretched, reputedly facing its twin across the Atlantic in Lisbon. Entering the holding pattern for our first and hopefully last orbit, there were only two aircraft ahead of us, a Varig DC-8 intercepting the ILS and an Air Force DC-3 which had diverted from else-where.
Judging by the latter's obvious vagueness regarding frequencies and descent altitudes, he was ill-prepared for an instrument approach to Rio, but was eventually cleared to intercept the ILS and changed to tower frequency. Relieved that the lumbering old ship, we departed from the holding pattern and proceeded with the long descent to 4 500ft at 14 miles DME, where after we, in turn, were cleared for the ILS approach and changed to tower frequency. On doing so, however, we tuned into some sort of garbled altercation in Portuguese between the tower and the “Dak” which should by then have been just about on the ground. Nevertheless, we were then cleared on to final approach and advised that the cloud base had lifted. We crossed the outer marker at 2 000 feet and I cross-checked the DME at 7 miles –we were spot on and thereafter were cleared to land off the approach.
“AIRCRAFT DEAD AHEAD…”
As I concentrated the ILS, we broke cloud at about 800 feet, which provided us with our first glimpse of the ground and the wet sheen of the runway ahead, the first officer called urgently: “Aircraft dead ahead, above and closing fast!” I involuntarily shoved the nose down and broke to the right, the only course of evasive action available to me, for that lumbering old DC-3 loomed ahead and above, landing gear and full flap extended, obviously desperately attempting to catch-up with the glide slope well below it.
Taking matters into my own hands, I yelled to him on the tower frequency, “Air Force ---, Air Force ---, break left, break left, there's a 707 right up your ass. Repeat break left, break left.” Fortunately he complied with alacrity, enabling me to regain the centre line, the glide slope and land, leaving behind a situation of pandemonium judging by the Portuguese invective that continued until we changed to ground control frequency after turning off the runway. It later transpired that the DC-3 had somehow got himself totally disorientated during the let-down procedure and instead of overshooting out over the sea in the prescribed manner, had informed the tower that he was established on the ILS.
When he eventually did find the localiser he was hopelessly too high for the glide slope, hence his frantic descent. I was naturally furious, for had the cloud base been slightly lower, or our point of interception higher, we would never have seen him in that thick cloud. The incident once again emphasised that old adage: “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” or in this case, “Any piece of air space is only as safe as the most dangerous pilot in it!”
The July 1979 SAA NEWS, Issue No. 185, carried the following story about Phil Unterhorst, then the Station Manager Durban, and now Chairman of the KwaZuluNatal Silver Springbok Association.
“Mr Phil Unterhorst, S.A. Airways Station Manager at Louis Botha Airport since 1971, is a very keen and accomplished Radio Ham enthusiast, a pastime which is not clearly understood by the general public.
Phil Unterhorst ZS5RJ on the air
Phil’s fascinating hobby, which can trace its origins back to before the turn of the century, to the days of the great pioneers like Hertz, Marconi and others, stems from an early interest in electronics.
For the (then) past 15 years he has been adding to his experience and enjoyment, both of which are a prerequisite to becoming a successful operator. His ambition was realised, when in January 1979, after undergoing an extremely difficult examination, he obtained his licence and became a fully-fledged Radio Ham.
Phil’s sophisticated equipment enables him to communicate with people from all walks of life around the world. His “shack”, the term used for an amateur radio operator’s place of operation, resembles the controls of an aeroplane, and it is from here that he joins the ranks of such distinguished people as King Hussein; Moshé Dayan and Barry Goldwater, all keen radio hams.
Phil explains that being a ham is more than a hobby to him, it is a way of life. It is a means of providing emergency communication, promoting international friendship and understanding and is available to all citizens, including the young, the old & the physically handicapped. It is a rapidly growing service of which Phil is proud to be a member.
S.A. Airways News wishes ZS5RJ many happy hours of enjoyable participation in his challenging, enriching, productive and socially constructive hobby.”