February 1976. It was a rare day over southern Victoria, with the sky so clear you could look upwards and see blue receding forever into white. I remember it well because I was at the controls of a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) A-85 Winjeel and beside me, in the instructor’s seat, was a legend of the Air Force, Flight Lieutenant Bill Evans.
It is the mark of a small air force that the best of the best are called on to teach the novices, and so Evans was spending time away from flying Mirage III fighters to instruct new RAAF trainee pilots in the propeller-driven Winjeel. An aircraft first designed in 1949, the Winjeel was a bit like a Caterpillar D6 bulldozer with wings – it didn’t look like it belonged in the air.
The nine-cylinder, 13-litre Pratt & Whitney radial engine produced a deafening roar as we chugged away from the Point Cook Air Force Base to our cruising altitude of 5000 feet. The heavy Winjeel’s performance was not helped by the fact its tail fin had been moved significantly forward along the airframe for the sole purpose of making the aircraft less stable and easier to ‘flick’ into a violent spin.
Trimming the aircraft to fly ‘hands-off’ at cruise altitude and heading across the Bellarine Peninsula aiming for Tasmania, I was happy the engine had lost its coughing roar and found its comfort level, more like a sleeping alsatian than an angry attacking bear. This was my first instructional flight and it seemed pretty straightforward. Responding to Evans’s tour of the flight controls and his instructions to ‘feel’ the stick in my hands and the rudder pedals at my feet, I gave the thumbs-up.
I relaxed as we settled in, cruising at around 140 knots. The sky seemed to sparkle with sugar crystals and the green of Victoria gleamed like a jewel. It was a beautiful day to fly, a great day to be alive. As I was starting to enjoy myself, Evans’s voice crackled in my ears: ‘Throttle back – let her slow down, hold your height and give her some left rudder.’
I eased the throttle back. As the speed slowed I felt the stick pull forward as the heavy nose wanted to drop. I pulled back to maintain the altitude, pushed slightly on the left rudder pedal to twist or yaw the aircraft to the left, then put a bit of right stick to stop the aircraft rolling left wing down.
‘Back off some more,’ Evans said, ‘and give me some more left rudder.’
I did as I was told, feeling the big engine in front of me quietening. Even at full throttle the old Pratt & Whitney radials only turn at around 3000 RPM, and backing off the throttle at 5000 feet sounded like the whole engine was about to shut down. The Winjeel didn’t just look like something that shouldn’t fly, it also felt like it, and I worried that too much pulling back on the throttle would put us into a stall. As the speed slowed I had to pull back harder, and adding rudder meant I needed even more right stick to stop the aircraft rolling left.
We must have slowed to about 70 knots by the time Bill Evans’s voice jumped into my headset again. ‘Take more off the throttle – and give it more rudder!’
Less throttle, more rudder, more back stick, more crossed aileron input – suddenly the Winjeel flipped right wing over the left. The nose dived for the ground – it must have looked like the footage you see of aircraft breaking away from a formation, except we were flying at about 60 knots and corkscrewing straight down to the ground in a tight spiral.
Every one of my senses was in overload. I remember my mouth hung open in a mask of terror as the aeroplane spun downwards with continuous roll, yaw and pitch forces I had never felt before. I knew the theory of an aircraft spinning, but never imagined it to be so physically stressful. Sitting on my parachute and held in tight by my harness, I turned towards the fighter ace for guidance.
Flight Lieutenant Bill Evans was sitting back, looking at me with a smile on his face and his arms crossed smugly over his chest. He winked and pointed at me: here I was frozen with terror and the instructor wasn’t going to help! It was my plane. I turned back to face the fast-approaching farmlands and gripped my hands around the joystick.
I was eighteen years old and I was in a full and potentially deadly spin. It was terrifying. It isn’t just the terror of racing towards the ground that fills your mind with panic, but the physical spinning that pushes your head sideways against the canopy, disorienting you, making it hard to think and even harder to make good decisions.
I gathered my senses and pushed the stick forward – which is counterintuitive – gave full opposite rudder and set the throttle to idle. When the plane stopped spinning and stabilised I was able to throttle up, pull the plane out of its dive and fly the aircraft again under my control. None of it thanks to Bill Evans who didn’t touch a thing. He let me handle the whole emergency on my own and made me realise I should never permit myself to be too relaxed while flying. Ever!
Thirty-four years later, on 4 November 2010, four minutes after a routine take-off from Changi Airport in Singapore, the Qantas ‘QF32’ A380 that I was in command of, climbing out at 7400 feet, bound for Sydney with 469 people on board, experienced a massive explosion in Engine 2. This engine was mounted closest to the fuselage (and passengers), and projected 6 metres proud from the leading edge of the left wing.
The huge Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine was destroyed. The extent of damage was unprecedented in Airbus’s history. Two heavy chunks tore through the wing, travelling at approximately two times the speed of sound. The fan blades and chunks acted like the explosive core of a hand grenade, ripping wing panels into shrapnel that sprayed like missile fragments over the fuselage as far as the massive tail sections. One chunk also ripped through the aircraft’s belly, severing hundreds of wires.
Over 600 wires were cut causing almost every aircraft system to become degraded. I think one of the aircraft’s two backbone networks failed, confusing both flight warning computers. The hydraulics, electrics, brakes, fuel, flight controls and landing gear systems were all compromised. No Airbus aircraft had ever suffered so much damage to so many systems.
I am proud of the impeccable performance of the other four pilots on the flight deck and the 24 Qantas cabin crew who managed to bring QF32 back into Changi after the catastrophic engine explosion, with no deaths or injuries. I also appreciate the enormous and critical support provided by Singapore’s air traffic controllers, as well as the firefighters, police and Qantas ground and crisis management staff who assisted us. Then there were the 440 passengers. Their contribution was priceless, helping to ensure a safe outcome. Following the accident, many passengers became evangelists for Qantas and their kind words are humbling. It’s not every day a crew is praised by strangers for simply doing their job.
The decisions I made on QF32 were influenced by my earliest flying lessons, beginning at the RAAF Academy with my first flight in that Winjeel, through 35 years of training in aviation to the day before our fateful flight. Every lesson is valuable.
When Bill Evans directed me into the spin at the controls of the Winjeel, back in 1976, he was forcing me to confront some of the raw physical forces that act on all aircraft at all times. In a few terrifying seconds he shook me out of a contented world of stable flight and the romance of air travel, and brought me face to face with gravity, velocity, weight and catastrophic forces that, if not handled correctly, result in death.
In that first flight, I learned two lessons about flying that I would never forget.
The first is that the overriding job of any pilot is to fly the plane – to aviate! There is no computer, manual, autopilot or carefully crafted standard operating procedure that will ever replace that key responsibility: to keep the aircraft in the air in one piece. As the pilot-in-command in the flight deck, you can delegate the navigation and you can ask someone else to work the radio, but you can never delegate your responsibility to aviate.
The second lesson is to never, ever become complacent about aviation. The pilot-in-command has absolute and final authority over the crew and passengers. From the simplest act of signing for the amount of fuel loaded into the aircraft to the most complex reaction to a mid-air catastrophe, the captain carries this responsibility on his own shoulders: legally, professionally and personally. If he’s lucky he gets to spread the load by delegating tasks to competent pilots, but he can never outsource the fact the passengers he signs for are the passengers he is expected to return safely to ground. He also signs for the aircraft – but that is of secondary importance. Evans taught me that when something happens up there, you’re on your own and you had better fix it – fast.
I must have learned that lesson quickly because when I encountered Bill Evans again in 2011 he reminded me of that first flight and then burst into uncontrolled laughter. When I asked what was so funny, he said, ‘The look on your face when we started spinning.’
Indeed, that was my wake-up call – a lesson I would carry with me for the rest of my life.
Excerpted from QF32 by Richard de Crespigny. Copyright © 2012 by Richard de Crespigny.
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