Thursday, November 5, 2015

How important was the 1934 DC-2 airliner 'Uiver'?

Good question. I'll be speaking about this at the Civil Aviation Historical Society's annual Open Day on Saturday November 7th, at Essendon Airport, Melbourne.

The theme of this years Open Day is "THE ENGLAND TO AUSTRALIA CENTENARY AIR RACE" celebrating the Melbourne City Centenary.

The Open Day will include speakers on the Air Race, including yours truly, continuous screening of aviation films, a relevant photographic display, and self guided tours of the museum assisted by volunteers.

The talks:
11.30 am: Mr John McCulloch, 'Three Days to Melbourne'

1.00 pm: Mr James Kightly, The Airline Winner - The Significance of the DC-2 'Uiver'

2.30 pm: Mr John McCulloch, The Air Race Sub-Committee: organisation and controversies behind the scenes

The Open Day will run from 10am to 5pm. The society says 'Family and friends welcome', I hope to see you there!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

UK Airshow Safety

After yesterday’s tragic accident at the Shoreham Royal Air Force Association Airshow in Sussex, UK, with seven people known to have been killed, 14 injured, and the pilot in hospital in a critical condition, there has been a great deal of understandable shock and speculation.

Unfortunately much of the commentary and speculation has no context, and for that reason, here is a number of facts to provide some background to otherwise overlooked critical aspects of this disaster.

No one yet knows what caused the accident. What is known is the aircraft, a Hawker Hunter T7 (a trainer version of a 1950s British fighter design) hit the ground, broke up, and the fuel aboard exploded. Unfortunately the impact took place on the A27 road which had traffic on it at the time, and the casualties were people just travelling on this road. The pilot survived the accident, but is badly injured and in hospital at the time of writing.

At the risk of stating the obvious, no-one wants or is prepared to have airshow accidents: not as a by-product of display activities or any other reason. Like all sport, there are dangers, but there is a great deal done to minimise and mitigate those risks, as outlined below.

Airshow Safety
The deaths yesterday are the first fatalities to bystander members of the public at a British airshow since an accident 1952. That is 63 years ago. It is no coincidence, either as the reason for this remarkable achievement is measures put in place after the 1952 John Derry DH.110 accident.

(Car racing accidents involving deaths of members of the public at Le Mans in 1955 and during the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in 1961 resulted in safety measures that have effectively ensured almost no injuries to the public since. There have been more recent spectator deaths in rally driving, while participant injuries in air displays, horse riding, motorsport, skiing and other similar activities remain low, but apparently ever present, despite continual growth of safety measures – such as helmets in horse riding and skiing. Any assessment needs to look at global trends and events and the local nation by nation or code [such as international sport safety rules] to gather meaningful data. In the case of air displays, there are variations in approach and regulation nations, and accident history, so for this discussion I have focussed on UK rules and history alone.)

One of the main principles formulated after the 1952 airshow accident is to ensure that the display aircraft mostly do not overfly the crowd or direct the energy of the manoeuvring towards the crowd. There are some exceptions, but by having this as a standard basis, any accidents that may occur will not involve those watching the show from the official public enclosure. In the case of the Shoreham accident, one point generally not made is that the accident did avoid the crowd area (as is in the standard plan) though it tragically did involve a road with people on it. While each death is a tragedy, we are lucky that there were so few, which is the result of a mixture of luck (the area around airfields is a mixture of open land and occupied areas) and planning (as above).

What went wrong?
We do not know. However, we will know and I can state, categorically, that a) the accident’s causes will almost certainly be accurately identified, by professional accident investigators, and b) the report will be publicly published and available for free on the internet.  Unfortunately, it will not be available in the current news-media cycle, as it will take a number of months to be processed and completed.

This is because Britain has the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB). The AAIB will painstakingly piece together the sequence of events, forensically examine the factors, aircraft, pilot, environment and so forth, and enumerate the data and conclusions in the report. If they cannot identify causes, they will say so, but despite the destructive nature of aviation accidents, they rarely have to leave any factors listed as ‘unknown’.

That is why the airshow organisers ask for any evidence to be handed in.

In about six months from now, the publication of the report will make a few hours news, but will be available on the AAIB website from then onwards, for anyone to read and learn from. Any lessons that might change current practice in flight and show safety will be explicitly stated, and the recommendations implemented where appropriate. Significant risks identified will be acted on.

Pilot Checks
The pilot of any UK air display aircraft have to work out a standard display routine, normally made up of a number of standard aerobatic manoeuvres linked together to form the presentation. This is overseen by a designated examiner and when he or she is satisfied that the display is viable, repeatable, and safe, the pilot is issued with a Display Authorisation, or ‘DA’. This means that every display act has a standard, repeated and much-practised routine that he (or she or the crew) go through.

EDIT - Correction by Barry Tempest, formerly of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in this field: "After an evaluation by a highly experienced Display Authorisation Evaluator (DAE) appointed by the CAA they are free to design and perform any display sequence within the limitations imposed in their authorisation along with those of the aircraft they are flying. They are not restricted to the sequence flown in front of their evaluator. All such pilots are mentored by their peers as they gain experience and all major displays have a Flying Control Committee who monitor standards of safety. The FCC can terminate any display if the rules are infringed and the Display Authorisation can be suspended or revoked by the CAA."

No one ‘brings an aircraft and goes for a fly’ at a UK airshow. This, obviously, doesn’t prevent all accidents, but it does minimise the risks and removes multiple causal problems.

Display pilots are a remarkably varied group of people, however (in the UK) they are all in possession of the appropriate licences (like a car driver’s licence) and endorsements (like a heavy goods vehicle licence, or forklift licence) for any extras or differences from the standard aircraft that they expect to fly. For this, they have to be fit and healthy (as far as annual medicals can ensure) and fully experienced in flying the aircraft they are displaying. In many cases the pilots have thousands of hours flying experience, and have to have significant experience practising (and in due course performing) their display routine. (Note: the above is specific to civil pilots. Military pilots work on a different, but similarly regimented safety system.)

Aircraft Age
The Hawker Hunter is a 1950s design. The crashed aircraft was built some time later, but in that era. However, any vintage air display aircraft has to be kept in excellent condition, not just in looks but in mechanical reliability. In the case of a 1950s era jet fighter-trainer, the structure, engine, systems (like a car’s brakes and electrics) are all well known, inspected and tested in depth on a regular cycle (usually annually, and sections more frequently) and also tested as part of the pre-flight checks before every flight. Any parts that don’t work are replaced or, within a very stringent set of criteria, repaired. Most vintage display aircraft are in better condition mechanically than your five-year-old car, and are certainly inspected and tested to a far higher standard.

There is a balance between the pros and cons of still using older technology. On the negative side, older systems and aircraft are not as refined for use as more modern types. This is mitigated by the fact that, specifically in the case of 1950s military jets, they are not being used at the speeds, heights or performance that they were originally designed to be. Again, they are high performance technology, but being used in a very restricted format, rather like showing a race car, on a private course, at suburban speed limits. On the positive side of the use of old technology, the strengths and weaknesses of the design and components are well known. Any ‘product recall’ issues with the type are known (from decades earlier) documented and have the solutions in place. If they have not been solved, the aircraft does not fly.

Disaster Management
Another point rarely noted about yesterday’s accident is that the airshow team had a co-ordinated disaster management plan in place, working with the involvement of the airshow team and emergency services. In this case it clearly worked (though not all details are in) and they all deserve credit for a plan that was fully worked out and able to be implemented when it had to be.

Why Fly?
Obviously if there are no airshows, there can be no airshow accidents. There have been national bans in other countries. However, despite the evidence of yesterday’s tragedy, overall airshows are safe entertainment and provide significant tourism revenue, education and employment. Despite some reports, it is not common for operators of ex-military jet aircraft to cover their costs from appearance fees, though there is, of course, enormous variation in the costs of operation and the income possible. (The Shoreham airshow is a charity fundraiser for the Royal Air Force Association.) In the UK, and most other countries they are tightly regulated, carefully managed and safe. Everyone works towards a ‘safety is no accident’ objective.

Statistics vary, but airshows routinely gather huge audiences on site – far greater in numbers than many live sports, and are sometimes cited as the second most popular spectator sport in the UK. The infrastructure of vintage aviation, airshow activities, right down to the vital toilets, rubbish management and coffee carts, involves a huge number of people and generates remarkable amounts of tourism-type revenue. Additionally, they are more appreciated than ever as a cornerstone of the current ‘living history’ approach to history and heritage entertainment and education.

These are some of the background measures that were in place, and I hope you find the information useful.

James Kightly,
James is a professional writer and reporter on global vintage aviation, and has been writing for over a quarter-century.

Shared under the Creative Commons Media Licence. Please attribute any quotation. References, corrections and additions will be incorporated as appropriate, and noted as changes in the text.

Edit1 - minor typos corrected.
Edit2 - clarification of display authorisation process from Barry Tempest.

Monday, August 17, 2015

'Harry Tate'

The Vintage Aviator Collection built RAAF Museum' RE8 replica; incredibly authentic on the grass at RAAF Point Cook. This, I'm now sure, is the first ever R.E.8 to fly in Australia. 

Just out is the Part 2 of the feature article on the 'Harry Tate' in Flightpath magazine. Lot of graft that (I hope!) isn't evident in the final result which I'm pretty pleased with

As in any good article, once I got going I ended up with too much material, much of which had to be cut. Here's a couple of sections.

A great (RAAF Museum Archive) photograph by the great photographer Frank Hurley of a carefully posed group of 3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps R.E.8 crew taken, no doubt, on a big wood box camera with a Magnesium flare flash. 

These young men were both like us, in their humanity, and quite unlike us in their expectations. They flew these 'crates' which were the state-of-the-art then (equivalent to today's space station in their technical extremity of the time) and they took their chances. Skill and training and experience were all very limited.

Many were lucky. Many more were unlucky, and that cockpit with a fuel tank in the pilot's lap could quickly become a very nasty end. It's a trite euphemism; 'the fallen'. Many of these young men were literally 'the fallen' and there was nothing nice about it. It's a nasty way to die. Others were 'just' horribly injured. It was important to learn and write about them.

As ever, it was a collaborative effort. Big thanks to co-author Rob Langham, without whom... First time I've written an article where the other author will be pictured in it in his own Sidcot suit! Rob's take and input was decisive. A very big thanks also to Philippa Brotchie who kindly went to the Australian War Memorial archive, extracted the document that nailed down a key fact about a 'mystery'. And Brett Clowes provided some critical thinking and data. Michael Molkentin's book 'Fire in the Sky' was a core reference, with lots of good 'gen' - this might be a surprise to you, Michael! Peter Hart might also be surprised by knowing we used his 'Bloody April' and 'Aces Falling'. Thanks both.
 I've been spending some time in a virtual cockpit alongside some very normal young men, all now long gone. The cockpit is here illustrated by the very same replica R.E.8. 

Finally I'd like to let the one of these young chaps speak. That was one reward of this article. There's great first-hand accounts, and they certainly told their own stories better than I could. Nigel Love of 3 Squadron AFC, overlooks the 'archie'; enemy guns always shooting at him, and the ever-present enemy 'jaeger' (hunters) ready to shoot him down - the real 'huns in the sun'. He just says:
“Regular duty assigned to air crew of a 'Corps Squadron', was for continuous ‘line patrol’. It involved a machine flying up and down the whole of the Corps front, during daylight hours, at about 8,000 feet, taking photographs with a camera fitted to the observer’s cockpit. We used to call this patrol a ‘Spark Crawl’ – and would be about two and a half hours over the lines. When things were slow, we would drop down to zero level, emptying our machine guns on the trenches, or enemy transport behind the lines. This was somewhat ‘sticky’ business, but it was our job and it did break the monotony.” 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

That Spitfire Low Pass - Again

I'd be amazed if you haven't seen the famous film of Ray Hanna flying Spitfire Mk.IX MH434 G-ASJV low over reporter Alain de Cadenet and the film crew's heads.

If you've not seen it yet, just wait a moment. Because the old version has been pulled.

Recently, the film makers put the higher quality version of the film online, and share a few other remarkable details.

The video here. [Note - some understandably ripe language, NSFW.]

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Dominion Forces defending Britain, 1940

'The Battle for Britain'. A good article in the History Today magazine and website on the often overlooked Dominions' armies role in defending Britain in 1940.

He discusses in fascinating detail what the land forces did or nearly had to do. But, despite touching on the air and naval elements in the introduction, the author (Andrew Stewart Reader in Conflict and Diplomacy, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London) fails to return to them and their roles.

 Squadron Leader E.A. McNab, Commanding Officer, with a Hawker Hurricane I aircraft of No.1 (F) Squadron, RCAF. Northolt, England. September 12th, 1940. [Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / e005176200) Via Taylor Empire Airways.]

Taking our specialty, the air element alone, overlooking (among other notable contributions) the involvement of 1 (Fighter) Squadron RCAF in the Battle of Britain, or, missing that 10 Squadron RAAF was in Britain on the declaration of war and was immediately loaned (by the Australian Prime Minister Menzies no less) to Britain's RAF Coastal Command for the duration, shows the author's excellence in land forces isn't carried over to the air and marine elements.

 Four original Sunderland flying boat captains of 10 Squadron RAAF at Pembroke Dock, Wales, in December 1939. [AWM 128163 - From The Australian Government site 'Australia's War 1939-45' here.]
To add New Zealand, 75(NZ) Squadron was operational in May 1940, adding weight to Bomber Command. (Detail here.)

Aircrews of No. 75 (New Zealand) Squadron RAF walking past a Vickers Wellington Mark I at RAF Feltwell, Norfolk, UK, before a night raid to Hamburg, Germany. [IWM via Wikipedia]

Further, the presence of three Canadian army co-operation Lysander Squadrons, awaiting action in the event of invasion in 1940, is directly applicable to his thesis of the ground forces' plans.

A focus on just the four Dominions – Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Union of South Africa is clearly stated, and reasonable, but the contributions of many others in the British Empire of the time, notably India (among many other smaller places) should get at least a line in the 'ideal' long article.

In an exercise of army cooperation at RAF Odiham, Lysander pilots of No. 400 Squadron RCAF rush to climb into the cockpits of their Lysanders, having just received their operational orders from an Army Liaison Officer standing at the desk at left. In the combat arena, the Lysander proved to be capable, but also vulnerable, resulting in a quick withdrawal from front line service. [Imperial War Museum via Vintage Wings of Canada, Here.]

In the original article, using illustrations sources from 1943 - 1945 for a focus on 1939 - 1940 is also poor. (Here, being an online blog, I've been able to link to other feature article online with illustrations and details on the subject aircraft and units mentioned.)

Generally History Today hits a high standard, and the land forces story seems, to me, to be well laid out here, and well worth reading, with many thought provoking nugget of what a horror invasion would have been.

Likewise the internal political elements that each Dominion faced, and a notable lack of consistent planning or even treatment from Britain in the care and recognition of the sovereignty of these forces is well covered, though, again, air elements (and I presume naval) would add more layers of understanding. Then there is avoiding hindsight.

He says, on a British report: " observer in the Foreign Office remarked: 'The Australians remain terrified of the Japanese.'" That disdain was the tone of the time. Hindsight, however tells us that Britain (and everyone else not actually fighting the Japanese in 1939) badly underestimated them. Australia ended up desperately needing its own armed forces back from British use to defend their homeland in early 1942, of course. In these areas the article does well to present the tone and expectations of the time, with an historian's accuracy.
one observer in the Foreign Office remarked: ‘The Australians remain terrified of the Japanese.’ - See more at:

A better introduction may have been all that was needed, otherwise a proper focus on the air element is missing. I suspect a naval historian would take a similar view.


Friday, June 12, 2015

Friday Fly

It's rare, but it does happen that one phone call, and you're out of the door and down to the airfield on a lovely winter afternoon. Because I'm slow, the Ryan was running, all warmed up and ready to go, and after a quick strap in by 'Hostie' Matt Henderson, we were off.

BIG thanks to Scotty Taberner for the much-anticipated Ryan flight, and it was a privilege to grab some shots on Bev's camera of our escort in beautiful lighting conditions and silky smooth air. And it wasn't even cold. Above is us backtracking on the runway with Cessna 170 'SLY' following us down.

Passengers ride in the front cockpit, so there's even more in the way of the pilot. The dials are, I'm reliably informed, useful and important. It's all dials to me.

Here's us in the Ryan with Matt in the Cessna O-1 Birddog (behind the strut) taken by Estelle Patterson from SLY, being flown by Mick Poole...

 ...and here's the view in reverse.

We stopped in at another airfield for fuel, and after that, I was invited to step back in to the Ryan. Always good to get the return trip too.

 'How do you mess up a selfie?' Like this. It's arty, right?

 We were chased up by Matt in the Birddog on the circuit out as we formed up for some photos that Scotty had suggested - as the light and conditions were excellent. I looked about for the photographer, but there wasn't one, so it was down to me with Bev's box-camera-ette I'd grabbed leaving the house, and a battery that died longer than an amateur-dramatic Hamlet. No pressure.

Luckily squinting at the screen at the back of the camera worked better than using a proper SLR viewfinder, and being shown every shot after I took it kept the action at a reasonable pace. 'What does this button do?'

 If the pilots go in circles, and know what they're doing (don't try this without, kids) then you get down sun and up sun shots without having to work. Magic.

 The observant will note we had been joined by another, Cessna 195 'Scatterbolts' being flown by Michael Dalton, who was hijacked on returning to his home airfield.

 Top to bottom, 195, 170 and O-1.

 ... Round and around...

 ... 'Scatterbolts' with the wheels on Hanging Rock...

 ... and time to go home.

 Approach to the home airfield (there's a runway behind the cylinder).

And a last shot (by Scotty) of your intrepid reporter to prove it all happened before putting the aircraft away.

A well spent afternoon.

Duplicitous Lightning

One of the oddest stories of W.W.II is this captured Lockheed P-38 Lightning. It is not odd that it was captured, or that it was got airworthy again. What is unique (as far as we know) is that this Lightning was used to attack American bombers, and in once case, successfully shot down a B-17 Flying Fortress.

From a forum posting (here) by 'Misyd': "On June 12, 1943, a USAAF P-38G, while on a flight from Gibraltar to Malta, got lost and landed by mistake at Capoterra, Sardinia. The Lightning was painted in Italian markings, and transferred to the Italian Test Centre at Guidonia. On August 11, 1943, chief test pilot Colonel Angelo Tondi used the P-38 to intercept USAAF bombers on their way to attack targets in central Italy. Tondi shot down a B-17F, "Bonnie Sue", of the 419th BS, 301st BG. This was the only successful interception achieved by the P-38G, which was soon grounded due to the poor quality of Italian gasoline, which corroded the fuel tanks. I believe that this is the only documented example of a captured US fighter being used to shoot down a US aircraft during WW2."

There are many more detailed 'accounts' of this event, several based on or originating from one of Martin Cadin's (fictional) flights of fancy in 'The Fork Tailed Devil'. The reality, above, is remarkable enough.