In 1969 an Airtourer 100, VH-MUJ, "Little Nugget" flew from Australian to the UK to participate in the Bicentennial Air Race. This race would also commemorate the first flight from the UK to Australian by Australian brothers Ross and Keith Smith in a Vickers Vimy during December 1919. The following is the story of "Little Nugget".
John Wynn admits that during his youth he never really had an ambition to fly. How then did he and Keith Buttrey come to fly an Airtourer 100 to the UK and return in the Bicentennial Air Race.
John did have an ambition to see Australia and then the world. He was a teacher and the only practical time to visit Australia's more remote areas such as the north west was during the Christmas holidays. But this was also the wet season making road travel impractical. It was this challenge and the infections enthusiasm of pilot friends that led him to obtain his pilot's licence in 1965. Later that year he undertook the trip for which he obtained the licence by flying a C182 to the Kimberly's via Darwin.
John still intended to see the world and began making enquiries about purchasing a second hand aircraft in the US and returning to Australia via the Atlantic, Europe, Russia and Japan. The Dept. of Civil Aviation (DCA), and in particular Mr Julian Forsyth, were helpful but also pointed out many of the pitfalls. In particular, the difficulty of crossing the Atlantic, and Australian and US licencing and registration issues. An alternative plan was to fly an Australian aircraft to Europe via the Middle East and North Africa returning via Russia and Japan. Even this plan was difficult with the Russian authorities largely ignoring his requests.
Meanwhile other plans progressed with the purchase of Airtourer 100, VH-MUJ, S/N 75 from Griffith. MUJ was just 4 years old, had flown 300 hours, and was purchased for $6,000. In March 1968, John and fellow Bendigo pilot Keith Buttrey flew to Bankstown to take delivery of MUJ. Unfortunately it was not ready and they spent the night in the now silent Victa Aviation Hangar sleeping in the shell of the Aircruiser.
What followed was a period of intense preparation. Various maps and charts, both topographical and Radio Navigation Charts (RNC), were purchased for the detailed route planning. Every country through which the flight was planned had to be contacted for approvals and clearances. The necessary equipment had to be identified and procured. Radios in the 1960s were heavy as were such items as life rafts. Each additional item had an impact on the Airtourer 100's weight and of course performance.
As this was to be a solo flight John investigated fitting another 15 imp. gal. fuel tank at a cost of $600.
On the personal side John continued to develop his flying experience. In particular, he obtained the recently introduced Class 4 Instrument Rating, which some of our members will remember as similar to the night VMC rating.
By the end of 1968 planning was almost complete except for approval from the Soviet Union. Then in May 1969 an air race from London to Australia was announced to commemorate the first flight form England to Australia, in November and December 1919, by Ross and Keith Smith flying Vickers Vimy. Additionally, the race would be part of the Australian Bicentenary celebrations in 1970. The race gave a purpose to the return trip and an alternative route to the original plan via the USSR. The race also placed a firm timeline on what had been a rolling plan. Keith Buttrey had been caught up in the enthusiasm and indicated his willingness to join the flight.
Since the race started on 17th December, the flight to the UK needed to commence in September to allow a leisurely trip over and time to enjoy Europe and the UK. As the ferry tank was now no longer an option the refuelling stops would be more frequent.
John's search for sponsorship had met with limited success but in mid 1969 Bendigo detective Peter Banks joined the team as publicity and promotions manager. Peter quickly enlisted the support of the Lions Club of Bendigo who wished to use the flight to promote the aims of Lions International. Lions also provided an international support network which was to prove invaluable during the flight. The City of Bendigo got behind the project and the Airtourer was named Little Nugget in reference to Bendigo's gold mining history. With additional support from the local newspaper, the Bendigo Advertiser, a number of local businesses also provided sponsorship.
The journey commenced on 7th Sept 1969 with the radio call, “Melbourne, Mike Uniform Juliet taxiing at Bendigo for departure on runway 18 for London”.
The first leg was to Broken Hill and the departure was planned so that 1 ½ hours would be at night allowing John to consolidate his instrument flying. These instrument skills were used extensively over the coming months. Broken Hill established the routine that became typical for many stops. A meal in the local town and sleep in the terminal to facilitate an early start to the day's flying.
After an overnight stop in Alice Springs the final leg to Darwin included more night flying. The lack of civilisation in the Northern Territory as well as the smoke that is typical of the NT in the dry season meant there were no visual features and NVMC was in practise full instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) .
The Airtourer is a delight to fly and a great training aeroplane but the reduced stability that makes it so manoeuvrable also makes it a challenge to fly on instruments. Between Katherine and Darwin fatigue began to cause John to experience an attack of disorientation. In situations like this, Keith, who was not instrument rated, was able to provide short breaks for John.
The next leg, over the sea, would be their first major challenge in navigation. The only navaid was an ADF and this is subject to many errors, especially over water. They delayed their departure to coincide with the twice weekly TAA Fokker to Baucau in Portuguese Timor. The Fokker was able to maintain radio contact however the haze prevented visual contact between the aircraft. To quote John Wynn, “It was very hazy and from this point on right through to London we rarely had an horizon to work with. This meant that we had to fly with constant reference to instruments even in daylight conditions”.
After a three day break in Denpasar (Bali) they headed for Jakarta with a stop at Surabaya. While departing from Surabaya evasive manoeuvring was required to avoid a Russian built Indonesian fighter jet.
Arrival in Singapore raised a number of questions. While on approach they were asked if they could accept a 5 kt tailwind component on a 9,000 ft runway. After landing they were given instructions to park next to a Boeing 737 passenger jet. The refueller gave them a strange look when they asked for 15 gal of AVGAS but when the catering truck arrived it had gone beyond a joke. It turned out that the aircraft type on the flight plan, VT10 had been mistaken for VC10, a four engine passenger jet. They were quickly but politely directed to the Royal Singapore Flying Club.
Up to this point John and Keith had been keeping a detailed log which was being posted back to Australia to keep their families and the citizens of Bendigo up to date. While in Singapore a tape recorder was purchased and the tapes of the verbal record of their adventures were sent back.
The legs through Thailand and into Burma were characterised by extensive cloud and thunderstorm activity. Burma was a secretive country and on arrival in Rangoon they were hit with the full force of the bureaucracy. The following is from John's recordings: “For the next two hours solid, I did nothing but fill out forms and sign declarations, thirty-five odd declaration forms were required. To top it all off after filling out all these forms out, we then had to count every cent and note in our pockets, every cheque and give a total amount. We had to fill out declarations as to what radio equipment we had with us. If we have too much money when we go back tomorrow and if we don't have enough we are in trouble because there is a form we must have signed by an authorised person every time we cash money. Must be signed every time, only by an authorised person.”
All international flights must carry a document called the General Declaration (GD). It contains details of the aircraft, crew, cargo manifest as well as health declarations. John had 1,000 copies printed on light weight paper as generally five or six copies were required at each port. Rangoon took the record where 45 copies were needed, each copy requiring a signature.
Thunderstorms again proved a problem on the leg to Chittagong. There was so much cloud that the best they could do was to pick the lightest looking patches. Keith worked the throttle to stop the engine over-reving as they were tossed about in the turbulence. At one stage they were 8,000ft climbing at 1,000 ft/min., not often seen in an Airtourer 100.
India presented many difficulties. The visibility was poor and the maps inaccurate. Much of the time they needed to rely on the ADF. Once on the ground bureaucracy and petty officialdom impeded their progress. In Jaipur it took three hours to get 15 gal of fuel, averaging about the same rate as they were using it.
There is a saying that the British may have invented bureaucracy but it took the Indians to perfect it. John thought Rangoon was bad but found Ahmadabad ten times worst. It took long enough for them to answer the radio and give a landing clearance but once on the ground it took another four hours to clear customs, health and the police. The next day more delays were encountered as the aircraft had to be sprayed with insecticide. Unfortunately this could only be done by a doctor who had to come out from town. At times they felt that much of the bureaucracy was due more to inquisitiveness rather than official requirements.
In Karachi they enjoyed a break and the hospitality of Capt Aftar, the CFI of the Karachi Aeroclub. On departure Capt Aftar recommended landing for fuel in Pasni where there was a supply of drums. They obtained approval to uplift the fuel but not to land. Capt Aftar came to the rescue and went directly to the Deputy Director of Civil Aviation in Pakistan to obtain the necessary landing approvals. Departure was before dawn and sunrise revealed a layer of fog covering the ground. The distance was just over 200 NM but the flight time was over four hours while waiting for the fog to clear.
Transiting Saudi provided a few heart stopping moments. At Quasuma John was informed that only $US would be accepted and he was to go in a vehicle to see the refuelling agent. The vehicle stopped in front of the jail and after being taken inside he was bombarded with questions such as, who were they, why were they here and who owned the aeroplane. Eventually he was taken to one of the cells. There he found the refuelling agent had set up a comfortable office. After a pleasant chat in good English and a cup of coffee the agent accepted payment by carnet and John was on his way with their best wishes.
By the time they became airborne again it was in the heat of the day with a temperature of 54 degrees C at 2500 ft. Henry never envisaged these conditions when he designed the aeroplane and the engine temps quickly red-lined. They landed on a nearby highway and allowed the temperatures to settle down over about an hour. The sight of two Australians and their little aeroplane obviously generated quite a bit of curiosity with the passing truck drivers, many of whom stopped and chatted via hand gestures. Eventually Little Nugget was coaxed airborne again and allowed to climb at its own pace. The result was long period of low flying. On return to Australia John reported this “forced landing” to DCA by submitting a 225.
They were reminded of the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East by the remains of airliners at Damascus airport. This was often the final destination of hijacked aircraft which were blown up in the view of cameras from the international press.
After the difficulties of the Middle East the Mediterranean provided a pleasant reprieve. Athens provided the first hot bath in about seven weeks.
While in Malta they were entertained by the Australian High Commissioner, Sir Hubert (Oppy) Opperman, who provided his chauffeur driven Mercedes to tour the island. John commented that he felt “rather awkward in it”.
From Malta the journey progressed northward through Italy. Prior to the leg to Zurich a briefing was obtained in Marseilles. It was given in French which unfortunately John did not speak. Nevertheless, the standardised aviation terminology meant the essentials were understood. However, one important point was missed, most of the Swiss airspace was closed due to a military exercise. John and Keith found themselves circling Switzerland at 7,000ft before eventually arriving over Zurich and being asked to expedite their landing.
Europe presented a different challenge to navigation. Whereas in India and the Middle East the maps were inaccurate and the features sparse, in Europe there was an oversupply of features. The challenge became which of the three railway lines on the ground was the one marked on the map. However, Europe had good aviation infrastructure such as radio direction finding (DF). Approaching Stuttgart they reported “45 miles south east”. This wasn't good enough and they were asked to transmit for five seconds. The controller then gave them an exact bearing and distance based on a cross plot from DF stations.
November in Europe sees the weather turning cold, wet and snowy. On the leg Stuttgart to Brussels low cloud and sleet were encountered so they ended up quite low maintaining visual contact with the ground. After being picked up by radar they were instructed to climb into the cloud and given a QFE setting for the altimeter. QFE gives height above the airfield rather then the normally used QNH which is based on mean sea level. The controller vectored John for a ground controlled approach (GCA) which is a talk-down to the runway. Little Nugget was fitted with headsets but Keith could not hear the radio through his side. You can imagine his concern as the altimeter wound down towards zero unaware that John was following precise instructions.
The final leg to Gatwick saw them battling 40 to 50 kt headwinds. After almost 10 weeks and 141 flying hours John and Keith took a month break to tour the UK and prepare for the race home.
The race did not start well. Departure was delayed 24 hours due to poor weather. Little Nugget, being the slowest aircraft in the race, was the first to finally start on 18th December 1969. The weather was cloud base 200ft, tops FL180 with snow flurries so they expended ten pounds to have the Airtourer de-iced, a process usually reserved for airliners.
The only departure restriction was no turns before the end of the runway. On passing the runway end they found a motorway which was then followed to the coast before setting course for Le Touquet. Once again they encountered strong winds crossing the channel, and once again, they were headwinds. The plan for day one was to reach Rome, the weather restricted this plan to Bordeaux. Rome was finally reached a the end of day two after again battling strong winds.
The leg Rome to Brindisi gave them one of the biggest frights of the trip. John described the icing encounter.
“We were forced to go through the edge of a relatively small cloud. As we brushed into the cloud there was a noise like a rifle. The windscreen, the whole aircraft, sides of the Perspex and all, were completely covered in ice. In that split second it was just like a shattering windscreen. Needless to say we did a 180 degree turn losing a lot of height and fortunately the ice peeled itself off as we lost about 2000 feet.”
On approaching Brindisi the weather was reported as 8/8 cloud with a base of 800ft which would preclude an approach for a VFR aircraft. Fortunately, on arrival overhead, it was actually 6/8 cover with a base of 2000ft allowing a visual descent to face the next challenge. The wind was 340/35 gusting 45, and runway 35 was closed due to repairs. The only other option was a crosswind landing which the little Airtourer handled well, and much better than some other aircraft that required a couple of attempts.
Damascus required that they enter the airspace at 10,000ft. After 2 ½ hours the over loaded Airtourer 100 finally made, only to then have to spiral down to land at Damascus.
The next leg would track through Saudi, although the airspace was controlled by Iraq. Iraq had banned any Australian and US registered aircraft from using the route due to their involvement in the Vietnam war. There was some confusion with the race organisers advising the necessary approvals had been given but ATC advising otherwise. The alternative route via Jordan was not practical and Damascus required the competitors to sign a declaration taking full responsibility. One wonders what responsibility ATC would have accepted without the declaration.
Some Australian aircraft proceeded without talking to Iraq, as did John and Keith, but not deliberately. Little Nugget performed almost flawlessly throughout the whole adventure, this time being one of the exceptions. On departure from Damascus the ammeter indications became erratic and eventually showed a discharge. John and Keith shutdown all electrical items to conserve the battery, effectively avoiding having to debate the clearance issue with ATC. On landing, one of the bayonet connectors to the alternator was found disconnected. The only other maintenance problem was a similar bayonet connector to the landing light.
During the race John and Keith fell into the routine of grabbing sleep whenever they could and eating one meal a day. On arrival in Karachi Capt Aftar once again came to their aid and asked if they needed anything. “A steak”, was the reply and Capt Aftar duly organised a steak meal , despite it being midnight.
Transiting Ahmadabad in the early hours of the morning avoided the bureaucracy that hindered them on the trip over.
Being the slowest aircraft in the race it was always going to be a challenge to make the finishing line in Parafield by midnight on the 29th December. The delayed start and poor weather early in the race made it even more difficult. They had almost resigned themselves to missing the deadline by the time they reached Den Pasar. It would require minimum time on the ground during fuel stops and no over night rests to finish in time, but it was possible. Departure from Den Pasar was before first light on 28th December in a massive attempt to beat the deadline.
The sun had set by the time they reached Darwin. After a couple of hours on the ground for another steak they were once again navigating over the featureless Northern Territory in the dark.
December is the wet season in the north and Little Nugget was battered by thunderstorms with the darkness punctuated only by lightning.
Time was becoming quite critical but co-operation on the ground, and John and Keith's well honed teamwork, achieved some remarkable stops. In Alice Springs it was 20 minutes from switches OFF to switches ON but Leigh Creek must hold the record at nine minutes. In this time John would obtain the briefing and lodge the flight plan while Keith refuelled and checked the Little Nugget.
During the final leg to Parafield they could not raise Adelaide on VHF or HF. Eventually, Singapore answered the HF, relayed to Darwin who in turn relayed to Adelaide.
Fatigue was becoming a problem, they had been flying almost continuously for approaching 40 hours. It was night, the cloud was forcing them lower but at least there were lights from towns and vehicles, unlike the previous night. Keith succumbed to fatigue and nothing John could do would wake him. John describes the last hour:
“ The flight was smooth however my mind was becoming cloudy. I made a position report abeam Port Pirie and I was aware that I was flying and holding heading. Increasingly though, the heading became a mechanical necessity rather than a means to reach Parafield. I was becoming so fatigued that I was disorientated, (direction wise only). I was still able to hold straight and level but unable to use the ADF and adjust heading. Fortunately my voice on the radio must have been a give-away to the controller who asked if I would like radar assistance.
Still nothing would awaken Keith, (and he wondered the next day why his left shoulder was so tender.) The radar controller was great and I mechanically followed his heading adjustments for nearly one hour. He not only guided me towards our destination but around the rain squalls. I remember lights below and I knew that I was heading for a nice long sleep but the fatigue was something that I had never experienced before or since.
After almost an hour of this "mind fog" I can vividly recall a voice in my headphones telling me to look out the starboard side of the aircraft. I did so and there was the strip below. Whilst I didn't actually miraculously regain full consciousness I can vaguely recall positioning to land but recall nothing of the landing.”
On shutting down in front of the tower they were met by a crowd of family supporters and well wishers, despite it being almost midnight.
They had finished the race with 42 minutes to spare, or so they thought. Unbeknownst to them the race committee had extended the deadline by 24 hours due to the delayed start.
The aftermath and race protest, (not involving Little Nugget), are another story however John and Keith were recognised with two prizes:
The British Aircraft Corporation – Vickers Limited Trophy for the Most Meritorious Performance.
The Rolls Royce Trophy – Most Meritorious Performance in a Rolls Royce Powered Aircraft.