- van Gelder, Commander John RAN (Rtd)
- Ship histories and stories
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Albatross (Shore Establishment)
- June 2003 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The cockpit design and layout was interesting in itself and probably set a pattern for all future transport aircraft. American aircraft designers were a long way ahead of their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic when it came to user friendly cockpits for pilots. The cockpits were generally spacious and the layout of the instrumentation was logical, and came easily to hand. By modern standards the Dakota cockpit was fairly primitive but functional. The one outstanding piece of equipment fitted was the automatic pilot. This was robust and reliable and a great comfort to have on a long trip.
The aircraft was designed to operate with two pilots, the aircraft captain in the left hand seat and co-pilot in the right, however, it could be flown without difficulty by one pilot. This was a good thing because with so few RAN pilots qualified on the Dakota during the 1950s and 60s it was usual practice to have an unqualified pilot sitting in the right hand seat. Once I became a Qualified Flying Instructor this usually meant that almost every flight became a training flight for the co-pilot! I recall putting this procedure into practice one afternoon flying south from RAAF Base, Townsville, trying to convert the co-pilot to the old Dakota in my best flying instructor technique. Little did I know for some time that our transmit button was inadvertently switched on and I was unwittingly giving a flying lesson to any pilot on the Queensland air radio frequency! In any event, I must have impressed my co-pilot since he later became a senior check captain with Qantas.
Everyone seems to assume that the Dakota was a good safe reliable aircraft. Basically this was so but if one was not very careful under some circumstances the old darling could react very badly. One such circumstance was landing in a high crosswind. The Dakota could cope fairly well with a crosswind component of up to 13 knots, approaching that component and beyond became a little tricky.
At HMAS Albatross, Saturday 9th June 1962 was a clear, cold winter’s day with a very strong westerly wind blowing. Mid afternoon I received a phone call from Commander Air, the late Jim Bailey asking if I had had a drink. Assuring him that I had not, he directed me to meet him at the Squadron (724) from whence we were to proceed to the South Coast regional airport of Merimbula in order to airlift a fourteen year old boy suffering from an accidental gunshot wound to the chest to Sydney for hospital surgery. With Jim in the right hand seat (and unqualified on the aircraft) we set off for Merimbula in some of the worst turbulence I had ever experienced. The airport at Merimbula had a single runway running roughly north and south and with almost a gale from the west the prospects of a nice neat landing appeared somewhat grim. In the event a landing was achieved, although it could have been better described as an arrival.
With our young patient loaded on board and made as comfortable as possible, and also attended by a nursing sister who had never been in an aircraft before, we took off for Sydney. To ensure as much comfort as possible for the patient we flew about twenty miles out to sea to avoid the turbulence. On arrival at Sydney at 1800 I was fairly convinced that our good nurse was probably in worse shape than the patient after her first flight! However, we were met by an ambulance and a medical team and also the press. Needless to say next day one of the Sunday papers ran a story and photograph of our Dakota on arrival at Sydney and saying how well the RAAF had executed the medical mercy flight! No wonder HMAS Melbourne was not replaced.
The two RAN Dakotas, A65-23 and A65-43, were configured internally as flying classrooms for Observer training. The aircraft were equipped with ASV 19B radar, the set fitted to the Fairey Gannet. The radar scanner/aerial was located adjacent to the cargo doors and surrounded by a guard rail. In operation the scanner was lowered electrically in its radome, which was about three feet in diameter, and protruded below the aircraft fuselage by about four feet (from memory). Naturally, the radome could not be lowered with the aircraft on the ground as there was insufficient clearance.