- 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)
One sunny afternoon we were returning to Albatross after a successful radar exercise with a class of observer trainees when I was quietly advised by the observer instructor, the irrepressible Lieutenant Arthur ‘Slug’ Whitton, that he was unable to retract the radome. As I did not fancy landing the aircraft with the radome down and tearing or wearing it off on the runway with the attendant risk of fire I sought a conference with ‘Slug’ in the vicinity of the reluctant radome. Mustering all the electrical knowledge we had between us, which amounted to very little, we came to the conclusion that if we could bridge the gap between two obvious electrical contact points ‘something might happen’. With this course of action agreed upon ‘Slug’ wrapped a pair of navigation dividers in the nearest available Mae West and jammed the divider points onto the two electrical contact points, which were perhaps two inches apart. The results were instantaneous. Three distinct things happened. There was a blinding blue flash of electrical energy, the navigation dividers melted and burnt the Mae West and Lo and Behold the radome retracted into the housed position for landing! Flushed with success and having convinced our observer trainees that we were virtually supermen we retired to the cockpit for the circuit entry and landing. Intentionally leaving the door open between cockpit and main cabin I sat ‘Slug’ in the co-pilots seat and directed him to place his left hand on the throttles and pitch levers. In this manner we landed the aircraft and almost convinced our observer trainees that observers can do anything a pilot can do! Occasionally one can have some fun in the air, particularly in an aircraft such as the Dakota.
The safe and reliable old Dakota could become a bit of a handful if things did not go according to plan. In Hobart, 26th October 1962, the weather was superb with bright sunshine, warm temperature and virtually no wind. We had flown from Nowra to Hobart the previous day for the purpose of returning a few of our maintenance personnel and their equipment to Nowra after they had attended to servicing some Sea Venoms in Hobart.
Take off conditions shortly after midday on the northern runway at Cambridge airport were ideal. No other air traffic in the area, a gentle breeze, and the Derwent River beyond the runway looking like a millpond, although the Dakota, A65-43, was fairly heavy.
With my perennial unqualified co-pilot Jim Bailey in the right hand seat and all pre-flight checks completed we were cleared for take off.
It should be pointed out at this stage that there are two significant speeds to be considered during the take off and initial climb procedure for multi engine aircraft. The first speed is the Critical Speed, which occurs at about 67 knots for the Dakota, when the wheels just leave the runway and the aircraft becomes airborne. The second speed, known as the Safety Speed, occurs at about 92 knots. The significance of these two speeds is that if complete power is lost on one engine before reaching the Safety Speed the aircraft will not climb and is unlikely to remain airborne. Above that speed the aircraft should maintain height flying on one engine. Obviously, total weight of the aircraft in these situations is a vital factor.
The take off run was quite normal and as the aircraft lifted off the runway action was initiated to retract the undercarriage. When only a few feet off the runway, with the airspeed perhaps a little over 70 knots, the port engine fire warning light came on. Let me assure you, there is no mistaking a fire warning light in an aircraft, it is a brilliant red light which sears itself into ones brain with the simple message ‘… Do something – NOW!’ With an engine fire the first action should be to cut off the fuel supply and subsequently activate the fire extinguisher(s).
In this situation the correct, and possibly safest procedure, would have been to shut off the fuel to the port engine, fire the extinguisher and ditch the aircraft off the end of the runway into the Derwent River. Although, this course of action was contemplated for a split second I then considered that I was not dressed for the occasion, I had no desire to take a Dakota swimming with me and furthermore I did not think it was my prerogative to force a swim on my passengers without their consent. Oh yes!