Left: Wessex 819 observes Seaking N16-113 (904) shortly after it ditched off Kiama following a main transmission failure on 30 Nov 76.  The Seaking subsequently sank during the salvage attempt.  819 was itself to ditch in nearby waters some 11 years later.


N7-209 Aircraft History:

  • First Flight 15/12/62.
  • Ditched 31/05/87, off Bondi NSW. LCDR(P) K.Alderman RAN LCDR(P) Kinross RAN POA Hartford & LSA Brown. Aircraft was enroute to Rockhampton (Qld) to exercise with USN Battle Group and was to embark on the aircraft carrier USS Midway. Engine failed at 500 feet due 7th stage compressor blade failure. Crew rescued by LEUT Reyne in Wessex 836. 
  • Aircraft floated for about 45 minutes before one of the flotation bags burst and aircraft turned upside down. 
  • Towed to Botany Bay recovered, stripped of spares and used as Firefighting Training Aid at NAS Nowra. 

Water, Water Everywhere
by Commander M.C. Peake RAN (Courtesy “Cockpit” Magazine [Issue 145]

Some readers will remember, in the days before the new sewage treatment plant was opened near Bondi, the unsavoury brown smear that used to taint the blue waters off Sydney, not too far south of the Heads. On a good day on the beach they say you could catch something nasty by walking without a pair of sturdy shoes on: certainly it was not the place to do press-ups, or swimming.

So thought the crew of an RAN Wessex, who were in the happy position of flying over the brown mess and looking down on it from a safe height, wrapped securely in a familiar cockpit, on their way to a week in warmer climes to the north. The Captain of the aircraft, a pilot of some experience, remembers commenting that it would not be a good time to have an engine failure. It was an ill-considered remark, for the God of Aviators, ever alert for the idle tone of complacency, nudged the sixth stage compressor of the beast and the ancient engine quit without further ado, plunging the luckless occupants into the sea some half a mile off the coast.

From that height it was all over in a few seconds … some of the passengers didn’t even have time to take a deep breath before they were competing with the seagulls for the awful flotsam.

The late Nick Mudge (AEO) and I received the message not long after the Wessex was in the water. The crew, alive and unhurt but rather unhappy, had been rescued and were being detoxified on the cliff edge (a big job!). With the human element safe, and the salvage crews on site attempting to tow the hull into Botany Bay, our job was to investigate the cause of the accident. By the time the wreck was lifted onto the quayside, it had been dragged semi-submerged for eight hours, and the immediate impression, as it dangled from the crane in a dripping, tangled web of wires, panels and struts, was how thoroughly wet it was.

Throughout the night the engineering team hosed the wreck with fresh water to attempt to stop the corrosive reaction between brine and magnesium alloy. Not long before dawn, with the hulk impossibly even wetter than before, they coated it in WD40 and snatched a few hours sleep.

We were greeted with a beautiful day: the kind that starts with pale sunshine lighting every crevice of the morning with such clarity that you feel you can see forever, where angles are sharp and precise and every colour is bright and vivid. Weary and unshaven, feeling like a stunned mullet and looking forward to a long and dreary day, I gazed over the quay to where the crane had just lifted the tired hull of the old Wessex onto the flatbed trailer; and as I watched, a figure – obviously the Senior Maintenance Sailor (SMS) – leapt from the back of the aircraft and, from my vantage some distance away, appeared to have a violent fit: rolling around on the ground and beating himself vigorously. The other maintainers appeared to group around him obscuring the twitching figure momentarily before helping him to his feet – obviously all was now well. A moment later, however, he was back on the ground, tearing at his clothes and his friends scattered – some running to a nearby hut and some to a water hydrant.

Even in my semi-comatose state I was able to deduce quickly that something bizarre was occurring; so, jumping in my car, I raced over to the hulk to investigate the apparent madness that had overtaken the group. It had to be madness – they had the hose on the unfortunate man now, on his feet struggling against the jet of ice cold water. Behind him the dripping wreck sat slightly canted on the trailer, wisps of smoke issuing from its innards. Smoke?!! It wasn’t possible – not in something so totally, absolutely, positively drenched.

My mind, overawed at the sight of the SMS now tearing off his trousers, refused absolutely to accept that the precious evidence in front of me, which was going to tell us how and why the engine had failed, was on fire: but as I watched, little gouts of flame leapt up at apparently random intervals over the floor and the pools of water trapped in the dents sizzled and spat at them. Behind me, the SMS’s trousers, discarded like a tired whale skin, started smoking and suddenly they too were alight; further over another sailor suddenly wriggled like a startled eel and beat at his legs, his overalls smoldering. In an instant, the scene deteriorated to a farce.

With the help of two fire engines, a chemical-spill specialist unit (in the biggest yellow fire truck I have ever seen), an ambulance and a large and amused crowd of dockside workers who thought their luck had changed, control was eventually restored. The fires were put out (with a lot of difficulty), and the SMS reunited with his trousers, which smoldered on and off for the rest of the week. During that day the wreckage was returned to Nowra intact, with Nick stopping every few miles to extinguish the spot fires which persisted in springing up in the wreckage. I’m told that even the passengers’ luggage, salvaged as sodden remnants from the cabin, caught fire when it was later hung on the respective washing lines to dry. All in all it was an interesting experience.

And the reason? The aircraft was carrying the faithful pusser’s Marker Marine when it ditched, one of which had broken open to release apparently thousands of small pieces of white phosphorus into the cabin. Whilst the aircraft was wet, or covered with WD40, it remained inert. The lifting of the Wessex on to the trailer caused residual water in the hull to wash the phosphorus clean and, once exposed to the air, it began to burn. The SMS and his team, clambering around inside the hulk, had phosphorus stuck to their trousers and even the luggage had minute specks clinging to it.

There’s no moral to this story, other than that one should expect the unexpected in aviation. AlI the text books on accident investigation didn’t prepare me for this one, and I can’t say I ever had anything quite so bizarre in all the later cases I studied. Although at the time I had ghastly visions of having to explain to higher command how we had burned our soaking wet evidence to a crisp, it has been the subject of some humour since. In retrospect it was worth it just to see the look on the face of the SMS who found his trousers on fire, and his most valuable assets suddenly at great risk.

Wessex819WreckThe end of 819. Ironically, having survived the phosphorous threatening to burn it to a crisp (see story above), it was used for fire training at NAS Nowra.

Photo: Darren Crick