“As the slightly more ancient of us recall, our glorious leaders decided in 1959 that the Fleet Air Arm was an unnecessary drain on the national economy and that this effective, but expensive, branch of the Australian Armed Forces should be disbanded. Fortunately, after long and hard lobbying by a few of our senior stalwarts, the Fleet Air Arm was given a reprieve. After twelve months of upheaval, during which time flying training ceased and many experienced aviators either donned Qantas hats or transferred to General Service, it was announced that HMAS Melbourne would be kept in service with her role reduced solely to that of Anti Submarine Helicopter Carrier.

The upshot of this was that many fixed wing aircrew were sent to the United Kingdom for training in this new role and other lucky volunteers were introduced to 723 Squadron and the black magic of rotary wing flight. I was one of the latter and together with Rowley Waddell-Wood, Ron McKenzie and Patrick Vickers fronted up to commence the helicopter conversion course. At that stage in life we had all completed Front Line fixed- wing tours and were full of confidence. Little did we realize what was in store for us.

During the Fifteenth Century a learned gentleman named Leonardo Da Vinci invented a machine which he considered capable of flight. Not much happened with this concept until World War II when another very clever gentleman called Igor Sikorsky slightly improved on Da Vinci’s invention and called it a helicopter. The Bristol Aircraft Company then got into the act and produced the Sycamore helicopter; a name which was to mean salvation to the many people it rescued, but which was also sufficient to reduce many stout-hearted and seemingly otherwise skilful pilots to tears of frustration.

The Sycamore is the common name for a tree of the American species the genus “Platanus” which is similar to the London Plane Tree and features three lobed leaves with a long petiole swollen at its base. Those familiar with the tree could see some obvious similarity between these leaves and Bristol’s first successful helicopter.

In an era when aircraft were becoming streamlined and aesthetically pleasing the first impression of a Sycamore was one of ungainliness, it was certainly not streamlined and looked as though it should never fly. This first impression was invariably strengthened as initial flying training was progressed. It seemed ungainly but it did manage to lumber into the air.

After a brief classroom introduction we four intrepid aviators were ready to take to the air in the expert hands of Shamus O’Farrell and David Orr. We had already been impressed by David’s skills in mirror writing on the blackboard with both hands at the same time saying “Help I am trapped behind the blackboard” and we were worried that we may have had to reach this expertise in ambidexterity before qualifying. 

My own previous knowledge and witnessing of Shamus’ hypnotic skills were never far from the back of my mind and hoped they wouldn’t be used on us.

The first mistake was to get into the wrong seat. For some reason the helicopter pilot sits in the right-hand seat, presumably so that you don’t think you are in a fixed wing aircraft and open the throttle and pull the stick back! Having changed seats, and with three grinning but very concerned contemporaries in the back, we were confronted with an assortment of controls. During previous flying training the intimacy of instructor/pupil relationship was sacrosanct but because most of the training in the Sycamore was carried out at Jervis Bay airfield the four of us travelled together and on the way to and from that field were given the opportunity to assess the skills and progress, or lack thereof, of our contemporaries.

In the center of the cockpit there was a big lever with a throttle coming out at right angles from the top of it. You shared this with the instructor. This lever controlled vertical motion of the helicopter by increasing or decreasing the pitch on the rotor blades. When the pitch was increased, more power was required to keep the blades turning at a constant speed so that whenever the lever moved up or down, the throttle had to be twisted to increase or decrease power to keep the rotor revolutions constant. Between our legs we had what looks a control column but was called a “cyclic” which controlled the horizontal movement of the aircraft. Our feet rested on a pair of pedals that controlled the tail rotor pitch and fortunately worked like rudder pedals.

The next thing we learnt was that Newton was wrong when he said that “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. In the Sycamore there were three or four reactions. The first reaction was always the voice of David Orr or Shamus O’Farrell (whichever one was lucky enough to draw us for the day) screaming “REVS”, as the slightest movement of one control needed a reaction in every other control in order to maintain constant REVS. In just about every chopper built after the era of the Sycamore and its contemporaries the revs are set after the rotors are engaged and are automatically controlled, thereby taking away half the fun of chopper flying.

To increase lift the rotating blades of a helicopter have to increase their angle of attack (or pitch) with a subsequent increase in drag requiring an increase of power (more throttle on the twist grip). If the weight of the aircraft is such that at full power the rotor blades still need more lift and the angle of attack is increased further the blades will slow down because of the extra drag. There are then two options, the aircraft has to descend to maintain rotor revolutions or the blades slow down to the stage where they eventually “clap hands” and the whole shebang plummets earthwards. The loss of revolutions is called over pitching, hence the excitement in the cockpit about maintaining the optimum revs.

A few months before we started our conversion a Portuguese exchange officer very ably demonstrated the result of over-pitching when he took a load of well-fed relatively senior aircrew officers from HMAS Melbourne to an RN Carrier in company. With too much weight onboard and slowing to approach for land – gracefully, at full power, onto, then rapidly into the Indian Ocean. All swam away and the passengers tried to keep well away from helicopters from then on. The exchange officer was happy to revert to fixed wing flying shortly afterwards.

Because of the challenge in mastering this new and difficult form or flying the initial embarrassment of having our contemporaries sitting in the back seat to watch our struggles on the way to and from JB became an unexpected bonus. We found that we could draw comfort from the fact that we all experienced the same difficulties and frustrations. It took about 10 hours before any of us were ready to fly solo. A very sophisticated method of adjusting the center of gravity for solo flying was used. A series of weights were strapped into the left hand seat!

After the first solo flight the course became more enjoyable as we became more familiar with co-coordinating the different controls and with the challenge of flying the aircraft to its limits. I found that learning how to come to a fast stop achieved the biggest adrenalin rush as I had witnessed a failed attempt many years before when a chopper visiting Point Cook came to a extremely fast stop when the tail rotor clipped the tarmac while in a near vertical attitude. To achieve the fast stop the aircraft was hauled into a very nose up attitude, at the same time the lever was dropped to the floor and the throttle closed, thereby disengaging the clutch. When all speed was washed off, the aircraft was brought to the hover position and a great handful of lever and throttle were brought in and the clutch re-engaged, while maintaining, of course, the mandatory 270 revs. All this happened very close to the ground and in very quick time so there was no room for error.

There were many new experiences to enjoy in our new aviation adventure. Winching and box knocking, a form of winching practice where a wooden box was dropped into the sea and the pilot, who could not see the box, was directed to the hover over it under the verbal instructions of a fellow pupil or winchman, in an endeavour to keep the end of the winch cable in the box.

In those days all good Catholics were supposed to eat fish on Fridays and, as we had a very good member of the faith as our Commanding Officer, a helicopter was dispatched to go fishing every Friday morning. This fishing involved putting a few tins of aircrew flying rations (maccas) in a waste paper basket, finding a fishing boat and hovering over it while the wpb was lowered and the maccas exchanged for the catch of the day.

On completion of the Sycamore conversion my three course contemporaries drifted off to their various postings while I stayed in 723 Squadron flying Sycamores to gain experience before going to UK to complete the Helicopter Instructors Course. This involved flying from the left-hand seat and using the opposite hands on the controls, that is the lever/throttle in the right hand and the cyclic in the left. With the pupil’s big hand just about covering all the throttle twist grip another trick to be perfected was the art of twisting the throttle with the thumb and forefinger while lifting and lowering the lever with the other three fingers and palm. While it proved to be very difficult initially, once mastered, I preferred to fly from the left hand seat.

Meanwhile Rowley Waddell-Wood and Pat Vickers went off to the UK and continued their chopper flying, while Ron McKenzie escaped back to fixed wing flying. In due course both Rowley and Patrick served with great distinction flying helicopters in Vietnam and the Fleet Air Arm suffered the loss of a very capable pilot and a great messmate when Patrick was killed while leading an Emu flight during the TET offensive.

Despite my initial apprehension about being able to master this new phase in my flying career I found that, once comfortable with my competence, I thoroughly enjoyed the couple of years I spent flying the Sycamore. There were always interesting and sometimes exciting missions to be flown with someone always coming up with new and strange requests for this relatively new and unfamiliar workhorse. The mind boggles at what our current environmentalists would have to say about mixing insect spray with AVTUR and spraying married quarters for mosquitoes. At least we were able to warn residents in Daily Orders so that they could get their washing off the line. The children could often be seen standing outside watching….” Ken Douglas