WZ927 (then bearing the side number 802) being transported by barge in Jervis Bay, following an accident on HMAS Melbourne in which two aircrew lost their lives. The embarked aircraft were offloaded whilst the causes of the accident were being investigated.
Served with 724 Sqn. Crashed 15/06/60 RAN Air Station Nowra NSW. Aircraft hit trees in circuit for night landing. Crew; SBLT (P) B. Dutch, LEUT (O) E. Sandberg, ejected safely. RAN Ejection number 2.
Below: A satirical look at the accident in the Slipstream magazine of the time.
Below: Pages from the 725 Squadron Line Book (all via Phil Thompson):
Below left: Sandy Sandberg’s Lemania HS9 aircrew watch on the left of the picture survived the first ADF night time ejection, which was something as a miracle as aircrew watches were not known for their quality or robustness. Both aircrew qualified for the award of a Bremont MB watch (on the right, with the date of ejection engraved on the back), which is uniquely reserved for those whose lives have been saved by a Martin-Baker (MB) ejection seat. Below right Sandy Sandberg wearing the watch many years later. Detail on the MB/Bremont collaboration and the construction of the watch can be seen here. (Images and information courtesy of Phil Thompson).
The following letter was sent to Slipstream magazine in June 2017 by Brian Dutch, the pilot of the above aircraft.
In June 2017 it will be 57 years since an aircraft accident in1960, when Sblt. (P) B. A. Dutch and Leut. (O), E.D. (Sandy) Sandberg successfully ejected at night from a Sea Venom FAW 53 Jet Aircraft at HMAS Albatross. I was told that this was the first ejection in the RAN and the first night ejection from a Sea Venom in the “ world” (the RN and RAN?).
I am sure that I am not the first one to have issues with the investigation of an accident by a Board of Inquiry. The questions of the Board seemed to concentrate on my reading of the instruments for a normal night conditions and in a normal turn. This seemed to lead them to the conclusion that I had misread the instruments and flew into the ground. It also could have led to their conclusion that I showed; “ Poor airmanship and ability.” I never received any feedback on their reasoning.
For my part, certainly I was using the instruments but the night was dark, the wind was turbulent and the sequence was: ”turn, undercarriage down, uncontrolled roll to port, full right aileron, full right rudder, impact, full power, EJECT!”… and all in a matter of a few seconds”. I felt that there had to be some contributing factors, at least, due to the strong wind conditions so I took my frustration to Captain T.K. Morrison, then Captain of the Air Station. He convinced me that it was important for me to continue flying.
I re- lived the accident many times immediately after it occurred and for many years. I spent many hours trying to find answers as to the cause. Most of the actions of that night are still vividly imprinted on my mind.
724 Training Squadron at RANAS Nowra NSW was under considerable pressure to complete an All Weather Fighter Course on the Sea Venom (FAW 53) Aircraft to provide replacement pilots for 805 Squadron, which was the Front Line Squadron. 805 Squadron was due to commence a work up for embarkation on HMAS Melbourne for the Short Cruise of 1960.
The air intercept exercises consisted of a Sea Venom “ target”, simulating a Bomber type of aircraft by limiting its speed and turn rates to those of a Bomber aircraft. They would also turn off their navigation lights once radar contact was established in night sorties.
The Observer was responsible for the Navigation and Radar control. He could detect the target on radar and by a variety of orders position the Pilot into a gun firing position at about 200ft below the target and 200 Yards astern. The Pilot then had to pull up and fire the 20mm cannons. This could be done in all weathers and at night! I often wondered just what would happen in a real attack should one manage to hit the target. It would be challenging to avoid the debris!
During the night exercises I had had problems in trusting the Radar System and the Observer in the final stages of an intercept at night when I could not see the target and felt that the closing speed was too fast or there was insufficient height separation. In the correct firing position the Pilot could look up and see the jet pipe of the target. On my final night exercise I failed to sight a “ Jet Pipe” and it was necessary to repeat the exercise by flying another sortie.
While I do not think that fatigue was a factor in the accident, I had already flown two day sorties and due to the failed night exercise, my Observer for the trip, Lieutenant E.D (Sandy) Sandberg and I manned aircraft for a second night sortie. As we settled into the climb for the exercise Sandy found that the radar was not working correctly so we had to land again and find a serviceable aircraft for the fifth sortie of the day.
An important point at this stage was that during the evening the wind strength had been strongly increasing from the North West.
I put all my effort into passing the final test and was rewarded by spotting a glowing jet pipe which I must say looked dangerously close but worth the effort. I then descended for a landing.
In 1960 the Tactical thinking was that, to avoid giving away the position of the Aircraft carrier to enemy radar we flew the day circuit for landing at 200 feet above sea level. At night the circuit was flown at 400 feet. It was also normal practice at the airfield to fly the circuits at similar heights above the airfield datum height..
The 26/08 runway dipped slightly lower in the centre than the thresholds of the runway. The 26 runway threshold was on the edge of a gully which in some wind condition could cause a dangerous down draft of the air mass, causing aircraft to undershoot the runway with some fatalities. I also found that at the approximate position where aircraft would turn for the downwind leg of the landing circuit and the pilot lowered the undercarriage that the ground was slightly higher than the runway datum with trees adding to the height. This therefore reduced the height available for the low circuit.
I joined the upwind leg at 400 feet above the runway datum and was advised by the Control Tower that the wind had now strengthened and was 22 knots gusting to 58 knots and varying from 280 degrees to 320 degrees in the gusts. This meant that during a gust the wind could exceed the cross wind limits of the aircraft undercarriage for landing. The Tower advised that they would report the wind conditions on my final approach.
I was at 240 knots to join the landing circuit and commenced the turn for the downwind leg in a tightly banked turn to wash off speed before I could lower the undercarriage at 220 knots. This was the limiting speed for having the undercarriage down.
I saw that my Observer, Sandy was stowing his Navigation gear and I was satisfied that I was established in a level turn.
When I selected the undercarriage down at 220 knots the aircraft rolled rapidly to port and slightly over the vertical so I had to apply full aileron to the right and then full right rudder to try to arrest the roll. The Sea Venom with its high twin tail boom and tail plane design did not roll directly around the longitudinal axis of the aircraft and it tended to “ dish” or “barrel” in the rolling plane. By the time the aircraft was responding to my control movements and just as I had got it back to about 10 to 15 degrees of bank there was a violent crashing.
The windscreen went opaque and the aircraft was yawing violently so I applied full power to gain height. I realised that the radar dome was probably damaged and as the undercarriage lights were not showing locked, there was more than likely damage to the wheel system. The aircraft was juddering violently so I decided that it was therefore not possible to fly or land the aircraft safely. Photographs later showed that the aircraft had mowed the top off a tree! I am reminded of that aviator saying that; “Fuel Burned, runway behind you and height above you, are all useless.”
Our only option was to eject! I knew that I had to gain as much height as possible and applied full power in a steep climb as the Martin Baker Mark 4B ejection seat required 200 knots of forward speed and 200 feet of height above ground level to ensure the safe operation of the seat.
The canopy of the aircraft had a solid beam down its centre axis for strength so it was not possible to eject through it. As the ejection seats were sloped slightly towards one another it was necessary for the Observer to eject first. The procedure for ejection was that the Pilot gave the order “ Eject, eject” and the Observer had to pull the canopy ejection handle to blast off the canopy.
I called, “Eject, Eject!” but there was no re- action from Sandy! It was obvious that we had also lost our inter communications system so I had to change hands on the controls so that I could eject the canopy with my right hand. This made Sandy realise that he would have to eject. I recall the widening of Sandy’ s eyes as he realised he had to go and he immediately ejected. The Air speed was slowing rapidly in the climb. I stayed with the aircraft to just under 120knots and before the stalling speed, I ejected.
During my parachute descent I had heard Sandy shouting and felt that he might be injured. When I got to him he was trying to light a cigarette due to the wind and his reaction to the accident. He had seen my parachute drift and was shouting to warn me of the danger of the fire. We sat in the darkness and waited while a rescue helicopter approached. It was a notable flight by the Sycamore helicopter pilot as the Sycamore did not have the instrumentation for night hovering but the pilot managed to safely winch down Dr Tommy Thompson, an aviation specialist to check us out.
After a night in the Sick Bay for Observation by the Doctors, Sandy and I were granted a week of Survivors Leave. At the end of the week I re- joined the squadron to continue the workup and joined 805 Squadron for the embarkation on HMAS Melbourne.
I consider that from my subsequent aviation experience I have a reasonable knowledge of many aspects of aviation, having flown Piston aircraft, jet aircraft and helicopters. I completed deck landings in ASW helicopters as well as some 508 successful arrested landings in jet aircraft on HMAS Melbourne. I flew in aerobatics teams and I also completed an advanced flying course, qualifying as an Air Warfare Instructor with the Royal Navy at RNAS Lossiemouth in the UK.
So I now present the questions which had troubled me for some years;
- Why did the aircraft start to roll rapidly over the vertical when I lowered the undercarriage?
- Were there any other factors which could have contributed to the accident?
- Had I really shown “ poor airmanship and ability
When I discussed the wind conditions with the Senior Naval Meteorological Officer soon after the accident he advised that when the accident occurred there were extremely gusty and strong winds over the mountains of the Dividing Range on the western side of the airfield. The wind had stabilised in to “ Standing Waves”. This means that the whole air mass followed up and down over the mountainous terrain. This was a similar condition to the downdraft of the air mass on the threshold of 26 landing area.
Many years later I discussed the accident in detail with a RAAF Accident Investigation Officer from their specialist unit at the RAAF Base at Williamtown.
After the RAAF Officer heard my story he suggested that the wind conditions could contribute as follows;
- The aircraft when turning downwind would have the underside of the fuselage facing the gusts which could have varied the relative air speed over the wings during the strong gusts of changing wind speed and direction.
- When lowering the undercarriage the main wheels would have momentarily blanketed the lower wing to some degree. This could cause a reduction of lift on the port wing as the wheel went down. The normal main wheel sequence when lowering the undercarriage was for one wheel to lower ahead of the other wheel. This usually caused the need for minor control adjustments.
- Any downward movement of the air mass around the aircraft during the turn downwind would have some effect on its flight path.
Over the few seconds, time and height were not available to me. Factors of;
- the circuit height,
- the raised ground and trees at the downwind position,
- the roll effect of the Sea Venom, and
- the possibility that the aircraft could have been dropping in the downward movement of a standing wave air mass as I lowered the undercarriage,
could all be relevant to the accident.
It is of particular note that by the time I got back from my Survivors Leave the circuit height had been raised to 1000 feet above ground level and trees were being cleared around the airfield!!
Some years ago Sandy contributed an article to the Fleet Air Arm Association of Australia magazine, “Slipstream”, which reflected his consideration of the accident. It included much of the Board of Inquiry text. As it was the first time I had seen the Board Report I was satisfied with my interpretation of the accident and I did not feel that it was appropriate for me to respond.
I am simply grateful that I was able to enjoy a wonderful career in the RAN as an Aviator in the Fleet Air Arm and as a Seaman Officer in ships. I always remained confident in the knowledge that in a “ life and death” situation, I would not “freeze” and die, but that I would take action to save my life.
The bottom line is that Sandy and I survived, thanks to the successful operation of the Martin Baker Mark 4B Ejection seat, even well below the safe limits for operation of the seat.
I recently presented some small items of memorabilia of the accident to the Fleet Air Arm Museum at HMAS Albatross, Nowra.
As the RAN no longer has the capability for fixed wing carrier operations (at the moment??), my story is of interest only. However it might give rise to serious consideration of the importance of expert accident investigations.
My story does tell of survival on a dark, turbulent and very exciting night!
CMDR.(P). R.A.N. (Retd.)
View Sandy Sandberg’s story here.