A few seconds left

13th August 1993. I guess many people would have chosen not to fly in a small plane on Friday the 13th. My wife and my secretary (yes, it was that long ago) had both expressed concerns about the date. I remember flying into Bali, on a subsequent Friday the 13th, and the cabin erupted in cheering as the plane touched down. The conversations during the trip had been peppered with speculation about the risk we were taking, and the captain had even got into the act in ways that were meant to reassure, but just fanned the flames of anxiety among the doubtful.

But in 1993 I was just excited to be going to one of the furthest Education Department schools from Adelaide, at Cook, which is near the Western Australian border, on the railway line. My job, Director of Schools, sounds much more influential than it actually was, but it got me the gig of officially opening the sports day at Cook. For reasons I can’t recall, it was regarded as an important event, so four Superintendents of Schools came along as well. We gathered at Whyalla airport, where Graham the pilot, who was also a Superintendent, was fuelling the Piper single-engine plane we were flying to Cook, via Tarcoola, and then back on the same day. From Whyalla to Tarcoola the flight was uneventful, except that we could see a front of dark clouds coming from the west. Graham told us he would re-assess the weather when we were ready to leave Tarcoola.

My job in Tarcoola was to welcome the new principal and speak to the school assembly. It all went swimmingly—I confess I loved speaking at these events, being the honoured guest and so on. Back at the plane, Graham was getting a weather update on the radio, and announced that it would be OK, if a bit bumpy. The Tarcoola principal asked for our flight plan, and I was a bit uneasy when Graham said ‘Well, do you guys want to go south first and see some whales off Ceduna?’ It seemed a bit too unplanned for flying in the outback, so I pulled rank and said we mustn’t be late for the Cook sports day. As we climbed into the plane, the principal asked again if we had a flight plan, and Graham turned to us in our seats and said ‘You quite sure you don’t want to see the whales?’ There was silence—one or two of us did want to do just that, but they could see I was uncomfortable. So Graham leaned out of the Piper and called out, ‘Straight to Cook—tell them we’ll be there by lunchtime.’

Within about half an hour, the cloudbank hit us. Graham tried to get above it, but it was too big, so he went down to about 1500 metres. It was raining heavily there, but visibility was adequate. I was reading a book and glancing at the weather occasionally, but not at all concerned—until I heard a perceptible hiccup in the engine. It stuttered for about two seconds, then ran smoothly again. I tried to get back to reading, but I noticed that Graham and his fellow superintendent and amateur pilot were huddled in conversation in the front seats. The weather was also getting worse, and I couldn’t see much at all. After about ten minutes of uneventful flying, I was sitting back for a nap when the noisy drone of the engine just stopped. One cough, then nothing. The only sound was whistling wind.

For perhaps ten seconds—it may have been more or less—time wobbles in these situations–there was silence in the cabin. Then Graham yelled loudly ‘We’re fucked’ and a moment later the plane went into a near vertical dive. I found out later that the hiccup I heard was the main tank running out of fuel, and the automatic change-over to the reserve tanks. Graham and his offsider realised immediately that we would never get as far as Cook, and were discussing where to attempt an emergency landing, when the engine died. Graham was thinking about where to glide in when he glanced at the airspeed. It was decreasing rapidly, and was racing down through 80 knots. He hadn’t reckoned on a 100 knot head wind at this altitude. He knew that the Piper would spiral out of control and drop from the sky if it flew below 77 knots. For a second, he thought it was all over, hence his panicked yell, but he decided it was worth trying a deep dive to get up speed. That saved our lives.

But I knew none of that. I watched mesmerised as the Nullarbor Plain came onto view, coming closer so fast I thought I had seconds to live. There was almost no sound except the wind. My mind churned in ways that seem strange now—I was apologising to my wife and family for being so stupid, I was telling myself this is a ridiculous way to die, asking myself if it would hurt much. My thoughts hurtled through my mind so fast and so intrusively, that I can’t recall if there was anyone else speaking. How long for? I’m not sure. Maybe 20 seconds.

I was so clear that this would all end in a moment, and it was a huge surprise when the plane lurched painfully out of the dive into a flat trajectory. My guess is we were no more than 200 metres above the ground. Suddenly we were gliding quietly above scrubby desert. My mood switched to euphoric—I wasn’t going to die! I was grinning, and I think I laughed out loud. Graham asked us to get braced for a rough landing, and all I could think was, ‘Who cares if I get hurt, I’m going home tonight.’

When the plane hit the ground—‘touched down’ doesn’t do the experience justice—I became the only casualty. I was gripping the underneath of my seat so hard that the impact pulled ligaments in my elbow. It wasn’t too serious, and no-one else had any physical injuries. Which is amazing, because the 20 or 30 seconds we took to come to a halt were a wildly noisy, bouncing, swerving time. Small trees crashed against the wings and the undercarriage. It seemed as if the plane was completely out of control, and I fully expected it to flip over. But my relief at being alive persisted, and I remember thinking ‘What’s the worst that could happen—so what if I break a leg or something? There’s no fuel left so we won’t go up in flames.’

Silence again. The first to speak was one of the superintendents, Sheila. Her words, to become legendary, were ‘But I haven’t brought any clean knickers.’ I followed that up with a terrible joke about some of our colleagues thinking that five less senior bureaucrats might not be all that bad. I plead temporary insanity for that one, which I hope was quickly forgotten. We stumbled out of the plane, with shaky legs, and stood in the soft rain, surrounded by ankle-deep mud. Graham beckoned to me to come with him, and we walked back along the landing path. He said he wanted to check something that was worrying him, and didn’t want the others to get more unsettled. About 300 metres along a branch-strewn mess, with two deep wheel-ruts in the mud, we came to a spot where he said quietly, ‘That was a bit close.’ A few centimetres from one rut was a rock about the size of a basketball. He saw it just after we hit, but too late to do anything, and knew it was more than enough to have caused a very nasty ending.

He told me about the dive, and how close we had been to a death-spiral. I know he was heavily criticised at the later Board of Inquiry, but all I can say is that I’m writing this because of his quick thinking under extreme conditions. The cause was a mistake made when Graham was fuelling at Whyalla. For the first and last time in his life, he let someone else tell him when the tanks were ready. His colleague, an experienced pilot, had never fuelled a Piper, and got it wrong. The tanks were only two-thirds full. Without the bad weather, and the very strong head-winds, we might just have made it to Cook. I should add, if we had gone whale-watching, we could have run out of fuel over the Great Australian Bight, so my uncharacteristic unease about last-minute changes of plan was never so well timed.

Now we had to work out how to get out of there. We were about 50 kilometres from Cook and the only landmark visible was the railway, about a kilometre north of us. Graham got on the radio, and got no answer for several minutes. We were at the extreme range of South Australian Air Rescue—about 1100 kilometres we found out later. Eventually a crackly distant voice was found, and Graham explained our situation. As he finished he gave our position as 50 kilometres west of Cook, and we yelled, ‘No Graham, east, we’re east of Cook.’ Lucky we were listening. There being no helicopter in range, and no way to land another plane, we were told to ‘wait for the railway people to come’. We had no idea what that meant, but about an hour later a WWII-era car on train wheels appeared in the distance. We thought we would have to walk through the mud to the line, but no, it rose, came off the line, and drove across to us on large car tyres. We got in with the few things we had, on what was meant to be a day trip; went back to the railway, and the car magically switched over to train wheels.

The arrival in Cook was a bit chaotic. It had been reported that we needed urgent medical treatment, so the town ambulance was waiting. (‘No need to be crook, when you’re in Cook’ was the hilarious sign on the door) The sports day ceremony had been delayed while they waited to see if I was fit to play my role. And we were all being spoilt city slickers, talking about the important engagements we had in Adelaide that night—in my case my monthly poker game, but I didn’t admit that. Actually the guys thought it was the best excuse I had ever come up with. “My plane crashed’ is hard to top. But became obvious that we were going to have to stay the night. Clean knickers were obtained, beds were found, and the sports day went on; a bit late, but huge fun, even for us. Most of us were feeling powerful emotions that paradoxically made us very flat, taking over from excited relief. We all had to phone people close to us, who became instantly upset when they found out what had happened. Nothing had been on the radio or TV news—which seemed a tad unfair to us—so people were blindsided by our calls.

The Board of Enquiry put a stop to Graham’s flying for a few months while the wheels of bureaucracy ground slowly. The Piper was stuck in the mud for weeks until a low-loader crossed the desert to take it back to Whyalla, where it needed extensive repairs. At the enquiry it was decided that Graham would be given a last chance, which was a great relief to me. As he was leaving the hearing, the chairman took him aside and said ‘Graham, I put this one down as FBL. Fucking bad luck.’ True, but what I remember best is the extremely good luck and skilful flying that saved my life.

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