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21 November 2014

The Story of Diamond Jack Palmer and the Pelikaan

The story of Diamond Jack Palmer is a typically Australian story of a beach comber whose luck was in when he found diamonds worth a few million on the beach but couldn’t quite keep up with his luck.

It’s also a fascinating aviation story.

It starts with the Koninklijke Nederlandsch-Indische Luchtvaart Maatschappij airline and their Dutch Dakota DC-3 registration PK-AFV, known as Pelikaan.

KNILM logofrom the personal collection of Jorge González

KNILM (the Royal Dutch Indies Airways) was founded in 1928 and headquartered in Amsterdam. They initially offered services from Batavia (now Jakarta) to Bandung and Semarang. The airline rapidly expanded and, in 1930, they offered their first international flight connecting to Singapore. In 1938 they started operations in Sydney, Australia.

When the Japanese invaded the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), the airline evacuated all the aircraft it could to Australia.

Ivan Vasilyevich Smirnov was a Russian WWI flying ace who returned to military flying as a captain in the army aviation corps in Indonesia after the attack at Pearl Harbor. He was asked to evacuate the Pelikaan with two crew and nine passengers fleeing Java. They left just in time: the Japanese took the Bandung area three days later.

In the early hours of the morning, shortly before take-off, the Bandung airport manager handed Captain Smirnov a cigar-box shaped packaged wrapped in brown paper. Smirnov was told to hand the package to a representative of the Commonwealth Bank once he reached Australia.

The package contained diamonds which were later said to be valued somewhere between 3 million and 10 million pounds sterling in today’s money (4 million to 17 million US dollars). Ivan Smirnov claimed that he was did not know what was in the package. He and his fleeing passengers departed Bandung normally.

As the aircraft skirted the Kimberley coast of Western Australia, about 80 kilometres from its destination, Smirnov saw smoke over the town of Broome, which was under attack by nine Japanese Zeros. Japanese fighter ace Lt Zenjiro Miyano spotted the Dakota and led three Zeros to attack.

Mitsubishi A6M3 Zero (Commemorative Air Force / American Airpower Heritage Flying Museum)

The Zeros attacked the defenseless Dakota, firing at its port side. The port engine caught fire. Smirnov was badly wounded but managed to put the aircraft into a deep spiral dive.

His only option was to crash land on the beach. The right tyre exploded forcing the aircraft to veer to the right and into the water, which extinguished the fire in the port engine. The Dakota sank into the sand and swung into the surf which was at high tide.

The Zeros dived to strafe the Dakota again and they scrambled out of the plane to find protection on the beach. Four passengers were killed by the Zeros. Smirnov was badly wounded and sent one of the uninjured passengers to the aircraft to recover the cargo. The passenger picked up the post, the log book and the brown paper wrapped package but then he was hit by a wave and dropped the goods. He recovered the log book and the post but could not find the package.

The following day, while the survivors were waiting for a rescue party, a Japanese Kawanishi H6K dropped four bombs but did not cause any further damage.

Five days later, the survivors were rescued. The representative from the Commonwealth Bank came specifically for the package and Captain Smirnov had to tell him it was lost. The story of the diamonds spread like wildfire, although Smirnov said he never knew what was in the package, only that it was valuable.

It didn’t take long for local man Jack Palmer head to the wreckage to salvage what he could. He and “two Aborigines” collected what they could find. Apparently, he found the cigar box and tipped the largest diamonds into “aluminum cups” which he hid and wrapped the rest in a rag. He showed them to Frank Robinson and James Mulgrue, who were waiting nearby on a motorboat. He’s said to have told them, “Take a handful for each of yourself and don’t tell anyone.”

Investigating party standing in front of crashed Netherlands East Indies KLM Dakota DC-3 passenger transport PK-AFV ‘Pelikaan’ at Carnot Bay, Lieutenant Laurie O’Neil (second from left), ‘Diamond’ Jack Palmer (third from left) and Warrant Officer Gus Clinch (fourth from left), Western Australia, March 1942

What’s definitely known is that the three of them were at the aircraft wreck and that afterwards, Palmer was seen around town spending money and bragging that he no longer had to work, only to sit and smoke cigars. He later handed over two salt-cellars of diamonds to the authorities.

From the Advocate, an Australian newspaper, in a short piece published 4th May 1942:

BROOME, Sunday.-The discovery by a beach comber of £300,000 worth of diamonds on a remote north-western beach has been revealed.
Addressed to the Commonwealth Bank, the diamonds were handed in a parcel to Captain Smernof, Dutch pilot of one of the last planes to leave Java after its capture by the Japanese.

The plane was shot down by Japanese raiders returning from their first raid on Broome early in March, and crashed into four feet of water in Carnot Bay, 60 miles north of Broome. Of the complement of 12, four died of injuries and were buried in the sand hills near the lonely beach. The others were discovered by natives and rescued, but when a search of the plane was made the diamonds could not be found. Later officials made another search, but without success, and the Dutch authorities then despatched a special officer to investigate.

Two days later, Jack Palmer, middle-aged and ill clad, arrived on his way to enlist. He said he had given up his occupation of beach comber, and had abandoned his lugger. Then, producing a pair of large salt and pepper shakers, he poured out on an official’s desk a glittering stream of diamonds. He had found them in a sodden parcel partly embedded in tidal mud near the beach of Carnot Bay. The diamonds are now safe in the Perth Commonwealth Bank.

Palmer was immediately taken into custody for interrogation. He claimed that was all he had and that the package had broken apart with most of the diamonds falling into the sea.

More diamonds showed up in the area, presumably stashed or spent by Palmer, but the total amount recovered was just over 10% of the original shipment.

“Diamond Jack Palmer” and the two men who met him on the motorboat were tried for the theft of the diamonds in 1943. The two accomplices were acquitted as it was determined that no theft had been committed by them. Palmer had handed over two salt-cellars of diamonds to the authorities and although the majority of the diamonds were still missing, the investigation was unable to prove that he had stolen the rest.

The remains of the Dakota remained on the beach until 1970, when the stripped fuselage was broken up by dynamite. The leading edge of one of the wings is apparently all that remains now.

In an interesting addendum, in 1989 a veteran named Norman Keys wrote about his recollections of the crash near Broome.

About the Broome 1942 exhibition

Excerpt from a letter written by Norman Keys dated 29 September 1989. Australian War Memorial PR90/030

After a few days on the beach when the woman and her child and some of the crew were buried, one of the survivors when searching for water was found by one of the local natives who took the rest of the survivors to a dutch [sic] mission station about fifty miles from the beach the plane had landed on. The message got through to Broome 300 miles south and that’s where I entered the story with a trip in a utility to pick them up.

When I arrived at the Beagle Bay Mission the four survivors were in a pretty bad way and the Captain Smirnoff appeared to me to be delirious and kept repeating that he had to get back to the aircraft to pick up the diamonds. For a brief period we considered going back to the aircraft with some native guides but it was decided that we had to get the survivors to hospital in Broome as soon as possible and so began the worst 300 miles trip of my life with my passengers cursing every bump. I never really believed the existence of the diamonds until some time later it was reported in the paper that a beachcomber had come across the plane and found some diamonds and was handing them out to the natives as favours and later in Broome was freely displaying them. It turned out that there was a fortune in Dutch diamonds being evacuated from Java to the bank in Melbourne. There were court cases following the discovery of the diamonds but the bulk of the shipment has never been discovered and the belief is that they are still buried somewhere in N.W. Australia.

The interesting thing is that this is the first reference that Captain Smirnov may have known about his cargo of diamonds. After the crash, he had consistently stated that he never knew what was in the package, only that he needed to deliver it. Based on Norman Keys’ account, he may have known exactly what he was carrying but unable to do anything about it.

The remaining diamonds were never recovered.

20 June 2014

Landing in a Corn Field

I’ve been browsing old photographs again, and found an amazing pair of a Lockheed Constellation from 1951.

The Lockheed Constellation, affectionately known as the “Connie” is an easy aircraft to recognise. The propeller-driven aircraft with four 18-cylinder engines was described by Popular Mechanics Magazine in 1943 as resembling a great winged shark:

Popular Mechanics , June 1943, The Flying Shark

The civilian aircraft warning observer wore a puzzled frown as he reached for the telephone. “Army Flash!” he barked, “One big four-motored plane bound east. Looks like a shark with a P-38 wing and a triple tail, and is going like sixty! Not on my identification chart!” The observer had spotted the first flight of Lockheed’s big “Constellation” and his description was pretty accurate. The plane’s fuselage is cambered like an airfoil section, giving it a shark-like appearance. Its down-dipping nose caused Lockheed employees to name it unofficially “Old Loop Snoot.”

Lockheed were working on a four-engined pressurised aircraft when TWA requested a 40-passenger transcontinental airliner. Their requirements led to the L-049 Constellation and, at the start of World War II, the TWA aircraft were converted to military transport aircraft. In 1952, Eisenhower fell in love with the “smooth-sailing” of the Constellation and used it for his campaign and presidential travel. A year later, the aircraft’s call sign was officially changed to Air Force One, the first aircraft to ever use that call-sign. Its cabin, with a desk and long sofa-beds, became the design template for all future Air Force One interiors.

A total of 856 Lockheed Constellations were produced. Today, only nine Constellations and Super Constellations are still considered airworthy.

This is N548GF when it was flown in to Chino Airport in 2012 for display at the Yanks Air Museum:

But today I’m interested in N119A, a Lockheed L-749A Constellation that landed in a cornfield.

On the 19th of July in 1951 at 14:15, Eastern Airlines flight 601 departed Newark, NJ for a scheduled flight to Miami. It was overhead Philadelphia at the cruising altitude of 18,000 feet when the flight encountered turbulence.

ASN Aircraft accident Lockheed L-749A Constellation N119A Curles Neck Farm, VA

For the next 25 to 30 minutes violent turbulence accompanied by intermittent periods of hail was encountered. The flight continued past Philadelphia for a few minutes toward Dover and then made a turn to the west in an attempt to avoid as much of the storm area as possible. The flight broke out in a clear area at about 15:17. The flight was able to continue VFR and descended to 8,000 feet. A second squall was encountered in the vicinity of Lynchburg at 15:50. The aircraft was slowed to 185 mph IAS, light turbulence and buffeting were experienced.

Although they were now clear of the storm, the buffeting became so severe that the flight crew was concerned that the aircraft was going to break up. They reduced the airspeed again and then the Captain declared an emergency as the aircraft descended. The Captain must have known the area, because he recognised Curles Neck Farm, a plantation in Henrico County, Virginia. He selected the largest field and flew straight in with flaps up and the landing gear retracted: He didn’t dare change the flight configuration as he wasn’t sure what was causing the severe buffeting.

The First Officer and the flight engineer turned off everything as the nose of the aircraft touched the highest corn in the field. The right wing struck a power line pole at the edge of the corn field as the Connie flew under the wires. They then tore down a fence as the aircraft touched down. They skidded 1,100 feet through the field and through another fence and finally came to rest in a pasture.

There, they discovered that an access door had opened during the flight through the storm and was the cause of the violent buffeting.

Amazingly, the aircraft was fully repaired and put back into service with no ill effects. Sadly, a few years later it crashed after take-off from New York-Idlewild with 22 passengers on board. The Captain of that flight took off into drifting fog and lost perspective. The aircraft descended into the ground, killing everyone on board. The Lockheed L-794A Constellation was written off.

The photographs were taken by Adolph Rice who opened a commercial photography studio in Richmond in 1949. He and his son did commercial work ranging from studio portrait photography to aerial landscape shots. The studio closed down in 1961 and over 16,000 negatives were donated to the Library of Virginia. You can see highlights on Flickr: Adolph B. Rice Studio Collection and the full collection is searchable on the Library of Virginia’s website.

18 April 2014

The Disappearance of Aeronaut Walter Powell

I meant to be researching something else entirely but then I stumbled upon the sad story of Walter Powell, a Welsh gentleman born in 1842 who disappeared in 1881.

Walter Powell, the Tory Member of Parliament for Malmesbury, took up ballooning in 1880 after the death of his wife. He received training and soon had his own balloon made for him. The red and yellow striped silk balloon used hydrogen gas and was designed by his friend, James Templer.

Colonel James Lethbridge Brooke Templer is considered the godfather of the modern Royal Air Force. He pioneered the British military use of balloons and airships. In 1878 Captain Templer started a British Army balloon school in Woolwich, using his own balloon, Crusader. Templer was also the Instructor in Ballooning to the Royal Engineers and commanded the military balloon department at Chatham.

Walter Powell became an avid balloonist. He had a dream that one day a balloon would be able to fly across the Atlantic to America. Ballooning took over his life.

Walter Powell – Malmesbury Memories by David Forward

In Malmesbury they looked at their Member’s new interest with tolerant amusement. We read how in October 1880 when Walter Powell was to have proposed the election of the town’s new coroner he had to send a telegram of apology as he would be up in a balloon then. There was much friendly laughter at the meeting when the message arrived, and jokes were made about the hope that they would not soon be needing to elect a new M.P. as well.

Captain Templer often used balloons to make observations for the Meteorological Office. On the 9th of December, 1881, London was enveloped by a very peculiar fog and Templer wished to ascend to investigate the conditions which had produced it. The Meteorological Society had been given access to the newly developed military balloon Saladin from the War Office and it was available to Captain Templer for an ascent to measure the temperature and atmospheric conditions which had produced the fog. The Saladin was moored at Bath.

Captain Templer arranged a flight for the 10th of December and invited the 39-year-old Powell to attend to the balloon, which would leave Templer free to make his observations. A gentleman by the name of A. Agg-Gardner was also invited to join them.

Saladin was a green and yellow calico balloon which used coal gas. The balloon rose when sacks of ballast where dropped out to reduce the weight. A valve in the balloon neck allowed the balloonists to let out the gas, reducing the lifting power and bringing the balloon down. The direction was dependent on wind and air currents.

They departed from the field at Bath Gas Works on the 10th in poor conditions and passed over Wells at 4,200 feet. They passed over Glastonbury and then a current of air blew them between Somerton and Langport. Here, they rose to 5,000 feet to investigate a bank of cloud and then sank to 2,000 feet and drifted towards Crewkerne.

Visibility was poor. Captain Templer heard the roar of waves and realised they were within half a mile of the sea nears Eypesmouth, west of Bridgport. The balloon was now rapidly drifting towards the sea and Captain Templer felt that the descent was critical.

Captain Templer reported the final moments to the Meteorological Office:

’Crewkerne was sighted when we were at 2,000 feet altitude, and Mr Powell allowed the balloon, at my request, to descend, and we passed Beaminster, where we first heard the sea, and immediately I verified my position, and we prepared to effect our descent. The horizontal velocity was increased to thirty-five miles an hour. The balloon was descending most favourably near Symondsbury when Mr Powell threw out some ballast. On his telling me that he had done so I immediately opened the valve. He then asked me if this was necessary? I answered, “We are nearing the sea,” and he replied “I am afraid I rather overdid that last ballast.” Glancing downwards I found that our pace had increased.

The Saladin touched the ground less than 150 metres (450 feet) from the edge of a cliff. The “landing” was uncontrolled and violent. Captain Templer half-fell, half-disembarked from the balloon as the car capsized, still holding the valve line in his hand. The balloon rose sharply as a result of the change in weight and Agg-Gardner fell out as well, breaking his leg in the process.

Powell remained in the car as it righted itself. Captain Templar was dragged along by the valve line and shouted at Powell to come down. The car was still just 2.5 metres / 8 feet above the ground but Powell did not jump. The valve line was ripped from Captain Templer’s hands as the balloon rose. Templer said that he believed that Powell stayed with the balloon hoping that he could save it by bringing it down on the beach. The Captain said that it was possible with the light weight that the balloon might even make it across the Channel.

Powell was last seen waving his hand to Captain Templar as the balloon was swept out to sea. No trace of Powell was ever found.

Two years later, the New York Times reported that the remains of Saladin had been discovered. Fragments and shreds of cloth were recovered in the mountains of Sierra del Pedroza in Asturias, on the northwest coast of Spain.

The balloon had in fact made it across the Channel and even the Bay of Biscay, but of its passenger there was no sign.

28 February 2014

B-1B with its Nose to the Ground

On the 5th of October in 1989, a B-1B Lancer departed Dyess Air Force Base with four crew on a routine training flight. Three hours later, the flight crew discovered that the aircraft had a hydraulics fault. As they came in to land at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas, the front landing gear failed to lower.

Ex-28th BW Rockwell B-1B Lancer 85-0070

They circled the airfield for four hours, twice being refuelled by an airborne tanker, as they struggled to lower the nose wheel. Supporting the crew on the ground were military personal and mechanics for the aircraft manufacturer; however they were unable to resolve the issue.

The Air Force had the flight crew fly a further three hours and over 1,000 miles to Edwards Air Force Base, where they circled for another two hours. Air Force officials decided to land the plane on Rogers Dry Lake. Rogers Dry Lake bed is a natural clay runway and is the site of most of the Space Shuttle landings (see Brent’s comment below – it looks like I got this wrong).

The $280 million B-1B Lancer is a four-engine supersonic bomber which is 146 ft (44.5 m) long and a wingspan of 137 ft (41.8m). This is almost the size of a DC-10.

The B-1B has a maximum speed of Mach 1.25 (721 knots, 830 mpg, 1,340 km/h) at 50,000 feet and a range of 6,500 nautical miles. A total of 100 B-1Bs were produced.

The bomber made several low-level passes, which confirmed that the landing gear was still partially retracted. They attempted to jar the nosewheel loose with a touch and go. When that failed, they made a final approach onto the lake at 18:15 local time.

This newly released video of the landing was emailed to me by a reader and it is simply amazing.

None of the crew was hurt and the aircraft unbelievably only suffered minimal damage.

Once on the ground, one of the pilots told the press, “It’s been a great day for flying, except for a few glitches.”

19 July 2013

American Spitfire Pilot in 1944 and 2005

You all know by now how much I love Spitfires. My list of Five Facts I Never Knew about Spitfires needs expanding: I never knew that a Spitfire could make it from Oxford to Berlin and back. I realised that the short-range aircraft must have had special fuel tanks for these reconnaissance flights and started to look into it. To be honest, the whole story is pretty amazing. Let me start again…

During the Second World War, the US Airforce planned for their fighter units to fly the Bell P-39 Airacobra, but it quickly became clear that the P-39 lacked the manoeuvrability to fight against modern Japanese and German aircraft. The Spitfire provided the alternative.

Uncle Sam’s Spitfires — Articles | 1942 | 1943 | 1944 | history | Spitfire Mk. V | Spitfire Mk. VIII

The first P-39 unit to arrive in England was the 31st Fighter Group – the first unit to have taken the Airacobra operational the previous year – though they arrived before their aircraft. In the interim, they were equipped with the Spitfire Mk. V. By the time the similarly-equipped 52nd Fighter Group arrived, the RAF had been able to convince the Americans of the unsuitability of the P-39 for aerial combat in western Europe. As a result, both groups were equipped with Spitfire Mk. Vs.
Uncle Sam’s Spitfires had written a little-known chapter in US fighter history. Though the USAAF used over 600 Spitfires during the war, the aircraft was never given a US designation, and little publicity was given to the exploits of the 31st and 52nd Fighter Groups – nothing like what they would get in the summer of 1944 during the wild air battles over Ploesti when they flew Mustangs. This is most likely a good example of the US military’s overall dislike of having to admit to using “NIH” (Not Invented Here) equipment.

Thus, the Spitfire became one of very few foreign aircraft used within the US Airforce. Spitfires were also used by the US Navy after the Normandy landings.

American Spitfire Pilot World War II. Lt John S Blyth of the 14th Squadron, 7th Photo Group, Mount Farm, Oxfordshire, UK

One of the American pilots flying the Spitfires in England was Lieutenant Colonel John Blyth. Blyth joined the Oregon National Guard in 1938 when he was 15. His son, Scott Blyth, was kind enough to tell me about his background. Scott’s comments are in the photo captions and the blockquotes.

My dad was flying F-5s (P-38 variant) at the time and transferred over to the 14th Squadron to fly Spitfire MK XIs in April 1944. The flight jacket is from the 22nd Squadron. The 7th Photo Group was based at Mount Farm, Oxfordshire, UK.

My father signed up for the Flying Sergeants program which allowed men with only a high school education to become pilots.

They were known as the Flying Sergeants because they received the rank of staff sergeant when they graduated from flight training. For most, it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to fly. But pilot training was tough. According to Lee Arbon who wrote They Also Flew, half the candidates were cut after the medical physical and only a quarter made it out of training.

Lieutenant Colonel Blyth made it.

He trained on twin engine aircraft and went through all the phases of pilot training beginning in California and finishing up at Petersen Field in Colorado Springs. They flew F-4s which was the photo recon variant of the P-38 Lightning. He was promoted from Flight Officer to Lieutenant before shipping out for England in 1943.

22nd Squadron, 7th Photo Group, Mount Farm, UK

He was based with the 22nd Squadron of the 7th Photo Group at Mount Farm, Oxfordshire, UK. He flew about 15 missions in F-5s which was also a variant of the P-38.

Blyth wasn’t fond of the F-5s. He’d wanted to fly a Spitfire since he saw photographs of them as a teenager after the Battle of Britain, so when he heard about Spitfires on loan to the US Air Force, he immediately tried to find out more. When the Spitfire MK XIs arrived at Mount Farm a few weeks later, Blyth passed on the opportunity to be promoted to Captain and instead requested a transfer to the 14th Squadron.

Lt. John S. Blyth of the 14th Squadron 7th PRG at Mount Farm, Oxfordshire, UK 1944. I’m not certain if this was his first mission in a Spitfire Mk XI but that wouldn’t surprise me. He flew a number of sorties in F-5s (P-38s) before that when he was with the 22nd Squadron 7th PRG.

He flew thirty-six reconnaissance missions in the Spitfire and reached the rank of lieutenant colonel.

The photo reconnaissance planes had no guns and the missions were flown without an escort. Instead of weapons, the Spitfire Mark XI had leading edge gas tanks for a longer range, which allowed the pilots to take the plane as far as Berlin to take photographs of the enemy targets. They had cameras mounted on the back. The planes were painted sky blue to help them “blend in” but it didn’t seem to do much good. Colonel Blyth said he regularly came under fire and all he could do was keep flying and try to ignore it.

This was supposedly assigned to my father Lt John S Blyth, 14th Squadron, 7th Photo Group, Mount Farm, UK. The reality was that just about every pilot in the squadron flew it at one time or another. The invasion stripes suggest that this photo was from June, 1944. Please note the iron cross mission marks. I guess the theory was that the Luftwaffe pilots would take extraordinary precautions if they met up with a lone UNARMED Spitfire MK XI over their territory displaying this many iron crosses. The previous statement was meant to be a joke.

On the 12th of September in 1944, Blyth, who by now had risen in the ranks to Captain, got into trouble while on a reconnaissance mission in Germany. His headset cord got caught in the manual system for the landing gear and the landing gear got locked up. He flew around trying to get the wheels down and failed. In the end, Blyth was forced to make a belly landing in the Spitfire Mk XI PA 944.

It was a day he’d never forget.

USAAF Spitfire MK XI Belly Landing PA 944

For many years my father had told us of how Doc Savage had taken moving footage of the belly landing. We figured we would never see it as Savage was probably dead and the footage was lost forever.

John “Doc” Savage, was based at RAF Mount Farm with Lieutenant Colonel Blyth. He filmed an amazing amount of footage at the base on his 16mm camera, documenting his World War II experience. In 2005 after his death, his descendents restored and digitised the film to make sure that it was preserved. Wouldn’t it be great, they thought, if they could find the men in the World War II footage and show it to them? In the process, they found a clip of a Spitfire doing a belly landing at RAF Mount Farm and began to search for the pilot.

William Lorton I believe sent a letter to every John Blyth in America who could potentially have been the pilot. My father responded to the letter. Lorton and his crew showed up at my parent’s home in Washington State. The intent was to surprise him with the footage of his wheels up landing and they succeeded.

They knew he’d probably never seen the footage. They asked if he would help them with a documentary they were working on and that they had footage from the war that they wanted to show him. Lieutenant Colonel Blyth was 83 years old when they went to see him.

The following 15-minute video is the amazing result of that visit, when Lieutenant Colonel Blyth sees the footage of his landing for the first time and talks about his photo-reconnaissance flights from Oxford to Berlin and back in the Spitfire Mk XI. The stories of Doc Savage and Lieutenant Colonel Blyth make for compelling viewing:

The mini-documentary Spitfire 944 is also available in HD on iTunes.

14 June 2013

Airbus A350 Maiden Flight

The Airbus A350 maiden flight was today and wow, but that aircraft is gorgeous!

A new chapter has opened in Airbus’ 43 year history as the first A350 XWB, the world’s most efficient large twin-engined commercial aircraft, powered aloft this morning for its maiden flight at Blagnac in Toulouse, France at 10.00 hours local time. An international crew of six is on board, comprising two Flight Test Pilots, one Test Flight Engineer and three Flight Test Engineers. At the controls of the A350 XWB’s first flight are Peter Chandler, Airbus’ Chief Test Pilot, and Guy Magrin, Project Pilot for the A350 XWB.

Here’s the flight path it flew:

For those of us who couldn’t be in France, Airbus posted photographs and updates throughout the day on the Airbus Facebook page although I have to admit, I watched it on Twitter:

What an exciting day it has been. To finish it off, of course, I had to play around with the 360 cockpit view.

Still not had enough? The aircraft is safely on the ground now but you can still watch the recording from the live-stream of the event:

I’ve got to admit: I really like living in the future.

15 March 2013

How Far Did She Fall? The Amazing Story of Vesna Vulović

This blog post started, as so many do, over a general conversation at the pub. We were actually talking about Felix Baumbartner, the man who jumped from the edge of space last year and made numerous records, including the highest freefall ever.

I remembered there was a woman who held the record for the longest freefall without a parachute, who fell for 33,000 feet and survived. Funnily enough, I could remember the distance but not her name or how exactly she’d managed to survive this unbelievable fall from an aircraft. We had an amusing round of guesses (“She fell into jungle canopy which broke her fall in stages?” “She landed in very soft powdery snow?”) and when I got home, I looked it up.

Her name was Vesna Vulović and she was a flight attendant on JAT Yugoslave Airlines Flight 367, en route from Stockholm to Belgrade on the 26th of January in 1972. The DC-9 broke up midflight at 33,000 feet (10,160 metres) and crashed into a wooded area in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). Amazingly, Vesna Vulović was discovered alive in the wreckage, pinned down by a food cart.

Vesna’s Fall • Damn Interesting

A German man, upon arriving at the crash site, found all of the plane’s passengers dead, save one. Vesna was lying half outside of the plane, with another crew member’s body on top of her, and a serving cart pinned against her spine. The man had been a medic in the second world war, and did what he could for her until further help arrived.

At the hospital, her parents were told that although there was still life in her body, she would not survive. Her skull was broken and hemorrhaging, both of her legs were broken, and she had three crushed vertebrae. But three days later, she awoke from her coma, and asked for a cigarette.

Vulović has no memory of the crash. She told interviewers that she was not scheduled to be on the flight that day but her schedule was mixed up with another stewardess named Vesna and she was pleased to take the chance to fly to Denmark.

The official accident report by the Czechoslovak Investigation Commission determined that a bomb on board exploded in the front baggage compartment which broke the aircraft in half.

Scan of the English Translation of the Official Report

The beginning of destruction of the aircraft was in the altitude of 10050 m, which is testified by a sudden cutting off the function of the flight recorder and the voice-recorder. The cause was explosion of an explosive, which was enveloped in an ignition charge. Composition of the explosive and ignition charge has been determined. The explosive with ignition charge was placed in a suitcase of brown-red colour, ignited by an exploder /electric/, timed probably by an alarmclockwork, on which traces of the explosives were found. Traces on the frame of a black coloured trunk of the size 45 x 70 cm testify, that inside was placed the brow-red suitcase containing the explosive with ignition charge and the timing device. All this was packed with newprint and rags.

However, no one ever took credit for what was apparently a terrorist attack. The authorities blamed a Croatian nationalist group but no arrests were ever made.

There was another odd anomaly: officials explained that Vulović survived because she was in the rear of the aircraft but she stated in interviews that she was discovered in “the middle part of the plane”. She has no recollections of the crash at all. She told reporters that the last thing she remembered before waking up in hospital was greeting passengers as they boarded the plane.

It’s actually not at all clear how she survived the fall. The investigation said it was because she was away from the blast in the back, but Vulović and eyewitnesses deny this. News reports at the time stated that the food cart pinning her into place acted as a safety belt, keeping her safely protected by the aircraft fuselage during the impact. Vulović said she was told that it might have been her low blood pressure which saved her by causing her to pass out before her heart could burst.

But here’s the oddity that caught my eye. In the first paragraph of her Wikipedia entry and every news article about her, it says that she is in the Guinness Book of Records for surviving the highest fall without a parachute.

But she isn’t. There’s no reference to Vesna Vulović at all and the category simply doesn’t exist. I soon discovered that the record was taken off the books in 2009, when a representative of Guinness World Records said, “It seems that at the time Guinness was duped by this swindle just like the rest of the media”.

The swindle?

Two investigative journalists, Peter Hornung-Andersen and Pavel Theiner, published a shocking exposé of the report, saying that the aircraft was not the victim of a terrorist attack at all but was shot down by Czechoslovakian Mig fighter jet at low level.

Vesna Vulovic’s record fall Communist propaganda, say journalists | World news |

“It is extremely probable that the aircraft was shot down by mistake by the Czechoslovak air force, and in order to cover it up the secret police conceived the record plunge,” he said.

“The Czechoslovak secret police managed to spread this wild tale throughout the world,” he added. “No doubts have ever been expressed regarding the fall. The story was so good and so beautiful that no one thought to ask any questions.” The Yugoslav secret police also helped to uphold that version of the story, he said. Black boxes were never found.

The investigation, partially based on “secret documents from the Czech civil aviation authority”, claimed that the aircraft had an emergency situation and descended unexpectedly, without radio communication. This brought the aircraft close to a sensitive military area, where it was perceived as a threat and shot down by Czech aircraft. The crash debris was spread over a small area, which they cited as further proof that the aircraft disintegrated at low level, probably around 800 meters (2,600 feet) above the ground. Eyewitnesses from a village near the crash site said they saw the aircraft intact below the clouds and some stated that they heard a second aircraft directly before the crash.

The Czech Civilian Aviation Authority referred to the report as “speculation” and stated that they would not comment on the detail.

Last year, exactly 40 years after the incident, Czech magazine Technet wrote about the incident and referred to the report as a conspiracy theory. The article cited a military expert who argued that there where 150-200 people involved in the investigation and it would be impossible to cover up such an event. Anti-aircraft missiles would have been seen on radar and furthermore, it would have been impossible, she said, to hide the evidence of the missiles in the wreckage of the crash.

Google Translate: Serial: Terrorist attack over Czechoslovakia survived only flight attendant fell from 10 km

“Everything indicates that we can reject the theory of anti-aircraft missiles to shoot down the cash system of NAD. Investigative teams conclusions are logical. Investigation could not be manipulated because it involved members of the Yugoslav Party and independent professionals.”

Vulović has said in interview that she does not believe the conspiracy theory but added that as she does not recall the crash, she can’t shed any light on the matter.

As it happens, it makes no difference to her fall: she would have reached terminal velocity after falling 450 m (1,500 feet), so whether she fell from the sky at 33,000 feet or 2,600 feet, the impact was the same. Although she may have lost her place in the Guinness Book of World Records, her free fall is still amazing.

If you found this post interesting, you’ll probably like Why Planes Crash, available now for just $3.99

If you don’t have an e-book reader and would prefer the book in PDF format, just email me at and we’ll work something out.

15 February 2013

Horseplay in a Lockheed C-141 Starlifter

The Lockheed C-141 Starlifter is a strategic airlifter: a cargo aircraft specifically used to transport personnel or materials over long distances. This military aircraft has appeared in every US conflict from Vietnam to Afghanistan.

It’s a big, well-stacked, beautiful plane built for comfort, not speed. (A lot like me, actually!)

So I was excited to find that a former C-141 pilot has made an excellent website celebrating the aircraft: C141HEAVEN – All there is to know, and lots more, about the Lockheed C141 Starlifter! This wonderful resource focuses on a single aircraft but with a wide remit, including personal recollections from pilots, historical documentation, newspaper articles and videos.

If you know me, it’ll come as no surprise to know that I was fascinated by the C-141 Lifetime Mishap Summary on the site. Especially this report, which is the only official incident I have heard of which was caused by by a cigar in the cockpit.

C-141 Vance AFB 1982

Synopsis: The highly experienced crew was returning to base from a stateside airdrop mission. During some horseplay, cigar ash was introduced into a crew oxygen hose. The resulting oxygen-fed fire ignited floor coverings and filled the cockpit with dense sooty smoke. After some difficulties, the crew was able to recover the aircraft with only minor injuries.

Returning from Pope to Norton after an airdrop mission, the pilot in the left seat decided to light a cigar.

The pilot, who was in the jumpseat, complained and donned his oxygen mask. In response, the left seater covertly disconnected the jumpseater’s mask from the oxygen regulator hose, with the intent of putting smoke into the hose. Unfortunately, lit cigar ash accidentally entered the oxygen regulator hose before the hose was reconnected.

The jumpseater smelled the smoke and selected “Emergency” on the oxygen regulator. When that didn’t help, he removed the mask to clear the smoke. When he disconnected the mask from the regulator hose, a “2-foot” sheet of fire leapt from the hose. It ignited an oxygen-fed fire that spread to the flooring.

To put out the fire, the left-seat pilot shut off the crew oxygen system. At about the same time, the engineer while switching to “MAX” airflow, inadvertently hit the bleed duct overheat test switch, shutting off the engine bleed valves and disabling the air-conditioning packs. The crew started a descent but soon became hypoxic.

The crew oxygen system was again turned on. The fire reignited with a fireball large enough to melt components on the Flight Engineer’s panel.

The crew eventually extinguished the fire, reset the bleed valves, and recovered to the nearest military base. Members of the crew suffered only minor injuries (but major embarrassment).

I recommend having a browse around the full website: C141HEAVEN. In one incredibly touching blog post, he tells how he managed to return the ID tags to the wife of a pilot who crashed in 1975, after the Parks Service had failed to find the family. The website is still being updated and is a fitting testament to an exceptional aircraft.

04 January 2013

We’re still at 2,000 feet, right? Eastern Air Lines Flight 401

Forty years ago on the 29th of December in 1972, Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 crashed into the Florida Everglades. It was an uneventful flight from JFK until shortly before they were at the approach at Miami Airport. When the flight-crew lowered the landing gear, they did not receive confirmation that the nose wheel was down and locked. The indicator light did not come on. The flight crew investigated the problem as jet circled west over the Everlades at 2,000 feet.

A lightbulb had burned out in the cockpit. That was all. But the issue distracted the crew completely.

The Captain recycled the landing gear but the green light did not come on. The flight crew confirmed they were climbing to 2,000 feet to investigate the problem. They were unsure if the indicator light was faulty or the landing gear had failed to deploy. There was a manual override on the landing gear, so that even if the hydraulics were faulty, the landing gear could still be lowered.

The Captain, the First Officer and the Second Officer were joined by a passenger sitting in the jumpseat, a maintenance engineer returning to Miami. Four qualified aviation professionals were now looking at the problem. The Second Officer descended into the forward electronics bay to check on the nose gear. All four men in the cockpit focused on trouble-shooting the problem and not a single one was watching the flight instruments. No one was flying the plane.

Eastern Airlines Flight 401: The Ghosts of Memories Past by Eric D. Olson

In unison, we looked up to see the silhouette of a Lockheed L1011 flying westbound at an altitude of about 2,000 feet. It was somewhere between 11:30 pm and 11:35 pm, a fact that I specifically remember because I took the time to look at my wristwatch and comment to Bill. The underside of the L1011 was reflecting the ground lighting from the airport and the surrounding city which made it easy to identify the aircraft type although we couldn’t identify the airline. (The largest L1011 operators then at MIA were Eastern Airlines and Delta Airlines, but I don’t recall seeing any airline markings when the L1011 was overhead.)

What was so strange was that it was there in the first place. It was rare for commercial airliners to fly westbound directly overhead Opa locka Airport at such a relatively low altitude. The control tower at Opa locka shut down at 11pm each evening back then so the L1011 had to be in contact with Miami Approach Control, since we assumed it was ultimately being vectored for an approach to MIA.

The Captain leaned against the yoke while turning to speak to the flight engineer. This pressure on the control stick caused the aircraft to enter a slow descent. The autopilot – inadvertently set to control wheel steering mode – held the pitch attitude as set by the pilot, continuing the gentle descent while the crew continued to investigate the possible nose gear malfunction.

The First Officer jammed the nose gear light lens assembly when he was trying to replace it. As the Captain and the First Officer discussed the jammed assembly, a chime sounded to alert the crew that they had descended below 2,000 feet but no one paid any attention.

The Second Officer complained that he couldn’t see anything in the dark. The maintenance specialist who was in the jump seat entered the electronics bay to help him.

There was nothing wrong with the nose gear. A $12 lightbulb in the control panel had burnt out.

Remembering Eastern Flight 401: The Story of the Crash |

The Lockheed L-1011 began a stealth descent. No one in the cockpit noticed. In the cabin, all readied to land.

Ruiz, seated facing the back of the plane, walked over to flight attendant Pat Ghyssels and wondered why the aircraft was flying away from the city lights.

“She said to me: ‘Oh, Mercy, stop complaining. It’s the holidays. If we’re a little late, it’s overtime,’‚” Ruiz said.

The approach controller asked how they were doing, noticing that the flight was at 900 feet on his radar display. He wasn’t sure if it was a display issue or the aircraft but he said he wasn’t worried.

Captain Loft, finally convinced that the problem was simply the bulb, told the controller that they were ready to turn around and come back in. At 23:41:47, the approach controller confirmed their clearance. The aircraft started the turn back towards Miami.

The flight-crew noticed something amiss seconds before impact. The First Officer’s final words were “We’re still at 2,000 feet, right?” That’s when the left wing hit the ground.

The aircraft disappeared from the controller’s radar screen at 23:42:10.

Out in the darkness, Bud Marquis and a friend were hunting frogs.

Flight 401 part 5

He’d launch his airboat at the Miccosukee Indian Reservation on the Tamiami Trail and race north into the river of grass.

On a moonless night, in the beam of his head lamp, the frog eyes would glow like rubies. He’d cruise up on the frog, spear the frog with the 3-pronged gig, knock the frog off the gig into a sack, all the while moving forward in the airboat while getting ready to gig another frog. Mama, heat up the frying pan. We’re having legs tonight.

Bud Marquis had experienced better nights of frogging. But he and his helper had 30 pounds of legs.

“Then I saw this great big fireball and the whole ‘glades lit up. Then zip, the light was out.”Bud revved up the engine and headed northwest.

That section of the Everglades is a tangle of sawgrass, tree islands, canals and levees. Fortunately, Bud was an expert. With the engine dangerously wide open – the boat slipped over the grass at 35 mph – he maneuvered around all obstacles.

Then wham! Aground. When he stopped the engine to push the boat back into the water, he heard a chorus of terrified human voices, hollering, moaning, shrieking.

He cranked up the engine and moved toward the sound. He shut down the engine again to listen. “Hey! Hey! Hey!” Someone had seen his frogging light.

In the narrow beam of his head lamp he now saw enormous strips of torn metal. He saw openings in the sawgrass created by sliding chunks of broken airplane. He saw a man standing, shocked, in knee-deep water.

Bud was first on the scene. He burned his face, his arms and his legs but he never stopped trying to rescue the passengers from the burning aircraft, all that night and the following morning. As a direct result of his efforts, seventy-seven people survived the crash. The maintenance engineer, the passenger in the jumpseat, broke his back in the impact but survived.

Ninety-nine people, including the flight crew, died that night. Two more died as a result of injury or infection.

The Ghosts of Flight 401

Over the following months and years, employees of Eastern Air Lines began reporting sightings of the dead crew members, captain Robert Loft and second officer (flight engineer) Donald Repo, sitting on board other L-1011 (N318EA) flights.

Parts of Flight 401 were salvaged after the crash investigation and refitted into other L-1011s.The reported hauntings were only seen on the planes that used the spare parts. Sightings of the spirits of Don Repo and Bob Loft spread throughout Eastern Air Lines to the point where Eastern’s management warned employees that they could face dismissal if caught spreading ghost stories.

While Eastern Airlines publicly denied some of their planes were haunted, they reportedly removed all the salvaged parts from their L-1011 fleet. Over time, the reporting of ghost sightings stopped. An original floor board from Flight 401 remains in the archives at History Miami in South Florida.

The source of the ghost stories appears to have been an issue of Flight Safety Foundation, who interviewed a pilot who had lost an engine, making for a challenging landing. He joked that he “saw the ghost of Don Repo” which was later presented by a best-selling author as fact in his book, The Ghost of Flight 401.

File No. 1-0016 Aircraft Accident Report Eastern Air Lines, Inc. December 29, 1972

An Eastern Air Lines Lockheed L-1011 crashed at 2342 eastern standard time, December 29, 1972, 18.7 miles west-northwest of Miami International Airport, Miami Florida. The aircraft was destroyed. Of the 163 passengers and 13 crew-members aboard, 94 passengers and 5 crew members received fatal injuries. Two survivors died later as a result of their injuries.

Following a missed approach because of a suspected nose gear malfunction, the aircraft climbed to 2,000 feet mean sea level and proceeded on a westerly heading. The three flight crew-members and a jumpseat occupant became engrossed in the malfunction.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the failure of the flightcrew to monitor the flight instruments during the final 4 minutes of flight, and to detect an unexpected descent soon enough to prevent impact with the ground.

Preoccupation with a malfunction of the nose landing gear position indicating system distracted the crew’s attention from the instruments and allowed the descent to go unnoticed.

19 October 2012

Five Facts I Never Knew about Spitfires

Everyone is talking about the Spitfires to be excavated in Myanmar. It isn’t clear how many Spitfires will be recovered. David J. Cundall, who led the search, announced that he’d discovered 20 aircraft but since then his partner company has cited at least 60 and a Myanma geologist has estimated 140 Spitfires in various locations around the country.

These Spitfires were crated for assembly on location but, after the Japanese surrendered, they weren’t required. The US army took the role of burying the crates, in order to keep them from falling into enemy hands.

Half the aircraft will go to the government of Myanmar, with one extra as a museum display. David Cundall will get 30% and his local partner company, Shwe Taung Pa, 20%. Cundall invested 16 years and over £130,000 to find the planes.

I have just a twinge of sympathy for those people who own Spitfires, their expensive investment has just reduced dramatically in value, whether it is 20 or 140 Spitfires that have been discovered.

But that’s nothing compared to my excitement at the find and – if I’m honest – the quiet hope that just maybe I’ll be able to afford to fly one of these beauties, if only for a day. Flying into each of the British Islands is still my life-goal – but doing it in a Spitfire? That would be a dream come true.

And then I indulged my fantasies today by reading about Spitfire history and I was quite surprised by some of the detail that I never knew.

Here’s the most interesting titbits that I discovered…


The Spitfire was named by Sir Robert McLean, after the nickname he bestowed on his daughter, Annie Penrose.

Spitfire – The History

The Air Ministry agreed to adopt the name chosen by Sir Robert McLean. Sir Robert had demanded that the name of the company’s new fighter should suggest something venomous, and because of the sibilant it had to begin with the letter ‘S’. His choice was Spitfire.

R.J. Mitchell who designed the Spitfire apparently hated the name.


Delays to Spitfire production meant it did not make a major contribution to the war until 1941. The aircraft was not key to the victory in the Battle of Britain.

Aeroflight » Supermarine Spitfire Mks.I-III

British wartime propaganda – epitomised by the 1942 feature film ‘The First of the Few’ – purposely exaggerated the Spitfire’s contribution to the Battle of Britain. In the film, R. J. Mitchell is portrayed as a lone visionary doggedly pursuing his quest to build the fighter needed to protect Britain in the forthcoming war. The aesthetic appeal of the Spitfire, and its distinctive wing shape, ensured that it rapidly became a visual icon of Britain’s will to defend itself. So effective was this wartime propaganda that even today most people think of the Spitfire as the key to wining the battle. In fact, the Spitfire’s main contribution to the war came from 1941 onwards, over France, Malta and North Africa.

Fast and maneuverable, pilots universally considered the early marks of Spitfire to be a delight to fly, but judged them slightly inferior to the Hurricane as a gun platform. The more ‘flighty’ Spitfire required more effort to keep the guns on target. While its aerodynamics gave it a performance to match or better any other fighter of the time, the early difficulties in getting it into mass production delayed its delivery to fighter squadrons, and so prevented it from paying a greater part in the Battle 0f Britain.



There’s an entire website dedicated to sharing sound recordings of classic aircraft, including the Spitfire.

Supermarine Spitfire Sound Recordings » Aircraft Sound Recordings

This is my virtual museum of aircraft sounds I have recorded at various airshows and events in the UK during the past few years. All my recordings are of the highest quality I can manage with the equipement available. From a typical show of 3 or 4 hours, I usually expect half an hour of usuable recordings due to commentators, spectators and incorrect placement of recording equipment. I classify all these recordings as field recordings as none of them are staged or processed after the recording.

P5 915


Spitfires were used on both sides of the Arab-Israeli War.

The Egyptian Air Force had over 30 Spitfires which ended up head-to-head with Israeli Spitfires in the First Arab-Israeli war in 1948.


The IAF managed to build one Spitfire from scrap parts left behind by the RAF and they also acquired a number of ex-RAF Spitfire LF9s from Czechoslovakia. The Czech Spitfires had originally been supplied by Britain to form the nucleus of the new Czechoslovak Air Force. But when Czechoslovakia came under Soviet domination, they came under pressure to dispose of the aircraft and replace them with Russian aircraft; eventually a total of 76 Spitfires would be sold to Israel by Czechoslovakia. These Spitfires, along with the Avia S-199s, formed 101 Sqn of the IAF and, together with a steady influx of experienced foreign pilots, gradually increased the IAF’s capability.

However, the REAF were also flying Spitfire LF9s with similar markings to the IAF LF9s and RAF Spitfire FR18s and the confusion this caused was almost certainly the primary reason for the second incident between the IAF and RAF.

Goodbye, Spitfire


The Spitfire Women, that is, the women of the RAF Air Transport Auxilliary, flew all types of aircraft.

The ATA made tough demands because unlike RAF pilots, who flew only one type of aircraft, ATA personnel would fly several different types – among them Tiger Moths, Messengers, Dakotas, Oxfords, Wellingtons, and, of course Spitfires – sometimes in the space of one day.

The planes all had different cockpit layouts and controls, and the women had only a manual for basic flying information, and they often flew in extremely challenging weather. But they took it in their stride, as Molly Rose, who had gone straight from her finishing school in Paris to working as an engineer in her father’s aircraft factory, drily attested.

And I love this video of ATA ferry pilot Molly Rose who describes the Spitfire as a woman’s aeroplane:

And then there’s this interview of ATA Ferry pilot Margaret Frost about being a passenger.

BBC – BBC TV blog: Spitfire Women: Margaret Frost on her role in the Battle of Britain

When you go near planes now do you get those memories of joy of being up in the air again?

I don’t, I’m afraid. I don’t really want to be flown – it’s a bit like being driven, you know. I remember, I hadn’t been in airliners very much, and we were coming down from Prestwick. I was sitting there and we were coming into Heathrow. There wasn’t much wind and the pilot was trying to get the speed down a bit, and my right arm shot forward, to the amazement of the passenger next to me.

Well, he was a bit slow in getting the throttle open a bit and you get what is called an air pocket, but it isn’t really, it’s because you’ve lost speed, you know. I anticipated it automatically.

And with that, I’m off to have a well-deserved drink. Cheers!

Spitfire Kentish Ale