Wing and a Prayer!

Recently I was given two stories including flying incidents (one more serious than the other) so I decided to run them together under the title of “Wing and a prayer”. Thanks go to DAS member Tim Davies for his article about flying around with the RAF as a small boy in rather marginal weather and also to Joe Tranquada for his story about a test flight on an Airspeed Ambassador that almost ended in disaster.

We start with Tim’s piece entitled “Flights to and from the Empire “

In early 1950 my mother, brother and I were living at Pilsgate near RAF Wittering, when we got the summons to report to RAF Ely for “jabs” and rail warrants to Lynham to catch a brand new Handley Page Hastings of Transport Command. The first stop was Casa Beneto in Tunisia then onto RAF Habbaniya in Iraq. From there a short hop to Mafraq in Jordan by Valetta aircraft and a bus ride to RAF Amman.  


Photo credit RuthAs
An RAF Valetta, the military version of the Vickers Viking airliner.

RAF Amman those days was home to two squadrons of RAF Regiment and one of Vampires. My father being station warrant officer we lived in a sort of posh prefab, the camp was behind five metres of barbed wire and was complete with shop, school and swimming pool.

The two and a half years I spent in Jordan were the best years of my life, but the time came to fly home. The first leg was from Mafraq to Hab ( Habbaniya…Ed )  in a Valetta, weather forecast bad but the pilot decided to go for it, Bad Idea, we ran into a horrendous storm. A Meteor pilot who was sitting next to my mother went green and was plainly terrified. We arrived at Hab with a bent fin!

We were then stuck in Hab for several days due to Transport Command being tied up with some unpleasantness in the Suez canal area, but eventually a rather ancient looking Avro York turned up. The route home was Nicosia, Malta, somewhere in France, Lynham and Father’s next posting at Horsham St. Faith.


Photo credit Crown copyright (expired)
Avro York like the one that brought Tim home to the UK.

The flight in the York provoked life long memories, mostly good but only one bad. As we were taxying out a Cypriot “Ramp Monkey” ran in front of us, he had seen a trail of hydraulic fluid coming from the undercarriage so more delays. Fixed and flying again, never higher than ten thousand feet    (no pressurisation). Those big windows were better than Google earth, the route took us the length of Crete, but for us kids best of all was those main wheels hitting the runway.

Moving on to Joe’s piece entitled, Test Flight, a story about test flying the Ambassador.

On Thursday 8th May 1952, we were scheduled for another day of routine test flying. The plan was to fly the aircraft ( an Airspeed Ambassador..Ed) from Christchurch to Hurn airport, where the weight of the aircraft would be increased to its maximum, using sandbags as ballast, and a full load of fuel, to conduct further tests.

The usual test crew comprised the Pilot (George), two flight test observers (Mike and John) and a flight engineer (myself). It was agreed with the pilot we would take two of the extra personnel required to service the aircraft at Hurn. An extra camera operator, and aerodynamicist and a member from the engine test department, who was interested in flight test results, also boarded the aircraft making nine persons in all. I had previously placed seven parachutes on board for the crew during the test flight from Hurn.

We took off and flew over Bournemouth bay. It was perfect flying weather with clear skies, very little wind and perfect visibility. After a few handling checks, George suggested that he would carry out some of the tests we had to carry out at our present weight and that we would return to Hurn later for reloading, this was agreed. 

May I explain at this point to anyone who is not familiar with test flying of an aircraft, that before any aircraft can be operated with fare paying passengers it has to be granted a certificate of Airworthiness. An extensive flight test programme must be carried out, covering every possible condition that may be encountered in normal passenger flying, to satisfy the Authority that their safety conditions are complied with. One of these conditions is to establish the “stalling point” of the aircraft in various configurations. The “stall” is the point at which the aircraft has insufficient speed to maintain lift of the wings, causing the aircraft to suddenly descend very rapidly. To recover from this condition, the pilot dives the aircraft nose first until the speed increases and a normal flight path may be resumed. Thus by establishing the minimum speed of the aircraft, and investigating the numerous other abnormal conditions never even likely to be encountered in passenger service, the safety record British aircraft have in the world is maintained second to none!


 Photo credit Phillip Capper
Ambassador operated by Shell Petroleum at Liverpool airport in 1961.

Our test programme required us to climb to 17000 feet altitude, then to perform a stall manoeuvre, breaking off at 12000 feet, to repeat the test for different aircraft conditions, from the same altitude.

Everything was proceeding to plan, the test crew and myself busy recording the various instrument readings, and the camera operator carrying out his duties on the automatic observer. George was hard at work concentrating putting us accurately through the specified manoeuvre, whilst the passengers were quietly seated in the cabin either following the progress of the aircraft or presumably just looking out at the scenery below.

On nearing the completion of one of these “stalls”, everyone on board felt a terrific bump from the rear of the aircraft, which at this instant was virtually standing on it’s tail. George told the observers not to stop the cameras until he had completed his stall and on returning to level flight said to me    “ What was that thud on the tail?” I remarked it felt to me as if we had struck another aircraft in flight. He did not agree with this, as it was cockpit drill before a stall began we would check to ensure no other aircraft was in the vicinity, particularly below us. This we had done.

I called up Mike and John on the intercom, and asked them to check the rear baggage door was still on as this could of come off in flight and struck the tail and also check the “trailing static” (used to measure air pressure) was still attached by its tie line to the aircraft. These checks revealed no faults, so I then told the pilot that I would go down myself and make a very through inspection of the tail plane. I went down the cabin, through the rear baggage compartment, checking everything was in order, then I crawled through the pressure bulkhead manhole to reach the actual tail section of the aircraft. I had to crawl on all fours along a catwalk tom look at the main tail plane attachment bolts holding the tail plane onto the fuselage.

The first bolt I shone my torch on, to my utter amazement and horror, was completely broken! There was no nut to retain the bolt, just the severed bolt through the bracket! It had apparently sheared off completely during flight! I immediately checked the opposite bolt and to my great relief found it was intact, or at least in position ! I scuttled out of the tunnel backwards as fast as possible and was met by the two observers in the rear baggage compartment. I immediately said “ Pull in the trailing static, we’ve finished flying for today ! Don’t argue or ask questions, just do it ! We are returning to base immediately”.  I went back to the cockpit and told George what I had discovered. “Which bolt is it ?” asked George, “port forward “ I replied, “But that’s the one that takes the loads Joe!”  ”I know “ I replied.


The Tail plane and its triple fins were attached to the fuselage by just four 9/16” bolts.

There were four bolts in all the two forward taking the loads and the rear ones ( which were out of sight), stabilising the tail plane. I gave him our position which was 10miles west of Yeovil, ninety miles from base ( Christchurch…Ed), at an altitude of 12000 feet. George said, “Tell the chaps to put their chutes on and standby to bail out “. “You can’t do that!” I said, “there are nine people on board and we only have seven parachutes!” The two extra personnel, Tubby and Jack, who had joined us for the  reloading at Hurn would be without parachutes. “They can have mine” said George. “They can have mine too “ I said “I’ve decided to stay with the aircraft”. George said angrily “you’ll do as your told !” 

I looked back into the cabin, it seemed that everyone who had a parachute was trying to get in the central gangway and put them on all at the same time. They had heard our conversation on the intercom !  I went along to them and said “What do you think you’re doing? “  they all replied “We are going to bail out !”   “You can’t do that! “ I pointed out, “the Captain hasn’t given the order to abandon aircraft, so we’ll remain here until he does! “ I explained the situation to them and pointed out the chances of reaching base (Christchurch…Ed) safely. “This can only happen with everyone’s co-operation “ I finished off with the remark “ At least we shall all be back in time for tea ! From then on they all settled down.

I went back to the cockpit and George and I had a long discussion about our situation. I suggested we notify Christchurch of our predicament, giving them the full details of what had happened before the remaining bolts broke and there was no time left to transmit a message. At least they would know the cause of the accident was the bolt shearing causing the tail plane to come off. George agreed to this in principle and we passed the message to base that we had suffered a major structural failure in flight and would be returning to base. He also asked that the managing Director and the Experimental manager be notified. Base acknowledged our message and said they had informed Hurn, in whose control zone we were in. Hurn had put the emergency procedure into operation and the zone was cleared of all air traffic, also crash tenders and ambulance were on the alert. The emergency services were also on alert at our base.


Photo credit Richard Goring
Airspeed Ambassador of BKS at Southend. This aircraft was sadly lost at London Heathrow airport when a flap drive shaft failed during landing.

I filled in my flight log book, stating the time of the occurrence and giving the details. It was decided I would be the only one allowed to walk about the aircraft, as the engineer it was my duty to keep a very close watch on the situation. I went down to the tail section every five minutes to check the remaining bolt, and keep an eye on the broken one. If the broken bolt went too far inside the bracket it would mean the tail plane was lifting. If in my opinion the situation warranted it then I would inform George and he would give the order abandon aircraft.

On my second inspection of the tail section I had noticed a fractional movement in the bolt, George and I agreed that by shifting the ballast some of the load would be taken off the tail plane. We formed a human chain top pass the sandbags from the existing position to the new one, I impressed on everyone that care must be taken in laying the bags gently on the floor, so as not to induce any shockwaves in the aircrafts structure. Subsequent checks of the tail showed the situation had stabilised, so I decided to look for the remainder of the broken bolt and nut. I laid down on the catwalk and looked all around with the torch, eventually finding it in the bilge under the catwalk. There was the broken bolt with the nut and split pin still attached ! I took it back to George who put it in the top pocket of his flying overalls.

He then asked my opinion of our chances of reaching base safely. I replied to the effect, that with the combination of the aircraft, his skills and experience, I had absolute confidence of reaching our base safely. He just replied “Thank you” but I could see he was pleased by the expression on his face. Then with everything having been done in the cockpit to set up the conditions that would give the absolute minimum of vibration we sat and waited. Immediately the aerodrome came into sight, I went down to the tail again to wait until George had lowered the undercarriage, so that I could watch the result lowering the undercarriage had on the bolt, as this gave a positive thud to the aircraft. This was done and I was satisfied the situation had got no worse, so I returned to the cockpit to give the normal assistance during the landing procedure.

Control cleared us for a “straight in landing” without the customary circuit of the airfield, which saved us time and unnecessary manoeuvring of the aircraft. George then made a superb landing and the crash tender and ambulance followed us just in case and escorted us back to the hangar. On arriving the managing Director and Experimental manager came on board. George explained to them what it was all about and gave them the nut and broken bolt as a souvenir ! The aircraft was taken into the hangar to have the remaining bolts removed and sent to the metallurgy department before an investigation was held to find out why the bolt had broken.

We were later informed that we were very lucky indeed to get back safely as it was anyone’s guess as to how long the remaining bolt would have held, since it itself was fractured by 30% !. In fact it was a case of living on borrowed time. George then remarked to me , “ In that case Joe, it would have been catastrophically fatal for all of us ! “ We laughed, but nevertheless I heartly agreed with him!

I would like to add George lost his life some years later during a test flight on which a similar test was being done. To his memory I would like to pay tribute to him by this article. I must end with the final “Thank you George for all you’ve done“.

50 birthday

Joe Tranquada ( in check shirt) celebrating  the 50th birthday of our Ambassador ‘LZO.

Editors note.  The George referred to in this article was George Errington, chief test pilot for Airspeed. He went on to join the Trident test programme with De Havilland, it was whilst flying this type during stall warning tests in 1966 that he and the crew lost their lives when the Trident entered a deep stall and crashed. 

Well I hoped you enjoyed these two articles they made a change from the normal ramp ramblings, if there is anybody else out there who would like to share a story or two let me know on or just drop a hard copy into the DAS office and they will pass it on.